Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry
Friday, November 1, 2013 3:00 pm More Than a Grim Statistic: Voices of Youth Violence Posted by: Donna Seaman
Youth violence leaves everyone feeling helpless and heartbroken, emotional quagmires intensified in Chicago by the city’s notorious racial divide. For concerned Chicagoans living far from the stricken neighborhoods, the possibility of doing something productive seems remote at best.
This is just how Miles Harvey, author of the best-selling The Island of Lost Maps (2000) and Painter in a Savage Land (2008) and a creative writing teacher at DePaul University, felt as the number of attacks and shootings escalated, especially in the aftermath of the brutal mob murder of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert in 2009, which was captured in a video that went viral. Then he had a pivotal conversation with Hallie Gordon of the famed Steppenwolf Theater. Gordon told Harvey that as the artistic and educational director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults she longed to produce “a documentary theater piece about youth violence” based on the stories of real people. But how, she wondered, could she collect such oral histories? In one of those meant-to-be moments, Harvey suggested sending his creative writing students out in the field. Now Is the Time was born.
Gordon and Harvey received enthusiastic backing from their respective institutions as well as other arts and cultural organizations and the Chicago Public Library for Now Is the Time, a “citywide initiative aimed at inspiring young people to make positive change in their communities and stop youth violence and intolerance.” DePaul students fanned out across Chicago’s violence-riddled neighborhoods to talk to teens and adults affected by violence, and they gathered an astonishing number of intensely emotionally, stunningly philosophical, and utterly devastating personal stories. The result was 4,000 pages of transcripts, a precious oral history archive from which a play, How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, was created, premiering at Steppenwolf Theater in February 2013. Now Harvey and his student interviewers have created a paperback book containing many more stories. Stories readers won’t soon forget.
In his hard-hitting foreword, Alex Kotlowitz, author of the groundbreaking, award-winning bestseller, There Are No Children Here (1991), the story of two boys growing up in Chicago public housing, and producer of the acclaimed documentary, The Interrupters (2011), reports on the horrific toll grief exacts from young people who have witnessed and survived violence and who have lost family members and friends, as well as the parents of the slain, the injured, and the traumatized. Kotlowitz candidly addresses the battering of communities, where hope and trust are smothered and fear rules. The title of the book is taken from the Old Testament, a passage from the Book of Habakkuk cited by the Rev. Corey Brooks, a socially active pastor on Chicago’s South Side: “O Lord, how long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you ‘Violence!’ and will you not save?”
In his stirring introduction, Harvey explains that How Long Will I Cry? is both a lament and a call to action. He credits his students for their profound commitment to this difficult undertaking, which often involved their returning for second interviews, during which people were even more forthcoming, their stories even more harrowing. And he praises the interviewees for their “courage and honesty.” The result of these conversations—of the brave acts of telling painful truths and of listening to them, the latter, as Harvey observes, seemingly a lost art in our loud, contentious society—is an arresting and revealing book of testimony that arcs from anguish to conviction, and that transforms the shattering statistics of youth violence into intimately human experiences.
The book opens with the jolting tale of T-Awannda Piper, a community activist whose center was across the street from where Derrion was killed, and who ran out to try to help him. Next up, a young Latino man on the West Side who quit his gang and fears for his life. A retired Chicago police officer. Each person is vividly and thoughtfully introduced. A man who survived two shootings, a mother who lost a son, teens living in violent neighborhoods, trying to stay out of the line of fire, a nine-year-old boy whose older brother was shot to death for no reason. LaToya Winters says, “Gunshots in our neighborhood was like hearing the ice-cream truck, as sad as that is to say.” A 19-year-old talks about a being born into a gang-affiliated family; his story is titled, “Like Walking through Baghdad.” Hyinth Davis begins, “I’m not trying to say it’s a curse, but it feels weird knowing that five of your friends got killed within the same year.” Each person is vividly introduced; each tale is a glinting concentration of the human spirit.
This is a book everyone should read, and everyone can: it is free.
Thanks to Big Shoulder Books, which produces one book, one “quality anthology,” a year meant to engage “intimately with the Chicago community,” while giving DePaul students “hands-on, practical experience in book publishing.” This book will engage the entire country and beyond, and school and public libraries are invited and encouraged to request copies. A brief study guide is provided, and, clearly, How Long Will I Cry? is an ideal book for book clubs and group discussions and programs.
For information on acquiring free copies of the book, visit Big Shoulders Books. (You can see the book trailer here.)
As T-Awannda Piper tells us, “No matter what your circumstances are, you don’t have to allow someone else to write your story. It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.”
Thursday, October 31, 2013 9:45 am Book Trailer Thursday: Chain Saw Confidential Posted by: Annie Bostrom
It’s hard to beat this trailer’s own opening line in order to intro it, so I won’t try. In lieu of a Booklist review, I have some “chainsaw shenanigans” to share with you on this dark and stormy Halloween. That sounds almost cute, doesn’t it?
Friday, October 25, 2013 12:19 pm Flappers and Button Men: Touring the World of “Dollface” Posted by: Keir Graff
I don’t usually write about book launches, but then again, the most interesting thing I could say about most book launches is that a lot of people stood around drinking cheap wine from plastic cups and wondering why the cheese is always cut into those little cubes. Last night, however, I joined a group of Chicago booksellers and media for an event worth writing about—and other publishers and authors should take note.
Wanting a memorable way to launch her forthcoming novel Dollface: A Novel of the Roaring Twenties, author Renee Rosen worked with her publisher, Penguin NAL, to plan an evening that reinforced the theme of the book. Invited guests were treated to a special edition of Untouchable Tours‘ sampling of Prohibition-era Chicago, with Rosen joining guides “Rocco” and “South Side” to highlight the locations and historical figures that populate her novel. The professional guides’ patter was corny but entertaining, while Rosen’s welcome interjections provided insight into her settings, characters, and research. (Seeking verisimilitude, she toured one of Chicago’s few remaining killing floors—an investigation that caused her to lose her taste for lamb.)
Attendees disembarked from the bus to enjoy a party at an authentic 1920s speakeasy in the basement of The Green Door Tavern. Among other perfectly legal libations, bartenders served up a special signature drink, the Dollface Stinger, and Manhattans made with Templeton rye (reputed to be Al Capone’s favorite hooch).
Thursday, October 24, 2013 9:45 am Book Trailer Thursday: Afterlife with Archie Posted by: Annie Bostrom
Book Trailer Thursday this October has gone a little like this: scary, scary, franco (thanks, C!). In other words, all horror all the time. And this week, I will not back down! But I will give you animated scary, in the form of this trailer for the new graphic novel Afterlife with Archie. This ain’t no marriage plot. What’s going on with Hot Dog?
“Some spells lead to GRAVE consequences.” Just a friendly reminder to trick-or-treaters next week.
Friday, October 18, 2013 9:51 am Minority Report: Ward’s Tender Portrait Defies Stereotypes Posted by: Vanessa Bush
Part of what makes Men We Reapedby Jesmyn Ward so moving, beyond the awful personal loss of five people close to her in four years, is the haunting notion that the small town closeness she describes is what was lost when so many black families left the South during the Great Migration. What the “migrants” gained was a freedom to pursue dreams that gave birth to incredible American talent, including Toni Morrison and Miles Davis. But what was lost was a sense of closeness that is presented so tenderly by Ward, winner of the National Book Award for her novel Salvage the Bones.
So many generations after the Great Migration, it’s apparent that whatever those who stayed behind may have missed in terms of opportunities, they have not missed out on the urban miseries of the drug trade and the “war on drugs” that has ravaged so many inner cities. Writing about the small Mississippi town of DeLisle and her own family, Ward lends an intimacy to the devastation, but what she writes about is much broader—the scourge of drugs and despair across the US, in large cities and small towns, in families from a range of incomes, but unfortunately mostly tied to race and poverty. Ward writes with a tenderness that doesn’t sentimentalize or make excuses, but offers real portraits of people who are often stereotyped.
In her recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Ward’s soft voice is as poignant as her writing. A natural storyteller, she explores the trite notion that we aren’t promised tomorrow and laments the loss of a brother, keeper of the family stories, and worries about losing the past. When I read her book and listened to her interview, I thought about the irony that the root culture and incredible closeness of the rural southern town is no protection from the kind of despair generally associated with northern inner cities. Despite education and obvious talent, she’d had her own bouts of recklessness and depression, including suicide attempts that lead her to tattoo her brother’s name on her wrists as memorial and preventative.
In contrast to “the warmth of other suns” that drove so many from the South, described so wonderfully by Isabel Wilkerson in her book of the same title, there was a warmth left behind in the closeness of the southern small towns that unfortunately hasn’t shielded them from the plagues of drugs and poverty.
Thursday, October 17, 2013 11:51 am Book Trailer Thursday: Actors Anonymous Posted by: Courtney Jones
While a certain beloved Book Trailer Thursday curator is off getting hitched, I’ve gladly stepped in to provide this important public service announcement: As of Tuesday, October 15th, the actor James Franco unleashed another book onto the world. Donna Seaman penned some gracious words about Actors Anonymous in the Sept. 1 issue of Booklist:
“The ringleader is James Franco, or the Actor, a notorious deflowerer of virgins and a metaconstruct that allows author Franco to gleefully, bawdily, and scathingly dissect the cult of celebrity and the paradoxes of acting, blur the line between autobiography and fiction, and dispense genuinely resonant artistic advice.”
Here’s the trailer:
“I used to care about how I looked. Now I don’t care as much. Maybe it’s because I’m so handsome.” #stopFranco
Wednesday, October 16, 2013 2:17 pm National Book Awards Finalists Posted by: Briana Shemroske
Who will win the National Book Award this year? The National Book Foundation has recently narrowed down the titles from their mid-September ”longlists” to make way for five finalists from each category (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature)! A winner from each category will be decided by judges and announced on November 20th. The awards, first established in 1936, celebrate literary excellence in America. Past winners include William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Monday, October 14, 2013 4:50 pm Remembering Oscar Hijuelos Posted by: Bill Ott
Reading the news that Oscar Hijuelos has died at the far too young age of 62 has left me feeling saddened and deeply melancholic, two emotions that were always at the core of his books, from his first novel, Our House in the Last World (1983) through his breakthrough work, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) and on to both what I believe is his masterpiece, A Simple Habana Melody (from When the World Was Good),and his last published book, the memoir Thoughts without Cigarettes(2011). Mambo Kings and its equally moving sequel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul(2010) are both tales of grand passion found, lost, and mourned, but Habana Melody raises the melancholy bar still further. The story of Cuban composer Israel Levis is an agonizing mix of joy and sadness, creativity and repression. Torn between Old World propriety and sensual craving, Levis is too timid either to pursue young singer Rita Valledares, whom he loves passionately, or to act on his attraction to men. The pull and push between the joy and freedom he feels in his creative life and the sadness and lack of fulfillment that torment his personal life reverberate in his music. As in Mambo Kings, Hijuelos uses music to accentuate his characters’ moments of triumph, to mourn their losses, and to evoke their longing for a time “when the world was good.” That longing has never been put into words more eloquently than in Hijuelos’ work.
It’s probably no surprise that a writer obsessed with feelings of melancholy and their expression in music would also be fascinated with cities. Whether he is describing Levis enjoying drinks and cigars with his fellow musicians in the Campana Bar in Habana, or detailing how the immigrant Castillo brothers learn to navigate the streets of New York in Mambo Kings, or, especially, how, in Thoughts without Cigarettes, the young Oscar, a sickly child who spent much of his childhood in bed, discovers in those same Manhattan streets both escape and liberation, Hijuelos writes about the urban landscape with the same passion he hears in music. And the same melancholy, as characters watch their beloved cities change. In a Hijuelos novel, we experience setting not as background but as an extension of a character’s soul, a force inextricably entangled with every kind of sensual pleasure. And, yes, finally, there is the sex. Nobody writes sex scenes like Hijuelos—graphic and poetic at once, a symphony of lush language, both sweaty and transcendent.
A new Hijuelos galley turning up on a Booklist mail truck was always a very special pleasure for me, and I’ll miss it deeply.
Friday, October 11, 2013 1:00 pm Title Trends: Pretty Word, Ugly Word Posted by: Daniel Kraus
Oh, internationally beloved and best-selling Beautiful Creatures series, what have ye wrought? Imitation is, of course, the most lucrative form of flattery, and marketing managers across this great land perked up their ears at the simple yet brilliant title construction. Pretty Word + Ugly Word drills directly into the teenager’s desire to be desired (see: well, too many books to mention), while also isolating the teenager’s anxiety that they are different and unlovable (see: well, too many books to mention).
Naturally, the books falling under this trend are totally different from one another between the two covers. Just like the gown-in-the-breeze jacket trend, titles are largely a marketing tool—perhaps the most effective one the book will ever have. Now let’s see some hideous gorgeous (see what I did there?) examples!
Friday, October 11, 2013 9:02 am Alice, Finally Posted by: Brad Hooper
A friend of mine called me at 6:48 yesterday morning, knowing full well I would be up. “Have you heard the news?”
My extreme fondness for the British Royal Family, a fact about me that everyone who knows me knows, prompted me to brace myself that something had happened to the Queen. “What news?”
“About the Nobel.”
Now I caught what he was referring to, even though I hadn’t heard the news. “It’s Alice Munro? Oh, it’s about time.”
My friend knew not only that I would be up that early in the morning but also that I would be thrilled at the choice of Alice Munro to be this year’s Nobel laureate in literature.
Knowing me brings the knowledge that Munro is my favorite contemporary fiction writer, that my adoration for her was “set in stone,” as it were, in my 2008 book The Fiction of Alice Munro (Praeger). With Munro, we talk only about “fiction,” disregarding the annoying separation of the short story from the novel, a division that falls down meaningless in the face of the strength and resonance of her fiction. With her Nobel win, the “step-sister” status of the short story persistent in the views of readers and critics has exploded and can now settle into a more accurate and natural understanding that there is just “fiction,” period. At once elegant and free from ornament, her prose eases its way into the soul of a character and—this is why readers return to her again and again—simultaneously into the heart of ourselves. With no fuss, she shows how humans comport themselves in love and in pain, in loss and in gain, and she does this with empathy, precision, and a fondness for our quirks. The Nobel committee has made tremendous sense with this year’s winner. They’ve selected someone who is avidly read.