I just penned a book review for Make Literary Magazine on Bruce Boone's poetic/New Narrative memoir "Century of Clouds." It was lovely to swim around in the wonderfully obtuse, digressive book for a few hours this winter and I know so much more now than I did before about the New Narrative group. Century of Clouds is a reissue and an important staple of the New Narrative writers.
Currently showing posts tagged book review
Published in the Northwest Indiana Times, on Monday, February 20, 2006
An Outside Appreciation
The book 'LaPorte, Indiana' offers a glimpse into the history of small-town Midwest
BY: Gretchen Kalwinski
Only expecting a quick meal and cup of coffee when he first visited a LaPorte, Indiana diner in the summer of 2003, magazine editor Jason Bitner instead found himself with a new book project. B & J’s American Café is a classic slice of Americana with its authentic soda fountain, jukebox, wooden phone booth, vintage Coca Cola memorabilia, and standard diner fare like hamburgers, salads, peach cobbler, and rhubarb pie.
After ordering one of the famed cinnamon rolls, Bitner took a look around the diner and happened upon a stash of thousands of photos tucked in the back room with a sign inviting patrons to peruse or purchase the images (available for 50 cents apiece). The photos were the remnants of the Muralcraft photography studio located on the 2nd floor of the same building and run by Frank and Gladys Pease from the late 40s to the early 70s. B & J’s owners John and Billie Pappas took the photos out of storage in the early 90s, planning to “clean out storage” but kept them around when they saw how much people enjoyed sifting through them, looking for long-forgotten photos of themselves, friends, or family members. Bitner was entranced by the discovery, and describes the images as, “an enormous visual survey of the Midwest a generation back.”
To be sure, Bitner already had a propensity for this kind of project. As the co-creator of Found Magazine, (www.foundmagazine.com)--a “show and tell” magazine that publishes found photos, discarded school-kid notes, doodles on scraps of paper, and other found miscellany sent it by readers worldwide—he revels in such discoveries, which he calls, “the accidental archive of an entire town.” For Bitner, a fire had been lit, and he couldn’t get the photos out of his mind. Though he’d only planned to pass through LaPorte for the County Fair and demolition derby, he ended up spending two weeks in B & J’s looking through images in amazement at the magnitude of the archive, and the almost-painterly beauty of the photographs. The end result of Bitner’s enthusiasm is a book of selected portraits titled LaPorte, Indiana, which is being released by Princeton Architectural Press in April 2006.
Bitner found the book idea to be an easy sell. “People love photos of other people,” he explains. “I was in New York, and stopped at a publisher who I knew was into photo books, and said ‘Hey, I’ve got something that you might like.’ I dumped out the envelope of images on the table, and at first, there were two people standing there, then three, four, five. Right away people got really excited and started trading them around the table saying ‘That looks like my grandfather! That looks like your boyfriend!’ That is also what it’s like at the diner, once you start looking, you just want to see more and more. It’s amazing—I’ve never gone to an archive where I saw photos all by one person.”
Photographer Frank Pease was by all accounts a nice guy who enjoyed his job. He was also an excellent craftsman and as Bitner puts it, “an accidental historian.” One of Pease’s former clients remembers him as “really nice, down to earth, very patient.” His wife Gladys helped him in the studio by greeting customers in the lobby, and helping to prep them with grooming and makeup before they went before the camera. The photos themselves are interesting not only for their comment on the time and place (mostly 40s and 50s, in small-town Midwest) but because of their old-fashioned formality and idealism. The poses varied only slightly, with 8 or so poses for men and 8 for women, with a few variations for children and couples. Pease obviously had great technical skills, but it is clear that at some point, he zoned in on a certain “look,” and, Bitner notes, “didn’t waver from it in 2 ½ decades.” The poses and lighting are not natural ones but are instead traditionally classical—the men are wearing ties, the women often hold a flower, or tilt their heads in imitation of movie-star glamour.
Bitner has spoken with several of the subjects of Pease’s photos, including Hugh and Kathy Tonagel, whose somber engagement photograph is at the forefront of the book. “Hugh told me that Pease was trying to impress upon them that this was a really weighty moment. Like, ‘You guys are getting married, and this is the photo that is going to represent that forever. This is a really important moment and I want you to be here and present and understand what it is you’re sitting for.’ [Pease] also had a process in place for setting up the studio, getting the lighting right, people getting their hair done just-so—there was a gravity to the process.”
Part of the delight of the archive is that it is not limited to only the shots that ended up being used, but also the myriad, back-to-back proofs from the sittings. The mistakes and glitches are all there—a couple bursting out in open-mouthed laughter at the camera, an accidental wild-eyed grin from a teenage boy, and a young boy raising his finger in a politician’s pose. After Pease’s death in the early 1970s, much of his equipment was donated to the local high school or given away and Muralcraft Studios was eventually renovated to become a large apartment. Another striking facet of the archive is how idealized the images are, and that they seem to tell a story about the ideal way that each of the subjects wish to see themselves. “Nowadays, it’s different,” Bitner says. “There are so many cameras around and people are so comfortable in front of a camera. Back then, there was definitely a feeling that film was a little more precious, and I think that when people took a portrait, they were more interested in creating an image for public history; their public face. Nowadays there are a lot of cameras around and people are so comfortable in front of a camera, and that sense of a public face doesn’t seem as important as it was then. But these photos were definitely not intended to be private or intimate shots; these were shots that were intended for an audience.”
LaPorte, Indiana contains about 150 images of LaPorte residents in the 50s and 60s in various stages of life. Some were taken for specific events like graduations, engagements, first communions, and anniversaries. Other people posed with objects that conveyed their individuality; a nurse or military uniform, a musical instrument, a radio microphone, or prayer book. Still others simply seem inexplicable, like the one of two elderly men in suits preening for the camera while one affectionately straightens the other’s tie. The end result of the book is a crossbreeding of several genres; because of the beautifully displayed images, it easily functions as a coffee table photography book. It is also of interest to history buffs and found-art aficionados alike. It contains approximately 150 photographs and a forward by both Bitner and writer Alex Kotlowitz who calls the images, “Distinctly middle American. Open. Unassuming. Sturdy.” Kotlowitz goes on to intuit that although the images were taken in a time when the country was perched on intense conflict, the people in these portraits “seemed impervious to the upheaval around them.” Famous Hoosier John Mellencamp weighs in on the book’s back cover, musing that “the grace and dignity one sees in their faces should be a source of hope for us all.”
With about 22,000 residents, LaPorte is a small town. Incorporated in 1835, LaPorte’s business development began in the late 1850s, after the railroad came to town. The town has six surrounding lakes and some notable architecture, including the Romanesque LaPorte County Courthouse and the Door Prairie Barn, a “round barn” which was recently placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. While agriculture and manufacturing have been the primary industries, the current economy is increasingly relying on tourists who visit to enjoy the lakes and the famed LaPorte County Fair each July. According to Fern Eddy Schultz of the LaPorte Historical Society, LaPorte is going through a time of re-evaluation, “trying to make plans for what is best for it in the future and how to implement them.”
But aside from water-recreation offerings, and an abundance of maple trees that have earned it the title of “The Maple City,” Schultz notes that LaPorte is otherwise “very much like most towns its age and size in the Midwest.” Indeed, residents and historians alike seem to agree that there is nothing terribly out of the ordinary about this peaceful Midwestern town. These extraordinary photos of mid-century Midwest, then, seem to be extraordinary for their very ordinary-ness. These are people carrying out their lives in the midst of a rapidly changing world. There is a father surrounded by wife and kids gazing worriedly into the camera, a toddler playing with his ears, a girl graduating from high school. These are optimistic portraits of real people with quirks and flaws who gain love and lose it, experience birth, death, and all the rituals of life.
LaPorte, then, is all of us. We’d value this discovery from any town. But the people of LaPorte happened to have a better archive than most of us, along with the impeccable foresight to preserve it. It is of note that the images were made public via the enthusiasm of a non-native, a testament to the idea that we oftentimes overlook what is right under our noses. With his outsider’s perspective, it seems that Bitner was in a unique position to be able to see facets of the archive that were regarded as everyday by those familiar with them. He notes that, “I think that a lot of times it takes an outsider to make people appreciate what they have. If these were from my town, I know that I’d be looking for photos of family or friends, and I wouldn’t be so interested in the guy at the end of the block. When you’re so close to something you may not understand the greater significance.”
Several hundred photos were purchased for the book, but most photos remain in boxes in the back room of B & J’s. The count has only dwindled down to about 17,000 from the original 20,000 and the archive is basically intact. “The vast majority are still there,” Bitner notes, “And they want them there; it’s a document of their community.”
My Sister's Continent
By: Gina Frangello.
Chiasmus Press, $12.
Review By: Gretchen Kalwinski
After her twin sister's mysterious disappearance, narrator Kirby Braun responds to a therapist's mistaken diagnoses of her family—laden with sexual secrets and feminine angst—by carefully piecing together details from Kendra's life. While sifting through memories, Kirby muses, "How do I tell the story of a life...that is outside my own experience, wrapped in shatterproof glass and secrets that have everything to do with me?"
While Kirby is complacent and domestic, Kendra was passionate and bohemian. Devastated after an injury ended her promising career at the New York City Ballet, Kendra returned to family in Chicago only to become increasingly withdrawn before disappearing entirely. Though Kirby was considered the "good" twin, she is inwardly troubled: no career, a banal sex life and health problems that become a serious threat to her wedding plans. It is difficult to deal with female sexuality without exploring issues of body, consumption and purging (of food, thoughts, memories), and the novel's strength is how intricately these themes are linked. Between Kirby's digestive troubles and Kendra's depression, both girls lose weight rapidly, mirroring one another's bodies even while their personalities conflict.
Kendra's sadomasochistic relationship with an older man functions as a "therapy of humiliation," and it is in these scenes that Frangello's lush and poetic style is at its most lyric. The cat-and-mouse style of their coital dialogue is an annoying but necessary device in conveying their sex games, and during one particularly sophisticated conversation, Kendra muses, "I prefer my sex less civilized and urbane than this cigarette-lighting Noël Coward routine you call being direct."
Frangello's debut novel is akin to a woman's archeological dig into another life, as well as a modern retelling of Freud's famed "Dora" story. As such, it cannot help but be rather bleak, evoking a similar anomie as The Ice Storm and The Virgin Suicides. It is also an intriguing and darkly psychological look at and investigation of identity, the façades that cloak us and the complicated habitat of private, inner lives. —GK
Editor and founder of The F-word zine Melody Berger compiled this collection of essays to critique the ways that contemporary feminism is discussed in the media. “We don’t need another wave,” she writes in her introduction. “We need a movement.”
The foreword is by Bitch Magazine editor and founder Lisa Jervis, who says that the “wave” terminology has outlived its usefulness and is often used by the mainstream press to position 2nd and 3rd wavers as “anti” one another, (i.e., 2nd Wavers reject humor and sex; 3rd Wavers aren’t politically active). Jervis’ take is that the idea of a simplistic generational divide serves no one, and that we should keep discussing the main point—gender justice—while retaining myriad voices and opposing perspectives that move in the same direction: forward.
Topically, the essays run an impressive gamut—covering everything from Latina reproductive rights activists, a critique of the GLBT wedding industry, the organization of sex worker rights, one woman’s reclamation of sexuality after abuse, and the inherent issues of being one-half of an interracial lesbian couple. One of the contributors is Jessica Valenti, who runs a blog called feministing.com, and writes with intelligent passion about the image problem of the word “feminist” and why women shouldn’t shrink from it, in her piece, “You’re a Feminist. Deal.”
Another stirring essay is by Kat Marie Yoas, who grew up in a trailer park, and later ended up in academia. Yoas grapples eloquently with the complexities of living simultaneously in two disparate worlds, including identity-confusion, class-anger, and insulting assumptions made and spoken by her colleagues. In “Steam Room Revelations,” writer, teacher, and filmmaker Courtney Martin tells of coming to term with body issues and self-consciousness via a raucous group of older women who frequent the steam room at her local YMCA.
What’s thrilling about the collection is how firmly grounded in activism the contributors are. The diverse bylines are made up of educators, artists, poets, filmmakers, founders of non-profits, students, performers, all who live and breathe the issues they’re writing about. I’d nitpick that several of the confessional poems embedded in the collection don’t serve it well, but mostly this is a gaggle of brash, fun, enlightening, fearless, and on-point essays by people working in the trenches of contemporary feminist issues, and for that it’s well worth your lunch money. ---Gretchen Kalwinski
The Children’s Hospital
By Chris Adrian. McSweeney’s, $24.
Forget everything you know about doomsday lit. In his debut novel, Chris Adrian turns the concept on its head with his disaster tale of a flood covering the earth with a seven-mile-deep layer of water, leaving the inhabitants of a magically engineered and angel-commissioned children’s hospital as the only survivors.
The hospital staff members continue to dutifully perform their jobs attending to sick children, sure that they’ll soon hit land. The protagonist is Jemma Chaflin—medical student and all-around tragic figure—whose entire family has previously perished by either gruesome accidents or suicide, leaving Jemma to believe that anyone she loves is cursed. As months pass, they float uneasily, fighting madness, suspicion and fear, eventually shedding their Old World ways and breaking from the social order they instituted. Jemma stands out when she starts exhibiting mystical healing powers and is whispered to be everything from a Jesus figure to a demon.
The 600-page tome is flabby in parts and heavier editing could’ve excised the slow midsection. But Adrian has a way with weirdly arresting images, and the religion found here is of the palpable, God-fearing, apocalyptic kind, all sprung from his singular imagination.
“We spend most of our lives trying to outlive our pasts,” Jean Shepherd claimed in a radio broadcast about encountering raw clams, an unheard-of food in the meatloaf-Indiana of his youth. “And we never do quite expunge the past.” Known as “Shep”, Jean Shepherd (1921-1999), was a raconteur, writer, and actor, but his true legacy was his genius for weaving everyday events into goosebump-inducing radio narratives. He created a magnificent intimacy with his listeners in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Radio producer Harry Shearer notes; “He told supercilious East Coasters stories about the Midwest, not the romanticized Midwest of small-town life, but a Midwest that we didn’t know existed—the Midwest of steel mills, of tornados.” Broadcaster Joe Frank, a former insomniac, claims that Shepherd “had such a positive, life-affirming humanity that it gave me a genuine sense of comfort…. that made it possible to fall asleep.”
Shepherd grew up in Hammond, Indiana, a mill town bordering Chicago’s South Side, gaining mainstream fame for the film “A Christmas Story,” based on his short story collection, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. In 1955, he moved to New York where he began his radio show, but Shepherd’s voice retained his origins, and his crooning; (“After you’re gone, dere ain’t no denyin,’) contained the unmistakably nasal undertones of South Side Chicago and Calumet Region. He read poetry and organized listener pranks, often while kazoo-playing, with show topics ranging from his scorn of advertising, love of pickles, or the White Sox. But his best-known are those about kid-dom in the rustbelt Midwest. One show compares a steel mill to Dante’s sixth circle of hell; “I’m gonna tell you people about how different life is outside of the PJ Clarke and martini-drinker orbit. I worked on the bull gang in a steel mill… in a town that hangs like a rusty barnacle from the South Side of Chicago.” In Excelsior You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, Eugene Berman notes that Shepherd "tickled the better parts of your mind" because he knew just when to pick up speed or change course. This skill is the ability to make a dollar out of fifteen cents, and Shepherd had it in spades. His improvisational mastery led to friendships with Jack Kerouac and Charles Mingus; he collaborated with Mingus on his 1957 album, The Clown.
Often blurring fact and fiction, Shepherd often lied about or withheld actual biographical information; repeatedly denying the existence of his two children, who he abandoned along with his first wife. Shepherd gleefully disdained “suits” and enjoyed playing the disenfranchised gadfly. He sometimes lapsed into ranting and buffoonery, calling women chicks and portraying the gender as daffy biddies, and it’s assumed that the warmth in his storytelling probably wasn’t present in his personal life. In Hammond, Shepherd’s name inspires mixed emotions. The town has a community center in his name, and many revere him as “Hammond’s Most Famous Resident.” Others revile him for characterizing them as provincial, working-class stiffs; “If Chicago is the city of broad shoulders, then Northwest Indiana is its broad rear end.” But the region was his bread and butter, and in the rest of the world, he’s only marginally known. In 1999, Shepherd died alone in Florida with his past so emphatically shed that his obituary read: “no survivors.”
If you squint, a nighttime drive through Hammond is a Venice of glistening marshes and rivers. Cheap hotels flash neon, and lumbering freight trains blow whistles, while smokestacks on Lake Michigan pump smoke and blue-orange flames around the neighborhoods. Despite himself, Shepherd couldn’t shake these childhood impressions, and spent his life using his voice to drift into people’s nighttime consciousness. Being immortalized by his similarity to the Calumet Region would be bittersweet to Shepherd, but the words he broadcast through the night air voiced a desolation and ugliness so intense that it became beautiful, and he managed to transcend the smokestacks, hovering in listener’s minds like a pervasive cloud. --GK
Lisa Moore. Black Cat, $12.
By: Gretchen Kalwinski
Alligators are only incidental to Lisa Moore’s novel, but the symbolism of a deceptively slow-moving monster is apt in this tale. Alligator’s plot creeps along more quickly and desperately than apparent, and there are a lot of murky happenings taking place beneath the surface.
The vividly drawn characters include eccentric, aging filmmaker Madeleine, recently widowed Beverly, teenage ecovandalist Colleen, Russian thug Valentin and disastrously unlucky lonely guy Frank. They’re all oddballs: Colleen ritually watches beheadings on the Internet so that the victim is not alone; Madeline is crazed with finishing a film about “everything” before she dies; and Frank is a desperately hardworking hot-dog vendor. Though the plot is nonlinear, with constantly shifting perspectives, Moore inhabits the disparate worlds of her characters elegantly. The challenging structure adeptly builds tension as simultaneous events move the plot along, and there is the building sense that all are heading toward strangely connected climactic events. Moore’s prose is tight, tough and stunningly original; when an ex-lover booty-calls, he craves a “languid tussle.” Midway through, we were invested enough in the characters to enter the throes of page-turning headiness, even though we still weren’t sure how they were connected.
A prizewinning short-story writer, Moore makes her first turn as a novelist with this book and she succeeds magnificently for the most part. Our only beef came at the end: We were engaged and waiting for the kind of emotional wrap-up that someone like Eugenides delivers, but the last five pages fell flat. We just wish she hadn’t taken us nearly to the finish line only to stop short and meander off the track. —GK
Time Out Chicago / Issue 66: June 1–June 8, 2006
By Donald Antrim.
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, $20.
Review by: Gretchen Kalwinski
This is not your typical memoir: Each of Antrim’s stylistically unconventional essays, originally published in The New Yorker, revolves around an image or object that spurs memories of his dysfunctional family: a landscape painting, an expensive bed on which Antrim is unable to sleep because he’s convinced it’s “alive with my mother…pulling me down into the bed to die with her.”
His alcoholic mother, Louanne, was both anchor and burden to her family, forever drawing them to her and pushing them away, even to the extent of twice marrying and divorcing Antrim’s father. The book is lush with the details of how alcoholism and other dysfunctions (e.g., depression, affairs) leave their imprint on families. “Grandiose hopes and dreams” were, Antrim writes, “the story of my alcoholic family.”
As Antrim self-deprecatingly examines how the past affects his present, the scenes with Louanne’s blackouts, guilt trips and assertions of her artistic merit (as an avant-garde seamstress) emerge as the most engaging, even while the spine chills at her misguided “image of herself as a heroine on a journey.” Antrim’s storytelling skills are undeniable: He ripples outward from themes into darkly humorous insights on kin, work and addiction, always returning to his premise with heavier baggage.
The patchwork chronology provides no distinct time line as a guide, and the order of events is perplexing; readers are obliged to piece together the puzzle of Antrim’s life themselves. Yet what the chapters lack in narrative momentum, they make up in thoughtful, cynical, deeply felt revelations. —GK