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Spring Books Week

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Spring Books Week means baseball books

Posted By on 04.15.12 at 08:01 AM

The take from a last visit to Bookmans Alley.
  • Ted Cox
  • The take from a last visit to Bookman's Alley.
Spring Books Week offers a perfect excuse to write about baseball books, so before the week ends let me get an item in on the sport that lends itself best to reading and writing (with apologies to boxing and, yes, golf).

I can't say it's been a wonderful spring for new baseball books, even allowing for last year's The Art of Fielding. I'm already on record admiring Chad Harbach's first novel as a work of contemporary fiction, but dismissing it as a baseball book (too damn mystic for my tastes). Mike Miner's wonderful dissection of a recent Atlantic hatchet job on the book is highly recommended, however.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

The feculency factor: reviewing a bunch of self-published books

Posted By on 04.13.12 at 02:14 PM

Soon to be self-published
I've helped put together five spring books issues since I became an editor at the Reader in 2008. Each of them was a lot of work, but I wouldn't say any of them was actually a problem. Until now. The one we put out last week was . . . unique.

The theme this time around was publishing, so we decided to include reviews of self-published books by local writers. I assigned a bunch and set a deadline. Now here's the strange thing: over the following couple weeks, staffers who'd agreed to review a book kept showing up at my office door to express their anguish (anguish!) over what I'd given them to read. A few brought the book with them so they could give me a verbatim catalog of horrible grammar, laughable typos, stupid verbal tics, egregious inconsistencies, and ridiculous turns of phrase. Others came empty-handed, evidently so that they could massage their aching temples as they demanded to know what they were supposed to do with crap like this. There were multiple e-mail exchanges on the subject. "Are we still to review books if we greatly dislike them?" asked one staffer with a sweet diffidence. "I will, but I feel a little bad about bagging on a guy who put all this effort into self-publishing his novel."

This wasn't a matter of a stinker or two. It was pretty much the whole bunch. The feculency factor was so pervasive that we had to strategize over what to do about it.

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The Sea Is My Brother: even when Jack Kerouac is awful, he's great

Posted By on 04.13.12 at 06:12 AM

The novel Kerouac wrote at 21
  • The novel Kerouac wrote at 21

Though I find them wildly entertaining, it’s not the stories of drinking port, smoking tea, chasing girls, hopping trains, or abruptly setting out for distant parts of Mexico that draw me to the writing of Jack Kerouac. It’s the search for meaning.

And that’s why I loved Kerouac’s first novel, The Sea Is My Brother, written in 1943, when he was 21, but just published for the first time in North America by Da Capo Press.

The book isn’t what I would describe as good—but it still left me with that feeling that life is full of poems, pain, colorful characters, and small moments that matter.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

The art of blathering

Posted By on 04.12.12 at 09:52 AM

The book
  • The book
The new Atlantic is out, with a rip job on Chad Harbach’s wonderful novel, The Art of Fielding.

Actually, Harbach’s novel isn’t absolutely wonderful, and B.R. Myers does a decent job of pointing out ways it could be better. He says it’s nice but shallow, and doesn’t “deepen the experience of living,” which Myers contends is what readers used to expect of “literary novels.” Nor is it even a “sustained display of writerly cleverness”—the new standard. The best writing is at the beginning, says Myers, and I suppose it is. The book has flaws.

It also has virtues Myers doesn't pay attention to. That's a mistake, because Myers needs to make a case for The Art of Fielding as actually being a literary novel that must be held to either standard. He pretty much says it’s not. He doesn't care. “Sometimes,” he declares, “the only way to counter the literary establishment’s corruption of standards is to take a highly praised trifle apart.” This must be done even though it puts the critic into what Myers calls a “catch-22”-type quandary: “You may not dismiss a highly praised novel as unworthy of notice until you have finished it. Never mind the classic fiction you’d rather take care of first.”

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Q&A with Sam McPheeters

Posted By on 04.11.12 at 03:35 PM

Like a lot of people I first encountered Sam McPheeters through his work fronting legendary 90s hardcore band Born Against, and I continued to follow not only his musical progression, through groups like the Men's Recovery Project and Wrangler Brutes, but also his burgeoning writing career, which took him from the pages of Punk Planet to Vice (where among other things he contributed one of the greatest profiles of an insane former punk rocker ever committed to print) and eventually the Reader.

Currently McPheeters is on an extensive tour promoting his first published novel, The Loom of Ruin, which is about the angriest man in the world (Philip Montoro reviewed the book earlier today). He's also laying the groundwork for the first issue of Exploded View Quarterly, a literary magazine he's working on with former Vice editor in chief Jesse Pearson. McPheeters hits Chicago tomorrow, when he'll be reading at Columbia College's multicultural affairs multipurpose studio (618 S. Michigan, fourth floor) at 2:30 PM and giving a spoken-word performance at Permanent Records (1914 W. Chicago) at 6 PM. I talked to him by phone as he was being driven across Pennsylvania in a rental car.

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Sam McPheeters's Loom of Ruin tour hits Chicago on Thursday

Posted By on 04.11.12 at 09:38 AM

Sam McPheeters
  • John Michaels
  • Sam McPheeters exhibits an unusual startle response
You might recognize Sam McPheeters's name from his occasional Reader byline—his piece on Articles of Faith is my favorite so far—but it's more likely you've encountered it elsewhere. For nearly two decades he was a musician, zine publisher, and label owner, most famously as cofounder and front man of Born Against. And in fact I first bugged McPheeters about writing for the Reader after seeing an amazing piece of work he'd done for Vice: a profile of former Crucifucks front man Doc Dart, who now calls himself 26, that ran to nearly 8,000 words. Earlier this month Mugger Books published McPheeters's first novel, The Loom of Ruin, and on Thursday he's in town to read from it (at Columbia College) and do some spoken word (at Permanent Records).

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Infinite gestation

Posted By on 04.11.12 at 07:10 AM

Colorful Chicago characters await within
  • Colorful Chicago characters await within
On March 27, 1981, a young Chicago writer named Michael Kiefer published a short story in the Reader called "Doesn't Anybody Speak English Anymore?" Kiefer liked his characters—Rudy, Hungarian super of a string of north-side apartment houses, and Harry, a kid from Wilmette who helps him out on maintenance runs—and used them again in 2000 in a short story he published in an airline's flight magazine. Now they're back, in a novel Kiefer brought out just three months ago. Creativity marches to its own drummer.

The novel is Speaking English, and the Reader story, somewhat revised (Harry, renamed, is now the narrator) is chapter two. The other short story is chapter five. "The book is pure Chicago," says Kiefer, now 59, who moved to Arizona in 1992. The delay in publishing Speaking English shouldn't be mistaken for an equal delay in writing it. In 2000 Kiefer quit his reporting job at New Times in Phoenix; "I didn't feel like writing anything for anyone else," he tells me, "so, nostalgic for Chicago, I sat down and wrote about 40,000 words for myself." That was his first draft of Speaking English, and he thought he had it sold. But, says Kiefer, the New York house that intended to publish it backed out when another Kiefer book, his first, did poorly despite good reviews.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Prospect of My Arrival: oh, the techno-humanity!

Posted By on 04.10.12 at 06:39 AM

Dwight Okitas book, a little the worse for wear
  • Dwight Okita's book, a little the worse for wear
In our Spring Books Issue we heard about the nuts and bolts of Chicago's publishing industry. But hey—you don't need a publishing house to get published. So on the Bleader this week we're providing reviews of a handful of books self-published by local authors—in this case Dwight Okita and his novel The Prospect of My Arrival. Click to see what we've tackled so far.

Dwight Okita’s novel posits a near future in which scientists give an embryo the chance to get an early look at life. Drafted into a high-tech experiment, the Pre-born Project, a lucky multicellular diploid eukaryote named Prospect gets fitted out with a young man’s body, implanted with a chip that brings him up to speed on stuff like human speech, and introduced to a series of “Referrals,” each of whom is supposed to help him decide whether he wants to be born or take a pass on life and return to the “gene pool.” What a great premise! You could build a new Candide around Prospect, letting this purest of innocents loose to experience the Inquisitions and El Dorados of our times. You could write the ultimate stream-of-consciousness riff, imagining the imaginings of a primordial child. At the very least, you could take a good, hard, satirical look at the debate over when life begins.

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Reviews of self-published books: Coming Out Can Be Murder

Posted By on 04.09.12 at 08:29 AM

Though the cover blurb suggests otherwise, there’s hardly any mystery to Coming Out Can Be Murder. Author Renee James dispatches the climactic moment with a minimum of suspense—wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. It’s what constitutes “ma’am” that forms the book’s real theme: protagonist Bobbi Logan is, like James herself, a transgender woman. They also share similar professional interests. James is a licensed cosmetologist, and Bobbi a hairdresser.

Bobbi’s friend Mandy is murdered at the outset, in the first of a number of lurid vignettes written from the point of view of the killer—a high-powered Chicago attorney who also happens to be a depraved sexual predator. The violence is cheesy, but it would feel even more gratuitous if it weren’t of a piece with the frank style James applies to everything. Some of Coming Out’s more illuminating passages relate the intense emotional, social, and physical challenges of gender transition in minute, compassionate detail.

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It's springtime for books on the Bleader

Posted By on 04.09.12 at 07:24 AM

We're doing some spring cleaning at the Reader offices this week. What are we cleaning out? Why, all the spare books and book reviews we have lying around.

We had our book swap last week, to go along with our Spring Books Issue, and now we have a bunch of spare book reviews to air out as well.

This week's "Variations on a Theme" is Spring Books Week. All this week on the Bleader, we'll be publishing reviews of self-published books by local authors. We'll also have some bonus material to go along with daily reviews, which we're going to keep quiet for now.

Last week's Variations on a Theme was one of our best so far. In case you missed it, and the amusing Oulipian contest that went along with it, you can see all of Wordplay Week here.

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