Book Reviews

Currently showing posts tagged Claire Martin

  • A Review of Hey, Liberal! By Shawn Shiflett (Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2016)

    By Claire Martin, Interviews Editor

    Hey, Liberal! may just be coming out when we need it most. Although writer Shawn Shiflett (Hidden Place) takes us back to the north side of Chicago in 1969, his brand new novel remains strikingly relevant to today’s issues.    

    Simon Fleming carries us through his ever-moving world during the late '60s. At just thirteen years old, he’s sent by his family of civil rights activists to attend Dexter High School, a chiefly African American institution, where he is one of few white students. His father, a prominent minister, answers the swelling call for change by insisting that his son be part of the fight for equality. With all the excitability of being a freshman, he takes on young romance, steers around watchful parents, makes a new set of friends, and even finds a spot on the baseball team. But in the midst of rising pressures throughout the city, Simon is involuntarily swept into the sparks of the riots. So when Officer Clark, a bigoted burnout of a cop working at Dexter, tries to buddy up with him, he realizes that passivity to his advantages will still make him enemies. Upon recognizing the separation from his friends, teammates, and peers, he must push forward to understand his intrinsic place in the community.

    Shiflett uses Simon’s character to expertly convey the great complexity and incredible tension of the '60s. In one poignant passage toward the end, Simon finds himself in the midst of a riot with a young African American woman silently walking next to him in hopes that he would block shattering glass. All the while, Simon is musing to himself.

    “A chunk of something whizzed past, nearly clipped his chin, and punched a jagged hole through the front door window of a flower shop. He flinched, recovered, and glanced inside the store just in time to see the gray-haired crown of someone’s head disappear beneath a counter display of bouquet arrangements. Too fucking close for—

    He noticed that the girl, after jolting from the near miss, must have fallen behind. Not my problem. Would she have cared about . . . But he hesitated, questioned if doing so made him a sap, just long enough for her to catch up to him again, and they moved on, their forward progress calibrated by necessity, convenience, pride, and even a baffling unity. In an instant, the sum total of his experience clicked. He was older.”

    It’s exactly this kind of reflection that propels the importance of Simon’s story. By throwing a curious and compassionate boy into the world of Dexter, two impossible to ignore racial realities of 1969 collide, and Simon becomes the unique platform to take us there. His imperfections highlight his growth, confirming that progress is not always linear, but often the result of taking responsibility. The title of Hey, Liberal! is a lesson that stands on its own. It suggests with certainty that Simon’s political battle cry is nothing more than a statement until he earnestly learns what it means to stand tall in a complicated time. We finally see him do this when he starts acting from an angle of genuine understanding, and Simon shows us a place of resonance that we are still grappling with as a nation today. Hey, Liberal! brings us into a world where we have space to explore our inherent roles in society and all of their essential and valuable nuances. Not only that, but it can be done through humor, poise, and unwavering honesty.  


    Claire Martin is studying Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. You can find her working on creative essays, wandering through Printer’s Row after hours, and becoming fully nocturnal.

  • A Review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves By Karen Joy Fowler (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2013)

    By Claire Martin, Interviews Editor

    In the grand scheme of sibling-driven stories in the literary world, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves stands out with an imaginative framework that very few others can boast. Released in 2013 by writer Karen Joy Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club, Wit’s End) the novel went on to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2014. It continues to gain attention for its stark originality, which earned it a place on the New York Times bestseller list.  

    The Cooke family is brought to life through Rosemary, narrator and daughter of the group. She’s found herself in college at the University of California in Davis where she recounts the quirks of growing up with a family of five in the late 1970s. Her parents, both mild-mannered people, raised their three children in the midst of the academic environment her father worked in. Aside from Rosemary there was Lowell, the oldest son with a radical edge. But most notably there was Fern, the youngest sister and beacon of the bunch. Rosemary recalls Fern being unruly, boisterous, and wildly close to her. Rosemary notes, “Once upon a time there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father who’d promised to love them both exactly the same,” but as tales of families often conclude, it’s rare that this sentiment is true.

    Following the journey of the two sisters through Rosemary’s hazy memories remains madly captivating, as if each remembrance is the divulgence of a tightly held secret. Fern’s often unpredictable behavior guides Rosemary through her toddler years both in moments of youthful joy, such as winning the attention of the students working for their father, and deep confusion, which comes with Fern relentlessly outperforming Rosemary. However, this is all told under the looming pretense that Fern disappears when Rosemary is only five years old, a pivot that seems to shake the four remaining family members to a place from which no one can recover. But after growing to love Fern deeply and then losing her, Rosemary reveals a plot-splitting piece of information.  

    Fern is a chimpanzee. Her father’s lab adopted a young Fern around the time Rosemary was born, kicking off five years of close watching and experimentation. By the time Fern’s origins are revealed, there is already a vibrant picture of the Cooke family, siblings, parents, scientists and all. There has been an introduction to all of the absurdities and pitfalls of this family, like any other group, so with the presentation of an inter-species sisterhood, it is comically easy to go along with.

    “Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply—her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes.” Through repeated moments of immense intimacy, Rosemary’s remembrance brings Fern to life with equal parts delight, fascination, and remorse. They read like a series of foggy instances, each one more gripping than the last.  

    Using a primate, Fowler animates siblinghood with astonishing accuracy and poise. Rosemary aptly comments, “In the phrase ’human being,’ the word ‘being’ is much more important than the word ‘human.’” This novel is an endlessly entertaining look into our own sense of being, our capacity for personal relationships and natural ability to grow close. Reliably funny and unassumingly sweet, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is worth savoring every sentence.


    Claire Martin is studying Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago.  You can find her working on creative essays, wandering through Printer’s Row after hours, and becoming fully nocturnal.