Tag Archives: local author

A Life Lived Thoroughly

CBR_Logo2Black Dove:
Mama, Mi’jo and Me

by Ana Castillo

Best known for her fiction and poetry, Ana Castillo takes a retrospective look at her life in Black Dove: Mama, Mi’jo and Me, a collection of essays. While some of essays were previously published throughout the years, most were written specifically for this collection. All of them weave together to tell Castillo’s life story and that of the two people who have changed her life the most: her mother and her son.

castillo black doveUnsurprisingly to readers familiar with Castillo’s work, she devotes much of this collection to the strong women in her family. Readers get a glimpse of Castillo’s migratory origins, starting with her mother, who was born in Nebraska but forced to move back to Mexico in poverty. Castillo’s own Chicago upbringing goes back to a time of youth protest (e.g., the Vietnam War), Martin Luther King’s murder, and Iceberg Slim novels. We learn of Castillo’s humble, working-class roots, her early will to explore worlds outside of herself, and parents who, despite wanting the best for their children, remained distant after their long days as factory workers.

A few essays later, following Castillo’s turbulent entrance into young womanhood, she discusses her struggles as a single, feminist mother raising a son. The journey to nurture a child in a world hostile to black and brown children proves to be a rocky one. Moments of pride mingle with moments of fear and anguish, the culmination of which is revealed when her son, whom she affectionately calls Mi’jo, is sentenced to jail time. Castillo ends the book by coming full circle with the end of her mother’s life and the end of her role as a daughter.

Black Dove is equal parts memoir and family portrait. Castillo narrates her full life with humor and a touch of self-deprecation. Describing a near-death experience in “When I Died in Oaxaca,” Castillo writes, “I may have just suffered the humiliation as a Mexican American not knowing who the Mexican president was at the hour of my death but that didn’t mean my lover had to start treating me like a total gringa.”

If Castillo can’t make sense of life’s events, she can at least make some light of them. Her essays describe injustice in its many forms (e.g., the immigrant’s exploited labor, police surveillance, the prison industrial complex). Castillo also navigates her many identities, each one with its own triumphs and heartbreaks. As a daughter, Castillo reflects on her yearning to know and be close to her mother. As a mother, Castillo reflects on her yearning to prepare and protect her son—now grown with a family—as she knows how, and whether that is enough. As a Chicana, Castillo reflects on her own breed of American. Those identities merely scratch the surface of a complex, dynamic individual.

black doveGiven the largely chronological order of the essays, a few of them seem a touch out of place, such as the piece about Castillo’s near-death experience and a piece toward the end of the book in which she reflects on religion. A few essays may take readers out of the natural flow of Black Dove, though they probably read well on their own.

Even while Castillo writes to us as a woman of many identities, the one she emphasizes most is that of a singular person with a story—a story not necessarily worth more or less than anyone else’s, but one that hopefully stays with people similar and different from her. In the book’s introduction, Castillo addresses other Americans and insists that, in spite of differences in origins or politics, as countrypeople we have more in common than we like to believe.

It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing that makes Black Dove worth while, but the sincerity in these pages makes Black Dove an accessible read, both for those familiar and those unfamiliar with Castillo’s work.

Three-Star Review

May 2016, The Feminist Press at CUNY
$16.95, paperback, 350 pages
ISBN: 978-1-55861-923-4

—Reviewed by Ola Faleti

Read more about local poet, novelist, and essayist Ana Castillo.




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Chasing Love Through the Decades

CBR_Logo2Punk Charming
A Novel

by Laura Quinn

Laura Quinn’s novel Punk Charming follows the lives of Kate and James as they traverse the globe in hopes of one day meeting again and cementing the love they found on a train in 1986. Quinn’s passion for the fashion, lingo, music, and culture of the 1980s is clear, as Kate and James, as well the secondary characters, embody the lifestyle of the decade. Unlike most romance tales, Punk Charming highlights the growth of the characters and the journey they embark on rather than lustful scenes and corny declarations of love. Though the writing at times seems rushed and the details provided feel a bit overkill, it is clear that Quinn believes love will conquer all.

punk charmingThe novel begins with eighteen-year-old Kate embarking on a trip to England where she will complete a study abroad program at Oxford. She is armed with a Walkman full of ’80s music and as many Duran Duran t-shirts that will fit in her suitcase. Upon arriving in Paris, however, she is met with peril and has to use her wits to narrowly avoid catastrophe. Disaster leads to fate, though, when she meets James on a train and it is truly love at first sight.

Once they part, however, the story takes a turn. In a series of almost-meetings between the two, Kate and James seem like puppets caught in a storm, one controlled by the overly attached and deviously scheming character of David. Kate and her sister spend the years going to concerts and parties, all with the underlying motive of meeting James once again.

The plot itself is a compelling concept, but in practice the narration falls short. The atmosphere feels overly described, leaving little left to the imagination of the reader. Though it may be safe to say Quinn employed this technique to help the younger generation envision the ’80s, since they would not have been around to witness it in all its glory. However, the character of David is over-stereotyped, leaving little room for redemption, however much readers might crave it. Indeed, by the end, the constant foil he provides for the protagonists gets to be stale and predictable.

The barrage of ’80s culture is reflected in the “song-of-the-year” chapter titles. These songs give the sections their own unique feel, even though sometimes it feels like the chapters are reaching to adhere to the theme of the song rather than the other way around. They stand as accurate measures of time passing, however, and keep the decades in sharp clarity.

By the time the story reaches the age of the Internet, the connection between the star-crossed lovers is still as complicated as before. Eventually, the world traveling comes to gliding stop in the Chicago area, where it is evident Quinn has spent a considerable amount of time and enjoys as much as her European haunts. If there is one thing the novel excels at, it is the bright bursts of exposition describing the beauties of the countries Kate traverses.

Intriguing as the journey Kate and James took is, the scenes speed by at alarming rates, showing actions and reactions rather than getting into the interiority of the characters themselves. Because of the lack of technology (no smartphones, Wi-Fi, etc.) it would seem the characters would reflect inwardly more often than they did. In the end, Punk Charming is more than a typical romance novel; for lovers of the ’80s and for those that enjoy traveling both in life and through novels, this book gives the reader a little bit of everything.

Two-Star Review

January 2016, Caliburn Press
$14.95, paperback, 414 pages
ISBN: 978-1944579265

—Reviewed by Sara Cutaia

Learn more about local author Laura Quinn and her books.

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Local Author Spotlight: Adam McOmber Works in Concrete and Imagination

CBR_Logo2“Writing is always a mix of excitement and frustration.”

So says Adam McOmber, a transplanted Ohioan who now calls Chicago home. McOmber, author of the novel The White Forest and a short-story collection titled This New and Poisonous Air, teaches literature and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago, where he is also the associate editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika. Writing for him is both unfettering and work.

“I find writing in general to be liberating,” McOmber says. “To enter these fantastic worlds.”

McOmber certainly seems to know about fantastic worlds. Critics praised The White Forest as “absorbing,” “compelling” and “exceptionally well-rendered.” The novel, released last year and now available in paperback, was named as one of the Top Ten Most Highly Anticipated Sci-fi/Fantasy Novels of Fall 2012 by Kirkus Reviews’s “Book Smugglers.”

The story, about a young woman in nineteenth-century London who has a gift for perceiving the souls of inanimate objects, originated in some of the writing of one of McOmber’s favorite authors: Edgar Allen Poe. That and some other sources.

“My writing comes from a lot of research,” McOmber explains. “For The White Forest, I read Victorian comparative mythology and ghost stories and various things like that and mixed all of it up in the blender that is my brain.”

Inspiration, research, and imagination combined with concrete details, character development, and a good plot work together to serve as a foundation for a good story. That and a good editor. And knowing when to abandon things that aren’t working.

These are among the things McOmber teaches his students at Columbia, although he admits that he, too, at least in some ways is still a student himself. “I’m still learning,” he says. “I’m still experimenting.”


Author Adam McOmber

McOmber says he always wanted to write, but that it took him about seven years to actually learn to be a writer. A highly influential teacher in high school shared one of his early stories with the school principal, who lavished him with praise. “I felt like I had dome something special,” McOmber says, particularly in a world where everyone else was being commended for sports.

School was an important launching pad, but that’s not where McOmber truly learned his craft. “You won’t learn how to be a writer in school,” he says, “but you will learn what to read and how to develop relationships with writers. You learn how to be a writer by reading, and you learn more about writing just through the act of writing.”

With two published books under his belt and another in the works, McOmber seems to have the act of writing down pretty well. But that doesn’t mean he’s resting on his laurels. “I’m always trying to become a better writer,” he says.

Living and working in Chicago has done much to help McOmber forward on that path. “I feel energized by the city,” he says. “Chicago is a vibrant city, and I think it’s filled with places that fuel the imagination.”

From the city’s theater scene to its film scene to just about anything he sees on the street, Chicago sparks McOmber’s imagination, and various details from home find their way into the places in his stories. “I see so many different things here in Chicago that creep into my version of Victorian London.”

Indeed, McOmber’s version of Victorian London may not be exactly like the real version. Although he does a lot of research and looks up key details, it’s the feel and the sensibility of the place and time that is important to him. “Too much research can kind of constrict the imagination,” McOmber says. “It has to feel real to the reader.”

Indeed, McOmber always keeps the reader in mind when crafting his stories. “I am trying to provide an interesting escape for the reader,” he says. “Something that will excite the reader’s imagination in an intelligent way.”

Doing so may at times be exciting, frustrating work, but McOmber’s readers certainly appreciate that work and will look forward to his next book.

—Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about Adam McOmber

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