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From Averill to Zeus: A local lit roundup

Short takes on five new books

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Good authors can not only set a scene anywhere (in the wake of a tornado, on the top of Mount Olympus) but also intrigue readers wherever they happen to be—which is why there's one quintessential bathroom book in the roundup that follows. What further binds this group is that they're Chicagoans—or, in the case of Kate Southwood, a Chicago-born expat who created a fictional world in southern Illinois all the way from her adopted home: Oslo, Norway. Sam Worley

[Recommended] Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood (Europa Editions)

Kate Southwood chose to set her first novel in the wake of the Tri-State Tornado of 1925, the deadliest twister ever recorded in the U.S. and one that ripped to shreds areas of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, resulting in nearly 700 deaths. More than 200 were in Murphysboro, the southern Illinois community on which Southwood based her fictional town of Marah. Following the tornado's devastation of Marah, detailed in a pair of harrowing opening chapters, Mae and Paul Graves realize that while the town's in ruins, their family is unharmed; their property is crudded over with mud but otherwise intact.

What ensues first is the Graveses' struggle to navigate their unusually fortunate circumstances without flaunting them, followed by their struggle to come to terms with what hasn't been taken away. They eventually become the town's scapegoats, scorned both for escaping loss and for seeming to profit from the grim business that floods Paul's lumberyard. As the townspeople desert the Graveses, Southwood is deliberate and focused in her prose, pulling the threads stitch by stitch as tension mounts and the family comes apart (there are powerful asides from inside the heads of both Paul and Mae, each wondering what the other is thinking). Inexorably, tragedy spawns tragedy in Falling to Earth. It's the poise with which Southwood approaches it that makes it so heartbreaking. Kevin Warwick

Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes: A No-Bullshit Guide to World Mythology by Cory O'Brien (Perigree Trade)

There are a few essential qualities for any great bathroom book. It should be small enough to be stowed on top of the toilet tank and held comfortably while you're on the throne. The text should have lots of natural breaking points. It should be more entertaining than the list of ingredients on your $45 bottle of hair product. And as an extra bonus, it should be informative enough to give you ammo at cocktail parties or bar trivia. Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes fulfills these requirements admirably. Author Cory O'Brien is no classicist in the dry, overly informative Edith Hamilton mode. Instead he uses modern slang to restore sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll to the old myths. (Apollo hit the sweetest power chords, but the Norse were seriously metal.) He's also an agnostic: in his retellings, the foundations of Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, and American civilization are all equally absurd. If you enjoy O'Brien's work, there's plenty more on his website, bettermyths.com, but it's more comforting to read a book than a smartphone during a bout of late-night constipation. Probably. Aimee Levitt

[Recommended] Schtick by Kevin Coval (Haymarket Books)

"When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffin' Jesus." That's not Kevin Coval, it's Nas, but Louder Than a Bomb founder Coval includes it as an epigraph in one of the sections of Schtick, his latest collection. It's not just hip-hop Coval invokes—there's Funny Girl and Roseanne Barr, paeans to Joan Rivers, and high-school-paper-style outlines explaining why Jews celebrate Christmas. At 200 pages, Schtick's poems, prose poetry, and conceptual writing aren't easy to digest in one sitting—I'd recommend reading it in sections, like Passover—but Coval makes up for that surplus with humor ("gefilte fish looks like balsa wood / took a shit"), inventive detail (on guilt over sleeping with non-Jewish girls: "her nipples orange gumdrops / in the glass jar on my grandma's coffee table"), and most of all brutal honesty. Coval's frank admissions of contempt are often balanced by tenderness, affection, and complicated analyses of identity. "Schtick" implies routine, but Coval's book is anything but. Instead it's an outpouring of self-assessment, cloaked in a tallith of vivid, streetwise language. Tal Rosenberg

Song & Error by Averill Curdy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Roman poet Ovid suggested Augustus cast him out for two crimes, "a poem and a blunder." An echo of this rap sheet can be heard in Averill Curdy's first book, in which the author's sorrow is derived not from actual expulsion but from the loss of "motherland" implied by her mother's death. Boiled down, Curdy's work reduces to two tricks: historical impersonations and hermit poems. Guises like these are great for beginners searching for their groove, but dragged into maturity, the result is taxidermy: style stuffed with sawdust. The humorless language renders everything—fatal accidents, geopolitical disasters, sparrows pigeonholed in airports—equally dramatic.

Curdy imitates Ovid's high style but gets waylaid trying the find the right words. She produces earsores like "ocherous archive of blister," and—to describe tarantulas—"muscle-bound bodybuilders." Her images alternate between stilted and predictable word associations. Small joys, like a turkey refigured as "a small dyspeptic dragon" or the "strange seas where the sun hangs dumb as cabbage," are rare. Jena Cutie

The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore (Knopf)

The Supremes are Clarice, Barbara Jean, and Odette, three lifelong friends now lodged securely in middle age, with all the dissatisfaction, regret, and epic hot flashes it entails. Earl's All-You-Can-Eat was the first black-owned business in the southern Indiana town of Plainview and has been a favorite hangout of the Supremes since high school. Edward Kelsey Moore's first novel is as cozy and comforting, and also as slow-moving and predictable, as one imagines life in Plainview must be. Nothing that happens, even the odd bits of magical realism interspersed throughout the novel, is nearly as surprising as Moore obviously intends it to be, maybe because the exposition is so plodding. The only wild card is Odette, who, Moore has said, sprung into his head fully formed. It appears she's the only character who had the capacity to resist his elaborate narrative arranging, and if you feel compelled to read Earl's All-You-Can Eat to the end, she'll be the reason why. Aimee Levitt

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