Brief Reviews | Miscellany | Chicago Reader
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BEWARE OF GOD: STORIES | Shalom Auslander | Simon & Schuster

"Do what [God] says and nobody gets hurt," the rabbi told Bloom. Unfortunately what God decreed was that Bloom must die. He'd tried to kill Bloom before, but air bags and defibrillators kept getting in the way. Now in "Somebody Up There Likes You," God is on a road trip with Lucifer and Death to finally take Bloom down.

The man upstairs does not come off well in Shalom Auslander's delightfully blasphemous collection of short stories, Beware of God. In one story God is a needy stalker, in another an ineffectual micromanager. And in "God Is a Big Happy Chicken," he's, well, a big happy chicken.

It's surprising how much affection Auslander seems to have for the faithful even as he treats their faith as absurd. It's the powerful, the temple authorities and God himself, who take the heat. The believers are simply trying to live their lives as good people. In "Startling Revelations From the Lost Book of Stan," Stanley Fischer is running for his life from the Vatican when he discovers a tablet with a previously lost preface to the Old Testament: "The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental."

These stories aren't just witty--they're written with the cynical glee that only someone controlled by religion for most of his life could produce. (Auslander was raised Orthodox.) He doesn't parody religion for a cheap laugh; his stories have soul. --Jessa Crispin

A BRIEF LUNACY | Cynthia Thayer | Algonquin Books

Jessie and Carl Jensen are a pair of retirees quietly enjoying their twilight years in a Maine cottage by the ocean. Their children are grown and gone, but their daughter Sylvie, institutionalized for schizophrenia, is a haunting presence in their lives. Then she goes missing from the mental home, and a strange young man appears at their door.

Jonah turns out to be the "guy here in the loony bin who loves me," as Sylvie puts it in a phone message after her escape. But his madness reveals itself only gradually as, over the course of a nerve-racking night, the couple comes to realize he's not a college kid who's lost his camping gear but a lunatic who fancies himself sent by God to learn the truth about their pasts. Carl's a Holocaust survivor who's never spoken of the war. Now, strapped to a chair and held at gunpoint, he must.

Frankly, after you've been led to fear the worst about the old man, his story, once dragged out, is a bit of a letdown. But this skillfully told tale raises chilling questions that Thayer refuses to give easy answers to. How does Jonah know things Carl never told Jessie? Is Jessie, speaking in the first person through most of the book, remembering things correctly? What is really wrong with Sylvie? If Thayer hints at Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" rather bluntly, she's also a model of stylish subtlety, able to wire suspense into a description of a woman making tea. --Patrick Daily

THE EVIL B.B. CHOW AND OTHER STORIES | Steve Almond | Algonquin Books

Collections of short fiction are a hard sell, perhaps due to justifiable consumer fear of plaintive "workshop" storytelling and the lit equivalent of "B sides." But in his second collection (following the surprise nonfiction best seller Candyfreak), Steve Almond avoids the pitfalls by packing his sentences with sensuous yearning and precisely observing the details of the high-stress, voyeuristic lives of academics and professionals.

In the title story, a brittle Woman's Work editor discards her cynicism ("men win, always, because they can better withstand their poor behavior") to fall for a ludicrously awkward Chinese-American medical resident, only to discover his unique brand of emotional vandalism. It's a perfect example of Almond's method, combining spot-on background parody--here, of women's mags directing women to primp their way to fulfillment--with characters reassembling themselves after psychological scourings. The remarkable "Lincoln, Arisen" imagines a homoerotic dream-state shared by the president and Frederick Douglass. In "Larsen's Novel" a henpecked dentist struggles to read a friend's overwrought sci-fi manuscript, as the would-be writer's tenuous home life disintegrates. "I Am as I Am" follows the transformation of a boy athlete who accidentally kills an unpopular kid, while deftly capturing the suburban desire for normalcy at all costs. If B.B. Chow doesn't achieve the unity of purpose that some short story collections have, it succeeds as something akin to a rambunctious mix tape from a smart-ass friend. --Mike Newirth

FINDING BETTY CROCKER: THE SECRET LIFE OF AMERICA'S FIRST LADY OF FOOD | Susan Marks | Simon & Schuster

Betty deserves better. Finding Betty Crocker purports to be an examination of the history and meaning of one of our country's longest-running, most visible corporate spokespersons: Betty Crocker, created in 1921 as the face of a flour company that was a forerunner of General Mills. There are enough interesting, relevant facts in this book to make it clear that anyone--real or not--representing the confluence of history, commerce, and women's lives (in 1945 Betty Crocker was named the second most popular woman in America, behind Eleanor Roosevelt) is worthy of real thoughtfulness.

But though the topic isn't fluffy, the book is. It lacks a clear through line and doesn't adequately clarify the corporate workings that went into making Betty. Many of the big questions the book raises are answered too late, insufficiently, or not at all, such as those regarding the evolution of housekeeping in the 60s and 70s and the push toward packaged products. The book's illustrations and recipes are grand, though, as are the quotes from the thousands of sincere, sometimes hilarious letters sent in to Betty (i.e., the home economists on staff at General Mills): "I don't make your fudge cake [recipe] because I like white cake," wrote one fan in 1928, "but my neighbor does. Is there any danger of her capturing my husband?" --Elizabeth M. Tamny

A GIRL LIKE SUGAR | Emily Pohl-Weary | McGilligan Books

Emily Pohl-Weary is something of an indie-culture hero in Canada--former editor at the zine review Broken Pencil, winner of a Hugo Award for editing her grandmother's autobiography, Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, founder of the lit rag Kiss Machine. Her first novel, A Girl Like Sugar, follows a twentysomething woman named Sugar after the death by overdose of Marco, her rock-star boyfriend.

Sugar is convinced she's stuck in the eternal return vortex as Marco's ghost visits her nightly in the Toronto apartment they shared before his death, hovering above her bed in comic-book-spirit form or having sex with her, insisting that she needs him. This leaves her budding relationship with a political-documentary filmmaker fraught with anxiety. Ditto her relationships with her friends and with her lesbian mother--a classic generational conflict. But the soft-spoken filmmaker inspires Sugar to create her own shorts, and she enters the world of jobs and ambition. A comic bildungsroman laced with youth-culture ennui, this hipster fairy tale has a happy ending that finds Pohl-Weary's heroine finally free of self-loathing and poised on the brink of adulthood. --Todd Dills

GOODBYE, GOODNESS | Sam Brumbaugh | Open City Books

The beginning of Sam Brumbaugh's debut novel--about an upper-middle-class loser who's related to Annie Oakley--drags. The prose is riddled with obnoxious tics, such as separated contractions when things get serious ("Tears rolled down my cheeks and I did not know exactly why"), and the dialogue is irritatingly authory ("Last time I saw her her eyes were like a girls' school. . . . I mean dark windows surrounded by heavy stone. There was a pressure of silence behind them."). A few chapters in, the writing becomes mildly addictive despite the affectations and the lite philosophy that leavens the internal monologues, but by midbook the tics have become annoying again, along with the coy flash-forwards and flashbacks. One of Brumbaugh's well-born-but-backsliding characters goes insane, another dies in a drug-related accident, and I didn't give a damn about either. The best parts of the book are the bits of history about Oakley, in which the author stops trying to do structural and linguistic triple gainers long enough to show that he's wasting real storytelling talent. --Ann Sterzinger

H.P. LOVECRAFT: AGAINST THE WORLD, AGAINST LIFE | Michel Houellebecq | Believer Books

Novelist-provocateur Michel Houellebecq made his name in 1998 with The Elementary Particles, a flatly nihilistic novel reducing modern notions of hedonism to a materialistic algebra. But this seminal work--a series of essayistic bursts on H.P. Lovecraft first published in France in 1991--could be his most significant contribution to literature.

Every Poe deserves a Baudelaire, and in Houellebecq the forever-slighted Lovecraft, master of existential terror, has found his champion--his exegesis leaves no slime-covered stone unturned, functioning with a dense but readable, lyrical urgency akin to the nonchalant heavy lifting performed by Nathanael West. Translator Dorna Khazeni deserves some of the credit: I've never before read something at once so thin-air French and breathlessly lucid. And the introduction by Stephen King provides a creepy-humanist perspective on all the issues raised. (Not to mention a lovely bookend to the underrated King-Lovecraft synthesis of John Carpenter's 1994 film In the Mouth of Madness.)

Other than one conspicuous overreach--where he ascribes to Lovecraft the invention of the clinical-scientific voice in horror--it's hard to argue with Houellebecq, and the case he makes for Lovecraft's idiom as a form of "sacred architecture" might well be made for the stylized melodrama of his own analytic approach. The book is rounded out by two canonical Lovecraft tales, "The Call of Cthulu" and "The Whisperer in the Dark," where many of Houellebecq's points find ample corroboration; kudos to the McSweeney's gang for applying their OCD packaging genius to something that for once absolutely merits the fuss. --Brian Nemtusak

HAUNTED | Chuck Palahniuk | Doubleday

Technically, Haunted is a collection of Chuck Palahniuk's short stories, but the book's 23 tales are presented as written by 23 different writers, all brought to a writer's retreat by an enigmatic figure. Each story is preceded by a few pages of background on the "writer" and some action set at the retreat, and then, uh, a poem.

It doesn't work. It's impossible to believe that there are 23 people out in the world who write exactly like Chuck Palahniuk. There are certain things you'll find in any one of his books--manic lists, the normal as supernatural, the obsessive fascination with one little topic. With a collection of short stories, you'd hope that Palahniuk would mess around with the formula a bit, maybe use the abbreviated format to try some new tricks. But each of the stories retains his distinctive narrative quirks, and what can be explained as "style" in a novel becomes a twitchy mess in the shorter format. "Foot Work," written by "Mother Nature," is about the author-narrator's ability to kill a person through reflexology. If it had been a spoof on Lullaby it would have been hysterical. Unfortunately, it's presented with a straight face. A handful of stories shine, but most of them are like "Guts," in which the main character must chew through his own intestines to survive. No style, no grace, just gross. --Jessa Crispin

HOW THE LEFT LOST TEEN SPIRIT | Danny Goldberg | RDV Books

Originally published in 2003 under the title Dispatches From the Culture Wars, this memoir of sorts by longtime progressive activist and music-industry executive Danny Goldberg about his battles with Democratic myopia has been expanded significantly to include the run-up to last year's election and the immediate aftermath. He describes the Democratic Party's increasing inability to turn the success of progressive cultural movements into political gain, decrying liberal snobbery, the PMRC's constant attacks on the "indecency" of popular culture, the alienation of entire regions of the country and of the Xers, and the pandering to social conservatives by supposedly left-of-center politicians such as Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Bill Clinton. But in his updated material Goldberg seems convinced that teen spirit is on its way back. He recounts his and others' efforts to bring progressive politics into pop culture, citing countless benefit concerts, Rock the Vote, the rise of Air America Radio, the obliteration of racial boundaries in the hip-hop nation, and the cult of Michael Moore. Does all this amount to a liberal backlash? Goldberg points out that if you look at just the under-30 vote in the last presidential election, Kerry wins by a landslide, taking not only Ohio and Florida but North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Colorado. --Todd Dills

IN THE COMPANY OF LIARS | David Ellis | Putnam

Local author and attorney David Ellis pulls off a tough stunt very neatly in his fourth novel. It's both a murder mystery and a novel of international intrigue (albeit one set almost exclusively in Chicago). And it's all told in reverse chronological order. Page one has FBI agent Jane McCoy tying up the last loose end of a complicated operation that has consumed her for the previous four months. Ellis then takes us back through that time, burrowing further by a week or a day and switching from the point of view of one character to another, letting details pile up that illuminate what we've already read. Through it all, the reader remains perfectly ignorant of the past still to come: Ellis narrates in the present, craftily embedding clues into the dialogue but never allowing characters to ruminate too concretely upon what has gone before.

Which sounds pretty phony in addition to being gimmicky, I know. But with a few sure strokes Ellis makes his characters--McCoy, a terrorist, a successful novelist on trial for murder--believable and sympathetic, driven by forces beyond their control. And in a world of treachery and manipulation it seems somehow fitting that the woman at the center of things never once knows who she's really dealing with. That you're likewise tricked is just an excuse to turn around and start reading again. --Patrick Daily

NERVOUS SYSTEM: OR, LOSING MY MIND IN LITERATURE | Jan Lars Jensen | Carroll & Graf

Jan Lars Jensen's debut novel, Shiva 3000, was a clever, phantasmagoric, well-written work that imagined an India of the far future populated by men, gods, and demons. Among its many memorable characters were Rakesh, whose stated mission was to kill the heroic Baboon Warrior; a cabal of scheming, devious Kama Sutrans; and a blind, deaf, insane veteran of the Astrological Wars who sinisterly followed Rakesh and his traveling companion. It was one hell of a trip.

Shortly before the novel was to be published in 1999, Jensen, a Canadian librarian, woke up in a psych ward after a suicide attempt. He was convinced that publication would set off a chain of events leading to the apocalypse, and that as the catalyst, he was evil and had to die. At least before government agents killed him. Nervous System is the story of how he came unhinged. Unlike the hysterical, self-pitying memoirs that cram bookstore shelves, this work is admirably restrained and forthright regarding psychosis, a compelling portrait of a nervous breakdown and mental illness. "You know your life has changed when you wake up in a psych ward," he writes early on, and that's about as melodramatic as he gets. Particularly interesting is his description of how a person whose life centers on writing is affected when the simple act of reading becomes difficult and he can't trust that what he sees is real. --Jerome Ludwig

NOTHING'S SACRED | Lewis Black | Simon Spotlight Entertainment

Wow, Lewis Black's book kind of sucks. The guy's the raging voice of reason on The Daily Show. What gives?

Well, showbiz as usual, it seems. "Imagine my surprise when Steve, my agent, called and asked me if I wanted to write a book," the comedian says, unctuously, in his introduction. So this slim tome is born of the deal, not of the heart, and it shows on nearly every page, as one obvious point after another is made and tossed aside: "All suburbs are identical." "That's right, just duck down and cover your head, and you could survive the blast." "Then came the Rolling Stones, and they were like the flip side of the coin. They were the bad boys." And on and on, hitting every generic baby boomer touchstone in ritual fashion.

It can be funny watching Black spray spit onto Jon Stewart's suit. And some of what lies flat on the page here might come roaring to life in performance. But too bad if you missed Black at the Cadillac Palace last week, on his "Nothing's Sacred" tour. Don't buy this book, 'cause you know what? Nothing's sacred. --Patrick Daily

PERFECTLY REASONABLE DEVIATIONS FROM THE BEATEN PATH | Edited by Michelle Feynman | Basic Books

Richard Feynman was a hero to me and countless other math and science geeks back in the day. Tapped for the Manhattan Project at age 24, he won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics. His books ranged from the three-volume Feynman Lectures on Physics to the best-selling memoir "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" And besides being brilliant and witty, he also played bongos for a San Francisco ballet, acted in plays (and had a couple written about him), and was a patient and compassionate teacher.

Sifting through 12 file cabinets of Feynman's voluminous correspondence, his daughter Michelle provides an intimate portrait here. There are letters from fellow science giants: Francis Crick, James Watson, Linus Pauling. But it's the tender notes to his family and the humble and often funny responses to students and well-wishers that most reveal Feynman's character. A favorite: Dear Mr. Johnsen: Thank you very much for your letter of congratulations. Some measure fame by just a Nobel Prize but I have had a cat named after me! Thank you for such a distinguished and subtle honor. Sincerely yours, Richard P. Feynman.

In the introduction to the final section Michelle records Feynman's last words, spoken after coming out of a kidney-failure-induced coma: "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring." --Jerome Ludwig

SERPENT GIRL | Matthew Carnahan | Villard

In his first novel screenwriter Matthew Carnahan takes on the ol' Affluent American Family in Decadence story. Most who have a go at this tale take either the John Waters tack--unabashedly Yankee, crass, satirical, surreal, and a complete disaster if it isn't funny--or the sad genius tone, which is almost sure to fall on its po' face. Carnahan picked the former and executes it with unusual energy. His first-person narrator, Bailey Quinn, is a fine specimen of Charming Little Asshole. As he recounts his adventures--getting expelled from college, playing turd catcher at a third-tier circus, robbing the circus of 45 grand, eluding his partners in crime and revenge-seeking sideshow freaks--he's self-aware enough ("I may even be a sociopath") to partially redeem his gumheadedness ("I had cranked up a chubby while watching the poodle ballet"). The supporting cast is loaded with comic foils--the heat-packing hippie, the dog-beating clown--but Carnahan is no slave to the all-laffs, all-gross Pink Flamingos model. He sneaks in a few kernels of tragedy before rolling on to the action-packed climax. The happy ending is mercifully brief and, like most of the book, dusted with satire. --Ann Sterzinger

UNIMAGINABLE ZERO SUMMER | Leslie Stella | Three Rivers Press

Leslie Stella's first two novels, Fat Bald Jeff and The Easy Hour, had me laughing uncontrollably wherever I happened to be reading them. Her latest, Unimaginable Zero Summer, elicited chuckles but no convulsions--the sarcasm of the first two books is present but less caustic. But I'm not complaining. The heroine is Verity Presti, a 33-year-old Barnes & Noble clerk. She's pretty happy, despite her crappy job, living in a thrift-shop-furnished apartment at Wolcott and Chicago. She has a nice boyfriend, the rumpled but charming Charlie Brown, a temp with "a cute mound of beer belly" who still lives with his parents. A bit of a loner and lacking ambition, Verity's relatively comfortable with her lot in life until she receives an invitation to her 15-year reunion at Downers Grove South High School. It's a premise ripe for comedy and pathos, and Stella doesn't disappoint on either count. Verity's former classmates are held up for derision and shown compassion, as are other worthy targets--karaoke jockeys, vampire lifestylists, Norwegian death-metal fanatics. Stella, name-dropping Young Fresh Fellows and Ultravox with panache, seems to have mellowed only a little since moving from Logan Square to Mundelein and starting a family. --Jerome Ludwig

VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL: THE ORAL HISTORY OF A NUCLEAR DISASTER | Svetlana Alexievich | Dalkey Archive

Voices From Chernobyl is a chronicle of horrors in which the incomprehensible is trumped only by the unspeakable. Constructed from interviews with hundreds of people affected by the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant (translated here by Keith Gessen), it's not exactly beach reading, but it's oddly lyrical all the same.

Alexievich, an acclaimed Ukrainian journalist, shows the physical, psychological, and spiritual costs of the disaster through a series of monologues that allow the pain, confusion, doubt, and strength of each speaker to be heard. Individually, the tales are gruesomely real: in the very first, the widow of a firefighter describes the way her husband's skin disintegrated at her touch as he lay dying in a Moscow hospital. Collectively, they pack the punch of a surreal, never-ending nightmare, in which babies are born without fingers, or vaginas, or kidneys, and animals wander the forest around the reactor sad-eyed and sick with radiation poisoning.

The culpability of the Soviet bureaucracy in compounding the disaster (most notably through its belated, botched cleanup) comes through loud and clear. But the monologues--bearing titles like "About Why We Love Chernobyl" and "About How the Frightening Things in Life Happen Quietly and Naturally"--also convey a powerful sense of the black hybrid of fatalism and determination that flourished behind the iron curtain. "We were always on the front lines!" says one Belorussian peasant. "We lived through Stalin, through the war!" Until death comes, runs the unspoken coda, they'll have survived this. --Martha Bayne

WAR BY CANDLELIGHT | Daniel Alarcon | HarperCollins

"Payoso mojado! Payoso mojado!" "Wet clown!" children cheer, hurling water balloons at their victim in one of the few relatively gleeful moments in this debut collection of stories. Set in Peru and New York City, Daniel Alarcon's tales are laments for the impoverished, the disenfranchised, the bereft, the plain old disillusioned: An Andean peasant isolated with his children and grieving for his wife, killed in an earthquake he only later learns has taken tens of thousands of lives. A boy watching as the government rains bombs on the prison where his gang-leader hero is being held. A pack of self-declared companeros observing Peruvian Independence Day by slaughtering all the black dogs in Lima.

There is humor here, but it's dark. When the companeros run out of negritos they resort to painting beige, white, and brown mutts. The truculent narrator of the clown story himself comes to wear a jester's hat, polka-dotted suit, and green shoes two feet long. Alarcon, who was born in Peru and raised and educated in the States (his MFA is from the Iowa Writers' Workshop), lets his fatalism get the best of him sometimes, especially in the stories about young luv. But his prose is terrific, sometimes balladlike, sometimes snappy, and he certainly captures the sounds of the streets where I live: "What you looking at, muchachon?" "Your ass, nina." --Kate Schmidt

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