Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Saturday, May 18

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Book Club

Books Tue Sep 01 2015

Best Chicago Novels by Neighborhood

Last week, the New York Public Library released its list of the Best New York City Novels by Neighborhood, pairing the city's best works of fiction with the neighborhoods in which they take place, from Henry James to Teju Cole. Since Chicago's literary history is just as impressive, I thought I'd take a crack at the City of Big Shoulders' best novels, neighborhood by neighborhood, from Henry Blake Fuller to Sandra Cisneros.

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Adam Morgan / Comments (20)

Essay Tue Feb 17 2015

On Happiness (or, To Have and Have Not)

By John Rich

Editor's note: The following essay was read at Tuesday Funk, a montly reading series sponsored by Gapers Block, on Jan. 6, 2015.

I don't know what one means by happy
I'm happy spasmodically
If I eat a chocolate turtle, I'm happy
When the box is empty, I'm unhappy
Happiness is
Happiness is a word for amateurs.

— "Happiness Is," Violent Femmes

On August 12, 2014, the American actress Lauren Bacall died of natural causes. She was a month shy of 90 years.

"Here is a test to find out whether your mission in life is complete," Bacall once said. "If you're alive, it isn't."*

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Book Club

Author Tue Nov 25 2014

The Other Chair Up There: An Hour with Donna Seaman

Donna Seaman was happy to speak with me. It was a surprise; her reputation preceded her. I knew Seaman was the woman who'd interviewed Martin Amis at this year's Chicago Humanities Festival. She is also a senior editor of Booklist.

These facts alone I describe as a "reputation": leafing through its pages on the bus downtown, I recognized Booklist as the answer to my past weekend's wondering, of literature's fading importance; and Amis was the coy and mellifluous knight at the masthead of that importance. We had all cheered, in the audience, when he came on stage. Because in his dry wit and Swansean tone we all thought we were hearing something of the truth.

She had a hand in both worlds and that fact alone led me to anticipate she'd be a little bit scary. She wasn't.

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Alex Thompson

Feature Fri Aug 29 2014

Lillie West, Brain Frame Intern, Remembers

brain frame eulogy.jpeg
West drew this eulogy to Brain Frame exclusively for Gaper's Block.

Lillie West has a pleasant British accent. She's wearing a blue dress with white flowers on it. When she sees me walk up to the Hot Wok sushi joint near her school, SAIC downtown, she points at me and does not stop until I'm near enough to hug her. She's on the phone.

"You," I say.

"You," she replies with her pleasant British accent, and hangs up. She's excited about classes, where she's just come from. She considers dropping an intro class but fears she's doing it for the wrong reasons. "Four day weekend, right" She shrugs. We make our way inside.

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Alex Thompson

Profiles Wed Aug 13 2014

Uncanny Magazine Wants You To Rethink The Familiar

Image courtesy of Uncanny Magazine and Katy Shuttleworth

"Is that a space?" you might ask, staring at the logo (created by Katy Shuttleworth) for Uncanny Magazine, the latest endeavor by geek culture mainstays Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas. And indeed it is--the drawing symbolizes the close relationship between the science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) genres, a relationship that the Thomases will highlight in their new magazine, along with original artwork and literature. But it also represents the proximity of fandom and art, of passions and professionalism.

Uncanny will feature stories, prose, poetry and cover art in, and inspired by, the realms of science fiction and fantasy. The online magazine will be available as an eBook (.mobi, .pdf, . epub) on a bimonthly basis (first Tuesday of the month) at all major eBook stores. Each issue will be made up of original short stories, reprinted stories, poetry, interviews, and nonfiction essays. Because it will be a professional magazine, non-fiction and art work will be solicited, and paid by direct commission. The editors will publish work that reflects their commitment to diversity and representation, and will even have an open call for submissions (for fiction and poetry).

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Danette Chavez

Book Club Wed Aug 06 2014

A Match Made In Heaven, A Town Doomed to Hell

PleasureTown Founders 1.jpg
Image courtesy of PleasureTown

One man's trash is another man's treasure; one town's failed utopian experiment is a Chicago storyteller's ideal setting for a storytelling experiment. Such is the case for PleasureTown, created by live lit stalwarts Keith Ecker and Erin Kahoa. Originally a live stage production, PleasureTown has evolved into a bi-weekly podcast (in the vein of the radio serials of old), as well as a "national platform" for local writers and performers.

PleasureTown was inspired in part by the Homestead Acts of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, wherein the U.S. government offered as many as 160 acres of land to families of settlers who were willing to "go west." It's set in PleasureTown, Oklahoma, a fictional town whose rise and fall is documented by the vignettes created, and voiced, by members of Chicago's live lit and storytelling communities, such as Ian Belknap, Don Hall, and Willy Nast. But the show isn't resting on the laurels of its established performers: there's an interactive element on the website, and even a call for submissions.

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Danette Chavez

Author Wed Aug 06 2014

Some of the Most Punk Rock Shit I've Ever Seen In My Life

Thumbnail image for TK6A6081.jpg

Lyra Hill, creator of the anarchic and elaborate live comics series Brain Frame, has dark hair and round eyes. She often looks tired as she is, often, tired these days.

She speaks with her hands clasped, and looks at those who speak to her with expectation and attention. Standing atop the stage at the historic, newly restored Thalia Hall she is unmistakably a person in charge.

The interior is massive and neo-gothic. The theater chairs that make up its balcony once belonged to a middle school auditorium. The folding chairs above, rumor has it, were at one point courtside seats for the Lakers. Its stage recalls the Phantom of the Opera and Amadeus - in fact, the entire structure has the feel of Prague's neo-everything city center. No mistake, as it was modeled in 1892 after the Prague Opera House, a romantic, expensive-looking venue in the midst of a burgeoning, colorful neighborhood - in this case, Pilsen. Lawn chairs, plastic cones and colorful rope often impede parking on side streets.

Soon the theater will fill with people of all ilk and experience. Fans of Brain Frame are diverse: in the hour Lyra and company scout the space, most mention is made of whose parents are coming (5 of 8 performers present). However, Brain Frame's 3rd Anniversary/Grand Finale show (Brain Frame 19) will likely draw a crowd larger than the average middle school recital. This "homage to ancestral experimentation" is a sort of rite in Chicago. Commonly acknowledged as a "live comix reading", BF nevertheless doesn't shy from ambiguity.

At lunch months earlier, I offer Gertrude Stein as a comparison.
"It's like a salon," I propose. She shrugs.

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Alex Thompson

Author Thu Apr 17 2014

"How I Write..." with Sad Brad Smith

Sad Brad Smith
Photo by Ryan Bourque

Sad Brad Smith: I'm going to get another coffee.

Gaper's Block: That's going to be in the interview.

What? "I'm going to get another coffee"?

There it is again. It'll be in there twice.

I'm going to get another coffee.


(Brad gets coffee and comes back, reads an email, his brow furrows)


What is it?

Are you recording?

Yeah. Is it big?

I'll tell you later.

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Alex Thompson / Comments (1)

Events Tue Mar 25 2014

Of Gertrude Stein & Chicago Zine Fest

drugwar.jpg"I am afraid that I can never write the Great American Novel," she wrote. Her characters were "very simple and very vulgar and I don't think they will interest the American public."

She is Gertrude Stein, author of the Great American Novel Three Lives,and many others, many greater. She wrote "Three Lives" in Paris, inspired and nested amongst contemporaries and peers Pablo Picasso, Gustave Flaubert and Paul Cezanne. She was hostess to the Parisian salons of our bourgeois dreams; she was Ernest Hemingway's dear friend and first editor. She was of the cultural class that added the "ing" to vacation; promoting a new flavor of leisure that seemed to go on and on, continuously. Her life was large, but intimate.

Unable to find a dedicated publisher, Stein published 1,000 copies out-of-pocket, only 500 of them bound, in July 1909. By February 1910 only 75 had been sold, less than the number she had distributed on her own to reviewers, friends and idols. I would posit that, including postage, she made perhaps enough profit to buy Cezanne a new paintbrush.

Stein was entering into a genre, but only in its physical form — the loose-fitting genre of "books," rough pages bound together by clothette, stiches and glue. In all other ways, though, she was in a classification of her own — a niche-less niche, really, since she was the only one who occupied it. There was Gertrude Stein, and there were those who read Gertrude Stein. She did not confer with a movement; her most influential contemporary was Cezanne, a painter who's brush strokes she imitated in her clipped and repetitive prose and her desire to "use everything."

I was reminded of Ms. Stein last weekend at Chicago's own independently run Zine Fest.

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Alex Thompson

Books Mon Feb 10 2014

Pioneer Press: Writer and Editor Publishes Book of Real-Life Travel Tales

Thumbnail image for TPWB_front-cover-image.jpgWhile on a class trip in Cuba, college junior Asha Veal Brisebois' camera died. The year was 2003, so phones were not yet the Swiss army knives of capture they are today, and finding a replacement battery proved impossible. Without an instrument to record her experiences visually, Veal Brisebois picked up a pen.
"I started writing travel stories--nonfiction--about our group's time there," she said. "At the time I was really into literary journalism, on-the-road pieces, and nonfiction work about place. I was a total devotee of Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem."

Veal Brisebois' experience certainly wasn't the first time necessity became the mother of invention, but it may have been the first time a dead battery led to a publishing company.

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Lara Levitan

Poetry Tue Jan 21 2014

Now Shia LaBeouf is Plagiarizing Kenneth Goldsmith (UPDATED)

Over the past month, Shia LaBeouf has taken plagiarism (and public infamy) to new heights.

Since the 2012 short film he directed, Howard, was revealed to be a rip off of a comic called Justin M. Damiano by Chicago-born graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, LaBeouf has tweeted numerous apologies and justifications, quoting everyone from Yahoo! commenters to Kanye West, Eliot Spitzer and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford -- all without attribution.

In addition, LaBeouf has mockingly re-posted a cease and desist letter from Clowes' attorneys after he tweeted a purported storyboard based on another Clowes work, publicly feuded with Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy, hired a plane to write "I AM SORRY DANIEL CLOWES" above the L.A. sky, and declared himself a performance artist...just days after declaring he would be retiring from public life and headbutting a man in a London pub.

Yesterday, The New Inquiry posted an essay with LaBeouf's byline called #stopcreating, exploring the recent history of artistic re-appropriation and the merits of long-held notions of authorship and originality in the digital age.

The prose and reference points may seem impressive for a man better known for Transformers and the Disney Channel. But if you look closer, #stopcreating is perhaps LaBeouf's boldest act of defiant plagiarism to date.

The sources? The words of poet and literary critic Kenneth Goldsmith -- including some that may have originally appeared on the website of Chicago's very own Poetry Foundation.

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Jason Prechtel / Comments (3)

Feature Tue Nov 26 2013

Book Club Presents: For What We Are Thankful

What with Turkey Day right around the corner, we here at Book Club thought we'd take a moment to recognize some of the literary happenings that made 2013 special. Here are a few things that made us bow down and proclaim, "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!" this year.

bleeding edge.jpgI'm thankful the entity that is Thomas Pynchon--be it James Patterson-like collective, or paranoid old New Yorker, or maybe even James Patterson--is still kicking coherently enough to pump out persistently relevant gems like Bleeding Edge.
--Diego Báez

I am thankful that daylight savings afforded me one extra hour for NaNoWriMo.
--Miden Wood

I'm thankful for Jennifer Weiner's uncompromising criticism of sexism in the book industry. Her hilarious #Bachelor tweets are an added bonus.
--Ines Bellina

tc boyle.jpgI'm thankful that T.C. Boyle's Stories II, another collection of stories in addition to 23 other works of genius, will ensure I can keep reading his work until the day I die (and still probably not read it all).
--Lara Levitan

I'm thankful for the abundance of reading series throughout Chicago that support our talented literary community. And let's not forget to appreciate all the hard work their organizers put into scheduling such entertaining lineups.
--John Wawrzaszek

Books-Alice_Munro_Alice-Munro_image_982w.jpgI'm orbiting-the-Earth thankful that the Nobel Prize committee chose to honor Alice Munro and her body of beautiful work this year. She's been getting it done for decades.
--Emilie Syberg

So tell us. What literary tidbit made you gush with gratitude this year?

Lara Levitan

Events Mon Oct 14 2013

Indie Publisher Chicago Review Press Celebrates 40 Edgy Years, Plans for More

CRP_logo.jpgLike a rock n' roll band, Chicago Review Press started in a garage. And with a rock n' roll attitude, the independent press has published quirky and controversial books since 1973. (Sample titles: Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace by Michelle T. Johnson, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build Implements of Spitball Warfare by John Austin.)

Currently publishing 65 new titles a year under four imprints, CRP has not only survived but thrived in a tumultuous era for the industry. This year, the River North press celebrates its 40th anniversary. Book Club caught up with Publisher Cynthia Sherry, who started her career at CRP as an accountant, moved on to editorial director in 1995, and publisher in 2004. Sherry shared insights on CRP's success, what hopeful authors need to know about submitting, and plans for the future (hint: more intriguing books!).

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Lara Levitan

Author Tue Sep 24 2013

Who to Read Next: Local Author Hannah Pittard

"It was like swimming with a whale shark."

This is how Hannah Pittard describes learning that her first novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, (Ecco, 2011) was being published. Sounds dangerous, but Pittard is a dangerously talented writer.

Fates tells the story of a missing teenage suburban girl and the group of neighborhood boys who becomes enraptured by her disappearance. It's been compared to The Lovely Bones and The Virgin Suicides (not bad, especially for a first novel).

Pittard's fiction has won several awards. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago, got her MFA at the University of Virginia, teaches at DePaul, and is currently at work on her second novel, Reunion, (Grand Central) out in 2014. Read on, and get to know Hannah Pittard.

Birthplace: Atlanta, Georgia
Star sign: Sagittarius

What drives you to write?

A feeling in the pit of my stomach. A feeling in my chest. You know that time of night when it's pink? It's not every night, but some nights there's this pinkness in the air and I can feel it my chest -- this bigness, this need to capture it. Which isn't to say I'm trying to capture the night or its beauty. There's just a similarity between that feeling of pinkness and the need to write.

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Lara Levitan

Book Club Tue Sep 10 2013

Book Tour vs. Punk Tour: Zero Fade Author Chris L. Terry Expounds

Zero Fade - Front Cover Draft.jpgZero Fade, the debut novel by Chicago's own Chris L. Terry, is released by Curbside Splendor today. (Buy it, watch the live action video trailer, read our Q&A with Terry.) Just coming off a real-world book tour, Terry has begun a blog tour, stopping today at Book Club to share a hilarious account of band life versus author life. Read on, and check out the details of the Terry's entire virtual tour.

Last month, I did a book tour to promote my novel, Zero Fade. My wife Sharon and I rented a car and drove from Chicago to the East Coast, where I did readings at independent bookstores in Richmond, Philly, New York, Boston, Rochester and Pittsburgh. I set it up through friends in each city. It was a success. I sold over a hundred books, and since I only hit places where I'd lived or knew people, I constantly had the overwhelming, birthday-party-feeling of being surrounded by friends without the time to really talk to them. A nice problem to have. I felt like a rock star.

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Book Club

Author Wed Jun 26 2013

New York Writer Allison Amend Will Always Call Chicago Home

AllisonAmend.jpgI had never read any of Chicago native Allison Amend's work when she took over teaching my creative writing class for a legendary teacher on sick leave. Though she had rather large shoes to fill, she was unflappable, amazingly generous and available for her students. It wasn't until later that I found that that she's just as talented a writer as she is a devoted teacher. Her debut short story collection, Things That Pass for Love, won an Independent Publisher Book Award. Her first novel, Stations West, was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Her latest book, A Nearly Perfect Copy, is a brilliantly plotted character-driven novel involving con men, art forgery, DNA cloning, grief and loss.

Now an inhabitant of New York, Amend claims that Chicago will always be home. She answered a few questions about Chicago, research, and forgery.

You mention the Cubs in the first line of your official bio. Are you still a Cubs fan, and did that adequately prepare you for the pain and heartbreak that come with being a writer?

Once you are a Cubs fan, you are always a Cubs fan. It's in your blood, like that disease you caught in... like a regional accent. My grandmother was a Cubs fan until the day she died -- she did not live long enough to see the Cubs reach the World Series. I hope to live that long. And yes, the suffering of the Cubs fan, though, a unique and acute pain, does prepare you for the daily agony that is writing.

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Steve Gillies

Feature Fri Apr 19 2013

PROJECTTILE: Something for you nontraditional sorts

MFA candidates at the School of the Art Institute, Anne Yoder and Megan Burbank, launched PROJECTTILE, a literary magazine and reading series, in February. The online magazine publishes work with a non-traditional and generally feminist bent. Both Yoder and Burbank have similar literary tastes, and felt there was a largely unoccupied space for it amidst the already bustling literary scene here in Chicago.

"There are a lot of women's voices that haven't been heard, and haven't really been embraced by the mainstream," Yoder said. "We're interested in publishing nontraditional narratives with a feminist bent. These are our preferences--what we're drawn to in terms of what we read--and it's a way to celebrate that and give that type of writing more visibility." PROJETTILE READING.jpg

At PROJECTTILE's upcoming April 23 reading writers Alexis Buryk, Dan Ivec, and Caroline Picard of Green Lantern Press will bestow their non-traditional and/or feminist leaning voices to an audience at Uncharted Books, located at 2630 N. Milwaukee Ave., at 7pm. Ivec is the first man to read, and editors hope that he represents the beginning in a series of male voices to come from PROJECTTILE.

"While we are a magazine with a feminist bent, we don't see ourselves as publishing exclusively women writers, or limiting ourselves to promoting or publishing work by women, especially when we come across interesting and innovative work," Yoder said.

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Claire Glass

Interview Thu Apr 18 2013

Author Chris L. Terry Discusses his Debut Young Adult Novel

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ChrisAuthorPhotoA.jpgIn the opening scene of local author Chris L. Terry's debut young adult novel, Zero Fade, 13-year-old Kevin Phifer gets a haircut from his mom. What he really wants is a stylish fade, but what he gets is more accurately described as "jacked up." Later in the book Kevin's role model uncle--who eventually comes out as gay--rescues Kevin from hair hell by taking him to the barber, where "grown men who are still cool" go.

It's a vital scene, Terry explains, because it captures Kevin's struggle to confront his limiting ideas about homosexuality, coolness and manliness, themes that attract Terry to writers in what he calls the "urban nerd" genre, like Junot Diaz.

"You think of this stereotypical urban man as being black or latino, this kind of hyper-masculine, over-sexualized person," Terry said. "And I feel like a lot of the best stuff in that style of writing subverts that. Or the character is struggling with these really rigid and restrictive ideas about masculinity."

Born to a black father and an Irish-American mother, Terry is no stranger to struggles around identity and society's preconceived notions. Much of his writing, including short stories and essays, surrounds growing up in a biracial household. But in Zero Fade, which Curbside Splendor will publish this September (though you can preorder through Amazon), Terry drops his own concerns for those of his adolescent narrator, a kid who "always wants to get things right."

Terry, a graduate of the MFA in creative writing program at Columbia College, was born in Newton, Mass. (home of the famous fig cookie), and teaches creative writing and playwriting to juvenile inmates with Storycatchers Theatre. He sat down with Gapers Block Book Club to discuss writing, wiggers, and his adventures in punk rock.

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Lara Levitan

Books Tue Feb 19 2013

Area Transgender Woman Featured in New Anthology by Out & Equal

After 20 years working as a Human Resources Director and Business Partner at a major corporation, Chicagoland resident Lori Fox quit her job. As a closeted transgender woman, she could no longer stand working in a business culture that didn't protect or support gender identity and expression.

After coming out at work in the corporate diversity office (which ultimately led to her
leaving), and also coming out to her family, Fox found success on her own terms--those that allowed her to be herself, completely. She started Lori Fox Diversity Consulting and now works with human resources and management departments at large corporations to create cultures of inclusion. She also consults with individuals to help guide their personal and professional transitions.

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Lara Levitan

Feature Fri Feb 15 2013

Agate Publishing's "Freeman" Wins BCALA Fiction Award

Pulitzer Prize Winning Columnist for the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts, Jr., has received no shortage of accolades in his career. Most recently, his book, Freeman, released by Evanston's Agate Publishing in May of 2012, was awarded the Black Caucus of the American Library Association's (BCALA) fiction prize.

"Few novels published in recent years have more important things to say about African-American history than this one," said Agate's founder, Doug Seibold.

The story, published by Agate's Bolden imprint, takes place immediately after the Confederate surrender and President Lincoln's assassination in 1865. Emboldened by the changing tide in the South, Sam Freeman, a runaway slave, sets out to find his wife from whom he was separated 15 years before.

As Sam's journey progresses, his wife, Tilda, is mired in the mess of the broken South, still in the hands of her owner.

According to Howard Frank Mosher of The Washington Post, "'Freeman' is an important addition to the literature of slavery and the Civil War, by a knowledgeable, compassionate and relentlessly truthful writer determined to explore both enslavement in all its malignancy and also what it truly means to be free."

Leonard Pitts, Jr. is the author of the novel Before I Forget, the memoir Becoming Dad, and Forward From This Moment: Selected Columns, 1994-2009.

Watch him discuss and read from Freeman here:

Claire Glass

Books Wed Feb 06 2013

Family Zine Collaboration Yields Advice for Health and Happiness

Fred Sasaki never thought he'd do an art project with his father, a California-born Japanese-American who spent a portion of his childhood in a World War II relocation camp. But when offering his son advice on being a writer, the elder Fred suggested pamphlets.

"I had no idea what he was talking about," said Sasaki. "Later I learned he was referring to the classic eight-pager, also known as the Tijuana bible -- these were handmade zines before they were called zines."

Especially popular during the Great Depression, Tijuana bibles were cheaply made underground comic books portraying bawdy sexual encounters between newspaper comic strip characters like Popeye and Blondie. But Sasaki Sr. wasn't suggesting his son pander pornographic cartoons -- his idea was to create manuals offering advice on topics like "how to wake up in the morning," and "how to bathe." Sasaki, who is associate editor of Poetry magazine, fell in love with the concept.

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Lara Levitan

Events Fri Nov 16 2012

A Show for Chicago: Christopher Piatt's The Paper Machete Moves to the Green Mill

Thumbnail image for Green Mill 1.jpgWhen writer/performer Christopher Piatt first conceived of the "live magazine" phenomenon known as The Paper Machete, he envisioned it hosted at the Green Mill, where the nightly jazz, the twinkling green lights, and the ghosts of gangsters past linger in every smoky corner. And beginning Saturday, December 1--after three rigorous years hosting and producing The Paper Machete at various Lincoln Square bars--Piatt's vision is realized as he takes his weekly "salon in a saloon" to the Green Mill with headliner Katie Rich of the Second City mainstage.

"I'm beside myself," said Piatt. "But I have a lot of work ahead of me."

Not that he doesn't already have a lot of work behind him. Piatt's been hosting and producing The Paper Machete, an aptly-described "part spoken-word show, part vaudeville revue" for nearly three years. It's a project he dove into full throttle after leaving his post at TimeOut Chicago, where he worked as a theatre critic and editor for five years. Upon leaving TimeOut, Piatt felt destined to put on a show of his own, but he found himself irrevocably "hard-wired" to the pace of a weekly magazine.

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Lara Levitan / Comments (1)

Feature Fri Nov 16 2012

Essay Fiesta Under New Leadership

Essay Fiesta is a staple of Chicago's live lit scene, which is no small thing considering the way things have gone for the medium in the past few years. Most of us with literary interests in Chicago know that lit performance has exploded with shows sprouting left and right.

When Essay Fiesta got going there were just a couple disperate performances around the city. Now, there are multiple going on nearly everyday of the week. That said, it's been a long run for Fiesta founders Keith Ecker and Alyson Lyon, both of whom are moving on to other things. For Lyon, that'll mean focusing on her life as a make-up artist for film; for Ecker, it means a new show.

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Claire Glass / Comments (1)

Feature Wed Oct 17 2012

24-Hour Comics Day is Back!

24-Hour Comics DayFor those comic book enthusiasts, mini comics artists, and illustrators alike, this Saturday, Oct. 20, marks the annual 24-Hour Comics Day. The event was created by cartoonist Scott McCloud (Zot!, Understanding Comics) back in 1990 on a dare from a friend. Years later, it is going stronger than ever.

Participating comic book makers have 24 consecutive hours to create a full 24-page comic. Local stores like Challengers Comics and Conversation (1845 N. Western Ave.), Third Coast comics (6234 N. Broadway St.) and Graham Crackers comics (5443 N. Broadway St.) host 24-hour long events for participants and fans. To register for store festivities head to one of these locations. Store events vary, but most are open the entire time ready with supplies, snacks and a place to work on your project.

The 24 hours begin at 10am Saturday, so get your ideas ready and your pencils sharpened for this marathon event.

John Wawrzaszek

Feature Thu Aug 23 2012

The Zinester's Dilemma: Part II

by Nicki Yowell

Just because some of us out there make zines doesn't mean everyone knows what they are.

The following is a sort of guide for zinesters as to how to approach questions, concerns and misunderstandings regarding what we do by the non-zinesters among us, one that is clear and thoughtful without being condescending or insular. This guide doubles as an introduction for anyone who's curious about zines. Feel free to guide and be guided by it! gapersblockzine2.jpg

You may recall the previous installment of The Zinster's Dilemma on how to explain zines to very supportive, very confused parties. Well tarry not, for there are more people out there who may prove tricky.

How about an issue rife with boundary problems:

The Prospective Employer

"Hello Miss Yowell. I've reviewed your resume and your portfolio and it looks like you'd be a great candidate for a position here. After our last interview, I discussed your addition with members of our board and we think you're good to go. Just one last thing--I used technologically savvy, somewhat ethically dubious software to infiltrate your social media presence, and I've been wondering, what exactly are zayyyyns? Zins I mean? And what is this one I read about, Flush? Seems to be about toilets?"

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Book Club

Feature Wed Aug 15 2012

The Zinesters' Dilemma: What are these zign/zayn/Zion things you make?

by Nicki Yowell

Just because some of us out there make zines doesn't mean everyone knows what they are.

The following is a sort of guide for zinesters as to how to approach questions, concerns and misunderstandings regarding what we do by the non-zinsters among us, one that is clear and thoughtful without being condescending or insular. This guide doubles as a introduction for anyone who's curious about zines. Feel free to guide and be guided by it! gapersblockzine1.jpg

To be sure, we all have a wide variety of definitions of what a zine actually is. I've heard people say things including "it has to be photocopied," "there can't be any advertising," "only one person can be involved in making it," "it has to be laid out by hand," "the person/people who make it cannot make a profit," "it must in some way involve feminism, anarchism, cupcakes, veganism, bikes or punk bands," (just kidding on the last one. But not really.)

For our purposes here, I'm going to call a zine a small publication made outside of a traditional publishing model. I know that broad of a definition is problematic for some people but, in this day and age, zines range from the pasted-together-in-five-seconds variety, to art books to lo-fi music journals, to professionally illustrated comics and everything in between. I think an inclusive categorization helps us rather than hurts us.

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Book Club / Comments (2)

Feature Thu Aug 09 2012

Self Publishers of Chicago: Fire Dog Experts Among Other Things

Particularly in light of the closure of the Publishing Industry Programming Office, a part of the shuttered Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, there's something disparate in the lives of Chicago's creative professionals. In an effort to unify, writer and designer Nicki Yowell got together with Liz Mason over at Quimby's to create Self Publishers of Chicago. Since its beginning in April, the group has developed into a virtually unstructured weekly meet-up that invites creative types to gather in a central location and get stuff done. The stuff Yowell and Mason originally had in mind was mostly zine making, but the group's attendees have since diversified. SPOC launched its website earlier this week and intends to broaden its reach. SPOC.jpeg

"It's a really solitary thing to be a writer, designer, artist and people really benefit from coming together," Yowell said. "Just come as you are with whatever you're working on."

Yowell said she and Mason were determined to put together a group that met without pressure, without demanding much of its attendees beyond willingness to share space and some ideas.

"Early on I wanted to go to tacky chain restaurant as a group, so we had a poll and listed all of the big offenders like Chili's and Friday's," Yowell said. "That just reinforces that we're really not taking ourselves too seriously. We're productive, but really it's to give the basic ingredients for people to be more productive and aware of what's going on in the creative community."

Recently some founding SPOC members completed a collaborative project, Fire Dog Zine, inspired by a book in the Read/Write Library all about Chicago firedogs. It's on sale now at Quimby's. SPOC's interpretation, with writing and art by Yowell, Mason, Meghan McGrath, Paul Durica, Eric Bartholomew, and Grant Reynolds includes an advice column written by a firedog for fire dogs, a word hunt, and lots of art.

"We had people do illustrations and poems, and stories about fire dogs," Yowell said. "Liz made a song. Whatever people are naturally gravitating towards, we can accommodate it. You don't have to change according to the group or organization."

To get on the email list email selfpublishersofchicago@gmail or check out SPOC's Facebook.

Claire Glass

Feature Mon Aug 06 2012

Economics, Childhood Therapy Sessions, and Ghosts with Lady Adventurer Anne Elizabeth Moore

hiphopapsara.jpgAnne Elizabeth Moore, local writer, critic, and comics maker took some time to discuss her new book Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present, out August 28 under Green Lantern Press. Moore is well known for her book Cambodian Grrrrl: Self Publishing in Phnom Penh, a journalistic account of Moore's experience teaching self-publishing techniques to the first generation of university women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She's also the creator of the Adventure School for Ladies, which she bills as an experimental graduate program in which students explore gender politics, cultural production, and related social divisions with the "top ladylike scholars in the field of adventure studies." Don't be fooled, the program is open to anybody regardless of gender identification.

Hip Hop Apsara features a different type of documentation alongside the text Moore is so adept in writing; photography. The collection offers a portrait of life in Phnom Pehn after dark, primarily focusing on the dance scene, which she says captures the developing middle class in action. The essays that accompany those images grapple with notions of public and private space, mourning and remembering the past, and economic uncertainty.

Moore spoke with me about her new book as it was inspired by Cambodian Grrrl, her little known life as a photographer, and a bit about her experience with publishing houses large and small. Moore also addressed her fascination with economics and sociological study as the foundation of many of her projects, plus her propensity to make a Project out of anything that moves. This book she says is an exercise in stepping away from that, of letting the subject matter speak.

The format of your new book is unusual as it joins imagery of Phnom Penh and essays. I say unusual because it strikes me that neither element is necessarily more important than the other. How did you approach structuring the book given the duality of the mediums? Did being a comics artist influence this choice?

A lot of people don't know that I trained as a photographer -- a darkroom printer, actually -- although by the time I got my BFA I had been writing and publishing for years. And I actually had started adding text to images and printing these massive photographic prints in a series, until someone said, what an expensive way to make a book! And I was like oh, yeah, there's this other thing that I do better than this that is less time consuming and annoying than photography. Then my camera got stolen and I basically didn't get another one until I started spending time in Cambodia after 2007.

The point is: I think photographically anyway, and I write in response to images, I just usually don't make the images, or I don't make the images public. And that -- well, for one, I'm not really a comics artist, I'm a comics critic but I use the medium of comics to communicate this criticism -- but I'm good with comics because I think image and text can be equally important. Without being overly reliant on each other.

Putting the book together was pretty fun for that reason, too. Going in I had this very hard sense of, you know: it must be chronological! It must convey fact! There will be footnotes! Like a journalist, right? But as I started to construct a logic purely from the visuals, I got to tell a different kind of story. And that's really where the essay came in. It was a way of responding to the last five years I've been spending time and thinking about this amazing place without having to report or convey details. It feels really important, and I think in a way it gives a much better sense of what's so amazing about this place -- but also about people -- than anything more journalistic I've done.

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Claire Glass

Book Club Fri Jun 29 2012

Changes are Afoot for Literary and Publishing Programs

The Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, former home to Chicago Publishes, a non-profit housed under the City department, is closing as of today, June 29 (In the interest of full disclosure, I was co-web editor of What will come of this shift remains to be seen, but what is certain is that coverage of the literary and publishing community is as critical a matter as ever before. Participants in this one of the many vibrant arts communities in Chicago know that ferver won't wane and the readings, live lit shows, and release parties will still go on, just as local publishers will continue to crank out the great works of our neighbors.

Check out the post announcing the hiatus here, which includes numerous alternative sources for literary news. Book Club is quite interested to see how the City's connection to literary Chicago develops, and of course, to continue to be a part of your connection.

Claire Glass

One-Shots Mon Oct 10 2011

One-Shots: Tony Akins

Delving into Tony Akins' career in comics yields a rich, multi-layered history. To say the Afro-Carribean-Irish Chicago native continues to follow in an artistic tradition is true and yet in some ways a misnomer -- although he comes from a creative background, Akins' choices and work display his definitive and detailed style. This is reflected in his work on Fables, Jack of Fables, Hellblazer: Papa Midnite, Elementals, and more.

Sadly, the possibility that Tony will leave here for Seattle in the not-so-distant future is high. I was lucky enough to talk with DC/Vertigo artist about his history and process before he heads west.

Name: Tony Akins
Job: Comic book artist
Age: Really!?
Education: Incandescent Drop-out, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Location: Ravenswood Manor
Hometown: Chicago, IL
Favorite place in Chicago: Any place that presents an interesting aspect or view that seems to be just for me in that moment.


You're originally from Chicago?

Yes I am. I was born on the South Side, raised on the South Side. I think St. Luke's Presbyterian Hospital, and raised at 66th and Marquette for the first few years of my life. Then we bought a house out near Avalon Park, which is out by Chatham, South Shore. My mother still lives in the same house.

South Side, but I guess a naturalized Northsider.

Your dad was an artist too, right?

He was a jack of all trades, which I guess he needed to be for the day. In my life he did everything from design signs, hand-paint signs, process, cut-out, hang in stores. He made signs, he was a social editor at the Chicago Defender, he was a cartoonist, he was an old-school emcee.

I think some of the first cartoons of his I've been able to find online were from 1941, editorial stuff that he continued to do for as long as I can remember. And then also writing a social column for the The Defender, which involved him going to and hosting parties and commenting on who was there. It was kind of like an early version of People magazine. That particular column was essentially who was there and who was seen with who. That's what he enjoyed doing, and it left an impression on me...the writing, the cartooning.

Did he encourage you to be an artist?

No! He did not, he tried to steer me away from it, so to this day I'm kind of conflicted about what I do. I even tried to derail it at one point by joining the military, which did not work out, obviously.

That whole relationship was very strife-ridden, because I saw him doing it, I enjoyed drawing, I had a knack for it. It was very hard-pressed between us because of it. My dad being African-American in America in the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s -- his education was limited. He had's cliché, but it's true. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade to support his mom and siblings. He was a self-made man and proud of what he did, and he wanted me not to have to do that. Vocation was very important.

Jack of Fables #28

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Rose Lannin

Feature Wed Sep 21 2011

Landmark Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 50 Years Young

This October, the Seminary Co-op will celebrate its 50th birthday, and within a year it will say goodbye to its cherished home in the basement of the Chicago Theology Seminary -- a winding and seemingly endless labyrinth of books. This is the final installment of a three-part series on the bookstore; read parts one and two, detailing the Co-op's history and how the publishing industry has changed.

Part Three: The Stories

"I'm quite high on our customers."

And Co-op manager, Jack Cella, has known some impressive ones.

"[Saul Bellow] used to come into the store a lot, and he liked to explore — you know what this place is like, it's a maze. He liked to go back and look to see what was being unpacked. He wandered to the back, and there was [an undergraduate employee] unpacking some books, and [she] felt a tap on her shoulder. I don't know how Saul got back there, because we have a little bungee cord blocking the way, but it doesn't do much. Apparently, he wound his way back there...and asked her what she was doing. She looks up, realizes who he is, and started crying -- it was such a shock!"

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Megan E. Doherty

Feature Tue Sep 20 2011

Landmark Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 50 Years Young

This October, the Seminary Co-op will celebrate its 50th birthday, and within a year it will say goodbye to its cherished home in the basement of the Chicago Theology Seminary -- a winding and seemingly endless labyrinth of books. This is the second of a three-part series on the bookstore; read parts one and three.

Part Two: The Changing Industry

Assistant manager Heather Ahrenholz knows how she would like to bid farewell to the basement the Co-op has called home: a lecture series on the state of the book, and on how the publishing industry has changed over the last half-century.

"Bookselling is changing," knows general manager Jack Cella. "It's not the same as it was 10 years ago - it's not the same as it was two years ago. [The move] will give the Cooperative an occasion to think about what customers will want a bookstore to be next year, [and] 10 years from now - on the assumption that books will survive."

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Megan E. Doherty

Feature Mon Sep 19 2011

Landmark Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 50 Years Young

This October, the Seminary Co-op will celebrate its 50th birthday, and within a year it will say goodbye to its cherished home in the basement of the Chicago Theology Seminary -- a winding and seemingly endless labyrinth of books. This is the first of a three-part series on the bookstore; read parts two and three, detailing how the publishing industry has changed and the shop's many stories.

Part One: The History

Chicagoans aren't known for mincing words. While many proclaim their city home to the best university in the world, they may not realize that Chicago also lays claim to the world's greatest academic bookstore -- an opinion widely held, even by those who think that title belongs on the east coast.

This October, the Seminary Co-op will celebrate its 50th birthday, and within a year it will say goodbye to its cherished home in the basement of the Chicago Theology Seminary -- a winding, and seemingly endless, labyrinth of books.

No coffee, no knick-knacks, just books.

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Megan E. Doherty

Feature Thu Sep 15 2011

Promoting Scholarship: A Conversation with John Schultz and Betty Shiflett

Fundraising reminds me of going door to door to sell World's Finest candy bars when I was a kid. When I got older, fund raising turned into semi-formal galas. These days I've noticed fund raising has returned to passing around the collection plate, so to speak; it's Kickstarter, it's a tips jar, it's a cover charge.

The next Windy City Story Slam, happening on September 18, mixes tradition with a bit of creativity. The scheduled bout will benefit the John Schultz and Betty Shiflett Story Workshop Scholarships of Columbia College's Fiction Writing department. Event producer and Story Slam's founder Bill Hillmann saw a need to step in and support one of the oldest scholarships for writers at his Alma mater. I met up with the scholarship's John Schultz and Betty Shiflett to talk about their program, the Slam, and scholarship since the death of in-state funded grants.

We grabbed something to drink before we began. With his doppio (a double espresso) in hand, Schultz took his briefcase and led Shiflett, with her Tazo tea (pomegranate-flavored), and me from one of the many South Loop Starbucks, up to his office in the Fiction Writing Department on Wabash Ave. The north-facing view into the loop distracted me for a second, but I didn't forget why I was there: to talk to two of the city's elder statesmen, two founding members of Columbia's widely renowned Fiction Writing department -- two people who have been teaching longer than most of their students have been alive. Shultz wrote the book on the program (no really, Writing From Start to Finish is the department's text, written by Shultz in 1982), and in their long tenure as faculty, one of their lasting achievements has been their namesake scholarship.

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John Wawrzaszek / Comments (1)

Feature Mon Aug 15 2011

Modern Poetry Goes Victorian: the Chicago Poetry Brothel

If you like poetry, entertainment, and top hats, then the Chicago Poetry Brothel is for you. Tucked away in Thalia Hall, in private rooms in Ristorante al Teatro (1227 W 18th St), the basement bar has been turned into a Victorian brothel by the brothel's madam--Madam Black-eyed Susan--her "poetry whores," and the good doctor (there to supply laudanum for the poets with a case of the nerves). After paying the entrance fee ($5 if you're dressed in Victorian period clothing, $10 if your Victorian period wardrobe is at the cleaners), grab some wine or whiskey at the bar, and wait for the show to start.

The Poetry Brothel typically follows a standard format: After patrons get the chance to settle, Madam Black-eyed Susan introduces her poets with a few descriptive sentences about each, and each poet gets a chance to read a bit of their work to entice the crowd. Once everyone has gotten just a taste of the evening's finest lines, the poets mix and mingle with the crowd, peddling their poems, every so often taking the floor again to tease the patrons with more of their work. Because for a mere $5, you can purchase a token that gets you, not only the poetry whore of your choice, but an intimate reading with that poet, inside a velvet tent, complete with chairs, a table, and gold tassels. In this private space, the poet will recite anything the patron wants--be it the poet's own work or a poem the patron has in mind--on any topic. Being face-to-face and knee-to-knee with the poet is a very personal experience--ask the poet anything you want about the piece, ask for it to be read it again, ask pretty please for more than one poem. You might think that you'll get the same kind of work from each poet, which is definitely not the case. The poetry whores each have their own style that ranges from sultry jazz (Serafine LaCroix) to dark and haunting (August Rose). Plan ahead--check them all out so you can come to the next brothel prepared. And if you're interested in more than one, feel free to purchase more than one private reading!

But poetry isn't the only entertainment--the brothel also invites guests and musicians to showcase their talent. At the August 6 Poetry Brothel, Pearl Pistol performed her alluring vaudeville burlesque show, and the White City Rippers kept everyone moving with what they call their "old-timey mad-scientist steampunk music." (The October brothel will feature Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City, and The Loneliest Monk, master of the electric cello.)

Intrigued? You should be. By the end of the night (the Poetry Brothel parlors are open from 8pm to midnight), you may leave with the poetry whores' books (on sale throughout the evening), and you may leave a little tipsy (the bar is open all four hours), but you certainly won't leave uninspired and unimpressed. And to tantalize you just a little bit more--see what Madam Black-eyed Susan herself has to say about the brothel, her poetry whores, and much more after the jump.

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Emily Wong

Profiles Tue Jul 05 2011

Bookstore Profile: Powell's Bookstores, Chicago

Name: Powell's Bookstore
Locations: 2850 N. Lincoln Ave (North)
1501 E. 57th St (Hyde Park)
Founder: Michael Powell
Books: Rare and used/discounted (every genre)
History: Opened in 1970

Powell's Bookstores has two retail locations (as well as a wholesale division that sells university press leftovers to other bookstores) in the Chicago area. Kimberly Sutton, employee at the Hyde Park location, gave some great responses about the inception of Powell's! (Photos are of Powell's North.)

When did Powell's Bookstore open, and how did it start, i.e., what was the motivation/inspiration for its founding?
Powell's was founded in 1970 by Michael Powell, who had been running a student co-op bookstore on the University of Chicago campus. Michael was a grad student really into books--so much that he convinced Saul Bellow, Edward Shils, and Morris Janowitz (among others) to front him the money for a much needed bookstore in Hyde Park. This is slightly unrelated to Powell's, but I love this story so I beg you to indulge me -- the building in Hyde Park (where Powell's still lives) housed a real estate agency until earlier in the year, when it was fire-bombed (!), probably by student radicals (the case is still unsolved), though they were notorious slum lords, and a tenants union had formed against them as well. A few days later someone spray painted, "You don't need a weatherman to know that the fire is blowing in the right direction." Sounds like the perfect spot for a bookstore to me.

We did really well and kept expanding -- we used to share this space with O' Gara & Wilson's (now across the street), bought a warehouse in the mid-70s (it's since moved a few times, now out by Midway), and bought the north store in 1987.

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Emily Wong / Comments (1)

Feature Fri Jun 24 2011

The Chicago Underground Library Lives and Thrives

What do you do when a natural disaster takes out your library? You go mobile. The Chicago Underground Library, an organization dedicated to the collection and distribution of local independent and small-press media, is nothing if not about adaptation created by necessity. This principle is reflected in their mission statement and most recently, in the pop-up library project that sprung in part from a blizzard burying a sizable portion of their publications.

Turning a potential pitfall into a chance for evaluation and reinvention, they're currently collaborating with spaces across Chicago to house their collection -- Albany Park's North Branch Projects, Uptown's Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce, and recently Logan Square's Comfort Station. Co-founder Nell Taylor explained the library's recent developments, both tangible and online, and shed some light on the mentality that keeps the CUL alive in an age where the nature of libraries, media, and public spaces is ever-shifting.

Want to help the Chicago Underground Library find a home? They're holding a benefit for that tonight at Beauty Bar (1444 W. Chicago Ave.) from 9pm to 2am.

Gapers Block: How did you become involved with Comfort Station?

Nell Taylor: Josh Dumas, a really wonderful performer and artist and musician, had emailed me and said hey, my friend David Keel was just put in charge of Comfort Station, have you heard about it, you guys should do something there. I know Josh because Josh showed up at our very, very, very first meeting at Mercury Cafe back in 2006, with a whole bunch of stuff for the library. So it's all kind of coming full-circle now. He put me in touch with David and Jess [Devereaux]...I went over there and told them about what was going on with us, and that we were looking to do this whole series of pop-up libraries. We didn't know how long it would be before we could find a space, and with each one of these, we're doing it kind of tailored to what our partner's already working with.

Comfort Station Pop-up Library

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Rose Lannin

Feature Thu Jun 23 2011

How Criminal: A Conversation with Keith and Kent Zimmerman

This is a guest post from John Wawrzaszek, a contributor to Newcity, publisher of the zine the Muse, the News, and the Noose, and Fiction Writing student at Columbia College. This feature is based on his interviews with the Zimmerman Brothers, guest editors of the next issue of tri-city (but with a strong Chicago association) journal Criminal Class Review.

Collaborations are one of those things that can end with mixed results. When they work out well, the effort appears seamless and the final product is something to be applauded. This is the working model Kevin Whiteley, aka Wayne White, founder of the punk-inspired Criminal Class Press, has followed with his journal, the Criminal Class Review. The publication searches for gritty, hard luck tales from all walks of life. For their second issue of 2011, Whiteley's idea was simple: get some guest editors, throw in work by local artists and writers, showcase it all at a local reading series, and call it a day.

What ups the ante for this issue is the fact that guest editors the Zimmerman Brothers, identical twins Kent and Keith Zimmerman who reside in Oakland, California, definitely aren't without merit in their own right. Keith describes their career as "living exclusively off the blank page." Since the 1980s the two have worked writing for music-based magazines, penning books and articles alongside such noted music icons as John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) singer of the Sex Pistols, rock legend Alice Cooper, and country musician Trace Atkins. They've released 17 books, with topics ranging from the Hell's Angels to the Black Panthers. "We're associated with edgy topics and characters because that's where the great stories and the game-changer personalities spring from. Our latest book, Operation Family Secrets, takes place in modern day Chicago." says Keith. "We must proclaim that we love Chicago VERY MUCH," continues Keith. "We love its people, food, media writers and journalists, literary and cultural scene, hipsters, characters, and most of all the inspiring and incredible human dramas that emanate out of Chicago." Kent chimes in, "Right now we're working on another project set in Chicago. For some reason, we can't escape Chicago."

Their work with Criminal Class focuses on a different side of their background. The brothers also work with inmates at California's San Quentin state prison, where their job as editors allowed them to include material from prisoners -- Criminal Class Review's "Prison Issue" features real criminals. The two describe it better, jumping over one another to finish the others' thoughts.

The Zimmerman Brothers

Keith: We volunteer/teach our San Quentin class in a castoff area
called H-Unit, population 1000 inmates, who live in bunks and dorms instead of cells like the lifers. It's called Finding Your Voice on the Page. We've been doing it steadily since 2003.

Kent: It all started eight years ago with a cold call to the woman in
charge of education. We brought along a copy of Hell's Angel, figuring it would either help us or sink us. The warden at the time assigned us to H-Unit where there were virtually no education programs.

Keith: These guys may be only a couple years or months from being
back on the streets, technically no more than ten years max.

Kent: These were the guys with release dates ready to move into your
and my neighborhoods! We've chosen to stay in H-Unit ever since because we prefer the transient nature of the inmates. That way we have long time "repeat offenders" who keep taking the class along with a constant churn of new faces who come and go and sometimes come back.

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Feature Fri Jun 10 2011

Quickies: The Final Whistle Blows

This is a guest post from John Wawrzaszek, a contributor to Newcity, publisher of the zine the Muse, the News, and the Noose, and Fiction Writing student at Columbia College. This feature is based on his interviews with Mary Hamilton and Lindsay Hunter.

Quickies will have its final run on June 14th at Innertown Pub, 1935 W Thomas, at 7:30pm.

For a reading series notable for its short time limit, Quickies has
been anything but. Two friends, Mary Hamilton and Lindsay Hunter, met
in grad school at the School of the Art Institute's writing program. They began the reading series in March of 2008. "It was kind of a wordless psychic communication," Hamilton puts it. Though that communication might live on, the series is set to sound its final whistle as co-founder Hamilton prepares to move to Los Angeles.

Quickies prides itself on its name, allotting readers only four minutes to spit out their material. This leaves for a wide variety of almost anything, sort of: "We have three rules," explains Hamilton, "No poetry, no excerpts, and no cheating."

The fun ensues when a reader goes over time. The audience listens to the story with anticipation, silently wishing for the time to lapse. Standing in front of the pool table at the Innertown Pub, the home of Quickies, Hunter vigilantly holds the stopwatch. Hamilton is poised with a whistle, ready to jolt the packed bar once the readout passes
four minutes. "Mary is cutthroat with the whistle," says Hunter. "Anytime I want to mealy mouth about it she's like, 'Nope get off the stage.'"

A seemingly inseparable duo on stage, the pair came to this decision together. "I can't imagine doing it without her," says Hunter. "We are the yin to each other's yang." For the series' finale (happening June 14th), the lineup is a who's who of Chicago writers, most who have supported the series for years. The bill is packed, the eulogy to be performed by over 20 readers.

Quickies' end leaves the literary scene out on a mainstay series, one that offers a unique event in a rapid-fire format. But the hosts, besides missing each other's company as hair trigger whistleblowing emcees, there's something more to be missed. "The groupies," says Hamilton. "Mary's groupies," jests Hunter.

Book Club

Feature Fri Jun 03 2011

Jane Eyre @ Gene Siskel

Looking for Charlotte Brontë's classic put to film in a centrally located, air-conditioned theater? Jane Eyre (directed by Cary Fukunaga, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender) is playing at the Gene Siskel today through Thursday, 6/9. Find out more and get your tickets here.

Rose Lannin

Feature Fri Mar 25 2011

DIY Refuses to Die: Chicago Zine Fest Year 2

DIY Refuses to Die is a weekly feature by guest writer Taleen Kalenderian that will run in the weeks leading up to the Chicago Zine Fest, happening March 25th and 26th at various locations throughout the area. Each week, we'll feature an interview from a notable in Chicago's zine scene, and exposition on an aspect of the landscape as well as their role in it. This week is the final installment, capping off with Liz Mason. Thanks for reading, keep self-publishing, and see you at Zine Fest!

Aside from her blog and her zine (Liz's Masonic Lodge and Caboose, respectively), Liz Mason has been working at and managing Quimby's Bookstore for nearly a decade. The independent bookstore is way more than one of the Chicago Zine Fest sponsors. For 20 years, Quimby's has helped paper works by zinesters, writers and visual artists find homes on its shelves and window displays.

Now that Chicago Zine Fest is finally here (!), many of those zines -- among hundreds of others, hailing from the Midwest to New Zealand -- are going to get some serious airtime outside of bookstores. It all starts this afternoon, with readings at Columbia College and 826CHI. From 9-11pm, Quimby's will be hosting Zinester Karaoke, provided by Mason and her husband Jo's very own Shameless Karaoke.

Tomorrow's zine exhibition and workshops will have Columbia College's Conaway Center packed with zinester tables from 10am-5pm, complementing the 2011 Revenge of Print challenge. All CZF events are free and open to the public, so grab a tote bag and start poring through those zines. Or just show up and make one.

What was the first zine you made?

It was called Cul-de-sac, and I made it in 1997ish with one of my friends.

Was it about cul-de-sacs?

It wasn't really about anything, it was about the ridiculous things we were writing at the time.

Have you seen any shifts or patterns in zine topics during your time working at Quimby's?

I do see sometimes there'll be things that seem like vibes or particular motifs that sort of serendipitously emerge. For awhile there seemed to be a lot of zines about this existential angst of animals. This anthropological quirkiness, I guess? The idea is that there's an animal who has these passionate feelings of ennui that humans do. There'll be a bird with philosophical ponderings, or an animal that's really sad or doesn't feel good about itself. The word balloons and captions will say things like "I'm overweight!". That seems like a theme that's going on lately.

One that immediately comes to mind is Adam Meuse. He did a comic called Sad Animals which was one of our best-sellers for awhile, although full disclosure: best-seller means you sell 3 or so of them a week. Then Anders Nilsen does Big Questions, which is not a zine, it's more of a comic. It's actually getting compiled into a book by Drawn & Quarterly. I did a parody of it, a comic called Fat Animals: An Obestiary. It was a spoof of animals that were really fat.

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Feature Fri Mar 18 2011

DIY Refuses to Die: Chicago Zine Fest Year 2

DIY Refuses to Die is a new, weekly feature by guest writer Taleen Kalenderian that will run in the weeks leading up to the Chicago Zine Fest, happening March 25th and 26th at various locations throughout the area. Each week, we'll feature an interview from a notable in Chicago's zine scene, and exposition on an aspect of the landscape as well as their role in it. This week features zinemaker and activist Anne Elizabeth Moore, author of Hey, Kidz! Buy This Book, Unmarketable, and the blog Camb(l)o(g)dia, a journal of her experiences teaching self-publishing to young women in Cambodia.

Ardent zinester and co-editor at Punk Planet before it shuttered in 2007, Anne Elizabeth Moore has been a safeguard for counterculture in Chicago's independent media for years. She's exposed hunting marketers and corporate branding of the underground, using everything from handmade zines about Starbucks to books, notably Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity.

Anne Elizabeth Moore

In 2007 Moore journeyed to Cambodia to teach 32 young women living in Phnom Penh how to self-publish. The result was 75 zines that expressed contemporary issues in Cambodia exploring social justice, educational reform, cultural history, and New Girl Law, a revisionist artist book calling for gender equality and human rights.

An invited guest of Chicago Zine Fest, Moore will be reading from her book Cambodian Grrrl (to be rereleased on Cantankerous Titles at the end of summer) on Saturday, March 26, 3pm, at Columbia College's Conaway Center.

What was the first zine you made?

For years I've been thinking I've made zines since I was 15, but I recently discovered my first zine. It's a comic about a fly that flies into piles of pancakes. I dated it and it was actually done when I was 11, so I've been doing this for a lot longer than I thought I had.

Anne Elizabeth Moore's first zine

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Book Club / Comments (1)

Feature Fri Mar 11 2011

DIY Refuses to Die: Chicago Zine Fest Year 2

DIY Refuses to Die is a new, weekly feature by guest writer Taleen Kalenderian that will run in the weeks leading up to the Chicago Zine Fest, happening March 25th and 26th at various locations throughout the area. Each week, we'll feature an interview from a notable in Chicago's zine scene, and exposition on an aspect of the landscape as well as their role in it. She kicks it off appropriately with Neil Brideau, one of the founding and current organizers of the fest.

After running into a slew of Chicago zinesters at Milwaukee Zine Festival in November of 2009, Neil Brideau and his friends co-founded Chicago Zine Festival (CZF) almost a year ago. Realizing that a Chicago zine community was in the make, with zines going unshared during Chicago winters, they decided to bring together the city's zinesters, comics artists and writers, hosting 45 exhibitor tables and self-publishing programs at Columbia College of Chicago.

Get ready for year two: CZF has doubled in size, hosting 107 exhibitor tables that sold out in three weeks and taking up two floors in Columbia's Conaway Center, in addition to events and readings at Quimby's Bookstore and 826CHI. All events are free and open to the public, including letterpress and bookbinding workshops to foster and promote print culture. There's even a DIY Film Festival.

Whether you want to trade some zines, swap skills or chime in on some zinester karaoke, it all takes place on Friday, March 25 and Saturday, March 26. You should go: 'cause you can't kill print if it goes viral.

Neil Brideau had a chance during the hectic weeks leading up to CZF to chat with Gapers Block on his walk home from his Quimby's shift.

Neil Brideau

What was the first zine you made?

I made single pages of comics in college that I would put up on a campus bulletin board because I wanted to do more comics than the space I had in the school newspaper. I'm working on a new zine right now about comics called Side Kick, but I've done a number of mini-comics that are all sort of one-shots. Hopefully it'll be done in time for the fest.

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Book Club

Books Mon Feb 28 2011

Bookstore Profile: Shake Rattle & Read Book Box

Name: Shake Rattle & Read
Location: 4812 N. Broadway Ave
Books: Books and records (every genre). Vintage Pop Culture magazines. I carry new vinyl LP releases by Chicago labels Bloodshot Records and Numero Group.
New/Used: Both
Website: and
History: Became Shake Rattle & Read in 1986

How did Shake, Rattle & Read come into being? Going along with that, how did it become a part of the Uptown neighborhood?

The shop was established in 1966. My sister Gail and her husband James lived on Dover St. and Sunnyside Ave a few blocks away. The store was named Book Box. We still keep that name in our title.

In 1971 I moved here and got an apartment at Beacon St. and Leland Ave. I sold records for a living, working at various record stores. In 1986 my sister wanted to retire from Chicago, and sold the store to me. 2011 is the start of my 25th year and the 45th anniversary of the shop. We have always been in the same location.

Shake Rattle & Read
Photo by anthonylibrarian

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Rose Lannin / Comments (6)

Feature Wed Jan 19 2011

Answers and Questions: Cris Mazza

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

The protagonist in Cris Mazza's 2011 novel, Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, shares a name with a notorious adulterer from an oft-banned literary classic. Perhaps Mazza felt a connection with the ostracized character after having a Scarlet Letter experience of her own:

The most astonishing thing ever said to me at a reading was nothing -- utter silence. Not that I always consider silence to be an affront or expression of disrespect. A silent audience could have retreated inward to think, privately. Could be embarrassed, shaken, moved -- all things a writer who isn't really all that funny can hope for at readings. (Although I realize, when it comes to readings, funny is best.) But one time the silence was different:

In the late '90s a group of writers associated with independent, innovative presses planned to read together to celebrate Banned Books Week at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. I thought we discussed what we would read: material that might have been banned in previous eras. So the reading happened, and I read a very short story titled "Hesitation," from my 1997 collection Former Virgin.

I vaguely noticed that other pieces being read didn't seem to fit the "would have been banned in previous eras" theme. Maybe I made that up. After the reading, the authors sat in the reading space and the audience circulated, bringing books to be signed, asking questions, expressing their pleasure or appreciation for the piece an author had read. Not one soul talked to me or brought a book to be signed. When anyone came to talk to the writer I was sitting with, they did not look at me. To this day I don't understand what happened or what code I broke.

Join Mazza at the January 27 Various Men release, 6-9pm at May Street Cafe (1145 W. Cermak Road).

Ruthie Kott / Comments (1)

Feature Mon Jan 03 2011

Answers and Questions: Paul Hornschemeier

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

In interviewing Evanston-based graphic novelist Paul Hornschemeier for a magazine story [aside: big thanks to the proofreader/fact-checker for making sure I didn't misspell his name], one thing he said more than once was that what's most important for creating a graphic novel is the ability to tell a story -- more important, even, than artistic ability.

This guy can tell a story:

On two separate occasions I've had people argue with me that I am not me. There is apparently some existential comedian writing the script of my life for moments like these to not only happen at conventions but also on the street (I am routinely the person stopped on the bus, on the street, etc. by someone who needs a special someone to explore their mental landscape... I just have that kind of face, I guess).

At one convention -- I was around 25 at the time -- I was setting up my books on the table when a man walked by. He noticed the name on the book, and he stopped.

"Is he here?" the man asked.

Never presuming anyone would be asking about me, especially not at a point where I had only a few things in publication, I responded, "Sorry, who?"

"Him," he repeated, pointing to the book. "Paul Hornschemeier."

"Oh, sorry, yeah. I'm him. That's me."

The man leaned back and cocked an eyebrow, momentarily entertaining the joke I had unknowingly made. "Okay, sure. But seriously, is he here?"

I wasn't sure what was going on. "Yes, I'm... I'm Paul Hornschemeier, like I said."

The man sighed and waved my gag off. "Okay, never mind, I just wondered if he was here."

I stood there open mouthed. Should I produce a driver's license? Was this even happening? Had I finally lost it?

The man walking away when he passed the next table, occupied by a cartoonist who knew me fairly well. The cartoonist looked up at the man and pointed back at me. "Um, that really is him."

The man took this as gospel. "OH! I thought you were joking. Sorry, but I thought you were like 50 years old and bald with a beard."

One of the characters in my books looks like this. And this isn't the only occasion where people expected me to look like the character. That character is also a symbolic logic professor and suicidally depressed, but nobody ever argued with me about having neither of those characteristics.

Also I was once asked if I thought Brandon Routh would reprise his role as Superman during a discussion of comics as fine art, but that was a far less sweat-inducing exchange.

See Hornschemeier's work at the Museum of Contemporary Art January 8-30 for a group show, New Chicago Comics.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Mon Dec 27 2010

Staff Picks 2010

The Book Club staff's compiled a list of our favorite titles this year -- not necessarily published in 2010, or even Chicago-centric, just what we liked, loved, and appreciated, and why.

What book did it for you this year? Why? Drop us a line in the comments.

Rosamund Lannin: The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry

This appealingly odd and existential detective story navigates a city of curious horrors and delights, its uncertain protagonist working to the heart of a mystery as shadowy, ambiguous, and fantastical as the players behind it. Reminded me of Ray Bradbury but sparser, in a really good way. Fans of magical realism, eccentric heroes, or just a good puzzle, this book could be your latest literary pal, or maybe new best friend.

Emily Wong: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi Durrow

This book has a bit of everything: tragedy, the pain of racism, coming-of-age. The writer uses an interesting voice with short sentences that cut right to the chase. I couldn't put it down!

Follow Emily on Twitter:

Ruthie Kott: What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, Zoë Heller

I have a thing for unreliable narrators. And characters with creepy obsessions.

Rebecca Hyland: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life is in fact a history-packed epic, told from multiple points of view. The story unfolds in an engaging, slang-y style sprinkled with kitchen-sink pop cultural references. He makes it all work. The novel is quite an achievement yet he makes it all seem effortless, like late night confessional tales unspooling at a memorable party. (read more about Rebecca's favorite after the jump)

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Rose Lannin / Comments (1)

Feature Mon Dec 20 2010

Answers and Questions: Carol Fisher Saller

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

Carol Fisher Saller, author of 2009 book The Subversive Copy Editor, gets a lot of "off-the-wall questions" as editor of the University of Chicago Press's Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A:

"How do I get gum off of concrete?"

"In serial colons, should the last colon be replaced by a comma?"

"There's this guy I like. How do I get him to notice me?"

But the most awkward questions I remember were at a panel last year at the Chicago Cultural Center. The panel was called "Going Pro: Taking Your Literary Venture to the Next Level," and my part was to talk about the editorial issues involved. I thought I'd made it pretty clear that my background was editorial; I had a handout called "50 Questions for Editorial Planning." The other two panelists talked about the business aspects (profit vs. nonprofit, how to use corporate-speak, getting funding, etc.).

Three of us spoke, then a moderator directed questions to us individually. She started with me -- and I didn't know the answer. I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that I don't know everything and that it's not shameful to admit it. So I lobbed the question to one of the other panelists.

When it was my turn again, I couldn't believe it -- the second question was also completely outside my area! (Both of the questions were based on the assumption that I had actually started a literary business of my own at some point.) Deferring the first question might look cool and confident, but doing it twice would just look stupid. So I took a stab at it.

Blab, blab, blab -- I spouted nonsense and sounded like a bag of hot air. I should have said, "Honest, I really do know stuff! You just have to ask the right questions." I might at least have gotten a laugh.

Anyway, I learned my lesson: next time I'm on the spot, I'll go for funny instead of fathead.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Mon Dec 20 2010

Q&A with Christian Wiman

Some questions for Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and author of the poetry book, Every Riven Thing (among others!).

GB: The definition of "riven" is "to wrench open," "tear apart or to pieces," or "to split with force." Obviously, the book's title, Every Riven Thing, could describe your diagnosis of an incurable cancer tearing apart your life, but after reading the poems, I also feel that the diagnosis might have split open your relationship with God or put a crack in some of the beliefs you previously held about God and religion. Is there any truth to this?

CW: It's hard for me to remember which poems were written when. There are poems in this book that are fifteen years old, and others that were written right before the book came out.

I think you're right, though, to notice the radical mix of tones in the "religious" poems. Some, like the title poem, are clearly devotional; others are fraught with doubt and a sense of my own inadequacy; a couple are openly antagonistic to the whole notion of religion and belief.

I needed them all. Need them all. "God's truth is life," writes Patrick Kavanagh, "even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fires."

GB: An idea/image that spoke to me in this book is the burning of sermons (in "Voice of One Head" and "Hermitage"). I know what I took from that image, and I'm sure other readers find their own meanings in it. What does that particular image/description mean for you?

CW: I don't really believe we can ever speak clearly and truly of god, much less speak his (his! -- even the pronoun is problematic) name. In both of those poems you mention (two of my personal favorites), language and existence have been pushed as far as they can be pushed -- by the subjects of the poems, I mean; I'm not claiming this as an accomplishment of the poems -- and the silence that ensues is a mixture of mortal defeat and mysterious grace.

Plus, and perhaps more to the point, I just like the sound of "burn" and "sermon" together!

GB: Now, less about topic and more about process...
I'm the kind of writer who spits out lines randomly and eventually tries to put them together into a poem. Your work is very well-crafted, very musical, with an emphasis on sound and rhyme. Do you find it difficult to create poems like these? What is your process like?

CW: I don't know if it's difficult. I mean, I don't really have anything else to compare it to. I never chose to write the way I do. I hear this music in my head, these rhythms wanting to be words, and I can't get any relief until I get the lines and the rhymes and the rhythms right. Sometimes a poem comes quite easily -- the title poem was written in a couple of hours one morning. Sometimes it will take years.

GB: I love "So Much a Poet He Despises Poetry"; it reminds me of being completely burned out on poetry after I finished my poetry MFA program, but yet continuing to immerse myself in it - even being the managing editor of a poetry journal! Do you find being a poet difficult at times? Not just the difficulty in getting published, but do you feel you're driven to write and/or be involved in poetry, even if perhaps you don't particularly want to be at any given moment?

CW: Yes, definitely. I get sick of poetry, especially contemporary poetry, and sometimes think I want nothing at all to do with it. And I get tired of the psychic pressures of writing poetry, the mental derangement it can not simply cause but seem to require. But that poem, I should admit, is actually making fun of someone (me!) who gets so sick and tired of poetry, who feels exhausted by the existential exposure of it ("his soul's dainties"), who has become so jaded that there's NOTHING to which he doesn't respond with a slight sneer.

To hell with that. I wrote the poem as a purgative, because I don't want to be that person. And because it was actually fun to write.

Emily Wong

Feature Mon Dec 06 2010

Answers and Questions: David Heinzmann

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

If there's one thing I've learned from Say Yes to the Dress, it's to discuss how much you're planning to pay before your appointment. Otherwise, it just gets awkward. Perhaps this librarian learned that lesson after hosting a talk by David Heinzmann, a Chicago Tribune crime reporter and author of A Word to the Wise, a novel about modern-day organized crime in Chicago. Heinzmann writes:

A couple months ago I had a signing at a small library downstate (in a town where I have family connections). It went well -- I sold a bunch of books -- and as I was driving back to Chicago I received an e-mail from the librarian who set up the event. She said the library board members were talking about how wonderful the talk was, and they realized it couldn't possibly have been free. She apologized for not discussing this before and asked, what was my fee?

Ruthie Kott

Feature Thu Dec 02 2010

What We're Reading: Bridge of San Luis Rey

What We're Reading is a monthly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).


Occupation: Occupying
Lives in Hyde Park

sanluis.jpgWhat are you reading?
Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?
Early 18th-century Lima: an iconic Incan rope bridge collapes, killing five people. A friar witnessess the collapse and sets about to record the lives of the dead.

What drew you to this book?
Small enough to fit in my pocket.

What kind of person would you recommend it to?

Who's your favorite author right now?
The 23-year-old Oxford grads who write the Economist.

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?
Buses and trains.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Tue Nov 23 2010

Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Inaugural Induction Ceremony at NEIU

(left to right: Jackie Taylor, Mamie Hansberry, Haki Madhubuti, Nora Brooks Blakely, Gary Houston, Gregory Bellow)

You probably have a list of go-to crowd-pleasers when entertaining out of town guests: the Art Institute, Millennium Park, the Museum of Science and Industry. How about if your guests have literary inclinations? Sure, there are great independent bookstores, there are plenty of lively readings to check out, but can you put your finger on one thing that definitively encapsulates Chicago's literary history and cultural relevance? No? Well, local author Don Evans aims to change that.

Evans calls Chicago "the only place, of all the places I've experienced, that I know and love like a brother." He lived in London from 2002-2005 and made a decent dent in his passport visiting other European cities in that time, always making a point to seek out literary sites. "The Dublin Writers Museum interested me the most," he said in an e-mail interview. "Walking through that museum, there was no mistaking the value Ireland placed upon its literary contributors. The parts added up to a greater whole. When we settled back in Chicago, I saw, more clearly, a scattered and incomplete recognition of our own heritage. The culture entails countless tiny enclaves, only some of which overlap, and there would be no easy way, were you to try, to discover the heart of our heritage."

Attempting to fill in this gap, Evans conceived of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. He brought the idea to Randy Richardson, president of the Chicago Writers Association, where Evans is a board member. Richardson called the idea "something that is long overdue. For too long, Chicago has been known as the Second City. Putting a spotlight on our rich and proud literary tradition will let the rest of the world know what we here in Chicago's writing community already know -- that Chicago's literary heritage is second to none."

So the two amassed a dedicated team of volunteers, including Gapers Block's own Alice Maggio on the nominating committee. This past Saturday, November 20, they held their inaugural induction ceremony at the Northeastern Illinois University Auditorium. It was an elegant, dressy affair, complete with author-themed cocktails. You could feel the love in this labor of love.

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Rebecca Hyland / Comments (3)

Feature Mon Nov 22 2010

Answers and Questions: Jamie Freveletti

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Guilfoile answered our question with a bizarre fan story, and this week, Jamie Freveletti, a fellow contributing blogger to the Outfit collective of Chicago crime writers, shares an odd encounter. Freveletti, a trial lawyer, has published two thrillers about a very active protagonist: Running from the Devil (awarded Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers) and Running Dark, which came out in June. Something about these thriller writers seems to attract interesting characters at their readings:

My signings have been fairly mainstream, but at a signing for Running Dark, a novel about Somali pirates attacking a cruise liner, I was approached by a friend of my cousin who was married to a Somali prince from the area of Eyl, the main pirate enclave in Somalia. He graciously offered me safe passage there, saying that no one would dare harm anyone under their protection. I was thinking "How great is this? I'm going!" but when I returned to Chicago, my husband gave me such an alarmed look that I had to rethink my trip.

But Freveletti hasn't given up on the idea; she's planning to meet with the couple to talk in more detail about a possible trip. Just a warning to any Somali pirates who might be thinking of attacking Freveletti: she has a black belt in aikido.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Mon Nov 08 2010

Answers and Questions: Kevin Guilfoile

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

Sometimes writers have to deal with fans who watch way too much TV and think that fiction writers can solve crimes. And maybe some of them can. Just, self-admittedly, not Kevin Guilfoile, author of thrillers Cast of Shadows and The Thousand:

There are a couple of contenders, but the ones that are really bizarre are usually too rambling to properly recreate. I suppose the one that takes it all was at the Harold Washington Library a few years ago. I noticed this guy with a big box, like a banker's box, hanging around in the back of the room as I signed books for a line of readers. People who refuse to get in line but instead hang around waiting for the line to dwindle are red flags all the way. They clearly have A LOT they want to talk with you about and don't want anyone behind them pressuring them to move on. I imagine really famous authors must have a dozen hang-arounders at every signing. I'm not sure how they ever decide who goes last.

Anyway, as the last person in line was getting her book signed this guy finally walked up with his box. He was big and tattooed and clearly very intelligent. He looked me straight in the eyes and spoke deliberately and sincerely, and I wish I could remember exactly what he said, but the gist of it was that he had been wrongly imprisoned and wanted me to write a book clearing his name. The box contained proof, and he began to go through it, showing me arrest reports and trial evidence and all kinds of papers I didn't understand.

It wasn't at all clear why he had chosen me for this task. He didn't seem to have any idea who I was or what kinds of books I wrote. After about five minutes of him talking and me nodding stupidly and probably explaining that I had no experience as a journalist, I think he decided I wasn't the right guy and he apologized and picked up his papers and left. I was too stunned to take notes, like I should have. And honestly I felt bad I couldn't help him. Or at least have the kind of investigative chops where I could find out if he was worth helping.

If he really was innocent, I hope he found a less dumbfounded guy -- maybe a lawyer instead of a writer -- to take up his cause.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Thu Nov 04 2010

What We're Reading: Garlic and Sapphires

What We're Reading is a monthly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).


Piano teacher
Lives in Lakeview

garlicandsapphires.jpgWhat are you reading?
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, and The Laments by George Hagen

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?
G&S is about [former New York Times food critic and former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine] Reichl's move to NYC (her birthplace) and how she deals with being a public figure in her new/old city.

What drew you to this book?
This book is a book-club read, chosen because it's about food. My friend who picked it out loves writing and food -- what better combination is there?

What kind of person would you recommend it to?
Someone who loves food, yes, but also anyone who loves a good story. This is by far the easiest to read of the three books I'm in the middle of right now. It's just so enjoyable and human.

Who's your favorite author right now?
Rosamunde Pilcher is my most recent "new favorite" author. (I love John Steinbeck and Nick Hornby perhaps for all-time.) A few months ago I read The Shell Seekers, which was about 600 pages, and I wished it were so much longer!

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?
My current favorite place to read is the L, as long as I can get a seat. Reading at home is a challenge because I always have a list of things I should be doing instead, but on the L all I have to do is read.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Mon Oct 25 2010

Answers and Questions: Scott Kenemore

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

With tomorrow's planned zombie attack, it's a good thing we have our own undead expert Scott Kenemore to help us out. Well...maybe.

One question I am asked at virtually every reading is: "What's your personal zombie survival plan?" I don't have a lot of faith that a full-scale outbreak would be survivable, so my plan is usually just to fight zombies as awesomely as I can. Currently, I think this would involve taking a box of homemade Molotov cocktails to the roof of my building in Logan Square, and throwing them down on the zombies below to creating a giant mass of flaming zombies.

Some fans want to understand zombies' mass appeal...

Another question I get frequently is: "Why are zombies suddenly so popular?" I reply that I think zombies are a reaction against vampires. Not all horror fans can relate to vampires, who tend to be well-dressed, need to be the center of attention, and seem fabulous at all times. A lot of horror fans prefer a monster who just gets things done without a lot of frou-frou. Zombies don't care how they look, or what people think about them. Zombies don't try to be suave or stylish. They just lumber in and eat your brain. Awesome.

...while others (possibly doing fan-fiction research) just want to know about zombies' sex appeal.

For whatever reason, when I do readings at horror conventions, I tend to get a lot of graphic questions about zombie reproduction. Like:

"Can a male zombie get an erection? What if it's an undead zombie with no heartbeat and blood-pressure?"

"Can a female zombie have a baby?"

"What would happen if a human had sex with a zombie? Would they make a half-human, half-zombie baby?"

These are not topics I write about in my books, so usually, my answers will depend on how many cocktails I have had before the reading.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Tue Oct 12 2010

One-Shots: Jeremy Tinder

Drawer and painter Jeremy Tinder has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 2008, educating students in the ways of art, comics, and those who make it. He's come a long way from his early days in rural Illinois, tracing Garfield: his submission to Papercutter, no. 8, 2008, "Pete At Night", was mentioned in The Best American Comics 2010, and will have a comic in Fantagraphics' Mome 20. Jeremy continues to make comics and participate regularly in gallery shows across the country. How he got to this point is, like his comics and paintings, a story that's unique and colorful, at times cartoonish, and often funny and sad.

Name: Jeremy Tinder
Job: Instructor SAIC, Evanston Art Center
Age: 31
Education: BFA, 2002 University of Iowa, MFA, 2007 School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Awards: Notable Comics, 2010 Best American Comics
Location: Chicago
Hometown: Carlinville, IL
Favorite place in Chicago: The bar at the Paramount Room, splitting a burger with my fiancée, or walking on frozen Lake Michigan in the winter.

Accurate self-portrait

Why did you choose to go to School of the Art Institute?
That's where I wanted to go to undergrad, but my parents wouldn't let me.

They wanted me to go to a liberal arts college -- I'm glad they did, I really loved University of Iowa.

Did you grow up reading comics?
I grew up reading newspaper strips, like Garfield. I think it was around age 5 when I really started getting into Garfield and tracing it out of the paper every day. Tracing the script. Before that I was really into Disney cartoons and Sesame Street. Garfield was my focus in life for six years, I was so into it. I didn't buy a real comic book til 6th grade: Ninja Turtles Adventures and an X-Men comic book. We were going on vacation, and my mom thought I should read something in the car, so she said pick out a couple things from Wal-Mart.

The Orator (painting, 2008)

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Rose Lannin / Comments (2)

Feature Mon Oct 11 2010

Answers and Questions: Daniel Kraus

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

Daniel Kraus, the author of 2009 novel The Monster Variations, makes realistic, cinéma vérité documentaries for his Work series, feature-length films that each follow one person doing his job -- his most recent, Professor, is about University of Iowa Jewish-studies professor Jay Holstein. But at times he veers into the realm of fantasy, like when answering this question from a fan:

"Would you rather be a vampire or a unicorn?"

I said unicorn, because I'm sick of vampires. But then I was informed that the correct answer was "vampicorn." I can't win.

Kraus's second book, Rotters -- a tale of adolescence and grave robbing -- comes out in April 2011.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Wed Oct 06 2010

What We're Reading: Gaudy Night

What We're Reading is a weekly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).


Retired teacher
Lives in Bucktown

gaudynight.jpgWhat are you reading?
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?
It is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, featuring his paramour, the free-thinking Harriet Vane. A rash of threatening poison pen letters and poltergeist incidents disrupt the tranquility of a women's college at Oxford just before WW II.

What drew you to this book?
Dorothy Sayers's mysteries have have had something of a cult following ever since the 1930s.

What kind of person would you recommend it to?
Anyone interested in a veddy British literary mystery.

Who's your favorite author right now?
Has to be Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists. Eagerly awaiting his second novel!

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?
My garden in the cool of the morning.

What's your favorite place to buy books in Chicago?
Myopic Books in Bucktown.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Wed Sep 29 2010

What We're Reading: The Lazarus Project

What We're Reading is a weekly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).


Adviser in a state government office
Lives in Wicker Park

thelazarusproject.jpgWhat are you reading?
The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon.

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?
A Bosnian in modern-day Chicago writes a book about Jewish pogrom survivor who was murdered by a Chicago police chief in 1909.

What drew you to this book?
Someone I barely know said, "You'd love this book," so I was curious. How could they possibly know what I'd like?

What kind of person would you recommend it to?
This is not a feel-good, popular novel. Read it if you're interested in history, dark humor, and good writing.

Who's your favorite author right now?
Hmmm. I haven't been reading enough to pick one. I just read a book by Rohinton Mistry that was excellent.

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?
Myopic Books on Milwaukee in Wicker Park (to read AND buy AND get $1 coffee until 1am)

Ruthie Kott

Feature Mon Sep 27 2010

Answers and Questions: Bayo Ojikutu

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

Bayo Ojikutu writes fiction that takes place on Chicago's South Side, where he and his two sisters were raised. His two novels, 47th Street Black (2003) and Free Burning (2006), examine the black experience in the city, exploring issues of poverty and violence in the communities. Here, Ojikutu recalls three questions from book readings that, upon recollection, gave him a "bout of the shivers" (understandably so):

1) "Given your success, what powerful person do you know who's looking out for you? Must be somebody."

2) "So why did you choose to read that here?"

3) "Do you intend to continue writing as a black male?" (posed at my very first reading, back in 2003)

Ojikutu, who teaches at DePaul, is currently working on his third novel, "after spending some time working within the short fiction realm," he says. In 2009 his short story "Yayi and Those Who Walk on Water: A Fable" earned a Special Mention designation from the national Pushcart Prize.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Wed Sep 22 2010

What We're Reading: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

What We're Reading is a weekly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).


Graduate student
Lives in Rogers Park

lecarre.jpgWhat are you reading?
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carré.

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?
Cold-war spy intrigue and mayhem.

What drew you to this book?
A bunch of friends had recommended it, and finally someone gave it to me as a present.

What kind of person would you recommend it to?
Anyone interested in badass spy stuff, cold-war history, or Berlin.

Who's your favorite author right now?
Herman Melville or J. M. Coetzee maybe, but that's a hard one.

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?
Loyola Beach in the summertime.

What's your favorite place to buy books?
Seminary Co-op.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Fri Sep 17 2010

One-Shots: Gordon McAlpin

Around this time last year, I talked with Gordon McAlpin about plans to turn his online comic, Multiplex, "a comic strip about life at a movie theater", into a book. Working with Kickstarter to raise the funds, the project was a success: Multiplex: Enjoy Your Show (Book 1) debuts this Saturday at Third Coast Comics. It is also available for pre-order through the site.

The book collects the first 102 strips from the archives (July 2005 - November 2006), and features over 30 bonus comics, as well as an exclusive prequel story. Getting to the point of physical pages was a process. Gordon reflected on his experience with Kickstarter, self-publishing, and his plans for Multiplex's future.

Name: Gordon McAlpin
Job: Freelance cartoonist, print production artist, retoucher, writer, whatever
Age: 35
Education: BA in English (Writing), BS in Art (Drawing and Graphic Design)
Location : Roscoe Village
Hometown: Peoria, IL
Favorite place in Chicago: Third Coast Comics


What do you feel you've learned about book publishing through doing this? What have you taken away from Book 1?

I've learned that publishing books is expensive as hell. As prepared as I thought I was going into the whole situation, printing the actual books is the largest single expense of publishing -- it's all the little shit that adds up to another three, four, five thousand dollars, that really starts to eat away at your dubious lifestyle. It was tough -- it also takes me longer to work on the comic than I thought, because I had set aside about two months to finish up the new material that I was going to do for the book, and it ended up taking me about four months.


Continue reading this entry »

Rose Lannin

Feature Wed Sep 15 2010

What We're Reading: Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

What We're Reading is a weekly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).


Unpaid maid, cook, personal assistant
Lives in Hinsdale

manhuntswanson.jpgWhat are you reading?
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, by [Chicago native] James Swanson.

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?
Covers in great detail the two weeks from Lincoln's murder to the capture of his assassin.

What drew you to this book?
My brother recommended it. I enjoy history.

What kind of person would you recommend it to?
Most everyone -- it's a very good book and would appeal to anyone who has even a passing interest in Lincoln.

Who's your favorite author right now?
Carson McCullers.

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?
I only read in bed or on a plane, and I only buy books online.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Fri Sep 03 2010

One-Shots: Joshua Emmons

Joshua Emmons' Twitter biography breaks down his work pretty succinctly. The "Writer of comics. And iPhone apps. And comics about iPhone apps." has recently added "Writer of iPad apps" to that description. Currently developing a comic reading platform for the iPad called Sequential (you can see it in action here), he's also working on a editing layout tool called Bamf!

The inspiration for this didn't come out of nowhere: he's also the author of (among other titles), the online comic VERVM CORPVS, a Young Adult adventure story full of princesses, monsters, and Katie Cook's simple, appealing illustrations. We talked about comics, technology, and how he's working to help them further intersect.

Name: Joshua Emmons
Job: scriptwriter and technological idealist
Age: 32
Education: BA in Liberal Arts from St. John's College in Annapolis
Awards: NONE!
Location: Ukrainian Village
Hometown: Coshocton, OH
Favorite place in Chicago: The Violet Hour

Portrait by Mike Norton

Your focus seems to be comics and technology, and combining the two. So I'll ask those questions together: how did you get into making comics? How did you get into working with technology?

I guess I got into both of them at about the same time, actually. I'm from a very small town in Ohio, called Coshocton, population maybe 12,000, and there was not a lot of -- the school system there was very adequate. Very to code, there weren't a lot of elective classes or anything like that.

No computer classes.

They had like a computer program, but it was all teaching typing, for people who were becoming secretaries. And I happened to get a job just as an intern at a company -- a smaller company that sold and fixed computers.

When did you get that job?

I think I started as an intern when I was 14 or something. Worked there for free after school for a few years, then when I turned 16 they actually hired me for real, and I got a paycheck and stuff like that. And that's when I taught myself - they had a lot of books lying around, they had a lot of extra hardware...I could sit and read and learn about programming, and teach myself that.

The comics thing happened -- actually, it was a video game, it was this four-player X-Men game. I had never heard of the X-Men except from like the old Spiderman cartoons. I spent all my quarters getting through this stupid game, and I still didn't know anything about them. And so I was like, I think these guys are comics, so I'm going to have to check them out. And I went to my local 7-11 or whatever it was, and sure enough they had just started not that long republishing the old X-Men stuff as classic X-Men. So then I started collecting those, and I was hooked on that.

Then I abandoned both of those for college. I went to St. John's in Annapolis, which is really a Luddite school.


Continue reading this entry »

Rose Lannin

Feature Wed Sep 01 2010

What We're Reading: Life on the Mississippi

What We're Reading is a weekly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).


Retired investment banker
Lives in Evanston

lifeonthemississippi.jpgWhat are you reading?
Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?
Coming-of-age novel about Twain's penchant for the river and its characters.

What drew you to this book?
I've read Twain since my boyhood years and decided to revisit this classic.

What kind of person would you recommend it to?
It is suitable and highly recommended for anyone of either sex and at any age!

Who's your favorite author right now?
Mark Twain, since that's who I'm reading. However, that changes with each new book that I read.

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?
I have just purchased a Kindle electronic reader, and I think it's the best thing since sliced bread. I read whenever and wherever I want and can obtain a new book in about 30 seconds. Other than that, at home in my favorite leather reading chair with a good light.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Wed Aug 25 2010

What We're Reading: Tor! The Story of German Football

What We're Reading is a weekly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).


Lives in Hyde Park

tor1.jpgWhat are you reading?
Tor! The Story of German Football, by Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?
How soccer got its many different starts in Germany and what's so great about it now.

What drew you to this book?
I picked it up because my dad recommended it, but I'm still reading because sports don't mean this much or have such an crazy history in America. The Cubs never had to finagle their team back into existence against uninterested, occupying governments.

What kind of person would you recommend it to?
Someone with a serious World Cup hangover.

Who's your favorite author right now?
Er, um, does Hamilton Nolan count? I'm ashamed to say I never miss his recessionomics column, The Way We Live Now.

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?
It's actually a lot of fun to read on the river walk, despite the noise and smells and lots of people.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Mon Aug 23 2010

Answers and Questions: Deb Olin Unferth

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

Chicago-born Deb Olin Unferth, author of many short stories and the 2008 novel Vacation, may have said in the past that "fiction is everything that life is not," but I honestly wonder if this had happened to her yet:

Once a fist fight nearly broke out while I was reading. A man in the audience -- the writer Clancy Martin, in fact -- started heckling me, shouting at me while I was reading. Another man got to his feet and yelled across the room, defending me. Then, a third man -- a graduate student -- jumped up, and I believe he pushed the second man, although I couldn't see what was happening very well. Then a bunch of people got up, moving their chairs and making noise. People were shouting and men were pushing their chests at each other, but no actual punches got thrown. I went on reading through the whole thing. Eventually everyone sat back down. Clancy is my good friend now.

Sounds like the makings of an absurdist short story to me.

Unferth, who now teaches at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, publishes her next book, a memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, in February 2011.

Ruthie Kott / Comments (2)

Feature Fri Aug 20 2010

One-Shots: Grant Reynolds

Grant Reynolds' often weird, often wonderful illustrations have graced minicomics, zines, and album covers for the last decade. Recently, he has begun moving into longer works -- last year he released of Comic Diorama, praised by The Comics Journal as "a haunting and beautifully designed little book that dwelled on sacrifice, dead ends and abjection." We talked how he got here, where he's maybe going, and how life experiences have played into the people, monsters, and machines that populate his panels.

Name: Grant Reynolds
Job: Sign maker at Whole Foods, drawing chalkboards and stuff. Probably the first job I really, really like.
Age: Well, I'll be 31 in September, so I'll just go with that.
Education: BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Awards: I won a Nerdlinger at last year's SPX. It's basically a beer bottle with a fancy awards label scotch taped over it: Best Depiction of Space / Sea Creature Genitalia. I'm rather proud of that one.
Location : Logan Square, although I think I'm gonna move soon. It's becoming kind of a party hub, and I'm mellowing out as I enter gracefully into old age.
Hometown: Peoria, IL
Favorite place in Chicago: Last summer there was this vacant lot with overgrown grass and these two big exposed pieces of pipe that were probably four or five feet thick and about ten feet long. They were lying right next to each other on their sides, so I could sit on one and put my feet up on the other, and read or draw for a couple of hours. I found it by chance walking around my neighborhood and it kind of became my clubhouse. It was quiet and nobody ever bothered me. That's rare in the city. Then I went by there the other day and now it's like, condos.

Self-portrait (Grant on left, with Nate Beaty)

Whole Foods Event Calendar

The question I have to ask: how did you get into reading and drawing comics?
My dad would read the daily newspaper cover to cover every day. Since I grew up with just him for most of my childhood, I think this was really the earliest, and for a long time, the only introduction I had to comics. But I was completely obsessed. I would clip out The Far Side every day and tape it into a lined notebook. And -- I actually just remembered this, I haven't thought about it in probably twenty years -- when I was in a third grade or so my dad bought me this series of comics based on classic literature called Pocket Classics. There were about 60 of them and they were just beautiful. I was definitely making comics around that time, too, but mostly using preexisting characters like Garfield or Ren and Stimpy -- which was another huge influence that sort of blew my mind wide open.

After Ren and Stimpy it was like anything goes, the grosser and weirder the better. In high school I got really into H.R. Giger. He didn't do comics, of course, but his work was very dark and very sexual, and suddenly my sketchbooks started filling up with these erotic drawings of human-machine hybrids. It wasn't until a little later though, maybe in college, that I started really paying attention to indie comics. That was about the time that I was really into the different groups of artists clustered under The Chicago Imagist umbrella, and Fort Thunder, and people like Louis Wain.

Shitbeams on the Loose anthology #2

Continue reading this entry »

Rose Lannin

Feature Wed Aug 18 2010

What We're Reading: The Assistant

What We're Reading is a weekly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).

Jared (aka Billie Badass, aka Junkytrunks)

29 (aka 87, aka 71)
User-experience researcher
Lives in Logan Square

assistant.jpgWhat are you reading?
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?
A man robs an older man's shop, feels pretty bad about it, falls for his daughter, and saves people.

What drew you to this book?
I read The Fixer by the same author, which I liked more than this one.

What kind of person would you recommend it to?
People who are into redemption and stalker-ish love and devotion. I'm not really feeling any of those at the moment, but some people might be into them.

Who's your favorite author right now?
Borges, always and forever.

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?
Anywhere with hipsters. Those kids are easily impressed.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Wed Aug 11 2010

What We're Reading: Cartoon History of the Universe, Part 2

What We're Reading is a weekly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).

Jonathan, 26, options trader

Lives in River North

What are you reading?cartoonhistory2.jpg

Cartoon History of the Universe, Part 2 by Larry Gonick

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?

An integrated history of the world in cartoons -- this volume includes ancient China, India and Rome.

What drew you to this book?

I have been reading a lot of history lately, and I read about this online somewhere.

What kind of person would you recommend it to?

Anyone interested in world history -- particularly a kid. I wish I had read a book like this when I was younger.

Who's your favorite author right now?

Roberto Bolaño

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?

Argo Tea.

And Jonathan wants to add...

I have trouble sticking to one task so I am halfway through about five books right now. The others are The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brandon, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton (free on the iPad), The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (long-term project that I read on my phone's Kindle app).

Ruthie Kott

Feature Mon Aug 09 2010

Answers and Questions: Adam Selzer

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

OK. OK. Breathe. The draft of prolific writer Adam Selzer's new book (which he's just handed off to his editor/agent), called Purple Wish (aka "Fairy Godmofo"), not only includes characters from his 2008 book I Put a Spell on You as older teenagers and is set in the same world as his 2010 book I Kissed a Zombie, And I Liked It, but it is a musical. Using songs from only my favorite musical of ALL TIME, The Music Man. I had a crush on Robert Preston when I was about ten years old. Gross in retrospect, because he looked old even then.

Anyway, because 30-year-old Selzer has published six YA books, he does a lot of readings for kids:

I don't know if there's a conspiracy afoot or what, but I seem to get asked about breakfast cereal a LOT. More than once, when I talk to a group of kids, the first question I get has been something to do with Cheerios. Luckily, I have strong opinions about cereal (I'm for it), so it's usually a great ice breaker.

Maybe when the Wells Fargo Wagon a-comes down the street next, it'll bring some thereal for Thelzer.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Thu Aug 05 2010

One-Shots: Gene Ha

Korean by birth, Midwest by association, Chicagoan by choice, Gene Ha is a master of lines and detail, expressed through regular work for both DC and Marvel, and various side projects. Best- known for his work on the Eisner-winning Top 10 and Top 10: The Forty-Niners, his path into comics been a long, beautifully illustrated, and meticulous road.

Name: Gene Ha
Job: Freelance comic book artist. Pencils, inks, and colors.
Age: Turning 41 in mid-August.
Education: BFA, specialty Illustration, from the College for Creative Studies, Detroit, 1992.
Awards: Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award, 3 Eisners
Location: Berwyn, IL
Hometown: Born in Chicago, but raised in South Bend, IN
Website:, but I'm more active on Facebook.
Favorite place in Chicago: Uncommon Ground vs The Music Box. Depends on how hungry I am.


How old were you when you started drawing?
My older brother and my younger both drew, so we've been drawing ever since we were little kids, so as long as I can remember. Every time I got a ditto sheet that wasn't double-sided in school, I'd draw on the back of it.

Were your parents artistic?
My dad's actually decent at drawing, but he never actually pushed it or studied it, so not really. My mom's really crafty, she'll pick up a craft and then get bored with it when she masters it.

Are you like that with drawing? Is it possible to master it?
The reason I became the guy who does the detailed drawings in my family was because I wasn't as good at sports as my other brothers, and I was the only one who lacked enough of a life, so I'd just sit at the same drawing for eight hours.

Page from The 49ers

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Rose Lannin

Feature Wed Aug 04 2010

What We're Reading: The Clothes on Their Backs

What We're Reading is a new weekly column that asks Chicagoans about the books they're currently enjoying (or not).

Stephanie, 26, Affordable housing developer

Lives in Little Village

What are you reading?img_book_lindagran_1372785a.jpg

The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

What's it about (in 20 words or less)?

In 1970s London, the only daughter of Hungarian war refugees seeks identity in her family's unknown past.

What drew you to this book?

I was stuck in a used bookstore on a rainy day in South Florida, and the cover said it was nominated for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Plus, it was only a few dollars. :)

What kind of person would you recommend it to?

Younger women would probably be most interested in this book. People particularly interested in immigrant experiences would also enjoy the subject. She tells her life story through the clothes she wore at certain times and how they made her feel and how they related to social and political events at the time. It's deeper than it sounds, but probably not of interest to too many men.

Who's your favorite author right now?

I haven't been reading more than one book by a particular author, but I definitely jumped on the Kathryn Stockett/The Help bandwagon, and I hope she comes out with another novel soon.

What's your favorite place to read in Chicago or its environs?

My favorite place to read is in bed. I'm so easily distracted that I can't read anywhere interesting like a coffee shop or the beach.

And Stephanie wants to add...

I wrote specifically about the book I just finished, but other recent reads I recommend are The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks, Strength in What Remains, and The House at Sugar Beach. And I DO NOT recommend Burmese Lessons. Waste of time.

Ruthie Kott

Bookmarks Fri Jul 30 2010


Bookmarks is a new Friday feature recapping Book Club highlights from the week, and will often contain new content we couldn't fit into our regular rotation. As always, if you have any tips or suggestions, please send them to bookclub [at] gapersblock [dot] com. Thanks!

Rose Lannin

Feature Mon Jul 26 2010

Answers and Questions: Gina Frangello

Answers and Questions is a biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

The cover of Gina Frangello's most recent book, Slut Lullabies, definitely flashes some nip, so you might think she wouldn't be embarrassed by much. But at a reading in the '90s, after she read a story called "Scar" about a young woman who cut herself, she was shocked into near-silence by a fan's question:

A girl in the audience raised her hand and asked me if I was a cutter. There were about 100 people in the audience -- including my mother! -- so even if I had been reading nonfiction instead of fiction, this would not have been a great forum for a question of that nature.

I think I just said, "Uh, it's fiction," and moved on.

It was, though, a great intro to how weird readings can sometimes be. From then on I was always prepared for anything.

But Gina does admit in an interview with the Nervous Breakdown (for which she edits the fiction section) that Slut Lullabies is "much more autobiographical" than her previous book, 2006 novel My Sister's Continent: "[T]here were several people I had to pretty much sit down and have a talk with about particular stories in my book that were, let's say inspired by them."

Now, that knowledge could spark some fun questions for future "Answers and Questions" columns. Just sayin'.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Wed Jul 21 2010

One-Shots: Aaron Renier

A recent resident of Chicago, Aaron Renier returns to the Midwest with The Unsinkable Walker Bean, available in late August from Quimby's and better bookstores everywhere. A seafaring adventure tale full of pirate ships and boy and girl heroes, drawn in a rich and beautiful palette, it's a slight departure from the mystery-solving animals of Spiral-Bound. Aaron talked about drawing people, drawing animals, and how his own migratory patterns continue to affect his comics career.

Name: Aaron Renier
Job: Cartoonist/Illustrator/Teacher
Age: 32
Education: BFA in Illustration, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD)
Awards: Eisner Comic Industry Award for Talent Deserving Wider Recognition (Spiral-Bound), and a nomination for best Children's Album in 2005
Location: Humboldt Park
Hometown: Green Bay, WI
Favorite place in Chicago: The amazing non-profit writing and tutoring center 826chi. I've been volunteering there as much as I could since I moved to Chicago in 2008. The staff is beyond awesome and inspirational, the students know this, and it comes out in their work. This place is hands down the highlight of my time here.


You mostly create children's comics, right?

Yeah -- once in awhile I'll do anthology pieces, and those will be whatever the anthology is about, but that's my interest, is doing work for children.

Why do you focus on that?

It would be more of an effort for me to do something that was not for children...there's not much of me that goes through a process that's like this part of me is going to be for children. As I start writing and I start making stuff up, it just tends to have that meaning. When I started being into certain comics was in middle school, and there's something about what I was interested in then that has always been embedded in me. Whatever fascination I tried to feed, that's what I find interesting about comics and want to do.


Continue reading this entry »

Rose Lannin

Feature Tue Jul 06 2010

One-Shots: Dan Carroll

Dan Carroll writes (well, adapts) and illustrates the webcomic Stick Figure Hamlet, also available in book form. He was able to take a break from circles and lines, and talk about why his vision of "the greatest work of literature in human history... with pictures" helps teach Shakespeare's works, and potentially classic literature as a whole.

Name: Dan Carroll
Job: Managing Editor
Age: 32
Education: An unsurprising BA in English from Skidmore College
Location: Avondale
Hometown: Providence, RI
Favorite place in Chicago: Kuma's, when you can get in.


Most importantly, what's your favorite burger at Kuma's?

Metallica, medium.

Okay, now we can move on. Did you grow up wanting to make your own comic?

Depends on what age you're talking about, I really didn't start reading comics until I was about 12.

How come?

I would occasionally pick one up at friend's house, but wasn't passionate about them until I got the flu or something when I was 12. On the way back from work, my mom stopped off and picked me up a comic book for a treat. It was an issue of Fantastic Four that I found out, years later, was by Walt Simonson. I didn't know who drew it at the time but knew that it was amazing. And so I started a lifelong love right there. By 13, I wanted to draw them.


Continue reading this entry »

Rose Lannin

Feature Thu Jul 01 2010

Answers and Questions: Marcus Sakey

In keeping with the big-hair theme, writer of thrillers Marcus Sakey (and a member of Chicago crime-writing collective the Outfit) reports that his curly mop is often a topic of discussion at readings:

I'm frequently asked if I've seen Starsky & Hutch. (It's my afro.)

But overall, he's relatively diplomatic when it comes to his fans:

Most audiences are great. They hit some of the same topics, but it's all stuff I'm delighted to talk about.

Though there was one guy at a signing in Ohio who came up at the end and asked if I wanted to go to a strip club -- apparently they had wonderful chicken wings.

I declined.

Sakey, who's just about to complete his "Book the Fifth," was ranked at number 16 on Newcity's 2010 Lit 50 list, who advised: "Consider him a young Chicago Elmore Leonard."

Ruthie Kott

Feature Mon Jun 21 2010

Answers and Questions: Dan Epstein


Even though Chicago-bred journalist Dan Epstein does have a pretty sweet 'fro, his new book Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s is not a memoir. Instead, it's an homage to a decade in baseball known more for its crazy characters than the stats it produced. It's also a decade that Epstein experienced personally -- even if his readers don't believe it:

The weirdest thing anyone's asked me (and I've gotten several variations on this) is, "Were you even ALIVE in the '70s? You look like you're about 30." I'm 44, so obviously I took that as a compliment, but I also thought it was a little bizarre -- it implied that I wouldn't have been totally qualified to write a book on baseball in the 1970s if I hadn't actually "been there." I'm pretty sure Edward Gibbon didn't personally experience the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but he still managed to cobble together a decent book on the subject!

Celebrate the book's publication with Epstein this Thursday, June 24, 8:30pm to 2am, at the Liar's Club, 1665 W. Fullerton Ave, where you are encouraged to bring "a crappy late-'70s rock LP with you to be destroyed" and dress in '70s duds. A "more sedate" gathering will be held on Friday, June 25, 7pm at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave.

Ruthie Kott / Comments (1)

Feature Wed Jun 16 2010

One-Shots: Mike Norton

Characterized by his clean lines and dynamic style, Mike Norton has an admirable sense of discipline, a surprising love of pugs, and is really, really tall. Currently the artist behind Billy Batson & the Magic Of Shazam!, he has has worked with Marvel and DC Comics for the past 17 years and recently put out a sketchbook of his work, Ruled!. In the last year, he has begun exploring the world of self-publishing.

Name: Mike Norton
Job: Comic Book Artist
Age: 37
Education: Can't remember...I think maybe an Addy somewhere? Bowling trophy once.
Location: Logan Square
Hometown: Jackson, TN
Favorite place in Chicago: My apartment. Or Challengers Comics.

How did you get into drawing comics? Professionally, and I guess pre-professionally?

Non-professionally, which obviously came was how I learned to relate to the outside world. I learned to read from comic books.


Continue reading this entry »

Rose Lannin / Comments (2)

Feature Mon Jun 07 2010

Answers and Questions: Claire Zulkey

Humorist Claire Zulkey -- author of 2009 YA book An Off Year -- hasn't gotten too many bizarre in-person questions from readers, but, for some reason, she gets "occasional emails from people asking [her] to help do their homework for them."

In 2002 after children's author Bill Peet died I wrote a little online personal essay memorializing him. Just a few weeks ago I received the following email: "My daughter is doing a report on Bill Peet and we came across your article with your email address. I was wondering if you could answer a few questions she had. First, where did he die and how? Second, his brother's name was O.H. Do you know what that stands for? Third, what was his mother's name? I hope you can help. She is really interested and her teacher suggested that they have this in her report."

Most often I don't know the answer to these questions, but even if I did, I am too mean to help (although I plead ignorance). When I was young, I had to do my work the hard way, by going to this crazy place called the library or looking it up in the encyclopedia, which is sort of like an ancestor to Wikipedia.

(Zulkey may not be an encyclopedia, but I'm definitely using her rankings of World Cup uniform cuteness to help me decide which teams to put money on.)

Ruthie Kott

Feature Wed Jun 02 2010

One-Shots: Eric Thornton

Longtime manager of Chicago Comics Eric Thornton has seen his share of sequential art trends, changing demographics, and many, many comics. Talking through issues of publishing and demographics revealed something of the institution's lasting appeal: carry a wide selection, carry a lot of it, and have something for everyone.

Name: Eric Thornton
Job: Chief Executive Operating Officer of Chicago Comics, coming up on 14 years.
Age: 37
Education: Southwest Missouri State, which no longer exists.
Location: Humboldt Park
Hometown: Jefferson City, MO
Favorite place in Chicago: The lakefront.

Did you grow up wanting to run a comic book store?


What was your first comic book store?

Horrible store. It was called Prince Mark's Comics, in Jefferson City, Missouri. Most of the year it was flooded, so parts of it were usually underwater. The guy who ran it, total Android's Dungeon dude. But if I organized comics for him, he'd let me take whatever I want. I'm 12 or 13, and I'd be like "I'm taking all this porn home." and he'd be like "Gooooo ahead."

Eric in his earliest comic reading days

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Feature Mon May 24 2010

Answers and Questions: Stephen Markley

Perhaps because RedEye columnist Stephen Markley wrote the 2010 memoir Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book, maybe, just maybe, he has connections in the literary biz:

"I sometimes get questions [at readings] that are thinly veiled attempts to let people talk about the book they are working on, and can I help them publish it?"

Or connections in, well, any kind of biz:

"Once, in a classroom, a guy talked for about ten minutes about his Brazilian-style hip-hop band with the eventual question being effectively 'Can you help my Brazilian-style hip-hop band land a record contract?' The short answer, obviously, is no -- that's probably the thing I'm least qualified for in this universe -- but I tried to let him down gently, which he did not understand. Long story short, I have an outstanding promise to help a Brazilian-style hip-hop band get a record contract if I ever do meet anyone in the recording industry."

Markley may have had to let down his readers gently in these scenarios, but his book is full of juicy rejection stories of his own. "You name the kind of getting-said-no-to and I've done it," he writes in today's "Off the Markley" column, announcing the Publish This Book Rejection Contest: "Send your tales of no more than 400 words to by June 3. Then on June 7, I'll post the five best entries hand-picked by a panel of experts (me, Magic 8 Ball, my roommate Elliott) on my blog."

Maybe he can help his readers get published after all.

Ruthie Kott

Feature Fri May 21 2010

Go Planet!

Alexandra Gnoske is a 21st-century Captain Planet. Her 2010 children's book, Loui Saves the Earth, essentially screams, "You have the power!" inspiring kids to take responsibility for their environment. She also gives them a voice through her blog, Be A Superhero for Planet Earth -- and is always looking for more stories in kids' words.


The mother of three, who grew up in Andersonville, is also founder of green clothing company Recycle Me, which sells organic-cotton T-shirts with catchy slogans like "eco dude" and "EAT ME! I'M ORGANIC," printed in water-based inks. Here she talks about her book and why it's important for kids to care about the environment.

When did you take on environmentalism as a cause?

I've always liked wildlife, and I decided in seventh grade I would get a PhD in wildlife biology and study animals in Africa like Jane Goodall. But actually taking on environmentalism as a cause probably began when I was 15, and I boycotted a certain fast-food restaurant for its use of Styrofoam and buying beef from cattle ranchers in the Amazon. From then on it wasn't just about wanting to study wildlife, but about conservation and protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat.

What made you decide to write Loui Saves the Earth?

I needed an outlet during college finals when I was studying wildlife at Colorado State University. I decided to make a story for my then two-year-old nephew, Louie Salas. He liked animals, like most kids, so that was my starting point. It just flowed from there.

What medium did you use to illustrate the book?

I used colored pencils and my sketch book. It's what I had at hand, and I wasn't thinking about publishing at the time. But when I updated it [in December 2009, 19 years later], I just couldn't imagine it any other way.

What kinds of things do you teach your own kids?

To have respect for themselves, others, and nature. I'm a big recycler, so my kids bring everything home from lunch so we can recycle or reuse it. My kids also know a lot of the local birds because I bird-watch. We spend as much time outdoors as we can, and I garden, so I talk to them about the things I do as I do them. We grow strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, green beans. A lot of life's questions get answered in the garden.

What, in your opinion, is the most important thing kids should know about caring for the environment?

That they can make a difference. Even the smallest action matters. And kids matter too. I like to remind my kids that, when they turn off the light when they leave the room, they are being a Superhero for Planet Earth.

What are you working on now?

I have at least two more books in minds for my Loui and Dusty characters. I will probably start working on them this summer.

Do you think you'd write a book for adults about environmental issues one day?

Yes. For the past year I've been thinking about it. I think most people have no idea about the impact their clothing has on the environment and their personal health. Many books have been written about the economic and trade side of clothing, but not the environmental side. I'd like to write about that. But I still have a lot of research to do.

Loui Saves the Earth is available on Amazon. Says Gnoske, "And if you can't find it at your local bookstore, request it!"

Ruthie Kott / Comments (1)

Feature Wed May 19 2010

One-Shots: Sarah Becan

Sarah Becan's comics are small and intimate, but manage to convey worlds of feeling and meaning within their loosely drawn figures and sometimes shifting panel borders. The author and illustrator behind the Shuteye series and the The Complete Ouija Interviews, she is also a founder of Shortpants Press, a small, independent press dedicated to comics, zines, and prints. Recently, she has begun chronicling her journey towards healthier living with the online comic Sauceome: in addition to being touching and funny, it makes me want to drink good beer and drink it in moderation. That's pretty impressive.

Name: Sarah Becan
Job: Creative Director/Designer/Illustrator by day, Comics Artist and Accordionist by night
Age: 34
Education: Beloit College (BA in Studio Art and Modern Languages)
Awards: Xeric Foundation Grant, Stumptown Trophy Award -- Outstanding Debut
Location: Logan Square/Avondale
Hometown: Er, none? I was born in Beaumont, Texas, but we moved around so much that I don't really have any hometown connection anywhere. I've lived in Orange, TX; Wilmington, DE; Plano, TX; St. Louis, MO; and Beloit, WI. My parents are in San Antonio, but I never lived there. Of all of these places, Chicago is my favorite. Can it be my hometown?
Favorite place in Chicago: Hm. That is tough. As it's just starting to warm up, I will go with the patio at the Logan Square Small Bar on a Sunday afternoon, as long as everyone reading this doesn't head over there right now, that patio is small and gets crowded pretty fast.


Did you start writing and making comics in Chicago, or was that kind of a long-term thing?

I was always doing it just for myself -- my mother pointed out one time that my first published piece was when I was nine years old, in Cricket magazine. It was very Calvin and Hobbes inspired.

Even in high school and college, when I knew I wanted to do cartooning, I didn't do much beyond political cartoons for the newspaper and stuff for art classes. It wasn't until I moved here -- it was the first Ouija Interview comic...that was what made me want to do it in earnest, to go to comic book conventions and comic book stores and distribute the book.

The Ouija Interviews

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Feature Mon May 10 2010

Answers and Questions: Billy Lombardo

Answers and Questions is a new biweekly column that asks Chicago writers to remember the funniest or strangest things they've been asked in a question-and-answer session, during a talk, or in an interview.

Billy Lombardo

Author of Chicago Tribune Best Fiction of 2005 selection The Logic of a Rose: Chicago Stories Billy Lombardo recalls a question that he didn't quite know how to answer:

The one that comes to mind often -- every time someone buys a book from me, in fact -- is something a woman said after buying a book from me at the Green Mill. She paid for the book, tucked it under her arm, and stood there silently and awkwardly while looking at me.

I asked her if she'd like me to sign it for her, and she paused and gathered the muscles of her face in at her nose and tucked the book deeper under her arm and said, "Why don't we wait on that."

I told her that I didn't know what that meant.

Now nearing the end of a radio tour for his most recent book, The Man with Two Arms, a novel about a baseball-obsessed father who realizes early that his son is ambidextrous, Lombardo traveled via radio waves to Cincinnati, OH; Charleston, WV; and Billings, MT, among other cities. He also shares a question from a (probably very busy) Colorado morning-radio host:

"I called into a studio to talk on air with some host in Colorado, and he said, 'OK, what are we talking about with you today?'"

In case you're wondering, the interview wasn't bad, says Lombardo. "When radio guys approach it with that kind of wing-it swaggery, they can usually wing it pretty good."

Here's a link to an April 29 interview on Sarasota, FL, radio station WSLR-FM. Lombardo's tour concludes with a 15-minute interview on May 17, 10:05am, on WJBC-AM (Bloomington, IL).

Ruthie Kott / Comments (2)

Events Fri May 07 2010

Ladydrawers @ Hungry Brain

Head to Hungry Brain (2319 W Belmont Ave) on Monday to hear Anne Elizabeth Moore, author of Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (The New Press, 2007), and Hey Kidz, Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People talk about "the Thrilling World of Female Cartoonists and the Underthings They Are Expected to Draw". 9pm. Free with suggested donation.

Rose Lannin

Feature Tue May 04 2010

One-Shots: Michael Moreci

Editor by day, epic zombie storyteller by night, Chicago native Michael Moreci is set to release his debut graphic novel Quarantined through Insomnia Publications (also available through Amazon and some comic book stores) in Fall 2010. Using the zombie medium, Quarantined is a distinctly American tale of paranoia and political allegory, told through mindless creatures gone awry.

Name: Michael Moreci
Job: Writer/Editor
Age: 29
Education: UIC (BA in Creative Writing), Northwestern University (MA in Creative Writing)
Awards: Nominated for 2010 Spinetingler (Best Short Story on the Web)
Location: Lincoln Square
Hometown: Clearing, Chicago
Favorite place in Chicago: The Green Mill. No other location captures the character of Chicago's criminal and freewheeling history quite the way Green Mill does, in addition to having great music and fantastic architecture/design.

Self-portrait (art by Andrew Scordellis)

How did you get into making comics?

I always liked comics growing up, and through grade school and high school I was writing and illustrating my own stuff. I had a strip that I did that my friend and I sold at school. I don't remember what it was called, but it was about a boy and his pet dinosaur. They were just like two panel shorts: the boy would throw a stick, and the dinosaur would come back with a tree.

You started to get into comics again after college?

Yeah. What really brought me back into it was Y: The Last Man, Preacher, 100 Bullets. Lots of Vertigo, moving off the path of superhero stuff.

But all throughout this I had the idea for Quarantined, and wanted to do it, but kept putting it off. But as soon as I finished my thesis, I was like I want to do this now. I started publishing in UK presses doing shorts, I kind wanted to cut my teeth before I put a full book out, learn the industry a little bit.

Let's talk about your graphic novel, Quarantined. It's got zombies, but what's it about?

It's been described as a zombie book, but it's more of a political book with zombies in it. Basically, there's a town in the Upper Peninsula area of Michigan, and there's an outbreak -- a biological outbreak in the water -- and it turns people who drink it into zombies, essentially 28 Days Later types. The military shuts down the borders and there are people still trapped inside who are survivors, who hadn't drank the water for whatever reason. It's more political and less zombie, even though I love the zombie genre -- I don't mean to pay any disrespect to that. I'd say it's more like DMZ than Walking Dead.

Part of the thinking behind it was the idea of political dichotomy -- we're trapped in this whole red state blue state country, the separation of people and the problems we're facing. I think if something really horrible were to happen, this unexpected catastrophe, would people be able to band together to overcome? I thought about that and I really don't know. Even issues of culture, race, gender, sexual orientation -- there's so much strife and animosity between people. It's kind of like what Quarantined's getting at with the characters. If they can band together and go above their own paranoia, their distress, and come together in a sense of community and deal with these things. It's also about survivalism, the basis of most zombie genre stories. But I try not to be too heavy-handed with that.

Quarantined cover (art by Keith Burns)

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Rose Lannin / Comments (1)

Feature Tue Apr 20 2010

One-Shots: Lucy Knisley

Lucy Knisley published her first book in 2008 -- French Milk, an illustrated journal detailing a trip to Paris with her mother. Lucky for Chicago, the School of the Art Institute graduate's interests and inkings also lean local. She continues to chronicle her experiences in autobiographical, often food-centric comics, and is currently working on Relish, a graphic novel about growing up in a family of foodies.

Name: Lucy Knisley
Job: Cartoonist, Teacher
Age: 25
Education: Art Institute of Chicago (BFA), Center for Cartoon Studies (MFA)
Awards: ICPA award for Excellence in Illinois College Newspapers (for exceptional cartoon or comic strip), finalist in the Scripps Howard Foundation's Charles M. Schulz College Cartoonist Award
Location: Logan Square
Hometown: Originally from Manhattan, but my parents split up when I was 7. My mom moved about two hours north to a little town called Rhinebeck, which is where I spent most of my childhood.
Favorite place in Chicago: Wicker Park, five years ago. Maybe Fox and Obel.


You grew up reading comics?

Yeah, I did. I sort of got really into them when my parents split up. My dad is a writer and literary professor guy, and my mom is more of an artist and visual person. I think comics became this sort of melding of my mother and father's influence on me -- which was interesting, because they both hated comics, they thought that they were really stu- well, they didn't hate them, they bought them for me and let me read them and stuff. My mom thought Archie comics, which were my favorite, were really sexist and demeaning. My dad thought they weren't literary and scholarly enough, so I had to kind of read them and defend them and look at them critically, so I could convince my parents to buy them for me. So it was like Archie comics, and Calvin & Hobbes, and TinTin, and Astrix and Obelix. But yeah, I would read anything -- I was one of those kids who would pick up the New Yorker and read it if it was there. I babysat for a lot of New Yorker cartoonists that moved upstate.

Brain Waves on Paper

Nice. When did you decide you wanted to make comics for a living?

I sort of toyed with the idea when I was a kid, but I always thought that I'd have to choose between being an artist and being a writer. I really wanted to do both...I ended up at this high school where I had a really, really awesome art teacher, who took me under his wing, and got me into art school and stuff like that. At that point, the decision was kind of made for me, that I would be an artist.

But when I got to art school...I started making comics as a way to communicate with these people I felt unable to breach that border with, and I started publishing them.That's when they were seen by a fellow student at the school, Hope Larson, who's a professional comic book artist now. She contacted me via e-mail and was kind of like hey, I really like your work. She introduced it to me as something you could make a living doing. That was, I think, the point where I really seriously considered it.

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Rose Lannin

Feature Tue Apr 06 2010

One-Shots: Lance Fensterman and C2E2

In a little over a week, Chicago's going to explode in a burst of comics, toys, and all manner of pop culture excitement. The source of this KAPOW is C2E2, the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, a new convention packed with panels, merchandise, celebrities (Alex Ross! Colleen Doran! Anya from Buffy!) and more. I had the chance to talk to Lance Fensterman, the man behind the booths and exhibitions. Lance has had an interesting career in his own right, and shared his perspective on conventions, fans, and the details and methodology that make up planning a big event.

Name: Lance Fensterman
Job: Vice President of Pop Culture for Reed Exhibitions
Age: 32
Education: Just enough.
Location: Norwalk, CT, 35 miles outside of NYC
Hometown: Fargo, ND
Favorite place in Chicago: The Blue Frog? Or maybe Gino's East Pizza.

Portrait by Andrea Topalian

How did you get into running comic book conventions? Did it stem out of a love of comics, or something else?

I was a ward of the state and Reed adopted me and put me to work...actually, I was an independent bookseller for many years and hired by Reed to run the publishing industry's annual gathering. From there I took over New York Comic Con and the New York Anime Fest. As our group of events grew, so did my role, and I now oversee ReedPop our group of pop culture shows, including Penny Arcade Expo (PAX,) PAX East, UFC Fan Expo, New York Comic Con, Star Wars Celebration, and of course C2E2.

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Rose Lannin

Feature Tue Mar 23 2010

One-Shots: Josh Elder and Reading With Pictures

Name: Josh Elder
Job: Founder and Executive Director, Reading With Pictures, a nonprofit organization that advocates the use of comics in the classroom.
Age: 29
Education: Northwestern University, BS in Radio/Television/Film
Location: Irving Park
Hometown: Carmi, IL
Website:, Kickstarter
Favorite place in Chicago: The Art Institute

Portrait by Jen Brazas

How are you involved in the comic book industry?

I started as a college intern in the Publicity and Editorial departments at DC Comics. Upon graduation, I had a brief stint as an Associate Editor at Wizard: The Comic Magazine. In 2005, I won the Grand Prize in TOKYOPOP's Rising Stars of Manga contest (think American Idol for cartoonists) with Mail Order Ninja, which was swiftly picked up as a book series and then a nationally syndicated comic strip.

That led to writing The Batman Strikes at DC Comics and StarCraft for Blizzard Entertainment. I'm currently working on a number of different projects of my own, as well as other licensed properties that I can't really talk about yet.

How did you get into reading comics? What about drawing them?

My mother -- a school librarian -- was reading to me as she did every night before putting me to bed. Usually that meant a chapter book or some classic kid lit, but that night, for reasons lost to antiquity, I got to choose the reading material. And like any red-blooded American male my age, I chose a comic. Issue number four of The Transformers to be precise.

Everything was going great. right up until mom's laryngitis caught up with her, causing her to lose her voice barely halfway through the issue. This was completely unacceptable. Optimus Prime was in a lot of danger, and I had to make sure he was going to be okay.

So I used the comic to teach myself how to read so I could finish the comic. And right from the beginning, I wanted to create my own comics.

What is Reading With Pictures all about?

Reading With Pictures is a nonprofit organization that advocates the use of comics in the classroom to promote literacy and improve educational outcomes for all students. We work with academics to cultivate groundbreaking research into the proper role of comics in education. We collaborate with cartoonists to produce exceptional graphic novel content for scholastic use. Most importantly, we partner with educators to develop a system of best practices for integrating comics into their curriculum.

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Rose Lannin

Feature Tue Mar 09 2010

One-Shots: Jenny Frison

A relative newcomer to Chicago's comic book scene, Jenny Frison began working locally in mid-2008, making covers for Devil's Due Publishing's Hack/Slash and Voltron. She moved on to various other titles, including webcomic-turned-print The Dreamer and Angel, put out by IDW Publishing. Her success should not come as a surprise: no stranger to adaptability, Jenny has moved from Peoria to New Jersey to Wyoming and back to Illinois again. From her early days with Wonder Woman audiobooks to studying illustration at the esteemed Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, with a brief detour working on a ranch, Jenny's path has wound its back to way to Chicago and professional illustration. An early interest in comics, an eye for cover design, and a desire to incorporate diverse art forms into her craft make her professional and geographic location a natural one. Currently, she is drawing a cover for Marvel's Girl Comics, a three-issue anthology featuring some of the most talented female artists and writers in the industry.

Jenny is unique in that she has a distinctive, Art Noveau-influenced style but is willingly not locked into it, works mainly on covers, and occupies the still relatively rare position of being a female comic book professional. We discussed how these qualities have shaped her career, as well as the portrayal of women in comics, how she makes a cover, and the difficulties inherent in breaking into the professional world of comics.

Name: Jenny Frison
Job: Freelance Comic Book Cover Artist
Age: 29
Location: Albany Park
Hometown: Born in Billings, MT, grew up in Peoria, IL
Favorite place in Chicago: Before I moved here, I was a latchkey adult -- I moved from IL to New Jersey to Wyoming to IL, when I finally moved to Chicago I was sort of indefinitely here. Now that I have my own apartment and I have my own studio, I really like being here. Outside of my own apartment, probably Challengers Comics. I (heart) Challengers.


You're an illustrator -- do you work more with comics or regular book covers?

I mostly do work in comics. I went to college to be an illustrator, I got my specialization in illustration from Northern Illinois and I always sort of loved comics -- this is a very long answer to your very short question...

Go for it.

After Northern Illinois, I went to the Kubert School in New Jersey to study the comic book art trade, and while I was there, I became aware that what I really did love was cover illustration -- doing a story in one drawing rather than doing sequential art, like comic book pages.

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Rose Lannin / Comments (7)

Feature Mon Feb 22 2010

One-Shots: Ezra Claytan Daniels

One-shots is a new bi-weekly column interviewing Chicago comic book artists and writers, as well as colorists, store owners, and others that make up the local sequential art scene. Through dialogue and pictures, One-shots explores the people and ideas behind all kinds of comics, highlighting the city's diverse range of talent.

Ezra Claytan Daniels

Born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, comic book artist, writer, and designer Ezra Claytan Daniels has divided his adult life between Portland and Chicago. The contrast between these cities, as well as those in his life, reflect themselves in his words and pictures. Black and white, temperate and tumultuous, past and future: themes of race, location, and time itself play out in linework that is abundant yet precise, pictures that are not always pretty but sometimes beautiful. Author of the graphic novel The Changers, he has contributed to a Dark Horse anthology, created an interactive, illustrated iPhone app, produced a series of fill-in-the-blanks greeting cards, and continues to orchestrate the occasional Comic Art Battle. Most recently, he has teamed up with local chamber group Fifth House Ensemble to create Black Violet, a multimedia performance combining instrumentals and cartoon images to tell the story of a lost cat's journey through Black Plague-era London.

Not long ago, I was given the opportunity to talk with Ezra about his work history both in and out of comics, the differences between Portland and Chicago, his early days making zines. We also drank coffee and complained about the CTA.

Name: Ezra Claytan Daniels
Job: Freelance Illustrator and Designer
Age: 31
Location: West Town
Hometown: Sioux City, IA
Favorite place in Chicago: Logan Theater, because I love cheap movies, sometimes I'll walk up there, it's a nice walk. I like the Davis Theatre a lot too though.



Where are you from originally?

I was born in Sioux City, IA. Grew up there, moved to Portland, Oregon when I was 19 to go to art school. I didn't do any art stuff in Iowa. In high school, I got a job at a graphic design agency, did that for three years. I got a pretty good education in Iowa even though I didn't go to school there. That's probably why I dropped out of art school in Portland, because I had all the real world skills I would need.

When did you leave Portland for Chicago?

I left Portland 6 years ago.

Why did you move here?

I wanted to be closer to my family, wanted to live in a real city and get my ass kicked for awhile. I definitely got my ass kicked for 2-3 years.

I came to Chicago on a book tour promoting The Changers, I really fell in love. All of the great things about New York without any of the pretension. Blue-collar, all these people doing great things.

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Rose Lannin / Comments (1)

Events Mon Jun 08 2009

Girl of Tomorrow

I met comic book artist Gene Ha through his brother Donn, not longer after I'd connected "my brother Gene" to the name I'd seen on some of my favorite titles. When he e-mailed asking if another friend and I wanted to be photo models for the upcoming DC title JSA vs. Kobra: Engines of Faith, I tried not to reply too eagerly. As I wrote him back, I started to think: while it's become increasingly apparent that comic books aren't just for white guys in basements, I feel that as a female loving cape and cowl set -- as Michael Chabon put it in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, "fictional characters of unprecedented powers dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest," -- I'm still in somewhat of a minority. I gravitate towards Batman and Superman (or Prince Namor or Kitty Pride) as easily as (though differently than) Heraclio and Carmen, Chunky Rice, or Jimmy Corrigan. There is much speculation regarding why traditional superheroes don't appeal to a largely female demographic, or anyone who takes issue with the following tropes: they tend to be action-, not plot- and emotion-oriented, concerned more with punches and epithets than feelings and nuance. Morality is more black and white than shades of gray. Female characters in superhero tales tend to be passive or she-devils, serving as eye candy or villain but not much in between. And there's the obligatory gravity-defying boobs. There are some excellent exceptions to these rules, but they're still that- exceptions.

Basketball-sized breasts are kind of ridiculous, Mary Jane doesn't get too many great lines, and there's the Women in Refrigerators Syndrome (it seems that every female or female superheroine has been killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall her). In spite of this, I love the genre, flawed and sexist as it can (but doesn't have to) be. I want good guys and bad guys, the glorification of power and vengeance, the satisfaction of seeing evil beat down in a fantastical scenario. All these reasons, coupled with Gene Ha's exceptional artistic talent, made the choice to be drawn as Power Girl an easy one.

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Rose Lannin / Comments (7)

Feature Sun Apr 26 2009

Review: The Outfit in Decline - Jeff Coen's Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob

Gapers Block politics editor Ramsin Canon brings us his review of Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob by Jeff Coen:

If you're not versed in the history of the post-Capone Chicago mob, known as the Outfit, you may easily have missed the fact that the Martin Scorcese classic Casino was about our city's organized crime syndicate and their control over gambling in Las Vegas in the second half of the twentieth century. The word "Chicago" is never spoken or named in any way during the movie—in fact, at one point, when Joe Pesci's Nick Santoro character is narrating a flashback he says, "Even back home, years ago," and on the screen flashes the title, "Back Home Years Ago" instead of "Chicago, 1973". Only once, when he almost slyly refers to "Remo Gaggi" (a blend of Joseph Aiuppa and Tony Accardo) as "the Outfit's top boss," is there any real indication that the gangsters hail from Chicago. (There's another scene where Pesci's character says, "Hey Ace, tell him the line on the Bear game.") There were briefly local rumors about why; that the producers were afraid to antagonize a criminal organization that, at the time, may still have had influence in some of Hollywood's powerful craft unions. More likely the movie plays so fast and loose with the facts that they didn't want to draw too direct a parallel.

Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Coen's episodic telling of the federal government's prosecution of Chicago mobsters and their associates plays like a similar biopic, telling the history of the top tier of an immensely powerful, violent criminal organization through the lens of a personal, familial tragedy. The terrible difference of course is that Coen's book tells stories that are absolutely real, and recent enough to have living, breathing victims—both direct and indirect. The so-called "Family Secrets" investigation led to the conviction of Joseph Lombardo, James Marcello, Frank Calabrese Sr., and Paul Schiro for murder and Anthony Doyle for providing sensitive information to the convicted felons.

Books on the modern Outfit are scarce; the most recent contribution to the literature was investigative reporter Gus Russo's book The Outfit, an at-times sensationalized book that tried to portray the Outfit as a legitimate underworld counterpart to overworld (normal world?) corruption and exploitation. Like much of the literature on organized crime, it falls closer into the category of a "mob watcher's" book—similar to the work of former FBI agent Bill Roemer, whose book on the Chicago mob's Vegas influence—The Enforcer; Spilotro: The Chicago Mob's Man Over Las Vegas—borders on the voyeuristic. Coen's book is not a "mob watchers" book; it is a useful and lucid history of a gigantic investigation and prosecution and a sobering look at organized crime. If only more books on "the mob" read more like studies of organized crime than true crime dramas.

The contribution Coen's book makes to the literature of organized crime is that it completely and utterly demystifies the professional criminal class. The Chicago criminal underworld described by Nick Calabrese, the Outfit killer whose testimony was the cornerstone of the federal case, is one filled with cold cruelty, mistrust, betrayal, paranoia, and ceaseless hustling, dealing with society's most down-on-their-luck. There is no glamour or the type of vicarious thrills that come with being able to exact revenge at will: according to Calabrese's testimony, murders were done for petty reasons or out of a primal paranoia. The mystique of the gangster who never spends a day in prison is shattered; since the events that transpired in the movie Casino, a series of prosecutions chased the Outfit out of Vegas and imprisoned much of its leadership, and Family Secrets is a story of people in prison or killing to avoid prison.

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Alice Maggio

Feature Wed Jan 21 2009

An Interview with James Kennedy

jameskennedy.jpgAfter reading James Kennedy's The Order of Odd-Fish, I jumped at the chance to talk to the author about this immensely creative story, the use of adult vocabulary, whether a nose is really just a nose and how this book fits alongside the now-canonical Harry Potter series. [Read my original review of the book here.]

Something that people are really going to want to know when they read this story is, where did the story come from? It's so out there and creative - where did you get it from?

I started the story in 1995. It was a short story I was doing in college and it was just called "The Cockroach and the Music Box," and over time I just added more details and added more details and finally the original story just fell away and all the details I had encrusted around it became the main story and then I kind of rethought everything from there and rewrote it and rearranged things. It was a really long and crooked way of getting there. It was never really conceived from the beginning as what it was. I just kind of followed it wherever it went. At one point I stopped - when they come to the building in the belly of the fish - I stopped for a year because I had no idea where it would go from there. It was a time-consuming way to write a book.

What are some of your literary influences? I know you talked a little bit about it on your website - how did you incorporate those into the story that you were writing?

I remember reading Evelyn Waugh for the first time, Decline and Fall and Brideshead Revisited and Vile Bodies (I named the gossip columnist in Odd-Fish after the gossip columnist in Vile Bodies), and his books struck me as really, really funny, and it occurred to me that this was comic territory that had gone unmined for a while in children's literature. I love Waugh's tone of breezy understatement and his casually horrible characters, and I wanted to do something similar. Odd-Fish's foppish cockroach butler Sefino, and its passive-aggressive eccentrics like Sir Alasdair, are inspired by Waugh. Odd-Fish also owes a lot to Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams, and especially G.K. Chesteron. But I think anybody writing for kids nowadays owes a huge debt to J.K. Rowling. She opened up the opportunity to write longer, more sophisticated books for young adults. She was confident that kids would read and understand a more complicated story. She opened that up, and now it feels like you can do anything. Young adult literature now - it's such an exciting time, there are great exciting books being written.

We are now at a time in children's literature where everything that comes out is going to be compared to the Harry Potter series. How do you feel about coming up against the comparison? Do you think it's fair that everything that comes after it now, for at least a good ten or twenty years, is going to be thrown back against that?

It's great. It challenges children's authors after her to come up with something that's up to Rowling's high standards. I also think it's salutary because it takes some story options off the table; Rowling's already done them too well. It forces you to be more original. ...I was halfway done with one version of Odd-Fish when Harry Potter came out and it forced me to reassess some of my decisions. It's a very risky move now to write about a kid who's living with a family that doesn't understand them and is abused, or about wizards at boarding schools, for instance. Harry Potter put the nail in the coffin, aesthetically, of those kinds of stories. You just can't do them. If you're going to write about any of those things, you'd better be really, really original about it because Harry Potter has used up all the juice there. But that's good, I think - it forces you to write something else, maybe something more interesting than your first idea. If Harry Potter's success means that children's authors are challenged to a higher standard, then I support that.

Continue reading this entry »

Veronica Bond

Feature Thu Dec 11 2008

2008 Chicago Nonfiction in Review

This week we look at some of the notable nonfiction books published about our fair city in the past year. A sociology graduate student who infiltrates a Chicago gang, a local columnist discusses his journey to sobriety, the continuing fascination of Chicago's murderous history, a final book from Studs Terkel and a notable biography of our president-elect are just some of the subjects on this year's list. Along with last week's round-up of notable fiction, there is something for every reader on your holiday gift list. Plus, go one further and support local booksellers. Search for indie bookstores near you on Indiebound.

By Grant Achatz (Ten Speed, 400 pages)
An inside look at Chicago's celebrated restaurant.

Rule 53: Capturing Hippies, Spies, Politicians, and Murderers in an American Courtroom
By Andy Austin (Lake Claremont Press, 413 pages)
Austin shares her memories from decades of covering some of Chicago's most well-known trials as a courtroom artist.

For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago
By Simon Baatz (HarperCollins, 560 pages)
A new history of one of the most notorious murder cases in Chicago history.

Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890-1919
By Robin F. Bachin (University of Chicago Press, 448 pages)
A scholarly work that explores the planning and development of Chicago's South Side at the turn of the twentieth century.

Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction
Edited by Sabrina Chapadjiev (Seven Stories Press, 240 pages)
In this collection of stories, essays, artwork and photography, female artists candidly express the ways they use their art to heal and survive violence and self-destructive thoughts and behavior. Editor Chapadjiev is a playwright and musician originally from the Chicago area.

Mapping Manifest Destiny: Chicago and the American West
Edited by Michael P. Conzen and Diane Dillon (Newberry Library, 120 pages)
Exhibition book of more than 60 full-color historic maps from the Newberry Library collection.

Ida: A Sword among Lions; Ida B. Wells and the Campaign against Lynching
By Paula J. Giddings (HarperCollins, 816 pages)
Well-reviewed biography of activist Ida B. Wells.

Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist
By Nancy Goldstein (University of Michigan Press, 264 pages)
Biography of a nearly forgotten pioneer in cartooning, who came to fame in Chicago.

The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age
By Neil Harris and T. J. Edelstein (University of Chicago Press, 400 pages)
This critically acclaimed book resurrects Chicago's Jazz Age counterpart to the New Yorker.

Continue reading this entry »

Alice Maggio / Comments (2)

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.

Continue reading this entry »

Veronica Bond

Feature Wed Nov 19 2008

An Interview with Neal Pollack

by Jason Behrends

pollack & son2.JPGFatherhood is a complex journey filled with joy, pain, confusion -- all of the best and stickiest moments of life. No matter your age or status or lifestyle, the moment your first child is born everything changes. From your perspective, life begins to take on a whole new meaning, a well-defined purpose. There are responsibilities, a reaction to each action, and your nights begin to shrink. While standing in the hospital holding the new life that you created, there are flashes of your future self that begin to pop and snap. The first tooth, first step, first day of school, first dance, first boyfriend/girlfriend, blurs of game nights and football games, tea parties and story time, your life has suddenly become real, substantial, and the next step is one you will never forget.

For Neal Pollack, that next step as a writer was to share his experience. There are many parents out there that don't reach out and talk honestly about the joys and struggles of parenting. Luckily for Neal, he was already an accomplished writer and journalist and since the birth of his son he has published a novel called Alternadad, created an interactive webzine called Offsprung and contributes regularly to Through sharing his stories he is able to entertain, but he is also helping parents as they begin their new lives.

Recently, Neal was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.

Gapers Block (GB): Where some may get consumed by fatherhood and possibly lose focus in their writing, you have reinvented yourself through fatherhood. Was there ever a time when you felt you couldn't be both a writer and father?

Neal Pollack (NP): I never really had a choice, since writing is the only way I've ever made a living. With the birth of my son, suddenly I had actual financial responsibilities, as opposed to my previous needs of keeping myself in beer and videogames. The loss of focus isn't really for me to judge, but being a dad has, I think, honed my ability to make a living, if not my abilities as a writer. When I waste work time, there's no recovering it, because my previous recovery time is now taken up by important dad stuff like fast-forwarding through the commercials during the Clone Wars on Friday night.

GB: Where did the idea for Offsprung come from? Have you been happy with the site thus far?

NP: I was looking for a community of like-minded parents like the one missing in Alternadad, the kind of place I wish Regina and I had when we were new parents. I originally intended the site as a parenting humor/parody site, and that never quite evolved. Instead, it became its own thing, and now serves as the primary internet home for many wonderful people. It's been less financially lucrative than I'd hoped, but as a creative/artistic/journalistic endeavor, I couldn't be happier with how it's turned out. I always wanted my own magazine, and then I created one, and it's been a blast.

GB: Not there isn't humor in Alternadad, but why did you choose to make this non-fiction and not your typical satire?

NP: My satire usually makes fun of literary genres, and I wasn't really interested in making fun of dad-lit, largely because it didn't really exist when I started writing the book. Each book has its own process and internal logic, and it quickly became obvious that this would be a personal story. Alternadad was kind of emotional triage for me; I was way too close to the situation to write it as arch satire.

GB: I've read there are talks of a screenplay and movie for Alternadad, who should play you in the movie?

NP: If a movie of Alternadad ever gets made, I would pretty much take whoever they cast, not that I'd have a say, mind you. Paul Rudd would be nice, though.

GB: Having lived in both Chicago and LA, Chicago writers are the best, right? Seriously, why did you leave Chicago and how has your experience as a writer been different in LA?

NP: I wouldn't say Chicago writers are the BEST, but I certainly know some great ones. There are good and bad writers wherever you go. I would say, however, that Chicago READERS are pretty great. That's the real difference between Chicago and L.A., lit-wise. In L.A., you can have "fans" of your work, but very few people actually read. In Chicago, people are perhaps more critical, but at least they pay attention. That said, I like being a writer in L.A. because no one hassles you. There are so many people grabbing for the gold ring. You're just one of a million worms trying to feed on the same corpse.

GB: You are a pretty big sports fan, in fact you write a sports column for LA CityBeat, were you torn at all when the evil Dodgers stomped on the lovable losers?

NP: While I like the Cubs and respect the agony of their fans, I grew up on the West Coast and have been a Dodgers fan all my life. Therefore, the Dodgers' steamrolling of the North Side was actually one of the best four-day periods of the decade for me. It was exhilarating and glorious. Sorry, guys.

GB: You have already accomplished quite a bit, what's next for Neal Pollack?

NP: I'm writing a book about yoga, to be published by Harper Perennial in May 2010.

* * *

Neal Pollack will read alongside Columbia College students Holly Fisher, Colt Foutz, Mason Johnson, Grant Mahoney, Nick Narbutas, Abigail Sheaffer, Harlan Vaughn and Toni White on Thursday, November 20th from 6-9pm at 731 S. Plymouth Court

Veronica Bond / Comments (1)

Book Club Wed Nov 05 2008

The 2009 Book List

Sound the trumpets. Here are the official selections of the Gapers Block Book Club for 2009. Even if we do say so ourselves, Veronica and I believe we have another strong reading list, which includes a mix of classics, new titles, award winners, bestsellers and lesser-known works. We received a number of excellent book suggestions from our members, and tried to incorporate as many as possible. Special thanks to everyone who submitted ideas for the book club.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (Random House, 1994; 106 p.)
As a work written by a female, African-American playwright, this play was groundbreaking when it was first produced in 1959. A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of the Younger family. Lena Younger's husband has passed away, and as Lena and her family wait for a $10,000 life insurance check, they dream of leaving their tiny Chicago apartment and starting new lives. The play went on to win a New York Drama Critics Circle Award and has been adapted for TV and film several times.

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean (University of Chicago Press, 2001; 239 p.)
Maclean taught English at the University of Chicago for 45 years, but he didn't publish his first novel until after he retired at age 70. A River Runs Through It was first published in 1976. It gained critical praise and later became an enduring bestseller after Robert Redford's 1992 film adaptation. The story is about two brothers growing up in rural Montana, who share a passion for fly fishing.

The Book of Ralph by John McNally (Free Press, 2005; 287 p.)
This collection of intertwined short stories chronicles the comic misadventures of eighth grader Hank Boyd and his trouble-making friend, Ralph. This coming-of-age tale is set during the late 1970s and early 1980s in southwest suburban Chicago.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (Back Bay, 2008; 385 p.)
The debut novel by Joshua Ferris is set in an unnamed Chicago advertising agency and brilliantly dissects office life as the employees of the firm face the threat of layoffs. Then We Came to the End is a 2008 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award winner and a National Book Award Finalist.

Passing by Nella Larsen (Random House, 2002; 304 p.)
First published in 1929, Passing tells the story of two light-skinned African-American women who try to pass for white in order to escape racism in 1920s New York. Born in Chicago to Danish mother and African-American father in 1891, author Nella Larsen was the first African-American woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in creative writing.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Random House, 1998; 304 p.)
Vonnegut's trademark satire is in full force in this science-fiction tale originally published 1963 about a young writer doing research for a book on the history of the atomic bomb, who discovers the existence of "ice-nine", an even more deadly threat to the planet.

Every Crooked Pot by Renee Rosen (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007; 227 p.)
Nina Goldman was born with a strawberry birthmark that covers one eye. This coming-of-age novel set in 1970s Akron, Ohio, is written in the form of a memoir, revealing Nina's struggles with self-acceptance and her love-hate relationship with her eccentric father. Author Rosen grew up in Akron but currently lives in Chicago.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel (Random House, 2008; 275 p.)
In this highly regarded graphic novel, Carla Olivares, a twenty-something Mexican-American woman, leaves the U.S. and heads to Mexico City in a misguided attempt to get in touch with her roots. Unfortunately, her life goes from bad to worse when she falls in with a group of drug dealers and wannabe revolutionaries.

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (Picador, 2007; 451 p.)
Twenty-seven-year-old Mark Schluter is in a near fatal car accident that leaves him with a rare brain disorder that causes him to believe his sister is an imposter. As Mark's sense of identity unravels, he becomes determined to discover the truth about his accident. The Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award.

Lords of the Levee by Herman Kogan and Lloyd Wendt (Northwestern University Press, 2005; 384 p.)
This engaging nonfiction work tells the story of "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna, the notorious First Ward aldermen who ruled Chicago at the start of the twentieth century. Originally published in 1943, Lords of the Levee is the perfect complement to our November 2008 selection, Sin in the Second City.

Travel Writing by Peter Ferry (Harcourt, 2008; 294 p.)
In this work of metafiction, Ferry acts as both author and character, telling the story of a high school English teacher named Peter Ferry who witnesses a fatal car accident that he becomes convinced he could have prevented. As a result, Ferry develops an obsession with learning about the life of the victim, the young and beautiful Lisa Kim.

Alice Maggio

Feature Wed Oct 22 2008

An Interview with Irvine Welsh, Part 2

by Alissa Strother

[Be sure to check out Part 1 of the interview, focusing on Welsh's writing, teaching and involvement in the local literary scene.]

GB: What else are you doing now?

IW: I did the book tour in the UK and I came off of that and I went straight into shooting this film, for five weeks in South Wales. It's called Good Arrows. It's a Spinal Tap kind of mockumentary about the world of British professional darts players. It's about a guy called Andy "The Arrows" Samson who loses his mojo, so he goes back to his darts guru who gets him back into it again. It's kind of about their obsession with petty celebrity and low-level fame. I'm quite pleased with it. I've got to go away and edit it when I come off the tour here.

GB: Did you write it, shoot it, edit it, and act in it?

IW: Yeah, everything, don't you know. I mean I even did the catering and cleaned out the toilets and all that. I'm co-writer, co-producer, co-director, and I've got a cameo in it playing a pro. If it's any good I'll keep it in and if not I'll cut it out. It's myself and Dean Cavanaugh, my screenwriting partner, who wrote the script. I've co-directed it with a really great director called Helen Grace. Late October or early November we'll have the whole thing done. ITV have got the British rights to it, so they're going to put it out on TV in January and we're going to make a different cut and take it to Cannes and try to sell it as a feature. And The Meat Trade, we've got the financing for that, so hopefully that'll shoot either late this year or early next year.

GB: Are you involved in shooting that too?

IW: No, I won't be. I did the screenplay for it. It's all cast. It just that takes ages to get everybody working at the same time. It's got Robert Carlyle, Colin Firth, Samantha Morton and Johnny Borrell from Razorlight.

GB: Really? How did he get cast in it?

IW: I don't know, I think Antonia [Bird], the director, fancied him. I think she kind of just likes casting pretty boy British pop stars. She cast Damon Albarn in Face.

GB: While we're on the subject, I know you're a big music person. Anything interesting going on for you in that department these days?

IW: I just got a call from Primal Scream and they wanted me to present them this lifetime award in London next week but I can't because I'll be on tour, so that's a shame.

GB: Do you still DJ?

IW: Funny enough, I deejayed for the first time in seven years in Edinburgh for this festival and it was a total disaster because I realize now that people just do it from the computer. They've got this mixing software and all of the mixers and the laptops there and they're not set up for vinyl and I come in with a big box of vinyl and they couldn't get the mixer to work with the decks. It's kind of sad. I felt like such a dinosaur. The whole thing was beset with technical problems and in the end I just slapped on the records and made a party of it. I actually enjoyed playing some records again, but I think to do it really well you've got to be constantly doing it. You have to be hanging out in record shops all the time and you have to just be mixing all the time as well, and practicing. I used to be obsessed with it and I found that I was using it as an excuse not to write, doing it all day and sometimes for days on end. There are some really great DJs and great people working in music, and I thought I'm better at the writing than I am at this so I have to acknowledge that fact. I'll still occasionally get a bag of records and do it at a pub.

GB: You also directed the music video for Keane's single, Atlantic, a few years back. What was that like?

IW: We shot it in four days down in Sussex, on a beach in Hastings. Their studio is just up the road, so they came down to watch us in action. It's funny, because when you're directing and you're against a timeline, it can bring out the tyrant in you a little bit. I remember the band had come down and they were watching me line up this shot and we'd gotten them to close off the beach. Then this girl and her dog came along and they were walking into the shot and I just sort of went, "Get dodgy, f*cking her and her scabby f*cking dog off the f*cking beach!" Tom [Chaplin], the singer, turns around to me and just goes, "Actually, that's my girlfriend." But we had a great laugh about that.

GB: In the press and even on your website, you're described as an "often controversial" writer. Do you consider yourself controversial?

IW: No, I don't really. I'm sure there are some people, particularly some of the press in Scotland, that think I've got this list of everything that's going to piss people off: heroin addiction, pedophilia, football violence. I just don't think that way at all. It's just much more organic and much more about how we mess up and how we actually get over it. All of these thematic issues come out of that. I'm not really interested in courting controversy, but I am interested in exploring issues that other people would deem to be controversial.

GB: Is there anything you wrote that you had to think twice about putting out there?

IW: No, not really. If it's something that I feel uncomfortable with, that's a reason for me to write it. I kind of like to make myself feel uncomfortable. I think if you're starting to feel uncomfortable with something when you're writing it, that's the reason really to push on with it. At first, I was kind of concerned about the reaction of family and friends, but once they see that you're not about exposing people, it's a transformative thing. It's fiction, you know? And once they start to see that, they get much more comfortable with it. I think there is a natural thing that you feel when you've written something taboo because you just don't want to expose the people you're close to.

GB: Do you follow American politics at all?

IW: Yeah, I've actually been asked by Sky, which is basically FOX in Britain, to work as a pundit on the American election [while living] in Miami. And I did a piece for the Financial Times. You'll see it online.

GB: What have you noticed, politically, living in Florida?

IW: It's got quite a young population and a very old population as well, so it's going to be a really interesting battleground. It is going to be about age more than anything else, rather than race there. I think if Obama gets people out, he'll win. It's going to be very tight, though. When I did this article back in the summer, it was just as Obama was about to get the nomination and around the time Clinton officially dropped out. I thought that once the real forces of conservatism were unleashed that it would be a whole different thing and I actually thought at the time that McCain would probably win. Now, I think that there are just so many people that can't afford not to have Obama win. He's gotten so many disenfranchised people back into the political system that if he didn't win, the disillusionment in America and the idea of more of the same failed policies of the last eight years, internationally and domestically, would be so bad for the country and the world as a whole. You've got this whole new generation of people that, for the first time, are being energized by politics and if you shut the door in their face I think it's a terrible thing to do. People are starting to realize that the stakes are very high. It's still too close to call, but it just feels like it's time to grasp history and I think people will do that. I think the Sarah Palin thing has really helped McCain, though.

GB: What do you think of her?

IW: I think she's a total absolute f*cking lunatic basket-case, but it's been a great thing for him. I saw this picture of her looking like this kind of sexy librarian on one side of him and Cindy McCain looking all glam on the other side of him and you can just see some of the blue collar guys are going to go, "Pfwaaa, he's an American," you know? It's taken away all of the question marks about his age and health and this old, kind of country bumpkin thing about the Republican Party as well. If people see through to the fact that she's just a really reactionary basket case, good, but it has given him a kind of superficial makeover that he needed. The idea that if he drops dead the first week in office and she's the President, I can almost feel myself getting nostalgic for George W.

GB: How do people feel about the election in the UK?

IW: People are really excited by Obama abroad because he seems to be the first American presidential candidate who has ambition to go out of the country. In a sense, with the power of globalization, you are kind of electing the leader of the Western world to an extent. This is the first time that I can remember where American politics is much more interesting and exciting than British politics. British politics has stagnated over the last twenty years. Our supposed candidate of change is an old, white, middle class, male member of the Conservative party. I mean, that's our f*cking candidate of change. How stagnant and tepid the whole British political scene is now is just beyond belief.

GB: Well, I'll try to end on a happier note. You write, tour your books, make films and music videos, play football, box, run marathons, and now you're a political pundit. How do you find the time?

IW: Well, I only box for fitness now. I couldn't properly spar with anyone now who was any good or they'd kill me. When you're sedentary at a desk you've got to do something. I like trying different things and I get a bit bored with the same thing. I write in kind of blasts. Because I'm promoting the book right now, I'm not really doing much writing, but once I get back into it, I'll just vanish basically. I'm a director at two film production companies now and I should be around. They get all nervous, like, "Oh f*ck he's gone." Just lock myself in a room, stop answering emails, stop answering the phone and I come out with something.

Veronica Bond

Feature Wed Oct 15 2008

An Interview with Irvine Welsh, Part 1

by Alissa Strother

Irvine WelshCrime, the latest novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting, Filth), follows Detective Inspector Ray Lennox from Edinburgh to Miami as he attempts to recover from a stress- and drug-induced mental breakdown and salvage what is left of the struggling relationship with his fiancée. Instead of a relaxing holiday, Ray finds himself assuming the role of guardian and defender for a frightened ten-year-old girl in the middle of a dire situation. Never one to shy away from difficult subject matter, Welsh explores everything from abuse to organized crime to innocence, guilt, secrets, blame, prejudice, truth, deceit, consequence, corruption, and ultimately, redemption in his most recent work.

Fresh off of the previous night's Read Against Recession event at The Metro, I talked book tours, writing, teaching and, of course, Chicago, with one of the most well-rounded men in the literary world today.

Gapers Block: What did you think about Read Against Recession last night?

Irvine Welsh: I thought it was great. Stephanie [Kuehnert] and Bill [Hillmann] were very good. When I go to places and do book tours, I don't really like doing traditional bookshops. It's nice to walk people through something instead of just standing up in a bookstore. Sometimes you have to do the big bookstores as well and some of them are really good, like the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in New York, for example, but I like some of the bigger independent bookstores, like Book Soup in LA. They are really good to work with. Powell's in Portland is great for events. And Books & Books in Miami - I have a reading at Books & Books and a party at White Room after. PowerHouse is this bookstore that can also manufacture and publish a book, so it's a huge, great space. Readings are quite boring, really. You can't really perform and it's just nice for you to put a face or a voice to a book. Stephanie and Bill both put a lot into it.

GB: Stephanie was your student a few years ago, right?

IW: Yeah, she was one of the students when I was teaching at Columbia. There were a lot of really good, talented writers, but I think that the X-factor that she had was that total dedication. She just really wanted to do it and I think that's the sort of thing that was always very impressive, that she was 100% into it. I'm not surprised that it's been successful, her book, and I think she'll continue to be successful. She's got a new one coming out next year as well so she's kind of up and running.

GB: How did the teaching gig at Columbia College come about in the first place?

IW: I came to Columbia for Story Week and after that they asked me if I wanted to come back and do a year's teaching. I vibed with Chicago. I liked the place and I'd become friends with a lot of people, so it seemed like a nice thing to do.

GB: And now you have a pretty substantial connection with the city.

IW: Yeah, my wife's from Chicago. I met her in a bar one night and we just kind of clicked. It was a snobby kind of hotel bar downtown; it was this Irish kind of theme pub that was in the basement one of these very soulless hotels on Michigan Avenue. I was just out for a drink with some pals and she was out for the night. Because of our connection it means that I'm able to be here a lot of the time and we've got an apartment here. Most of her family is out of state, but a lot of her pals are here so I like to get over a bit in the summer.

GB: You've been incorporating more American characters into your short stories lately and obviously in Crime there are quite a few. Do you find it a challenge to write the American characters?

IW: Not really, I don't really think of it in that way. I think it's because I've been spending so much time over here. I don't even realize that I'm doing it, but it is interesting. I don't even really want to consciously do it. I kind of want to keep writing about where I come from in Scotland and the UK and all of that, but it's also good to get out of where you come from as well. You get into a comfort zone, writing about the same place, so it's probably a good thing for me to do, but I'm not sure quite how far I want to take it.

GB: You mean as far as creating a novel with an entirely American cast?

IW: It's more a sort of sense of place that's relevant rather than people and characters. It's like if you're driving down Western Avenue and you see all of these car dealerships and you start to get something in your mind. That kind of setting can spark something and it would have to be an American novel. You don't get the geography like that in the UK. You don't really get these kinds of places in the same way, you know, they need to be located in the same type of environment.

GB: Do you think you will ever base a novel in Chicago?

IW: Yeah, it's strange because I think that I could, but it wouldn't be the same as if you get a Chicago writer like Stephanie or Bill or Don [De Grazia]. It wouldn't be the same. I wouldn't have the bond with the city that they have so it would be more as a backdrop to a character-based thing rather than getting into the nuts and bolts or grit of the city. I wouldn't rule it out because I think it's a great setting for a novel, though.

GB: I know you revisit characters a lot in your novels. Lennox, for example, a side character in Filth, ends up being the main character in Crime. Do you feel like you have unfinished business with them?

IW: Yeah, it's almost like a movie in a way and you're thinking, "Who can I cast in this role?" Lennox just seemed to fit the bill. I thought this guy had to be able to negotiate his way around and sense crime and sense criminals, so he had to be a cop, but he couldn't be an American cop because if he was a cop from Chicago busting up this child abuse thing in Florida he would have resources here. He would know the system and have contacts in law enforcement and be able to go into the straight bureaucracy of it all and sort it out there. So I was thinking about the guys in Filth and this guy Lennox, he's done all of these things, but you don't really know why he's a cop. He seems to be a character of secrets and I thought about secrets and the idea that sex abuse thrives on secrecy within families and within society and the church and it grew organically, really.

CrimeGB: Crime is obviously a serious novel that deals with solemn issues, but you've also called it your most uplifting novel. What makes it different from your other ones?

IW: I'm living in Ireland most of the time and you can't pick up the newspaper without there being another pedophile priest story or somebody suing the priests or the church or the Diocese for the abuse that's gone on. There was a big scandal in the 90s called the Bishop Casey Scandal and since then, everybody who's been abused, hundreds of thousands of people, have all come forward. It's opened the floodgates, so it's changed the relationship that people have with the church, and I think that was why I got interested in it. But I realized when I started to write that pedophilia isn't at all an interesting subject to write about. There's no dynamism or moral ambiguity to it. It's just basically wrong and it's evil and everybody's agreed on that. There's no ambivalence to it and it's ambivalence that makes something interesting. You can argue about violence, for example. It's destructive, but people are inherently violent in a lot of ways. Abusing drugs is always bad for people and bad for society, but the whole notion of festival is tied up with intoxication. I was writing against this whole idea that you can be like a 50-year-old pop star and it's not sort of inappropriate to have young boys sleep in your bed, but if you're a 50-year-old truck driver, it would be. I wanted to have no ambiguity about it at all and just see it as an absolute evil and have Lennox as this displaced avenging flawed angel that is trying to rescue this kid, but the kid is also rescuing him by forcing him to come to terms with what he'd been repressing. Because pedophilia was quite a boring, un-dynamic subject to write about, it couldn't be about that. It had to be about how people get over something really bad. My interest as a writer has always been about how people f*ck up and how we live in a world that can be cruel and punitive. How we compound that by making the wrong decisions has always interested me. This isn't one about how people f*ck up. It's basically about how people heal themselves so it's more positive than a lot of my books in some ways.

GB: In the research process, you talked a lot with people who had been through abuse, right? Were they pretty open to talking with you about it?

IW: That was the hardest part of it. At the start people are obviously suspicious because these books have a purpose. I think they're very suspicious of journalists, but once I convinced people that I was coming as a novelist rather than a journalist and their anonymity would be respected, [they opened up]. You can get people's stories from published case studies too, but that wasn't what it was about. I was interested in their feelings and views and emotions. It was very, very uncomfortable and I used the more uncomfortable feelings I had when hearing these stories in the book, like when the kid is telling Lennox her story. He has to listen, but he can't listen. It's killing him and I wanted to get that feeling across. When someone's telling you about these terrible things that have happened to them from a very small age you just want to be anywhere but in front of them. You kind of feel yourself withering inside listening to them but you have to listen because you've asked them and it's important to them and they want to tell you and they need to tell you. That was sort of the hardest part of the book.

GB: And you didn't do any research on the internet?

IW: I didn't want to be exposed to any pedophile sex material, just because it had nothing to do with the book and you don't want the police kicking your door down. I made a conscious decision that I was going to do no research on the 'net and I was very particular about what I needed. I needed to engage with people who had been through that, but I didn't want to engage with pedophiles or engage with child pornography. To avoid doing that, I limited the research very much to academic and case study and social work kind of stuff.

GB: How did you approach the police aspect of the novel?

IW: It's just about having contacts. People love talking about their jobs. Take them out, buy them lunch or take them for a beer and they'll talk about their job, provided they know that you're going to respect their anonymity. I'm not interested in details that might get someone into trouble. I'm more interested in generalities rather than the particulars, as a journalist would be. Names, dates and times don't interest me at all. I'm interested in feelings and emotions. Most people are game, once they realize that you're on the level as far as that's concerned and you're not about exposing them, then they feel quite free to talk about it. Police officers and social workers are no exception.

GB: Do you tend to get a different reaction from women versus men when it comes to your books?

IW: I find that a lot of the time women are more clued up about it. They sort of get more of it, because I have quite a lot of damaged male characters. A lot of guys don't recognize the damage and baggage that these characters are carrying, whereas women do more, because they think, "I've gone out with a bastard exactly like that," so they kind of see it in a sharper focus.

GB: Do you find it harder to write the female characters?

IW: Not really. I did a thing - it's not released in America yet, but I hope it will be soon - it's a film called Wedding Belles. There's one male character that's in it for about ten minutes, but there are four lead characters and they're all women. I tend to write them the same way. You write people as human beings first and then the gender specific stuff second. You see in a lot of crime novels or genre fiction where the guy's writing about a woman character and you get two pages of her putting her bra on and it's f*cking ridiculous, you know? You won't have two pages of a guy shaving or something like that or putting on a pair of boxer shorts. It's just bizarre.

GB: One of the main characters in Crime is not only female, but a child as well. Did you approach that any differently?

IW: I wanted to get somebody who in some ways is very grown up and worldly because she's been inappropriately sexualized, and is very knowing and confident on one level, but on the other hand is still a kid. That battle is going on within her. She's got these two sides to resolve. I think it's not a problem writing about any age that you've lived through. I'm writing this thing about a guy who's in his late 70s, early 80s now, so that's quite a challenge. Then again, I just try to think about how somebody like that would think about things.

GB: And you're also working on a prequel to Trainspotting. Is that already done?

IW: There's a rough draft of it from the same time as the original Trainspotting. When I wrote Trainspotting, I started out with about 300,000 words. It was huge. I took a story out and I read it at this Rebel Inc. thing and a writer called Duncan McLean, a very good Scottish writer that had been published by Random House in London, says, "Have you got any more of that? I'd like to send it to my publisher." Well, I kind of lied and said, "Yeah, I've got a whole novel." I had this thing but it wasn't a proper novel. It was kind of a mess and so I basically just chopped out the middle and wrote this kind of heist ending to finish it, because it just went on and on and on. The first part of it is all about their family background, family dynamics and how they got involved in heroin in the first place, so I discarded that part of it. The end part was superfluous so a lot of the end part I've cannibalized for different stories over the years. I've got a collection of short stories coming out next year and it's a lot of stories that have been in anthologies and journals. I guess because I didn't know what to do with it, I had forgotten all about this first part, really, until I started looking through some old files. I find as I'm getting older and a bit more reflective I'm much more interested in that cause and effect and family dynamics. I want to sit down with it next year and write it up as a proper novel. It probably needs another couple of drafts, but I don't want to lose the energy that it has. You can see it's written basically by a younger writer. It's very much like Trainspotting. I want to bring a more reflective thing to it as well, so there's going to be a difficult balance to it. That's the reason I've not gotten on with it - I've been a bit scared to have a go.

* * *

Next week, Alissa continues her interview with Welsh, talking about his life in music and his thoughts on the state of politics today.

Veronica Bond

Feature Wed Oct 01 2008

An Interview with Stephanie Kuehnert

by Jason Behrends

When setting out to write a novel, a writer must first research their subject matter. Many writers dig through archives or visit certain towns or countries or interview different people. Chicago's Stephanie Kuehnert may do those things, but a vital part of her research thus far has been playing those old tapes and CDs from high school. The reason people enjoy music so much is that it acts in one of two ways: it is either a trigger to bring up past memories or it is a way of collecting of new ones. When Stephanie plays Smashing Pumpkins or The Ramones or Nirvana, she is taken back to a specific time in her life where she can explore, with clarity, the thoughts and emotions of a young girl experiencing life through music.

Her debut novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone (MTV Books), is filled with music, but at the same time it is filled with raw emotion and a deep understanding of the relationship between a mother and a daughter. The main character, Emily Black, is abandoned by her mother who chooses a life of traveling with the current music scene. With visions of earning her mothers attention and affection, Emily forms a band herself in search of that magical tune that will make everything right again.

With her well-written and original novel in hand, Stephanie recently took the stage at the Metro and then told us all about it.

Gapers Block (GB): Your debut novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, is filled with music, and all of the positive and negative effects of a life filled with music. How big of a role does music play in your life?

Stephanie Kuehnert (SK): Music has played a huge role in my life since I was about 10 years old and I started discovering bands like REM, Depeche Mode, Faith No More and eventually bands like Nirvana and The Ramones. Music has been my escape since I was a kid. When I'm upset, listening to certain bands helps me work through my anger and pain. When I'm happy, music elevates my mood even more. And music is my primary muse for writing. I don't often listen to it while I write, but I do listen to it a lot while preparing to write and it sparks many of my ideas. And since I was 14 years old, my idea of the best night out is a concert. I love live shows and have seen hundreds.

GB: Speaking of music, you read at the Metro on September 14 with Irvine Welsh and Bill Hillman, which is primarily a music venue. Elizabeth Crane tells a story about feeling like a rock star while on stage at the Metro. What were you expecting, and how did you prepare?

SK: I read onstage at Metro once before during a Columbia [College] event that was a goodbye party for Irvine the first time he was in Chicago for a while. It wasn't a huge event, but it was still the most people I've ever read to and I was completely awestruck to be standing on the stage that so many of my heroes have graced. I've seen many of my favorite concerts at Metro. I was actually so overwhelmed and freaked out that after I read, I completely lost my voice...some sort of psychosomatic thing. Fortunately that didn't happen this time.

I honestly didn't know what to expect. I've seen Irvine fill the place to capacity before, but this was on a Sunday night and it was that weekend with the non-stop rain. Basically I just prepared by reading the section I planned to read about five times as opposed to just rehearsing it once like I usually do. I also asked my closest friends to be there so I could just pretend I was reading to them. I just focused on being confident, reminding myself that I'd been invited to do this and people thought I belonged on that stage.

When I got out there, I realized the stage lights make it so that you can only see the first row, so I felt like I was reading for 15 people instead of 150, which helped. And all the rehearsal paid off, too. I totally nailed the reading. I got the most applause I've ever gotten in my life and afterwards Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro, told the crowd that he thought Irvine, Bill, and I performed with the same power and energy as Cobain, Corgan, and Vedder back in the day. Since Kurt Cobain is one of my biggest heroes, I gotta say that comparison made my night.

GB: How do you select what you are going to read from the novel? Do you skip around or just read a specific section?

SK: I usually chose one section from a chapter or skip through a couple sections of a chapter. I have a handful of scenes that I know work well out loud and don't require a ton of backstory, etc. It depends on the time I am allotted of course, but it also depends on the audience. I'll read a completely different section to a bar crowd than I would to a bookstore crowd or to a library crowd. The other night I read to a library crowd that included a much older gentleman and a ten year-old kid. I'd planned to read a scene that was "PG-13", i.e. it didn't have sex or really serious swearing, but it did involve smoking pot. I ended up nixing that at the last minute because of the audience and went with the first ten pages of the book, which are the safest, no sex, no drugs, no swearing at all. For Metro, I did one of the more fun, raunchier scenes. I like to mix it up, though; it keeps me interested in reading it.

GB: Your novel, despite the language and sex, is classified as a Young Adult novel. What are your thoughts on that classification and YA fiction in general?

SK: My novel is really more of a crossover than a YA, I think. MTV Books is considered a YA publisher, but some of the books it puts out, including mine, are mostly sold in the adult section. So much like I've never felt like I fit in with one particular group or was easily labeled, neither is my book, and I like it that way. I am honored that it is considered by many to be YA, though, because I think right now YA is totally at its best. Some of the most honest, raw, real books out there are YA books. It's a real renaissance era for YA fiction right now.

GB: For people of our generation the MTV logo really means something significant. What has your experience been like with them thus far? What was your first thought when you found out it was MTV Books that was picking up the book?

SK: I begged my parents for cable when I was a kid so I could have MTV and I spent so much of late grade school through early high school glued to it. Before they stopped actually showing music videos, I adored MTV and thought it was on the cutting edge of so much. Since I hold on to that early love, I thought it was pretty cool when I heard that MTV Books wanted IWBYJR. Other than the name, the logo, and the same parent company (and the occasional book about The Hills that they put out), MTV Books is pretty much separate from MTV the channel. But to me, MTV Books has that cutting-edge, in-your-face thing going for it that MTV the channel had in the 80s and early 90s, so my experience with them thus far has been great. I couldn't have found a better match editor-wise than Jen Heddle, my editor at MTV Books and everyone else that I've worked with there has been totally amazing, too.

GB: What is the latest on your next novel Ballads of Suburbia?

SK: The latest is that I'm waiting on my revisions letter. I should be getting that later this month and then I will spend six weeks completely immersed in making Ballads the best book possible. Right now it is slated for a July 2009 release, but those dates tend to shift about until you get closer, but it will be out there sometime next summer for sure.

Veronica Bond

Feature Wed Jun 18 2008

July 2008 Selection: Free Burning by Bayo Ojikutu

Free Burning, the second novel by local author Bayo Ojikutu, is the July 2008 selection of the Gapers Block Book Club. It was first published in 2006 and takes place on Chicago's South Side in the fictional Four Corners neighborhood, which roughly translates to the South Shore area. Four Corners is beleaguered by poverty, gangs and drugs, among a host of other social and economic problems.

The protagonist is Tommie Simms, who, as the book's jacket copy declares, "was supposed to be the community's hope, the young man from the neighborhood who made good." Simms went to college and graduated from Southern Illinois University. He landed a corporate job with Global Mutual IndemCorp, a downtown insurance firm, with an office on the 32nd floor. But Simms is laid off from his job after 9/11, and he becomes desperate for a way to support his wife, Tarsha, and their baby daughter. He turns to his drug-dealing cousin Remi and begins selling pot to help pay the bills and make ends meet. The novel focuses on his quick descent into Chicago's underworld, as Simms finds himself on the wrong side of a crooked cop and crosses paths with loan sharks, rival drug dealers and others looking to get a piece of him. Ojikutu reveals how easy it is for a good man to fall on hard times, and how difficult it is to escape and climb back out of the hole.

Library Journal said, "Ojikutu's harsh and often violent depiction of the street life, where everyone has developed his or her own hustle to get by, is riveting." And Kirkus gave Free Burning a starred review, calling the story gritty, lyrical and intense, and describing Ojikutu's writing style as "a cross between James Baldwin's soulful song and the nightmare poetry of Louis-Ferdinand Cline." And in Black Issues Book Review, Denolyn Carroll summed up the novel as "a powerful work of urban fiction."

About the Author

Bayo Ojikutu was born in 1971 and is a Chicago native, born and raised. His father, Owolabi, is from Nigeria, and his mother originally hails from Louisiana. Ojikutu attended the University of Illinois, and earned his master's at DePaul University. He still lives in the city and teaches in the English department at DePaul. His first novel, 47th Street Black, published in 2003, was a winner of the Washington Prize for Fiction and the great American Book Contest. Ojikutu is definitely a local author to watch, as his star continues to rise.

Additional Resources

Read an interview with Ojikutu from the Fall 2006 books issue of the Chicago Reader.


Read the book, and then join us on Monday, July 14, at The Book Cellar, beginning at 7:30pm for our discussion. New members are always welcome.

Alice Maggio / Comments (2)

Feature Wed Jun 11 2008

Books for Dads

Father's Day is coming up this Sunday, June 15, so why not get dad a little something from your local bookshop? The following titles might give you some ideas for summer reading for your father or other special guy in your life. As a bonus, in keeping with our local spirit, all the titles have a Chicago connection.

New Dads might enjoy Alternadad: The True Story of One Family's Struggle to Raise a Cool Kid in America by Neal Pollack in which the former Chicago Reader staffer and "self-styled party guy" tells how he and his wife managed to become responsible parents without giving up their hipster lifestyle.

If your dad appreciates a good laugh, try When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the sixth collection of essays by bestselling humorist David Sedaris.

Political junkies will love the new book from Lake Claremont Press Rule 53: Capturing Hippies, Spies, Politicians, and Murderers in an American Courtroom by Andy Austin. Austin has been a courtroom artist in Chicago for the past 40 years and covered some of the city's biggest trials including those of the Chicago Seven, John Wayne Gacy and Joey “the Clown” Lombardo. Rule 53 is her account of the drama she has witnessed in Chicago's courtrooms.

Local history buffs will appreciate Chicago under Glass: Early Photographs from the Chicago Daily News, a wonderful photography book by Mark Jacob and Richard Cahan, or give him Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott, the bestselling book about Chicago's legendary Everleigh Club brothel which is now out in paperback.

Finally, if the dad in your life loves a good story, give him The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon about the death of Lazarus Averbuch in Chicago in 1908 and a writer who becomes obsessed with Averbuch's story in the present day.

All of these books will keep fathers busy reading this summer. Check them out and make this Sunday a happy father's day for someone in your life.

Alice Maggio / Comments (2)

Feature Thu Jun 05 2008

GB Book Club Guide to the 2008 Printers Row Book Fair

The 24th annual Printers Row Book Fair takes place this weekend in the South Loop, on Dearborn, between Congress and Polk. It is the biggest literary extravaganza in the city, and admission to all the events is free. More than 200 authors and 150 booksellers are scheduled to participate in this year's fair, so we've put together this guide to highlight the best of the best of the fair, pointing out authors of current and past Book Club selections appearing at the fair, don't-miss events and our favorite local booksellers and publishers.

Tell Them You Read It for the Book Club

How many of these books did you read along with us? Meet the writers of some of our past (and future) book club picks. You might even get your books signed.

Achy Obejas – Saturday at 11am at the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Stage
Memory Mambo by Achy Obejas was our April 2006 selection, and the novel's unforgettable climax still gives me the willies. But in addition to writing award-winning novels, Obejas is also an accomplished poet. She will be giving a poetry reading this morning as the fair gets underway.

Alex Kotlowitz – Saturday at Noon at the Heartland Stage
Kotlowitz talks to author Nancy Horan during this event about her debut novel Loving Frank, which tells the true story of the affair between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Chesney. We just read Never a City So Real by Kotlowitz for our January 2008 book.

Studs Terkel and Rick Kogan – Saturday at 3pm at the Harold Washington Library Center Cindy Pritzker Auditorium [Ticketed Event]
The venerable Studs Terkel holds court at the Chicago Public Library Saturday afternoon. His most recent book is his long-awaited memoir Touch and Go, but we read his first book, Division Street: America, in February 2006. Terkel never fails to entertain, and his wit is still sharp as a tack at 96 years old. He'll be talking to another favorite Chicagoan, Tribune journalist and WGN radio personality Rick Kogan. We read his book A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream for our April 2007 meeting, and Kogan's appearance at and participation in our discussion was one of our most memorable book club meetings. This event will draw a big crowd, so be sure to reserve your free tickets ASAP.

Kevin Guilfoile – Saturday at 4pm at Grace Place, Sanctuary, 2nd Floor
Kevin Guilfoile moderates a discussion titled "Murder Most Foul," featuring a panel of fellow local crime writers, including Libby Fischer Hellman, Marcus Sakey, Sean Chercover and Michael Dymmoch. Guilfoile joined the book club for a highly memorable meeting when we read his first novel Cast of Shadows in November 2006.

Elizabeth Berg, Elizabeth Crane and Amy Krouse Rosenthal – Sunday at 11am at the Heartland Stage
Three – yes, three – book club authors in one great event! Don't miss this one as Amy Krouse Rosenthal moderates a discussion with Elizabeth Berg and Elizabeth Crane. Bestselling author Elizabeth Berg's new book is Dream When You're Feeling Blue, and we read her novel The Year of Pleasures in May 2007. Crane is promoting her new story collection titled You Must Be This Happy to Enter. We read her previous book All This Heavenly Glory for our February 2007 meeting. And Rosenthal's unconventional memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life was our June 2006 selection.

Karen Abbott in conversation with Rick Kogan – Sunday at 3pm at the Heartland Stage
Abbott will be talking to Rick Kogan about her best-selling nonfiction work Sin in the Second City about Chicago's infamous Everleigh Club. The book is coming out in paperback now, and we'll be reading Sin in the Second City for our November 2008 meeting.

Aleksandar Hemon – Sunday at 3:30pm at the Harold Washington Library Center Multi-Purpose Room [Ticketed Event]
Hemon is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man, which was our October 2005 selection. Now he's due to repeat that success with his new book The Lazarus Project. Reserve your free tickets for a chance to see this still-rising local literary star.

Audrey Niffenegger and Elizabeth Crane – Sunday at 4pm at the Heartland Stage
If you go to see Karen Abbott at 3pm, don't get out of your seat, because Audrey Niffenegger and Elizabeth Crane are up next, participating in the Other Voices finale reading along with fellow local writers Billy Lombardo and Gina Frangello. Niffenegger is the author of the best-selling novel The Time Traveler's Wife, our June 2005 book club book, and this is your second chance to see Crane at the fair (see above).

More Local Authors and Don't-Miss Events

Scott Turow – Saturday at 10am at the Harold Washington Library Center Cindy Pritzker Auditorium [Ticketed Event]
Turow is a prominent Chicago lawyer and author of such wildly popular novels as Presumed Innocent and Reversible Errors. This year he is receiving the Harold Washington Literary Award.

S.E. Hinton – Saturday at Noon at the Harold Washington Library Center Cindy Pritzker Auditorium [Ticketed Event]
This is the event not to miss. The S.E. Hinton, author of the modern classics The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now, will be at the book fair to receive the 2008 Chicago Tribune Young Adult Book Prize. Get tickets now if you still can, otherwise you'll be left standing outside, clutching your dog-eared copy of The Outsiders and telling complete strangers how Pony Boy was your favorite character ever when you were 12.

Chris Ware, Ivan Brunetti and Chris Oliveros – Saturday at 1pm at the Heartland Stage
Well-known local comics artist Chris Ware will be appearing with fellow cartoonist Ivan Brunetti and Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros to talk about "Cartoonists Editing Comics." This event is another don't-miss in my book.

Augusten Burroughs – Sunday at 1:30pm at the Harold Washington Library Center Cindy Pritzker Auditorium [Ticketed Event]
Burroughs is the author of the best-selling books Running with Scissors and Dry. His most recent memoir is A Wolf at the Table. Reserve your tickets now for a chance to see him at the fair.

Alpana Singh and Charles Blackstone – Sunday at 3pm at the Good Eating Stage
Alpana Singh is the host of the popular local PBS series "Check Please!" and the author of Alpana Pours. In this event she talks with hubby Charles Blackstone, author of the novel The Week You Weren't Here.

Local Booksellers, Publishers and Other Friends of the Book Club

Be sure to stop by these booths, and tell them Gapers Block sent you (results may vary).

The Book Cellar – OO
The Book Cellar has been generously hosting the GB Book Club's monthly meetings since our group's inception. Not only is The Book Cellar a great local bookshop (and not a bad place for lunch, either), but the staff also works tirelessly to support and promote local authors through the store's monthly Local Author Night series and other events on its typically packed schedule.

Chicago Writers Association – 245, 247
The Chicago Writers Association is a creative community of hardworking up-and-coming local writers. Members will be manning the tables at the fair. Check out the CWA website to see which writers will be appearing at the fair.

Featherproof Books – 327, 329
Local indie publisher Featherproof Books is gaining a respectable track record for publishing some pretty cool novels by some pretty cool new writers, including its latest, the typographical graphic novel boring boring boring boring boring boring boring by Zach Plague. We read the Featherproof's first publishing effort, The Enchanters Vs. Sprawlburg Springs by Brian Costello, for our February 2008 book.

Lake Claremont Press – DD
We love local publisher Lake Claremont Press because they publish book about our favorite topic — Chicago. From the city's food to its history, ghosts, culture, music, geography and more, the books from Lake Claremont Press all read like love letters to our city.

The Newberry Library – 142
What is The Newberry Library? Besides being one of the world's leading independent research libraries, it is also host to dozens of events throughout the year, including musical and theatrical performances, exhibits, lectures, workshops and seminars in the humanities. And, best of all, this incredible resource is free and open to the public. The Newberry also holds an annual book fair in July that should not be missed.

The Poetry Center of Chicago – PBP2
The Poetry Center of Chicago is dedicated to supporting and promoting poets and their work throughout the city through regular events, readings and its successful Hands on Stanzas program which places Chicago poets in public school classrooms to encourage students to read and write poetry.

TallGrass Writers Guild – 225
The TallGrass Writers Guild is an active community of local writers that holds regular readings and literary events at venues around the city. The group also publishes an annual anthology of writings in association with Outrider Press.

Third World Press – F
Local publisher Third World Press is one of the country's "oldest and well-respected independent publishers of Black thought and literature." It was founded in 1967 and the publisher's extensive catalog includes works by Gwendolyn Brooks, press founder and author Haki R. Madhubuti, Sterling Plumpp, Tavis Smiley and more.

Women & Children First – PP
Women & Children First is one of the largest feminist bookstores in the country and has been one of Chicago's best-loved indie bookstores since it first opened in 1979. Although the store carries titles on every topic imaginable, its real strengths are in its excellent stock of books by and about women, children's books, and lesbian and gay fiction and nonfiction.


For complete information about the fair, including the full schedule, maps and ticket information for the special events, visit the official Printers Row Book Fair website.

Alice Maggio

Reviews Wed Feb 20 2008

Review: At the City's Edge by Marcus Sakey


At the City's Edge

by Marcus Sakey

(St. Martin's Minotaur, 2008)

Things may have been looking up for twenty-seven year-old Jason Palmer. After returning to Chicago from a stint in Iraq, Jason has no greater plans for his summer than girls, booze and spending time with his brother Michael and nephew Billy. All too quickly, these languid plans are changed when Jason’s daily run along the lakefront brings him face to face with a man he calls “Soul Patch” and the gun he finds shoved in his face. Jason’s quick wit and Army training save his life in that moment, but he’s afforded little time for comfort when he’s faced with identifying Michael’s murdered body, pulled from the burned down rubbles of his bar later that day. With his young nephew to care for and justice on his mind, Jason takes the case into his own hands and joins forces with a disparaged police officer to uncover a network of crime running far deeper below the city than he could have ever imagined.

At the City’s Edge, Marcus Sakey’s second novel, is a fast-paced and engrossing read. We learn early on that Michael was part of a group of people who informed the police on gang activity in the neighborhood. The first hint that the murder is the product of something more than random violence is born in the mind of police officer Elena Cruz, who recalls Michael saying that “there were things going on in the neighborhood that were worse than anybody guessed, that the gangs were the tip of the iceberg. Saying that he would have proof soon.” Having been taken off the streets to work behind a desk after her affair with the police chief became public knowledge, Cruz is eager to get her hands back in the game and prove her worth to her male colleagues. Together, she and Jason risk their lives to find out the truth about Michael’s death, a truth that shakes the core of what these two strong-willed characters think they know.

Sakey’s knowledge of the inner-workings of gangs shines brightly here and his skilled research is a refreshing touch to what might otherwise be an unconvincing tale. Evidence of this can be found in the Acknowledgements, in which Sakey thanks several members of the Chicago Police Department, but it can also be found in such details as Cruz’s involvement in the Gang Intelligence Unit, statistics about high school drop out rates and gang recruitment, and the presence of the Lantern Bearers, a sort of halfway house for gang member rehabilitation. Sakey states that the book is not a sociological study, but his effort to incorporate his learned knowledge about gang activity gives the story a hardened edge that make you wonder just how far the author would go to tell this story.

At the City’s Edge takes place in the fictional Crenwood, a South side neighborhood rife with poverty and violence. Though the neighborhood’s imaginary name might immediately stand out to the erudite Chicagoan, Sakey makes sure to impart the rest of the story with a very real sense of the city. Jason lives in a Chicago where he can witness the impoverished meeting the upper class from the window of his apartment at Clark and Division, where he’s sure that while everyone is familiar with Upper Wacker “he doubted many had taken the ramps down one more level, to the bowels of the city, a bleak lost place where service trucks moved between exhaust-stained roll doors under the timeless haze of yellow sodium light.” He lives in a Chicago where the Sox play in Comiskey Park and the El rumbles over everyone’s heads. The digs at the gentrified Lincoln Park do grow stale after the third or fourth iteration, however it cannot be denied that Sakey knows and loves his city well.

Though the characters are a bit too emotive for my tastes – Sakey’s attempts to illustrate Jason’s sensitive side only serve to caricaturize him and the eventual romantic liaison with Cruz is as obvious as it is unnecessary – At the City’s Edge proves to be a well-crafted crime thriller whose story is as much about very real social ills as it is about keeping the reader guessing. The truth about Michael’s murder may come as no shock to anyone familiar with Chicago history, but the similarities between this fiction and those facts provide all the shock-value needed. But on another level, this is a story about one man and the lengths he would go to defend what meager life he has left. “Pick up the gun and you live forever in its shadow,” Jason reminds himself in the midst of the story’s climax. The line serves as a fitting adage for all who are touched by this reality.

* * *

Learn more about Marcus Sakey at his website and at The Outfit, where he joins literary forces with six other local crime and mystery authors.

Veronica Bond

Feature Thu Jan 17 2008

Review: Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen

Review by Cinnamon Cooper


Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind

by Paula Kamen

(Da Capo Press, 2007)

I've been a fan of Paula Kamen's for several years, and fortunate to call her a friend for a few years. I've seen her writing develop subtleties, her theses grow more sophisticated, and I've seen her personality shine through her writing. I've also seen her struggle with health issues, support her friends, fall in love and enjoy life. And I consider myself blessed and fortunate to get to know Paula the person, after developing such an amazing writer-crush on Paula the author.

Shortly after I moved to Chicago 10 years ago, I picked up her book Feminist Fatale: Voices from the "twentysomething" Generation Explore the Future of the Women's Movement at a local library. I'd recently graduated from college, felt alienated from the feminist community, and I missed reading and discussing feminism with my peers. Sitting alone in my apartment with a borrowed copy of Paula's book made me feel less alone. She seemed to get what it was like to be a young feminist and feel alienated from a movement. After I finished the book, I read her short bio and realized Paula was just a few years older than I was and she lived in Chicago. My appreciation of her work deepened and my writer-crush began.

A mutual friend introduced me to Paula a few years ago, and when she found out that we have a shared interest in feminism, Chicago and supporting some of the same organizations she became supportive of me without missing a beat. She didn't hesitate to encourage me, congratulate me and introduce me to her friends. And all the while she was doing this I kept finding myself wishing I had her writing skills, her book deals, her voice. I found myself in awe of her as much as I found myself appreciating her.

I mention this explanation of my introduction to Paula because it seems to mirror her relationship with her friend and fellow journalist Iris Chang. Paula's most recent book Finding Iris Chang: Friendship, Ambition, and the Loss of an Extraordinary Mind follows a complex path through their friendship, the relationships that Iris had with others, her death and Paula's need to understand why she killed herself.

This book isn't only about Iris's life, work and the loss of an amazing and sensitive investigative writer, it's about Paula's friendship with and professional admiration of Iris. In fact, Paula touches on so many things in this book, it's amazing Paula is able to keep a common thread tying them all together. Their relationship was full of amazing contradictions and Paula lays them all out so the reader can see Iris as the complex person she knew. Paula doesn't make this book her opportunity to wax lyrically about the joys of their relationship. She examines her own weaknesses while comparing them with Iris's to create a more complete and honest understanding of what it was like to be friends with someone who seemed to get everything you wanted and whose energy was taxing and remarkably hard to bear.

Amidst Paula's revelations about their friendship and the quality of life Iris enjoyed, she is able to share some of Iris's writing advice, comments from many of her friends, medical information about bipolar disorder and suicide, as well as describe signs that only a fully-informed professional would have been able to see in Iris. But because Paula has so much experience writing about feminist issues, she critiques medical treatments and misdiagnoses, or under-diagnoses, of mental illness in women and particularly Chinese women, without overshadowing Iris herself. But there isn't the sense that Paula is objectifying Iris's death. Even though Paula calls out for journalists to understand that writing about heavy emotional subject matter affects them, she doesn't seem to be taking advantage of her friendship with Iris to push her own agenda. Yet she doesn't remain cold and unbiased the way journalists are supposed to be toward their subject matter.

After reading Paula's book on Iris, I realized I had to read Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking before I could write this review. I knew only vaguely about the incidents Iris wrote about in her book. Reading Iris's book was traumatizing and made it impossible to read anything long for quite some time afterward. I was appalled and disgusted and angered and found myself dwelling on the images in the book, both the photographs and the visual imagery Iris created. Reading Iris's book gave me a better understanding of Paula's writing and a better understanding of how affected Iris must have been by the subject matter after her book was published and the negative feedback and threats began to roll in.

Reading The Rape of Nanking also made the tangents in Paula's book seem less like tangents. After reading about the rape and murder of hundreds of thousands of Chinese people at the hands of Japanese soldiers, I felt like I could use a good therapy session. It made me wonder how Iris could have spoken with the dozens of people she tenaciously interviewed without having had one herself. I have to agree with Paula's thoughts that journalists need support in finding ways to not be affected in a toxic way as they cover devastation and dark topics. I also found myself wishing I'd gotten to know Iris, as I continue to hope this book may prevent future Irises from following in her devastating footsteps.

Iris's writing encouraged countless young Asian women to follow their dreams of writing. Paula interviews a few in this book, and I was lucky to meet one on the train. I was reading Paula's book and taking notes in my notebook when a young woman sitting across from me gained my attention and asked breathlessly, "Is that a book about Iris Chang the writer?" I nodded and handed her the book. She skimmed the inside jacket text and handed it back to me. She seemed visibly shaken, and I wasn't sure how to respond to her. "She's the only reason I got my parents to agree to let me become a writer. They wanted me to go to law school. But I showed them her books in high school and told them I wanted to make life better for people through words, not law. When they found out Iris killed herself they pulled me out of school for a quarter and made me come home because they were worried I would do the same thing. They then told me about aunts, and uncles and older relatives who had all killed themselves and made me go to a psychologist." I was stunned by her telling a complete stranger this and asked if she was now back in school. "Oh, yeah. The shrink gave me a clean bill of health, and we wrote up a mental health plan to make my parents feel more comfortable, and now I feel more interested than ever in following in her footsteps. I've switched to being a history major, too. I should probably read this about her." I agreed. She thanked me for listening and ended with, "It's not like my people, you know. To open up about ourselves. We have to be perfect, we Chinese. We have to prove ourselves through continuous action, not emotion. But that's not good."

I think Paula would agree with her. Paula's book came about because of a eulogy she wrote for She describes how inspiring Iris was and how she found herself using Iris as the example she gave during a speech to writing students. After exhorting that they just "Iris Chang it", she would tell them they had nothing to lose by thinking big. It's advice and a view I've seen Paula describe to others, as well. As a fan of her writing, and someone who has benefited from Paula's encouragement, I'm excited to see how she "Iris Changs" her next book. But I think I'll read this one once more, just to make sure I didn't miss anything.

Alice Maggio

Feature Thu Jan 03 2008

2007 Chicago Books in Review

Another year has come and gone, and this week the book club takes its annual look back at some of the notable fiction written by local writers and nonfiction books about Chicago published in 2007. As in years past, this list is far from comprehensive, but it includes enough great titles to keep you busy through 2008.


Berg, Elizabeth. Dream When You're Feeling Blue. (Random)

Butcher, Jim. White Night. (Roc)

Chercover, Sean. Big City, Bad Blood. ( William Morrow)

Collins, Max Allan. Deadly Beloved. (Hard Case Crime)

Ferris, Joshua. Then We Came to the End. (Little, Brown)

Graff, Keir. My Fellow Americans. (Severn)

Harvey, Michael. The Chicago Way. (Knopf)

Hellmann, Libby Fischer, et al. Chicago Blues. (Bleak House Books)

Horan, Nancy. Loving Frank: A Novel. (Ballantine)

Hornschemeier, Paul. The Three Paradoxes. (Fantagraphics)

Kaminsky, Stuart M. The Dead Don't Lie. (Forge)

Konrath, J. A. Dirty Martini. (Hyperion)

Messinger, Jonathan. Hiding Out. (Featherproof)

Olds, Bruce. The Moments Lost: A Midwest Pilgrim's Progress. (Farrar)

Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. Natural Born Charmer. (Morrow)

Pride, Alexis J. Where the River Ends. (Utour)

Rapp, Adam. The Year of Endless Sorrows: A Novel. (Farrar)

Romano, Tony. When the World Was Young. (HarperCollins)

Sakey, Marcus. The Blade Itself. (St. Martin's/Minotaur)

Schwegel, Theresa. Person of Interest. (St. Martin's/Minotaur)

Wiley, Michael. The Last Striptease. (St. Martin's)


Abbott, Karen. Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul. (Random)

Alder, Ken. The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession. (Free Press)

Bachrach, Julia Sniderman et al. Inspired by Nature: The Garfield Park Conservatory and Chicago's West Side. (Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance)

Baer, Richard. Switching Time. (Crown)

Brownlee, Les. Les Brownlee: The Autobiography of a Pioneering African-American Journalist. (Marion Street)

Burke, Edward M. and Thomas J. O'Gorman. End of Watch. (Chicago's Books Press)

Davis, Kevin. Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office. (Atria)

Green, Adam. Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955. (University of Chicago Press)

Green, Larry W. et al. Water Tanks of Chicago: A Vanishing Urban Legacy. (Wicker Park Press)

Hanson, Karen. Today's Chicago Blues. (Lake Claremont Press)

Jacob, Mark et al. Chicago under Glass: The Chicago Daily News Negatives, 1901-1930. (University of Chicago Press)

King, Richard. My Maggie. (HPH Publishing)

Lesy, Michael. Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the 1920s. (Norton)

Mendell, David. Obama: From Promise to Power. (Amistad)

Okuda, Ted and Mark Yurkiw. Chicago TV Horror Movie Shows: From Shock Theatre to Svengoolie. (Lake Claremont Press)

Pattillo, Mary. Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City. (University of Chicago Press)

Paretsky, Sara. Writing in an Age of Silence. (Verso)

Rogak, Lisa. A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein. (St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne)

Street, Paul Louis. Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers)

Terkel, Studs. Touch and Go. (New Press)

Weigel, Jenniffer. Stay Tuned: Conversations with Dad from the Other Side. (Hampton Roads)

Williams, Michael and Richard Cahan. Chicago: City on the Move. (CityFiles)

Alice Maggio

Book Club Thu Nov 01 2007

2008 Book List

We received many excellent suggestions for our 2008 book list (thank you!), but from the dozens and dozens of titles on our list of potential selections, we had to whittle it down to just 11 books. This task gets harder every year as more great new books get published, and we keep discovering classic titles that shouldn't be overlooked. But, decisions had to be made, and without further ado, here is the complete reading list for the 2008 Gapers Block Book Club.

Never a City so Real by Alex Kotlowitz (Crown, 2004)
Explore Chicago in this collection of essays in which Kotlowitz profiles of some of the city's uncelebrated citizens.

The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs by Brian Costello (Featherproof, 2006)
Costello's debut novel is a comic story about a garage band called The Enchanters and their fictional suburb of Sprawlburg Springs.

Fire Sale by Sara Paretsky (Signet, 2006)
In the 13th book of Paretsky's celebrated V.I. Warshawski mystery series, the detective finds herself coaching basketball at her former South Chicago high school and investigating sabotage at a local factory.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002)
This coming-of-age story about a hermaphrodite growing up in Michigan in the mid-20th century won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Grass Dancer by Susan Power (Berkley, 1997)
Power weaves a unforgettable portrait of the Dakota Sioux Indians in this collection of inter-related stories that draw from contemporary life on the reservation and Dakota Sioux legends. This book won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 1995 and was named an ALA Notable Book.

Naked by David Sedaris
A collection of autobiographical essays from one of this country's most well-known humorists.

Free Burning by Bayo Ojikutu (Three Rivers, 2006)
This powerful second novel from Ojikutu continues the story of Tommie Simms. When Simms loses his job at an insurance firm, he begins selling pot to make ends meet and quickly spirals downward into Chicago's dark underbelly.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (Scholastic, 2001)
Harmless children's fantasy or dark political allegory? Let's discuss.

Native Son by Richard Wright (Harper Perennial, 2005)
First published in 1940, Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man living on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s who becomes swept up by forces of fear, violence, racism and hopelessness after he accidentally kills a white woman.

Dirty Sugar Cookies by Ayun Halliday (Seal, 2006)
A light-hearted culinary memoir from a self-described "anti-foodie."

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott (Random House, 2007)
The true story of Ada and Minna Everleigh, the two sisters who ran the infamous Everleigh Club brothel on Chicago's Near South Side at the beginning of the 20th century.

Alice Maggio

Feature Sun Sep 09 2007

Review: The Guardians by Ana Castillo

For our September meeting we are reading Peel My Love Like an Onion by Ana Castillo, but this past month I also had the opportunity to read her latest novel, The Guardians, a harrowing and poignant story about family, spirituality, Mexican identity and the troubled relationship between the United States and Mexico along the border.

The guardians of the title are the Franklins, the hills that mark the border between New Mexico and Mexico. In the beginning of the novel, Regina, a middle-aged widow living alone on the outskirts of a small New Mexico border town, says of the Franklins, "Like giants, they take the sun and play with people's eyes, changing colors. Like shape-shifters, they change the way they look, too. They let the devoted climb up along their spines and crown them with white crosses and flowers and mementos. They give themselves that way, those guardians between the two countries."

Regina is looking towards the hills, waiting for her brother Rafael, who splits his time between working in the U.S. and living in Mexico. Gabriel, Rafa's 15-year-old son, has been staying with his aunt so he can finish high school in America. Her brother was due back days ago, but he has not returned. He was supposed to cross over with a coyote, a guide to lead him through the desert across the border, but something has gone wrong, and the only evidence Regina has is a phone number taken from her caller ID after she receives a threatening phone call from a woman claiming to know where Rafa is.

Regina needs to know what happened to her brother and begins her own detective work. Gabriel's mother was murdered in a similar crossing years ago — her mutilated body was later found in the desert. Vital organs were missing, harvested for the black market. Regina cannot rest until she knows her brother's fate.

She is an aide at a school in Cabuche, New Mexico, where she meets Miguel Betancourt, a handsome, divorced history teacher with two kids, an ex-wife and lots of ideas about what wrong with U.S.-Mexico relations. Miguel is captivated by the headstrong Regina and agrees to help her search for her brother.

Gabo, as Gabriel is called, also searches for his father in his own way, befriending some gangbangers at his school who may or may not be connected to those responsible for his father's disappearance. He is no street tough in the making, however. Gabo is a deeply spiritual young man whose increasing devotions and religious eccentricities begin to alarm those around him.

The story is told from multiple points of view. Regina is tough, a survivor, used to living on her own on the edge of the desert, but she has a wry sense of humor. She is also an entrepreneur, inventing endless ways to earn a little extra money to make ends meet. Miguel, when he isn't mentally planning his book about the troubled history between the U.S. and Latin America, is torn between his responsibilities to his family and his involvement with Regina. Miguel's ornery, blind and hard-of-hearing grandfather, Milton, also joins the investigation into Rafa's disappearance, and injects some welcome humor and charm into the story. And, finally, Gabo's narrative is written in the form of letters to Padre Pío, his favorite saint.

Their stories intertwine to tell of the search for Regina's brother, but also to reveal a grim portrait of life near the U.S.-Mexico border. It is a life where everyone seems to have lost someone, where people routinely disappear — or are murdered outright, and the illegal drug trade spreads through the border communities like a malignant cancer. As the mystery of Rafa's disappearance unravels, Castillo effectively conveys the harsh, unforgiving environment of the New Mexico desert, and the all-too-real struggles of the American border communities. The Guardians is both funny and heartbreaking, poignant and horrifying, wrapped in a story of a woman and her nephew searching for a man who is both brother and father.

Alice Maggio

Feature Thu Aug 16 2007

A Book Club Photo Diary

On Monday, August 13, the Gapers Block Book Club met to talk about Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. It was our 27th book club discussion and one of our biggest groups yet. GB staffer Daniel X. O'Neil joined us to document the event.

The place.

The book.

Introducing ourselves.

Lots of laughs.

Happy readers.

Engaged in discussion.

The real sideshow circus performers.

More laughs.

The view from the book shelves.

See you next month!

All photos are by Dan X. O'Neil. You can view these and many more photos from the event on Flickr.

Alice Maggio

Feature Thu Aug 09 2007

Review: Mule Magazine Issue 4

Mule Magazine is a bi-annual arts and culture publication that began in 2002 as a student project at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. Those former students are now spread across the country, and currently the magazine is based in Chicago. Issue 4 is their most recent effort.

Articles cover a range of topics, from art and fashion to music and film, and Issue 4 is dense with content. It includes a massive line-up of features, interviews, original art and short-form reviews, all packed into a meaty 62 pages. Little space is wasted, and the magazine conveys the kind of visual overload of design publications like IdN.

The content also reflects the staff's split origins between Tennessee and Chicago. Issue 4 contains interviews with Chicago-based musician Philip Cohran and band Pit er Pat, alongside a profile of Knoxville, Tenn., band The Tenderhooks. Similarly, a write-up of the Chicago artist group The Soft Shop is balanced by a spread featuring the work of Knoxville printmaker Bryan Baker. This dueling Midwestern-Southern sensibility works just fine, although it is a bit jarring when, even in the advertising, the Old Town School of Folk Music shares space with a Nashville record store.

Writer and co-editor Jennifer Brandel is one of the talents behind Mule Magazine, and both her profile of musician Dave Fischoff and interview with DEPART-ment founder Marshall Preheim are standouts in Issue 4. Both pieces are thoughtful, insightful and tightly written. On the whole, the publication is engaging, well-written and carefully edited, but there are a couple uneven spots. The review section suffers from a lack of organization, with album reviews, artist profiles, an interview with Iraqi filmmaker Usama Alshaibi and even a write-up about a Chicago-based tea company all jumbled together. And, unfortunately, the fashion section feels tacked on. The pieces by Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, Kristen Kennedy and Aay Preston-Myint are innovative and visually striking, but the feature gets lost, sandwiched between the ads at the end of the issue.

Despite the minor unevenness, Issue 4 of Mule Magazine is an impressive, ambitious effort and well worth seeking out. Contributions to the magazine are all volunteer-based, and it is independently produced, just like a certain Chicago-based web publication…Mule Magazine may be found at Reckless Records and Quimby's, and Issue 5 is expected to hit newsstands this fall. And, visit Mule Magazine online at

Alice Maggio

Feature Wed Feb 21 2007

Bookstore Profile: Unabridged

I've always enjoyed being a woman of my own means. However, living on what means I have often involves adhering to some sort of budget and, as any booklover knows, bright shiny new books, in hardcover or even paperback, can easily put a crick in one's financial plans. The budget-conscious may then resort to traversing the aisles of local used bookstores – and goodness knows we Chicagoans have a great many of those to choose from – but the problem inherent to used books is there in the title: they're used. Yes, I am one of those readers who never breaks the spine, or dog-ears pages and nearly cries when she accidentally drips coffee on her morning read. This neurosis does not lend itself well to the pre-read book and though I'll admit that I've purchased a good number of my books used and in good condition, I'll also admit that I've often passed up books I've really wanted because they didn't pass my stern standards. It's a constant struggle between literary desire and affordability.

Imagine my joy when I discovered Unabridged Books. Nestled in the heart of Lakeview just north of Belmont, this independently owned bookstore of twenty-six years offers not only the most recently published titles, but also a hearty selection of discounted and remaindered books. While most bookstores only offer discounts on books they haven't been able sell, Unabridged often stocks their sale section with books that have been out for less than a year. Of course, like any store that sells discounted books, you can't rely on any particular title being on the shelves, but that just makes the joy of finding something you covet that much greater. I've found everything from Anthony Bourdain to Michael Chabon to Salman Rushdie to the most recent Harry Potter hardcover here. I've even seen Susanna Clarke's massive Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on these shelves and nothing I've purchased has been over $10 – an amazing price even if you studiously wait until the titles you want are out in paperback. And because these are the remaindered books that didn't sell the first time around, they're beautifully new. It's an anal-retentive, budget-conscious, booklover's dream.

As wonderful as Unabridged's sale section is, I'd be remiss if I didn't commend the fully stocked shelves of the remainder of the store. A fully functioning bookstore, Unabridged offers a vast array of fiction and non-fiction, spanning everything from political memoirs to classic literature to the latest darlings of the bestseller lists. While the front section houses newly released hardcovers, a few steps into the store will bring you to interior design and art books. Turn a corner and you'll be met with mystery, fantasy and science fiction. Drama, literary criticism, reference, poetry, humor, graphic novels, history and current events are also housed here, along with a healthy selection of classic and contemporary fiction. The north side of the store is home to titles for children and young adults and, bridged by the sale section, Unabridged offers a unique specialty section of gay and lesbian books that includes everything from queer fiction and non-fiction to travel to coming out stories and more. Venture downstairs and you'll find cookbooks, gardening, Chicago books, general travel and calendars so numerous they're sure to have something for everyone's taste. Approaching Unabridged from the outside it's difficult to imagine such an abundance of titles fit inside the store's walls, but taking the time to discover each section makes each visit a fruitful one.

Of course, you could still go to your nearest Borders or Barnes & Noble if price is no issue and personality means nothing. It may be of no comfort to you to see the same faces of the small, full-time staff stocking shelves, ringing up purchases and offering their erudite opinions on subjects as diverse as Nelson Algren and Lemony Snicket. You may not care to read their in-depth personal book recommendations, spread throughout the store on handwritten cards, or have award winners and nominees brought to your attention in the same manner. You may want to just stop in, pick up what you've set out to buy, make your purchase and leave, as though you were sent out to the grocery store for dishwashing liquid. And you could do that here – Unabridged's staffers don't make a habit of accosting their customers and pushing them to make purchases they don't want – but you'd greatly miss out on everything this highly personable and knowledgeable bookstore has to offer. If, however, you do want to share your love of books, enjoy taking a few hours to peruse new titles and feel a sense of accomplish when you acquire an armful of books without lightening your wallet too much, Unabridged is like finding a second home.


Unabridged Bookstore is located at 3251 N. Broadway in Lakeview. To find out more about the store, their monthly book group and to sign up for their newsletter, visit the website at or call 773-883-9119.

Veronica Bond / Comments (3)

Feature Wed Jan 31 2007

Review: Big City, Bad Blood

Big City, Bad Blood Big City, Bad Blood
by Sean Chercover
(William Morrow, 2007; 294 p.)

Ray Dudgeon is a former journalist working as a private investigator in Chicago, hoping he can bring about more real change as a detective than he could as a reporter. Bob Loniski is a Hollywood locations manager, renting a warehouse on the South Side to film a new movie titled Final Revenge. But when Bob sees too much, he becomes un witting witness in a case against Frank DiMarco, a crook with significant ties to the Outfit. Now the Outfit wants Bob dead, and Ray is the only one standing in their way.

Ray takes the case to protect Bob, but he is beset by obstacles, and meanwhile, the other witnesses are turning up dead. Ray's investigation eventually leads him deep into Outfit politics, the Chicago sex trade, blackmail and corrupt public officials. Ray might be able to unravel the mystery, but will it be soon enough to save his client?

Big City, Bad Blood is a fast-paced crime novel filled with twists and turns, yet leading to a satisfying conclusion — but not too satisfying, because this book has all the makings of being the first in a series.

This is a story without clear cut good guys and bad guys. The characters have complex allegiances and motivations, which gives Big City, Bad Blood a ring of truth. Ray Dudgeon is far from faultless, and he may enjoy the more violent aspects of his work a little too much. Yet the story is told from his point of view, so readers also know he cares deeply for the people in his life, and he inspires great loyalty and friendship in others. It makes Ray just sympathetic enough to keep the reader firmly on his side.

Author Sean Chercover grew up in Toronto, but he earned his BA at Columbia College Chicago and currently splits his time between the two cities. Big City, Bad Blood is his first novel, although he has extensive experience writing for print, television and film. Chercover is also a former private investigator. He worked as a PI in both Chicago and New Orleans. This comes as little surprise given the level of realism he achieves in the book.

Big City, Bad Blood is a sharply written debut novel, with a tough protagonist and gritty crime drama that captures the essence of Chicago. It is highly recommended.

Alice Maggio

Feature Wed Jan 24 2007

Tales from the Dim Unknown

Chicago has produced some of the finest names in science fiction, and no true sci-fi fan could claim their fanaticism without having made themselves familiar with these works. Lest local fans fear that all the good sci-fi hails from the past, a new light shines with the publication of the free literary magazine, Tales from the Dim Unknown. Born at Columbia College, the magazine currently has only their premiere, May 2006 issue in print, but the stories inside breed bright hope for many issues to come.

The most striking story in this issue is the comic "The Firefly Brigade." Written by the magazine's president and editor Brian Torney, the comic is split into three chapters, each one illustrated by a different artist. The story focuses on a Holocaust-like event in Poland that leaves the downtrodden gathered together in camps while individuals are executed for their physical injuries or other perceived faults. One strange night, the prisoners see fire streak through the sky as a rocket crashes in the distance. Each illustrator imparts a completely different feeling on their section of the story, going from the cold blues of distant memory to the firey red of lucidity and curiosity to the softer lines of aged regret for an adventure not taken. In a risky decision that could have left an otherwise interesting story feeling broken and disjointed, artists Rebecca Huston, Kristina Chlebowski and Sarah Becan together successfully heighten the visual interest of Torney's story.

The magazine's three short stories stand up just as nicely beside their comic counterparts. Patrick van Slee's "Sympathy for the Robot" is told from the viewpoint of a cocky, smart alec robot who saves Bob, the last man alive after the earth is destroyed by hurricanes, tornadoes and melting ice caps. While the robot goes on about religious parables of world destruction, the rising price of oil and the technological advancements of humans, we learn that humanity may actually have been destroyed altogether. "No offense, buddy," the robot says, "but you're not exactly the best companion a guy shooting off into space could hope for. I have to tell you this, Bob, and don't get upset, but you're dead. But that's okay!" Both amusing and imaginative, the story turns an eye toward what may happen during the last human connection. In "Alien Johnny," Amanda Steiger brings a human, John Hooper, to the wreckage of a UFO and the corpse of a bleeding alien. John's anti-alien in the way that Americans are seen to be anti-immigration, proclaiming that the alien deserves his death for trying to come to his planet, but a small object from the wreckage unexpectedly piques his interest. Finally, in C.S.E. Cooney's "Mermaid from Mars," a happy birthday present results in a tragic situation for a family. This isn't Disney's little mermaid that Cooney gives us, but an animal held in captivity with a dragonhead and green eyes that glow with an emotion that is far from the cheery hopefulness of the animated version.

To be truthful, glossy pages and rich, saturated colors do well to convey the seriousness of a publication. Although there are plenty of worthwhile reads that appear in little more than Xeroxed black and white, the fact that Tales from the Dim Unknown comes to the reader in such a finished package, combined with the great reads inside, speaks well of the creators' ambitions. And though bookstores are rife with independent magazines filled with poetry, experimental fiction and creative nonfiction and essays, a magazine devoted to up and coming science fiction writers is a rare find. As Torney writes in the acknowledgements, Tales from the Dim Unknown was made possible through a grant from the Albert P. Weisman scholarship fund, which makes this group of writers very lucky to be able to see their work come to such gorgeous fruition. With May 2007 as the tentative date for issue two, one hopes there comes a time that readers will be treated to more frequent issues. But, even if this isn't the case, and even if the money isn't there, the inventive writing and vivid illustrations would be more than enough to keep this sci-fi fan wanting more, even if it were just black and white.


To learn more, visit Tales from the Dim Unknown on myspace.

Veronica Bond

Feature Wed Jan 17 2007

Keeping a Reading Journal

A reading journal is one of the best ways to track your reading habits and actively engage with the materials you read. This article will give you some tips on starting a reading journal, although no one "right" way exists to track the books, journals or articles you read — it can be as structured or as informal as you like. Do what appeals to you, and what you'll be able to stick to doing. But if you are serious about learning and getting the most out of what you read, a reading journal can be a valuable source of notes, thoughts and analysis you can return to again and again.

The first consideration is the format of your journal. Should you choose a paper journal, electronic document or online log?

With a paper journal, all you need is a basic notebook or memo pad. Smaller format blank books and journals work well because they are lightweight and easy to throw into a bag and carry around. Some companies make fancy journals specifically meant for recording the books you read. If this appeals to you, and you have money to burn, check out the ultra-swanky Bookography Journal from Levenger, which has pre-formatted pages with lots of bells and whistles. More affordable book journals include the Book Lust journal, based on the popular books by Nancy Pearl, and the What I Read mini journal from Potter Style. But, really, any old notebook will do.

If you don't like the idea of a paper journal, you might consider keeping track of your reading using an electronic format. Your reading log might be as simple as a text file list of the books you've completed. Or, it can be as complicated as a home-grown database created using applications such as Microsoft Access or Filemaker.

Finally, if you would like to share your reading journal with the world, start a book blog or check out one of the literary social networking services reviewed here a few weeks ago.

What do the GB Book Club moderators do? Veronica Bond and I are both long-time bloggers, so we both keep reading blogs. Veronica writes personalized, full-length reviews of the books she reads on her book blog, Veronica's Book Lounge, while I barely manage a full paragraph for most of my summaries at Rabbit Girl Reads. You might take a completely different approach.

After you decide on a format, what should you include in your reading journal? At the very least, you can keep a list of the titles and authors of the books read, plus the date (month/year) they were completed. But, you also might consider any of the following:

1. Characters: Who are the major characters in the book? What are they like? What roles do they play in the story?

2. Plot: What happens? Write a brief summary of the story.

3. Style: How would you describe the author's writing style? How does it affect the book?

4. Point of View: Who's telling the story? Why do you think the author chose a particular point of view?

5. Setting: Where and when does the book take place?

6. Themes: What is the book really about?

7. Copy favorite quotes from the book.

8. Record notes about the book itself. Did you buy it? Borrow it? Where/when? Was it a gift? From whom?

9. Why did you want to read the book? Did it meet your expectations? Why or why not?

Other uses for your reading journal include keeping a list of books you want to read or a list of favorite bookstores. Just leave a few blank pages in the front or back of a paper journal, a separate text file on your computer or an open post on your blog.

Keeping a reading journal is a worthwhile exercise that becomes more rewarding with age. Every year, you can look back and examine your changing interests and moods through the books you read. You can remember the summer you finally broke down and read all the Harry Potter books, or the year you vowed to read only literary prize winners. And, you can go back and re-read books and track how your feelings about a book have changed over time.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. You might have lots more. If you already keep some sort of reading journal and have tips to share, please post them in the comments.

Alice Maggio

Feature Thu Dec 28 2006

Readers' Favorite 2006 Reads

We asked you to tell us what books you enjoyed reading most in 2006, and you answered. Here is a list of Gapers Block readers' favorite reads this year. It includes new books and classics, fiction and nonfiction, and may give other readers some ideas for what to read in 2007.

Thanks to everyone who contributed. If you would still like to contribute, add your favorite book read in 2006 in the comments.

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Very sarcastic, cynical chef's expose of the restaurant industry. Very funny if you like dark, dry humor, and clearly written by a food lover — if you're one of those seeking a soulmate.
--Catherine P.

Mark Dunn, Ibid: A Novel
This novel is allegedly the footnotes from a lost biography. It was witty, but not too clever. Kudos to the author for pulling off a pretty good novel with an interesting format to boot.
--Catherine P.

Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation
A new book by one of my favorite authors. Grandin is a highly functioning autistic woman who has become a champion of ethical treatment of animals raised for food. Her practical humane approach to this industry is a model for our society which prefers not to know where their food came from, and her lack of pretense, which she credits to autism, gives her a refreshing and inspiring modesty and practicality.
--Catherine P.

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
This book was interesting and fun. It's also one of those books to which I refer in conversation all the time. It's a quick read and it gets you into the circle of people who refer to why drug dealers live at home and the importance (or lack thereof) of school choice.
--Catherine P.

Sinclair Lewis, Babbit
With wit and irony, and efficient writing, Lewis skewers the business class values of the 1920s — values that seem to have changed little over the last 80 years. Still, Lewis manages to make the main character sympathetic, and forces readers to think hard about the mainstream ideals of American culture.
--Thad R.

Steve Martin, Shopgirl
A very sweet, incredibly well-written short novel about delicate souls caught up in the strange world of southern California. The characters were recognizable and sympathetic, and the author's loving treatment of his heroine really surprised me. I expected this book, because of its author, to be funny, but not as tender and engrossing as it was.
--Catherine P.

James Meek, The People's Act of Love
My favorite book of 2006 is James Meek's The People's Act of Love. Meek's novel is a stunning achievement, one with a broad epic sweep which still manages to convey the small but telling details of people's everyday lives. It's an unforgettable story of love, suspense and war which asks big philosophical questions which are, ambiguously and intriguingly, only partially answered. A truly great book.
--Pete A.

Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood
I had a difficult time choosing among Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, Nelson Algren's Man With the Golden Arm or Wise Blood. Augie March, Frankie Machine and Hazel Motes are all unforgettable characters, and reading each of these works reminded me why the classics are classic. But, Wise Blood wins in the end, because I am certain I will never forget the story of Hazel Motes, a troubled young man in a preacher's hat, haunted by the ragged figure of Jesus moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, who blinds himself in order to see. Wise Blood is both disturbing and darkly funny, and Flannery O'Connor's language is original and powerful.
--Alice M.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep
Whenever I think about the best book I read this year, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep is the one that comes to mind. I didn’t expect to love the book quite so much, especially since it was so well received when it first came out, but the coming of age story of a teenaged Lee Fiora trying to find herself within the melodramatic walls of a boarding prep school turned out to be surprisingly insightful. It isn’t that Lee isn’t a smart girl or is entirely gauche, but she’s constantly second guessing herself and wondering whether she merits any attention instead of standing up and making herself known. Lee’s the kind of person I never want to be, but have always been afraid I really am. I truly hope book weathers the years and becomes one in which, a century from now, people are still able to see themselves.
--Veronica B.

Robert Sullivan, Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants
I hold this book in high esteem for its inception and topic more than its execution. After all, the entire book is a tangent about rats. Sullivan began his layperson's examination of our oft-maligned neighbors after finding an Audubon painting of rats stealing an egg. Rather than quickly turning to the next illustration, he became engrossed in the subject. The result is a series of late-night observations of rats, interviews with exterminators, and chronicles of unusual experiences. While there are passages that I wish were more descriptive or more critical, Rats ultimately provides the reader with a fascinating glimpse of another stratum of urban life.
--Dave S.

Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation
Great for history buffs and anyone with an offbeat obsession. Vowell is really into presidential assassinations, and this book follows her travels to various museums and historical markers tracking these events. Sound super-boring and self-involved? It's not.
--Catherine P.

Alice Maggio / Comments (1)

Feature Wed Dec 20 2006

Holiday Book Bash 2006

The idea of getting a bunch of books together, inviting the authors to mingle with the reading public, adding food and a couple of demonstrations sounds like perfect event. This is precisely the idea behind the Chicago Headline Club Foundation’s Holiday Book Bash. This year marked the Club’s second Book Bash and featured such notable authors as Rick Kogan, Gale Gand, Alpana Singh, Stacy Ballis and more, as well as a silent auction for numerous gift packages. Although these seem like the perfect elements for an excellent literary event –- and the hefty price for a general admission ticket would seem to hold some promise –- Alice and I both came away from the evening wanting more. I admit that I’ve never planned a literary event myself, but I’ve been to plenty of them and at the Book Bash several issues immediately stood out as problematic. In the interest of fostering a more satisfactory Bash, below are some suggestions to make the ticket price worthwhile.

Issue #1: Seating
While many literary events don’t offer food, or if they do they’re light refreshments, the Book Bash featured an extensive Italian buffet, complete with pasta, chicken, mushrooms, artichoke and calamari. The plates were ceramic and the silverware was real, but for the hundred or so attendees there were less than ten six-seat tables. If you weren’t lucky enough to snag one of these or one of the few smaller, bar-height tables that held about two plates safely, you were stuck eating standing up with a heavy food-filled plate in one hand and no room for a drink in the other. Proposed Solution: Use ticket sales to judge the number of tables needed. Generally, if one purchases a ticket for an event that includes a full dinner, one also expects that a table and chair are similarly included in the price.

Issue #2: Acoustics
The Book Bash was held at the Galleria Marchetti in a large ballroom just past the entrance. I don’t know what the room is normally used for, but it was nearly impossible to understand the hosts and author speakers throughout the evening. The chatter of the dining guests combined with the clink of knives and forks, the ringing of cash registers and the murmur of waiters refilling food trays formed a looming racket that forced the speakers to shout into the microphones, the amplified shouting adding just another layer to the thick blanket of sound. The fact that the guests seemed more interested in continuing their conversations than quieting down for the authors perhaps says more about the type of people this event attracts than it does about the quality of the meeting space. Proposed Solution: Inquire about acoustic quality when visiting potential event sites. Formalize the schedule so that the featured authors are the main focus rather than background noise. Leave out the stale holiday tunes, especially if the event is being held in early November.

Rick Kogan, Steve Cochran, Richard Roeper, Sylvia Ewing

Issue #3: Authors
Building on Issue #2, the authors for whom the Bash was created were almost secondary to all the other commotion in the room. No author made his discontent with this clearer than Richard Roeper. As the author of the recently published Sox in the City, Roeper took the stage with Tribune columnist Rick Kogan for several truly uncomfortable moments of banter. WGN’s Steve Cochran and WBEZ’s Sylvia Ewing hosted, but Roeper took matters into his own hands. “The first thing you want to do is have the food stand right in front,” he griped, pointing to what was not a food stand but Gale Gand’s demonstration cart. “And if you have four people, you should have two mics! I have to comment on these things as they happen!” True, the evening was disorganized, but deriding it onstage certainly didn’t help. In sharp contrast, Kogan gracefully attempted to exchange a few jokes with the hosts and stepped quietly off the stage when the Book Bash Chat was over. Proposed Solution: Featured authors should be featured, not incidental to the event. Additional Suggestion: Don’t invite Richard Roeper to anything. Ever.

Issue #4: Vendors
In a city brimming with home grown literature, there is nothing quite as disappointing as realizing that the book vendor for a non-profit literary event is not one of our fabulous independent bookstores, but Barnes & Noble. I find it hard to believe that no other bookseller would have been happy to offer their services. Proposed Solution: Do some marketing research and help out other local businesses. Going with the big business is the easy way out.

I check out the sales table

Issue #5: Prizes
For an organization that purports to promote literature, the silent auction prizes were decidedly unliterary. Although there was the occasional obvious pairing -– Alpana Pours with four bottles of wine, a copy of Jen Lancester’s Bitter is the New Black -– most of the prizes had little do with the authors featured at the event. Spa packages and theater tickets may be enticing on their own, but they’re far too typical silent auction prizes. The prize table felt more like a Macy’s than a book event. Proposed Solution: Put your thinking caps on and come up with some interesting, literary themed packages. People will bid on out of the ordinary prizes.

Alice and I left before the event was over because we simply weren’t having any fun. Having been to a number of local literary events, it’s easy to know that very little is required to make them enjoyable. In fact, I’d venture to say that little more is needed than an engaging author and an interested audience. They say the best things in life are free and after having been to the Holiday Book Bash, the same thing might be said of literary events.

Veronica Bond

Feature Wed Dec 13 2006

2006 Chicago Books in Review: Fiction

Chicago offered 2006 a wealth of stories featuring characters as different from each other as the city’s vast and diverse neighborhoods. This year found readers following the emotional trials of a grown-up “Encyclopedia Brown”, uncovering mysteries at the Robie House, revisiting the 1893 World’s Fair, joining the casts of reality design shows, time-traveling to the jazz age and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and remembering childhood in an idyllic Midwestern town. What follows is a, by no means complete, list of books about Chicago or by Chicago authors, published in 2006, that are always welcome additions to gift lists and wish lists alike.

La Perdida
by Jessica Abel (Pantheon Books, 275 pages)
A graphic novel about a young Mexican-American woman heading to Mexico to learn more about her heritage. An excerpt was included in The Best American Comics 2006.

The Wright 3
by Blue Balliott (Scholastic Press, 318 pages)
The follow up to the well-received Chasing Vermeer, join University of Chicago Lab School students Petra and Calder as they embark on another mystery, this time at the Frank Lloyd Wright Robie House.

Room For Improvement
by Stacey Ballis (Berkley Trade, 304 pages)
Interior designer Lily Allen is excited to take a job on a reality show where contestants trade apartments and help redesign their spaces, but Lily soon learns that dream jobs aren’t always so dreamy when they come back to reality.

The Handmaid and the Carpenter
by Elizabeth Berg (Random House, 153 pages)
A reinvention of the Nativity story, this book details a young woman named Mary when she first meets her future husband Joseph and chronicles the emotional and social plight of their unexpected pregnancy.

Store-Bought Baby
by Sandra Belton (HarperTeen, 256 pages)
Leah can hardly stand to think why her older, adopted brother, Luce, may have committed suicide in this young adult novel that deals with loss and grief.

Reality TV Bites
by Shane Bolks (Avon Trade, 304 pages)
A designer in a top Chicago design firm and a self-profession reality-show Junkie, Allison Holloway is thrilled when her design team goes head to head with a Japanese design team in a new reality show. But, once the show airs, Allison is forced to take a good hard look at the reality around her.

Farewell, Summer
by Ray Bradbury (William Morrow, 224 pages)
The long-awaited follow up to Dandelion Wine, this tale picks up in the fall of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois, where a young boy named Douglas Spaulding learns what it means to grow up.

Neecey’s Lullaby
by Cris Burks (Harlem Moon, 224 pages)
Amidst desperate surroundings – poverty, abuse, a man who suddenly appears and claims to be her father, Neecey is charged with caring for her siblings while her parents’ marriage falls apart and her mother travels toward destruction. This is Neecey’s coming of age in Chicago, spanning the mid-1950’s to 1973.

Out of Cabrini
by Dave Case (Five Star, 341 pages)
A former member of the Chicago Police Department, Case writes with ease about Chicago street-gangs and the suburbanites they victimize.

The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan
by John Coyne, (Thomas Dunne Books, 288 pages)
Golf legends, country club drama and the Chicago Open figure in this story of a 14-year-old boy who caddies for the revered Ben Hogan.

Fort Dearborn
by Jerry Crimmins (Northwestern University Press, 448 pages)
A historical novel set in 1803, veteran Chicago reporter Cimmins explores the city’s roots and social unrest using two fictional characters –- a son of one of the Fort Dearborn’s soldiers and his friend, a Potawatomie boy who lives nearby.

Sons of the Rapture
by Todd Dills (Featherproof Books, 192 pages)
Billy Jones has a brother in jail for killing their mother, a cowboy-like father who feeds on his own notoriety and a wide cast of characters he meets after leaving his southern home for Chicago. But, no matter how hard he tries, Billy’s father and his past will eventually catch up with him.

Water for Elephants
by Sara Gruen (Algonquin Books, 335 pages)
It’s the Great Depression and Jacob Jankowski, who almost earned his veterinary degree, finds himself in the middle of a literal circus. Freaks, loners and, of course, elephants abound.

Philosophy Made Simple
by Robert Hellenga (Little, Brown and Company, 288 pages)
Rudy Harrington has lost his wife, his daughters have left, he’s planning to sell his Chicago home and take up roots on a Texas avocado grove and he’s been reading the college text Philosophy Made Simple. Family, friendships, life events and the development of philosophical beliefs all take at turn in this novel.

by Rebecca Johns (Bloomsbury USA, 320 pages)
From Newfoundland to Ontatio to Chicago, this story follows gunner Walt Dunmore, his wife and his sons as they make their way in and out of our nation’s most notable wars.

Standing Against the Wind
by Traci L. Jones (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages)
Eighth-grader Patrice has been pulled from her Georgia home and is adjusting to life in Chicago, finding school life even more difficult after her principle asks her to apply for a scholarship to a prestigious African-American school. Her story is one about the value of hope and the fight to end stereotypes that surround us all.

What, No Roses?
by Marianne Mancusi (Love Spell, 323 pages)
Foreign correspondents in love, prisoners of war and time-travel all figure in this story whose protagonist winds up possessing the body of Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn’s girlfriend. It’s the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre all over again, but with a romantic, sci-fi twist.

Hudson Lake
by Laura Mazzuca Toops (Twilight Times Books, 230 pages)
It’s the summer of 1926 and the members of the Jean Goldkette jazz band clash with the snooty citizens in a rural Indiana town with Klansmen and Chicago gangsters. Cornetist Bix Biederbecke endures a fictional romance here.

America’s Report Card
by John McNally (Free Press, 288 pages)
The politics of standardized testing plague Charlie Wolf, who is affected by a 17-year-old suburban Chicago girl’s essay that claims her art teacher’s anti-Bush rhetoric lead to her death.

The Boy Detective Fails
by Joe Meno (Akashic Books, 320 pages)
Former child sleuth Billy Argo is 30 and still fragile after the mysterious suicide of his teenage sister. Putting his sleuthing skills back to work, Billy searches for truth, love and redemption and an answer to his heartbreaking mystery.

Free Burning
by Bayo Ojikutu (Three Rivers Press, 400 pages)
Drugs, corrupt cops, sex scandals and personal despair fill this novel about Tommie Simms and his struggle to find his place among the working world and the streets.

The Echo Maker
by Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 451 pages)
When a man endures a near-fatal truck accident, he awakens to believe that the woman taking care of him – his sister – is really an imposter. With the help of a famous neurologist and a note from an anonymous witness of the accident, they work to learn the horrible truth of that night.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
by Karen Russell (Knopf, 246 pages)
In this short story collection, Russell tells of animal encounters that tell more about the emotions of humans than about zoology. Girls who have been raised by wolves learn human ways from nuns, boys travel in giant crabs to find a dead sister and a man’s dying words to his daughter involves a reminder to feed the alligators.

In Persuasion Nation
by George Saunders (Riverhead Books, 240 pages)
A short story collection that offers trips through Times Square, a flight with an Air Force public relations agent and a bad Christmas in Chicago.

Death is No Bargain
by Michael W. Sherer (Five Star, 368 pages)
A book about a Chicago writer who’s asked to find his neighbor’s missing teenage daughter, even after her father accuses him of seducing her and tries to kill him. If that weren’t twisted enough, his girlfriend is pregnant, too.

Trouble: Stories
by Patrick Somerville (Vintage Contemporaries, 212 pages)
Called “hilarious” and “wildly inventive,” the stories in this book detail the transition through adolescence and adulthood through the mind of the American male.

City for Ransom
by Robert W. Walker (Avon, 336 pages)
A look at the 1893 World’s Fair and the mass murderer who tainted it through the eyes of the fictional Inspector Alastair Ransom.

Veronica Bond / Comments (1)

Feature Wed Dec 06 2006

2006 Chicago Books in Review: Nonfiction

This is the second annual round-up of notable books published in the past year either concerning Chicago or written by local authors. Last year's list featured titles such as Citizen, Louise Knight's celebrated biography of Jane Addams, and Courtroom 302 by Steve Bogira, a critically acclaimed look inside the Cook County Criminal Courthouse.

This year's list does not disappoint. It includes books about beer and wine, railroad tycoons, a history of zoning and the Plan of Chicago. It includes books about segregation and housing discrimination, Cubs and White Sox, Pilsen and Millennium Park. And it includes one little book about the audacity of hope.

Although this list is not comprehensive, it contains something for almost every Chicago area book lover on your holiday shopping list. Plus, check back next week for Veronica Bond's year-end review of fiction by Chicago authors.

First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920
by Jeffrey S. Adler (Harvard University Press, 367 pages)
Adler examined thousands of homicide cases for this fascinating look at violence in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth-century.

A Field Guide to Gay & Lesbian Chicago
by Kathie Bergquist (Lake Claremont Press, 281 pages)
A new guidebook to gay and gay-friendly places, events and businesses around the city.

Bridges of Memory: Chicago's Second Generation of Black Migration
by Timuel D. Black (Northwestern University Press, 320 pages)
This is the second volume in the Bridges of Memory series.

Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City
by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams (CityFiles Press, 192 pages)
An essential collection of photographs — some never before published — taken by Richard Nickel, one of the city's greatest advocates for the preservation of the buildings of Louis Sullivan.

Barrio: Photographs from Chicago's Pilsen and Little Village
by Paul D'Amato (University of Chicago press, 126 pages)
D'Amato spent 14 years taking photos in Chicago's Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, resulting in this broad portrait of the city's Mexican communities.

Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert; Forty Years of Reviews, Essays and Interviews
by Roger Ebert (University of Chicago Press, 476 pages)
For the movie lover on your list, check out this anthology of writings from the incomparable Roger Ebert.

Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes
by John French (University of Illinois Press, 374 pages)
A long-overdue biography of the colorful businessman who shaped Chicago's public transportation, and whose enduring legacy includes the Loop elevated train tracks.

Millennium Park: Creating a Chicago Landmark
by Timothy J. Gilfoyle (University of Chicago Press, 442 pages)
Critically acclaimed examination of the construction of Millennium Park.

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America
by James Green (Pantheon Books, 383 pages)
An accessible, narrative account of the Chicago Haymarket bombings and the early labor movement.

Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It?
edited by Richard R. Guzman (Southern Illinois University Press, 328 pages)
An anthology of work from some of Chicago's black writers, from the 19th century to the present, including excerpts from Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sam Greenlee, Angela Jackson, Haki R. Madhubuti and dozens more.

A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, A Curse and the American Dream
by Rick Kogan (Lake Claremont Press, 115 pages)
A warm-hearted and generously illustrated history of the Billy Goat Tavern and owner Sam Sianis.

Sidewalks: Portraits of Chicago
by Rick Kogan (Northwestern University Press, 256 pages)
A collection of columns by journalist Rick Kogan, accompanied by the original photography of collaborator Charles Osgood.

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
by Barack Obama (Crown, 375 pages)
The star senator from Illinois shares his personal vision for finding common ground in a politically divided America in this critically acclaimed and best-selling new book.

Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing and the Black Ghetto
by Alexander Polikoff (Northwestern University Press, 422 pages)
An important and revealing memoir of the author's decades-long legal battle against the Chicago Housing Authority to fight the pattern of segregation in Chicago's public housing.

Sox in the City: A Fan's Love Affair with the White Sox from the Heartbreak of '67 to the Wizards of Oz
by Richard Roeper (Chicago Review Press, 224 pages)
The Sun-Times columnist shares his memories and experiences of the Chicago White Sox as a long-time fan.

The Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago
by Joseph P. Schwieterman and Dana M. Caspall (Lake Claremont Press, 191 pages)
Think a book about Chicago zoning history might qualify as the most boring book ever? Think again. Politics of Place is a fascinating account of how Chicago came to be the city it is today.

Beer: A History of Brewing in Chicago
by Bob Skilnik (Barricade Books, 416 pages)
A well-researched and engaging history of beer and brewing in Chicago, from the city's earliest "pioneer breweries" to the industry's present-day challenges. Includes an appendix listing the more than 150 breweries that have called Chicago home throughout the city's history.

Alpana Pours: About Being a Woman, Loving Wine, and Having Great Relationships
by Alpana Singh (Academy Chicago Publishers, 220 pages)
The charismatic host of WTTW's "Check Please!" dispenses advice about wine and men in this book, which is both informative and refreshingly unpretentious.

The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City
by Carl S. Smith (University of Chicago Press, 183 pages)
A concise history of Chicago, Daniel Burnham's landmark 1909 Plan of Chicago and the enduring influence of the Plan on the shape of the city.

The Division Street Princess: A Memoir
by Elaine Soloway (Syren Book Company, 209 pages)
Soloway remembers growing up in Chicago in the 1940s in this lively memoir.

Umbrella Mike: The True Story of the Chicago Gangster Behind the Indy 500
by Brock Yates (Thunder's Mouth, 224 pages)
And, finally, what's a Chicago book list without at least one work about gangsters?

Alice Maggio / Comments (1)

Feature Wed Nov 29 2006

RUI: Reading Under the Influence

Alcohol is a substance that has paired well with writing through the ages. Some of the most revered novels of our time may never have come to fruition without this liquid inspiration, but what happens when you take the mix one step further and merge reading and drinking? This is exactly what the creators of RUI: Reading Under the Influence have done in their monthly reading series and the match works predictably well.

Meeting on the first Wednesday of every month at Sheffield's in Lakeview, RUI follows the same simple formula each month. Regular RUI participants and a guest reader offer up selections from either published or original works. What makes the readings "under the influence"? Before reading published works, the reader takes one shot, reads the selection, then finishes with another shot, with the audience encouraged to follow along with drinks of their own. Following the reading are a series of trivia questions for the audience to answer. The audience member who answers the most questions at the end of each selection gets to choose a prize, usually another book. The trivia questions range from the serious, such as identifying the selected work or recounting details about the piece and its author, to the silly, such as likening the subject matter to celebrity mishaps. It's a simple formula, but for the reader who loves to collect useless facts not just about books, but about everything they encounter, it's the perfect place to let these skills shine.

Each session of RUI focuses on a theme. Everything from banned books to local authors to the holidays has influenced the series from its inception in March of 2005. This past month's reading took a cue from Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations for a night of macabre and morose tales. While Mandy Snyder chose a passage from Toni Morrison's Beloved and stumped the room by asking which number was "spiteful" (Answer: 124), new RUI regular Jesse Jordan received a bevy of answers when he read from the final parts of The Inferno, relating his questions to the movie Clerks and asking in which ring of hell Tim Allen would be placed (Answer: Seventh – violence against God and art). With audience members yelling answers from left and right, one thing quickly becomes clear: these are seasoned readers and a newcomer can only hope to have his or her mouth open by the time someone else has shouted out the correct answer. Far from frustrating though, the audience's competitive spirit and eagerness to participate only make the readings that much more exuberant and convivial. With RUI members' original works thrown in with excerpts of classic literature, the mix of the old and new writings and the obvious love of both set this reading series apart from any other in the city.

Julia Borcherts, Mandy Snyder, Rob Duffer, Carly Huegelmann and Jesse Jordan make up the cast of RUI regulars, but each session has also featured the efforts of a special guest reader. This November Brian Torney, founder of the local science-fiction literary magazine "Tales from the Dim Unknown," read a Ray Bradbury selection and took the opportunity to promote his independent lit mag. Past readings have offered the same chance to other emerging local writers such as Brian Costello, Patty Templeton, Todd Dills, Beth Dugan, Megan Stielstra and more. It's a great opportunity for these writers to advertise their work, but it's also a welcome chance for readers to get to know those names and faces that are breaking out from the local scene and making an impact in the literary world at large.

Reading Under the Influence started as a fundraiser, but has since developed into a literary event worthy of its own mention. It's rare to be a part of an audience that is so engaged in the readings, to find that you're sitting on the edge of your seat hoping you'll be the first one to shout out a title or author and to be surprised to find you're not the only one who possesses knowledge of certain useless literary facts. RUI is not for the stuffy purveyors of literature or for those who put reading on an untouchable pedestal. This is for readers who consume their books with fervor, who not so much read as live the stories between the covers. This is a reader's reading and we can all drink to that.


RUI: Reading Under the Influence meets on the first Wednesday of every month at Sheffield's, 3258 N. Sheffield. Admission is currently $3 at the door. For information, suggestions or submissions email TheHotReadings[at]hotmail[dot]com.

Veronica Bond

Feature Thu Nov 23 2006

Share Your Library Online

Some people snoop in strangers' medicine cabinets to get an idea of what someone is really like. Do they use the same toothpaste? Buy the same cold medicine? But, like most avid readers, I browse people's bookshelves.

Books are a much better indicator of a person's personality than toothpaste, anyway. Books express interests, hobbies or even areas of expertise. And if a person doesn't have any books? Well, that says something, too.

But now, you don't need to wait for an invitation in order to find out what the neighbors are reading. Social cataloging services, which allow you to catalog your books and share your home library online, are multiplying. These sites aim to do what did for bookmarks or Flickr for personal photography, with varying degrees of success. is thought to be the first social cataloging website. Currently it has about 10,000 registered users, who have cataloged close to 200,000 titles. Bibliophil is a free service, and creating an account is easy. Just choose a username and provide a valid email address. Then a temporary password is emailed to you, and you are ready to log in and start building your collection.

Like many of the social cataloging services that have sprung up since, Bibliophil relies on data to create your library. You can search by keyword or ISBN and choose from several Amazon databases, such as (Great Britain), (Canada) and (Germany).

Once you select a title, you may rate the book, add tags, indicate whether or not you've read the book, and write a review of the book. After the title has been added to your library, you can read the reviews of other Bibliophil users and find out which other users own the title.

Bibliophil is fine to use for organizing your wishlists or keeping track of books you've read. It may also be a good solution for small personal libraries. But if you have a lot of old, rare or out of print books, Bibliophil may not be for you, because if the book is not available on Amazon, you will not be able to add it to your online library.

By far, the most popular social cataloging service is LibraryThing, and for good reason. Of all the applications currently available, LibraryThing is the only one that succeeds equally well as both an online cataloging tool and a social space.

LibraryThing was launched in August 2005, but it already has over 100,000 registered users who have cataloged more than 7 million books. And only about 54,000 of those were written by J.K. Rowling.

To add books to your catalog on LibraryThing, you can search not only data, but also the Library of Congress and more than 40 other major libraries worldwide. And, if you still cannot find a record to match your book, you can create an original record and enter the bibliographic information (title, author, publisher, etc.) yourself.

Once a title is added to your catalog, you may add tags, rate the book or write a review. You can see other users who have also cataloged the title, plus view their tags, ratings and reviews. And, LibraryThing has some of the best book recommendation algorithms anywhere online. Get reading suggestions based on other users' libraries, view similarly tagged books and try out a unique LibraryThing creation, the UnSuggester, which can tell you what books you're not reading.

The site also has groups, which enhances the social aspect of LibraryThing. Find other users who share your interests. Some of the most popular groups include Librarians who LibraryThing, The Green Dragon (Tolkien fans will get it) and Crime, Thriller & Mystery fans. And don't miss the active group of Chicagoans using LibraryThing.

You may catalog up to 200 books with a free account. Upgrade to a paid account for $10 a year or $25 for a "lifetime" membership, and you are allowed to catalog an unlimited number of titles.

LibraryThing is the best all-round social cataloging service. It's one minor limitation may be that it's heavily book-centric. This is not a issue for most bibliophiles, but if you would also like to catalog your CDs, DVDs and other multimedia — in addition to books — sites such as GuruLib or may be worth a look.

If you have any special collections of books you'd like to show off online — first editions, signed books, rare books, etc. — you definitely want to check out Squirl. Trust me. Squirl is a collector's dream come true. It's fun to browse (salt and pepper shakers, anyone?), very easy to use and addictive.

These sites give you plenty of options for cataloging your home library online and fulfilling a bibliophile's need to snoop around other people's bookshelves. For even more choices, however, Wikipedia has a decent list of current social cataloging services for a variety of media. But, if you spend all day online looking for people who share your love of 19th century French literature, don't say I didn't warn you.

Alice Maggio

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