Tag Archives: literary

Chicago Writers, Now and Then

CBR_Logo2The End of the Book:
A Novel
by Porter Shreve

A small town young man with literary aspirations moves to Chicago and soon finds himself locked into a stable but dull corporate career. He marries a woman on whom he is at least partly financially dependent. Meanwhile, he crosses paths with an old girlfriend who truly understands his talent for writing.

ShreveEND_jktfront_smThis storyline, full of heartache and stifled ambition, plays out twice across alternating chapters in Porter Shreve’s The End of the Book. One story is set just after the 2008 financial crisis, and the other circa 1900. In both periods, the writing life presents moral, financial, and existential dilemmas. Yet in each case, the minute particulars of historical reality subtly shape the characters’ attitudes and decisions.

Shreve, a New York Times Notable Book Author, efficiently conveys the atmosphere of the early 1900s with descriptions of Duryea motor wagons, grips (cable cars), Jane Addams’s Hull House, and a working slaughterhouse. The focus tends to be on well-known downtown spaces. Streets and sites still in use today connect the reader to the past. But while the city looms large and beautiful, it has a dark side as well. Even as it inspires characters with its bold art and architecture, its corporate infrastructure threatens to stymie creative impulses.

The contemporary storyline presents a similar predicament. Amid grand museums, skyscrapers, and expensive restaurants—often with thinly disguised pseudonyms—people enjoy modern luxury and comfort but also long for meaningful work and relationships. Living in fine accommodations and eating at world-class restaurants might be exhilarating, but it is also expensive. Chicago’s workforce is on edge after all, and the main character has put off writing in favor of a steady salary. Meanwhile, his behemoth corporate employer steadily erodes the publishing industry by digitizing books. For those who have used Google Books and Amazon while lamenting the loss of publishing houses and bookstores, this devil’s bargain will hit home.

Though characters from each period struggle with similar situations, their attitudes and choices reflect very different cultural factors. For instance, both want to escape a problematic marriage, but the contemporary character’s relationship is founded on a greater sense of gender equality. This level-headed, sensitive, and socially enlightened young man faces a gentler sort of crisis. Furthermore, both struggle to justify writing, although they do it anyway (in fact The End of the Book reflects the endless impulse to tell stories). However, the contemporary character faces dwindling opportunities to live by his pen in a world of free ebooks.

Author Porter Shreve

Shreve’s prose is deliberately plain and direct. He takes his cue from the novelist Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), whose life and fictional characters figure prominently in the narrative. (The reader need not be familiar with Anderson to enjoy the novel.) But similarities between Anderson and Shreve should not be overstated. Anderson’s plainspoken prose is rather more mysterious and poetic. Shreve’s style underwhelms slightly—until it impresses with its control and compelling storyline. On reflection, the reader will appreciate the ingenious framing of Shreve’s two concurrent stories. This dual narrative is seamless enough that one may not notice at first how life and fiction shape and reshape each other vertiginously. The overall effect is impressive.

One might compare The End of the Book to John Williams’s Stoner, which also follows the travails of a poor young man with literary aspirations in the Midwest. But Williams’s narrative sears the heart a bit more with its tragic simplicity. Shreve’s novel fittingly reflects open-ended possibilities. Another point of reference might be Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, in which turn-of-the-century Chicago is described with prodigious verbal skill. For all that, Shreve easily captures the ambience of Chicago with his unpretentious prose while also paying homage to a master storyteller’s craft.

In all, Shreve offers a winning combination of history, clarity of plot, and subtle literary playfulness. Chicago in its most iconic guise appears on nearly every page. For many, The End of the Book will be a strong candidate for the nightstand.

Four-Star Review

February 2014, Louisiana State University Press/Yellow Shoe Fiction
Fiction
$22.50, paperback, 232 pages
ISBN: 978-0807156223

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

Learn more about the author.Read more about the book.

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Chicago’s Literary Renaissance

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb today when I say that Chicago is experiencing a literary renaissance.

Although Chicago has of late been accused of unwarranted boosterism, and although it has been said that the city’s book scene isn’t happening, and although most of the “big publishers” have long since left Chicago, and although local writers keep wandering east as though some other big city out that way is still the mecca of publishing, I beg to differ.

Last weekend, I tweeted that I wished time travel and/or cloning were possible. Why? Because so many great literary events were taking place that it was literally impossible to hit all of them. Chicago Writers Conference welcomed hundreds of attendees—attendees who sat in on sessions and panels led by great writers from all around the city. Glen Ellyn’s Annual BookFest hosted scores of writers and readers at various events, including an author trade show where dozens of authors chatted with each other and readers in a room that was buzzing with energy. Readings and slams and workshops were taking place at venues across the city and in the suburbs.

Not that one great weekend for word geeks makes for a literary renaissance.

But as we continuously update the Chicago Book Review events page, it’s easy to see that there’s a lot going on in the city for bibliophiles. In fact, there’s something happening just about every night. Scores of bookstores offer author signings, readings, and discussions. Workshops and classes and networking events are taking place for writers, editors, and other publishing professionals. Everywhere you look, there are literary events, whether you’re a writer or a reader or an editor—that is to say, on whatever side of the book page you land.

Not that a calendar full of great literary events makes for a true renaissance.

Chicago is home to (come on: say it with me) more than 125 publishers, from micro presses to full-on global publishers. Sourcebooks, led by Dominque Raccah, continues to rack up awards and kudos from various sources as the house leads the way in publishing’s brave new world. The actress Jessica Lange just published her first children’s book under Sourcebooks’s Jabberwocky imprint. She adds her name to a growing list of celebrity authors that the Naperville-based house has snagged. Not to be outdone, Agate Publishing is garnering media attention with new titles from local hot dog guru Doug Sohn, Hoosier Mama Pie Company’s Paula Haney, and up-and-coming novelist Kiese Laymon. Smaller houses like Allium Press, Curbside Splendor, and Swan Isle Press are attracting attention, too.

Not that a few successful publishing houses makes for a lasting renaissance.

Although it can’t be denied that Chicago has lost some really good authors to that big city out east, the Windy City is still home to more than just a few writers. Maybe it’s that we’re too modest here. Maybe it’s because our authors aren’t shouting from the rooftops that Chicago is the best city in the world or the only city that matters. Maybe most people think of Chicago as a has-been lit city of long-dead writers like Hemingway and Sandburg and Bellow. Maybe it’s time to move on. Today, Chicago can lay claim to the likes of Scott Turow, Audrey Niffenegger, and Gillian Flynn. Up-and-coming authors like Susanna Calkins, Arnie Bernstein, and Patricia Ann McNair call Chicago home. Who else? Well, let’s just say there’s no shortage of fodder for CBR’s “Local Author Spotlight” series.

Not that a bunch of best-selling authors makes for a literary renaissance.

All these authors and all these events are converging on what strikes me as a thriving bookstore scene. Not that anyone would expect to see “thriving” and “bookstore” in the same sentence these days. But despite the gaps left by giant, big-box bookstores, Chicago is indeed home to a number of fabulous indie bookstores with loyal clientele who find not only great books but word-geek camaraderie. Quimby’s is frequently highlighted as one of the city’s top shops. Anderson’s pulls in myriad authors across a number of genres for frequent events. Myopic. Powell’s. 57th Street Books. The Book Table. Bookie’s. Centuries & Sleuths. If you haven’t found a bookstore you love, you aren’t looking hard enough.

Not that a few really good indie bookstores can sustain a literary renaissance.

Indeed, it’s not just one thing. It’s not one best-selling author. It’s not one bookstore. It’s not one writers conference. It’s a bunch of great authors and budding writers coming together in a literary community. It’s a bunch of local authors working with local publishers to issue new titles that are reaching people not just here but far beyond. It’s a bunch of bookstores working with local publishers and local writers to put on some really great literary events that local readers are flocking to.

People are excited about what’s happening in Chicago. I feel that energy—a literary energy that isn’t fiction. And I don’t think I’m the only one. What do you think?

—Kelli Christiansen

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