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Local Lit 

From authors with a Chicago connection: a backpacker thriller, taking license with Louisa May Alcott, and more

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CURRENCY

Zoe Zolbrod

OV Books, $16.95

"Part of my job is to read your face," says Piv, a young Thai man who befriends travelers and sends them to local businesses in exchange for a commission from the owners, at the start of Currency. Zoe Zolbrod's debut novel alternates between Piv's perspective and that of Robin, a young American itinerant who can't bring herself to leave Thailand even though she's long since run out of money. When the two meet and decide to go into business together, buying jewelry in Indonesia and reselling it in Thailand, it briefly seems plausible that both their business and their budding relationship will work.

But then Robin discovers that her credit cards are maxed out. Her first move is to ask her dad for a ticket home, and Piv's instinct is also to cut his losses. He solves the money problem, though, by convincing an acquaintance to involve them in an international smuggling operation. Their work becomes progressively more dangerous, but the real tension in the story is always rooted in whether Robin and Piv can trust each other. Even as they fall deeper in love, each expects a betrayal. The conceit could easily become maudlin, but Zolbrod's deft character development and graceful writing avoid the pitfalls. Even the fact that Piv's narration is riddled with the small grammatical errors and odd turns of phrase common to nonnative English speakers comes across as appropriate rather than irritating. —Julia Thiel

GET CAPONE

Jonathan Eig

Simon & Schuster, $28

Jonathan Eig, who's previously chronicled the lives of Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, turns to the gangster who capitalized on "Chicago's seemingly limitless tolerance for corruption." Al Capone's rise from whorehouse bouncer to bootlegging kingpin is detailed in a fast-paced, vivid account that achieves the entertainment value of the many crime flicks he inspired while paying fanatical attention to historical accuracy—something those films, as Eig points out, generally lack. Eig's descriptions can be exhilaratingly pulpy: of the infamous Saint Valentine's Day massacre he writes, "Bodies fell like bowling pins, every which way. Blood dark as motor oil surged across the cold concrete floor and slid thickly down a drain." The violence never lets up, but Eig also gives us the intimate Capone, who fancied silk underwear, collected elephant figurines, and as an Alcatraz inmate suffering from syphilis-induced dementia wrote love songs on the mandola. And in the triangulation—bloody anecdotes about the other gangsters of the day, sketches of the prominent politicos who abetted Capone's rise and fall—is a portrait of Prohibition. —Sam Adams

THE LOST SUMMER OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT

Kelly O'Connor McNees

Amy Einhorn Books, $24.95

"I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man," Louisa May Alcott once told an interviewer. That won't do for first-time novelist Kelly O'Connor McNees, who gives Alcott a night of passion with a tragic swain after they've bonded over Whitman's Leaves of Grass. McNees also supplies hoary set pieces (the picnic at the swimming hole, the amateur theatrical) and bald expository passages.

Still, there are a couple compelling threads: Alcott's father, Amos, a hanger-on among the transcendentalists, selfishly devoted himself to lofty reflection and pet causes, dooming his family to mooching and poverty. McNees convincingly depicts Louisa's feelings as a mix of scorn and resentment with guilt, love, and desire for approval. Louisa's fierce determination to be independent and earn her way by writing is also well put across—like Virginia Woolf, she insists on a room of her own, even if it should come at the cost of her best chance at love. An unexpected ending, far more bitter than sweet, shows that the cost is steep indeed. —Kate Schmidt

THE MAN WITH TWO ARMS

Billy Lombardo

Overlook Press, $24.95

It's May 1984, and in suburban Forest Park a savior is born. Danny Granville is athletically precocious, walking at seven months and exhibiting signs of ambidexterity at about a year. This doesn't go unnoticed by his father, baseball-crazy high school science teacher Henry Granville. Henry puts Danny on a "symmetry campaign" (having him brush his teeth, throw baseballs, and even wipe his ass the same number of times with each hand) with the ultimate goal of creating an athlete unheard of in the history of sport: a switch-pitcher, able to throw equally well both righty and lefty.

Danny eventually gets drafted by the Chicago Cubs. Could he be the one to lead the club to its first World Series title in more than 100 years? Well, in his rookie season he's 23-0 before the All-Star break, with a couple perfect games to boot. But can Danny hold up under the intense media scrutiny? Can his down-to-earth artist girlfriend keep him down-to-earth? Will he walk away from the game after heroically rescuing some victims of a terrorist attack? Lombardo's ultrafanciful, occasionally hokey first novel may appeal to kids and Cubs fans, but others might look elsewhere for beach reading. (One more quibble: the multiple typos and continuity errors are quite distracting. Hey, Overlook Press, hire a proofreader.) —Jerome Ludwig

O FALLEN ANGEL

Kate Zambreno

Chiasmus, $14.95

For Mommy, one of three main characters in Kate Zambreno's novel, the way to keep dark thoughts and evil at bay is to dote on a granddaughter (because girls are sweeter than boys), watch TV (even Oprah, who's black yet articulate and gentle), collect angel figurines, and wait for the moment when "hubby pulls up in his chariot." Mommy doesn't like to dwell on her runaway daughter Maggie, a bad girl who lives in the depraved city of Chicago. Maggie, we're told, has become a cutter and a bulimic to relieve her suffering. She has little defense from the pain of daily life except violent lovers and pills prescribed for her bipolar disorder. "Maggie is trying to externalize the demons she has deep inside. That is why she wears all black and has black nail polish. That, and she enjoys making her mother deeply unhappy." When the last lover rejects her, Maggie spirals down from waitressing to selling sex. The third main character, street prophet Malachi, was inspired partly by Malachi Ritscher, who immolated himself near the Kennedy Expressway three years ago as a protest against the war in Iraq, and partly by Septimus Smith, the suicidal veteran in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. For Zambreno's Malachi, there's nothing to mitigate the pain of insanity, confusion, evil, and a heedless populace. Not much happens to any of the three until the very end, when their lives converge. Still, I found myself mesmerized, mostly by the rhythm and occasional whimsy of the prose. Zambreno breathes life into her characters with language alone. —S.L. Wisenberg

PUBLISH THIS BOOK: THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUE STORY OF HOW I WROTE, SOLD, AND PUBLISHED THIS VERY BOOK

Stephen Markley

Sourcebooks, $14.99

Publish This Book tells the story of its own publication—the tale of one author's quest for fame, fortune, and laudatory press write-ups. As such, it's filled yea to the brim with tips for aspiring writers. For example: ironically pointing out your narcissism won't make it any less intolerable—quite the reverse, in fact. Also, characterizing your humor as outrageous won't make your dick and scat jokes any less tired. Boasting about your depth won't make you seem sexy any more than boasting about your sex life makes you seem deep. Testimonials from your friends, gratuitously reported, aren't interesting. And claiming you've done something irreverent and novel doesn't improve a trite memoir sodden with cliches ("Writing can be a lonesome, solitary endeavor." "We all had our ways of coping. This was mine." "Let's just say the stories are all about her, even when they're not.") Finally, and most important: just because your book is dreck doesn't mean no one will publish it. —Noah Berlatsky

SLOW TRAINS OVERHEAD: CHICAGO POEMS AND STORIES

Reginald Gibbons

University of Chicago Press, $20

Chicago is the place Northwestern University professor Reginald Gibbons calls home, and in the "long shadows of the Chicago mountains, I walk," he writes in "Ode: Citizens," until poems and short fictions form themselves. Yet in this new collection, culled from several earlier books, any sense of place is pretty much limited to name-dropping. The poem "Milwaukee & Division," for instance, points out "Chopin atop / a theater, a sky that wants to / make art," and that sort of speciousness could be uttered by pretty much anyone anywhere. Every city is a knot of hustling where haves and don't-haves crowd the same streets, where the "human damage" inhabiting an old hotel lives with pain "produced impersonally by remote traders in policy." Yeah, that's a bit of a clunker, and elsewhere the poems are simply limp, meandering strings of two-beat lines in which Gibbons's empathy comes across as little more than bleeding-heart pity.

The prose works better. Several very short stories, in which Gibbons gives center stage to characters other than himself, illustrate the frustrating complications of good intentions. A well-to-do man makes a mess of helping a homeless woman in "Nonna." A successful young woman remembers the family she left when she escaped the housing projects in "Just Imagine." And in "A Car," an abandoned vehicle comes to embody all the anxiety a single woman feels living alone in the city. For the book's epigraph, Gibbons turns to a remote trader in policy: Barack Obama, who in his inaugural address invoked America's "men and women obscure in their labor." Gibbons reminds us that for some that labor consists of just staying alive, while for others it means not forgetting that fact, even when there's little to be done about it. —Pat J. Daily

STARTING TODAY: 100 POEMS FOR OBAMA'S FIRST 100 DAYS

Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg, editors

University of Iowa Press, $20

The United States has a long tradition of poetry inspired by politicians and political events. My own list of favorite works in that vein includes "O Captain! My Captain!," Whitman's famous elegy to Lincoln; "Bomb," Gregory Corso's 1958 meditation on the nuclear arms race; and "On the Pulse of Morning," which Maya Angelou wrote for Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration. But for every memorable piece of verse there are scores that read like rants or slogans—google poem and George Bush together if you want examples of either. In early 2009, Columbia College associate prof Arielle Greenberg and fellow poet Rachel Zucker were so pumped at the prospect of an Obama presidency that they recruited dozens of their peers to help them chronicle it. Each agreed to write a poem and post it online no more than a day later—a composition for each of Obama's first 100 days in office. The results, collected in Starting Today, are predictably uneven: some of the political views are naive and some of the language is needlessly cryptic. Early pieces make lots of references to new mornings, new days, and sunshine, but within a few weeks the picture is clouded by ambivalence. On day 34, Philly writer Katie Ford reminds Obama—and herself—that he's "no messiah." By day 86, Chicago poet Becca Klaver saw little reason for optimism. Lots of people were fooled into thinking Obama's election meant the world had suddenly been righted, she writes in "I Didn't Buy It." "Me, I saw a politician who pleased the senses / And I was earnest and pissed and wrong, too." Not everything in this collection connected with me, but it's interesting as a document of a turbulent time. —Mick Dumke

STATIONS WEST

Allison Amend

Louisiana State University Press, $18.95

The literature of the American west is built on legends of misfits and outlaws, but in her debut novel, Stations West, Allison Amend puts her own spin on the trope, with a bleakly comic tale inspired by the true story of the first Jewish settler in the Oklahoma Territory. If there's a hero in Amend's dusty drama, it's Moshe Haurowitz, sole surviving son of Boggy Haurowitz's short-lived marriage to a Cherokee woman. Moshe suffers the trials of Job as he enters into his own disastrous union with an Irish whore, sees his only friend crushed under the wheels of a train, endures the deaths of children, bears his quiet ardor for an unattainable girl, and is abandoned by the angry son he abandoned as a baby. But Boggy and Moshe are merely the hubs around which Amend's story turns. As four generations of the Haurowitz clan ride the rails across Oklahoma and beyond, their stories—told in a sure, direct voice—steam forward with the relentless rhythm of progress to encompass the entirety of the western frontier. —Martha Bayne

THE THIRD RAIL

Michael Harvey

Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95

In The Third Rail, Michael Harvey's latest thriller starring Chicago PI Michael Kelly, the killer is introduced on page one: A man called Robles shoots a woman point-blank in the head as she stands on the Southport el platform. And he's not done—later he picks off a woman on a train in the Loop. Then he snipes at cars on Lake Shore Drive. Kelly thinks these attacks may not be random. For one thing, he's on the Southport platform at the time of the first shooting. And his girlfriend, a beautiful judge, may've been the target on LSD. In fact, it seems the intent is to make him suffer. The city is on edge, the FBI and Homeland Security have been called in, and the mayor just wants it taken care of, no matter how. Harvey spends 200-plus pages teasing out the machinations behind Robles's spree, revealing some unlikely bedfellows—let's just say the archdiocese of Chicago is implicated—but the suspense never flags for a moment. Clear a block of time and turn off the phone when you read it. You won't want to be interrupted. —Jerome Ludwig

THROUGH THE CRACKS

Barbara Fister

Minotaur Books, $25.99

Private eye Anni Koskinen has a painful past and a heart of gold. So does just about every single person she comes in contact with, from her crusty cop love interest to a passel of achingly brave rape victims to the ex-cop with a drinking problem who aids her in her investigation of the rapist. The cast is carefully multiethnic and the names of Chicago neighborhoods and streets are dropped conspicuously every few pages, but the novel remains resolutely anodyne, with pasteboard characters and no sense of place. The plot is a dutiful stream of minor revelations until the last fifth of the book, when it starts spewing twists and moderately bloody denouements with ingratiating rapidity. Fister attempts to make the whole thing timely by tying her story into the immigration issue, a move that might seem exploitative if it weren't so half-assed. It's hard for me to imagine why anyone would want to read this. But I guess if you're a genre fan and like paging through the same book you've paged through a hundred times before under other titles, Through the Cracks might work as well as anything else. —Noah Berlatsky

THE WAGON AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE CITY

Martin Preib

University of Chicago Press, $20

In a December 2005 Reader story titled "His Cover's Blown," District 24 cop Martin Preib—who'd just been honored by the Virginia Quarterly Review—told columnist Deanna Isaacs he'd prefer to keep his writing life out of the spotlight. "I like to keep my two worlds separate," he explained. "I don't talk much about the writing on the job. . . . I just want to write in the mornings, work in the evenings, and die in my sleep." But Isaacs predicted that recognition would make a low profile "harder to maintain"—and it's likely to be impossible now, with the publication of Preib's terrific new collection, The Wagon and Other Stories From the City.

The book is anchored by "The Wagon," the piece honored by the VQR as one of the best essays published on its pages in 2005. In it, Preib details his work on the vehicle the CPD uses to pick up dead bodies. It seems incongruous to describe such a gut-wrenching story as gorgeous, but gorgeous it is; Preib's musings on the recently, often ignominiously departed are particularly affecting, with flashes of morbid humor for relief. Other trenchant essays touch on the trials of police work, his years as a doorman and a union organizer, his hitchhiking escapades as a young man, and his observations of Chicago. One thing's for sure: Preib isn't a cop moonlighting as a writer. He's a writer who happens to work as a cop. —Jerome Ludwig

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