Book Reviews

Currently showing posts tagged Columbia College Chicago

  • 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.

  • The Much-Needed Grime Your Mother Warns You Of: A Review of Poison and Antidote: Bohemian Stories by Lee Foust (Authorhouse, 2015)

    By Cody Lee, Reviews Editor

    This foggy, angst-riddled delve into the underbelly of ’80s San Francisco acts as a sedative for those arty-farty solipsists who think that they’re the only ones to feel heartbreak, and the ongoing excruciation of life: you’re not alone . . . well, you are, but so is everyone else, really.

    Poison and Antidote: Bohemian Stories by Lee Foust intertwines nine stories, all of which resemble the lives of your local waitresses, meth-mouthed pseudo-rockers, and performance artists who drink blood from crystal chalices.

    Foust jumps between first and third person, and even switches the characters that speak in first person, which can come off as confusing at times (I’m still trying to figure out who’s speaking in the last chapter . . . I have my bets on a fellow named Lee (Ding! Ding! The author’s name!) but I’m still not 100% certain; my book’s marked up with two too many arrows pointing to names, and strikethroughs), but that’s the excitement in the adventure: by reading, and peeking into the thoughts of these unsure young adults, I became a part of the story, too, wandering around the hookered, and unencumbered streets of California for a moment, only to put the book down and return to reality: the world of classwork, work-work, and sleep/repeat.

    It’s evident that this novel’s a byproduct of Foust sitting down in front of his computer, opening up Microsoft Word and spilling out the beautiful (and sometimes oddball) workings of his hyper-inventive mind. This comes across in Poison and Antidote’s anarchic content, and structure, too; Foust chooses to incorporate a movie script; he chops up select chapters into italicized, page-long preludes—typically composed of surreal dreamscapes (e.g. “In this crowd I grow two more faces—I’m surrounded) and old-bearded-man-glued-to-a-rocking-chair wisdom (e.g. “Remember, everything has the potential to be the most painful thing that you’ve ever felt, but the numbness you force on yourself in its place will rob you of even that”).

    Poison and Antidote is filled with quotables, and I can go on for pages, but rather, I highly recommend that you, personally, read this über-observant, and visceral look at Foust’s San Fran: the land of the free, and the home of Dead Kennedys.

    Similar Works:

    Literature: American Skin by Don de Grazia

    Film: Trainspotting directed by Danny Boyle (or the novel by Irvine Welsh)

    Etc.: “Bite It You Scum” by GG Allin

  • Talk Linguistically to Me: A Review of The Kingdom of Speech (Little, Brown, and Company, 2016) by Tom Wolfe

    By Will Horner, Contributing Editor

    Aha! seems to be Tom Wolfe’s archetypical cry in understanding the basis of the world, how and where we fit in it. Following many of the tropes seen in The Painted Word, Wolfe turns from art theory to evolution in The Kingdom of Speech, focusing again on the fabled, no-way-around-it word, or in this case speech, a most-esteemed factor in how humans developed separate from the world of plants and animals. While it may not be as trendy a topic as gallivanting hippies or adrenaline-happy rocket jockeys, the reader is slung around in space-time for Wolfe to come upon the reason, the real reason we talk and how it shapes us from on the branches to below the street lamps.

    The essential thing that drives the book is the understanding of everything, the encompassing theory of all theories, the origin of the species. Like in his book on art criticism, The Painted Word, Wolfe includes himself very much into the story, which he evades in his more notable works like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or The Right Stuff. Starting with the discovery of nothing by Noam Chomsky and a few other MIT professors, “. . . the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever,” to which he replies from the largely used “Aha! to the more archaic, “Ahura!” Wolfe begins to construct an argument, beginning in the 1800s, with Charles Darwin, cozy in his stuffy hypochondria in London, and his relationship with Alfred Wallace (who’s that?), a then-contemporary naturalist, in the mud, living amongst nature, competing for the pedestal for their scientific findings. Wolfe notes Wallace’s attempts and snubs from the Linnean Society, an academic biological society, to present what essentially becomes Darwin’s argument. The reader follows Darwin in his attempts at Everything, largely resting on the realm of language, how speech reflects the world and us in it.

    Fast-forward to the 1950s: Noam Chomsky, the prodigy thinker, the law of the land of linguistics. Chomsky presents his law of recurrence, which explains the brain’s mythical language center for “universal grammar,” only to come across another rival, marking about in the Amazon. Daniel Everett (come again?), a contemporary to Chomsky, then unhinges Chomsky’s theory by simply saying, “This group of people over here, the Pirahã, they don’t follow this universal theory, Chomsters. They don’t even have a grasp of the future or the past, only the now, the now!”

    Only by Wolfe’s perseverance in looking at these two bloodless conflicts does he come to his own conclusion that speech is “a mnemonic system,” a way for us to pattern our speech pattern, to remember, to organize, to pull from nature the invisible to make artifacts out of. “Speech,” Wolfe states, “and only speech, gives the human beast the ability to make plans . . . not just long-term plans, but any plans, even for something to do in five minutes.” Speech also gives us the ability to tell time, to measure, to build, to investigate, to express, to create. What Wolfe gives us is the keys to understanding, or at least a lock pick for our eyes to see what line divides the microcosms of biology and even the general macrocosm of Earth. It’s the problem we’ve been largely expediting to religion, whether we are made or we just are, whether we have free will or not, dualist versus dialectic thought. This heavily-researched yet short book is a blanket-explanation of what academics have been turning in bed for, why speech is so fundamental in our lives.

    It’s definitely a book to pass along to friends, but moreso for the topic and its presentation. Wolfe has a great intuition in research and stringing along occurrences in history, and showing us something that we didn’t know, delving into a world that we as a general public probably thought was settled. The reader is left with not an open-ended question but a way of thinking of their own collected cell-cess pool that we call the body, that we call human.


    William Horner is a continuing senior at Columbia College Chicago. He has no job, no wife/husband/pet or a shitty jay nay say quay. He eats too much and hasn’t been published. What a maroon.

  • A Review of When Mystical Creatures Attack!

    By T. Daniel Frost, Editor-in-Chief

    Kathleen Founds’ debut novel, and winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, When Mystical Creatures Attack! is an impactful collection of stories with a cast of honest and relatable characters.

    Laura Freedman is a high school teacher on the verge of what everyone fears: losing it. But, that’s not what this story is about. Laura snaps and is committed to the Bridges Psychiatric Wellness Solutions program pretty early on. This story is less about her time in, and her frustration with, the program, and more about how each character deals with and responds to their fight with mental health and the stress that comes with it.

    The characters are what drive the themes of this book. In the past twenty-five years or so a lot of attention has been given to mental illness, especially depression. The stereotypical depressed individual is usually depicted as self-pitying and awkward. And that’s fine, and sometimes even effective, but it’s only one version of how depression can affect someone. Laura Freedman, Janice Gibbs, and Cody Splunk are three of several characters that are portrayed in the novel; each of them suffer from mental illness, but none of them are constantly suffering.  Above all their sense of humor comes through in fantastic ways.  Whether it’s Cody’s dramatic tale of how he and Janice busted Ms. Freedman out of Bridges or the sass that Janice gives her father’s fiancé, the characters are more than their sickness; they are still functioning human beings.

    Found’s humor comes through strongest in the section “Uncommon Happiness” where she intertwines heartbreaking insight to the character.  Laura Freedman starts a Dear-Abby-like blog where she hears out people’s problems and offers her advice for the situation.  While many of the people who ask Laura for advice have comically exaggerated situations (e.g. Beached Whale in Trenton), the real heart-wrenching realizations come from Laura’s response to her readers.  She slowly goes from fighting (and helping others fight) emptiness and loneliness, to beginning to accept her depression and potentially nihilistic points of view. By her last post (excerpted below) she has relapsed and it seems that she doesn’t even realize it fully.

    Sartre was an asshole.

    We all know loving one another is the whole goddam point of this human condition. So spend these last moments with your children. Let them stroke your cheek, wash your hair, kiss you goodbye. After all, maybe you’re the lucky one. Being human is rough stuff. You get to be done.

    Signing off, for now and always,

    Laura Freedman

    The thing that makes this book brilliant in the literary sense is how Founds plays with form.  Journal Entries, email chains, and establishment guidelines (to name a few) all help to get the reader needed exposition that would otherwise have been taxing if written out in traditional prose.  These forms also show the attributes of the characters that we couldn’t have gotten from the normal first person point of view.

    Glenda Gayle’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Party Meatballs goes beyond just the ingredients. “Directions: This dish can mark an occasion that is both sour and sweet, such as when my fiancé’s daughter came up for our wedding.” Little tricks like this, which are also very fun, help us get to know how some of the side characters think and feel toward other characters within their circle.

    Whether you’re new to writing or on your sixth novel, there is a lot to learn from When Mystical Creatures Attack!, from experimentation with forms to character development.  And to those who have a great love for reading, this novel will break your heart and cheer you up at the same time in the same way that It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini and Kneller’s Happy Campers by Etgar Keret could. There’s a reason why this is an award-winning novel and recommended by the New York Times. It’s incredibly well-crafted.

    When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds

    University of Iowa Press

    ISBN-13:978-1-60938-283-4

    163 pages


    T. Daniel Frost is a senior Fiction Writing major at Columbia College Chicago and was the co-chair of the professional development seminar “So You Want To Be An Author.” But like most people his age, he’s just happy to be holding it together, even if only a little bit.  He’s particularly proud of this magazine and the awesome team that works on it.

  • A Review of Patience by Daniel Clowes

    By Davis R. Blackwell, Social Media Manager

    To what lengths would you travel to save a lost love? This question is what lies underneath the surface of Chicago-born comic book artist Daniel Clowes’ latest graphic novel, Patience (Fantagraphics Books, 2016). A book self-described as, “a cosmic time warp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love,” Clowes expounds upon themes of love, loss, despair, obsession, and hyperrealism presented in previous works, while adding sci-fi elements of time travel, ray-guns and parallel timelines into the mix for a book that, although is severely tied to earlier works, stands out as one of his most unique and heartfelt to date.

    The graphic novel begins in 2012, where relatively happily-married Patience and her husband, Jack, discover that Patience is pregnant. This leads to the usual woes of an expecting couple: what clothes should we buy for the baby? Do we make enough money to support this family? Will we be bringing this child into a less-than-acceptable future? One day, after returning home from his less-than-financially-satisfactory job, Jack finds Patience dead on their living room floor, supposedly murdered by an intruder. This leads to a whirlwind year of Jack being prosecuted, tried, and eventually imprisoned for ten months until his name is cleared, due to insufficient evidence. After being released, he conducts his own investigation, leading nowhere. Jump to 2029. There’s clubs with drinks served in scientific beakers, blue women in LeeLoo Dallas-esque attire and “Super-Creeps” in yellow Hulk Hands; this future is not quite Jetsons, no flying cars and floating buildings, but far from A Clockwork Orange. Jack is still severely depressed from Patience’s death and has been living in a self-loathing, obsessive freefall until he finds a man named Barry that has created the ability to time travel, and all hell breaks loose as Jack jumps from 2006 to 1985, and back to 2012, disastrously interacting with past incarnations of pivotal characters, including Patience.  

    Clowes’ exploration in Patience of lost love and the depths we as humans are willing to dive to retrieve retribution is a modification of themes explored in his earlier works, specifically David Boring (Pantheon Books, 2000) and Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (Fantagraphics Books, 1993). But where Clowes utilizes the main characters of Boring (David Boring) and Velvet (Clay Loudermilk) as mediums for the idea of closure (i.e. Boring searching for a woman he considers his feminine ideal who previously abandoned him, and Loudermilk searching cross-country for his estranged wife after seeing her in a BDSM snuff film), Clowes has progressed to using Jack Barlow as a tool of retribution, a man so obsessed with the loss of his late wife he is willing to travel through space and time itself to avenge her.

    In this journey to find and stop Patience’s killer, he becomes obsessed with attempting to better the lives of past incarnations of Patience, bringing forth several moments of moral ambiguity and complexity throughout Patience that rings true to Clowes’ style. For example, when back in 2006, a middle-aged, time-traveling Jack beats a teenage boy half to death that sexually humiliates Patience. At one point, thinking Patience’s con ex-boyfriend, Adam, was her future killer, Jack goes back to 1985 to when Adam was a child and almost murders him, to which he rationalizes and pontificates:

    I can’t tell you exactly what happened. It sure as hell wasn’t because I couldn’t shoot a baby; nothing like that. One thing about a guy with my perspective—once you know how the story ends, you don’t much give a shit about human potential . . .  And it wasn’t because I might fuck up the future . . . No, it was like some invisible force of nature took over for a second. I wanted to broil that little fucker so bad, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger.

    Though these appear to be terrible deeds on Jack’s behalf, they are carried out with the full intent to continue the life he and Patience had, as well as attempting to make the life she had prior to their meeting and eventual marriage—to which she earlier expresses much disdain for, to the point of never talking about it with Jack—easier, effectively asking the reader the question of, “would you take a life to save the life of a loved one?”

    The hyperrealism at play with the elements of sci-fi of the plot is further pushed through the artwork of Patience. Relatively drab, muted colors and stark line-work are on display in the years of past, while when in the future that level of realism is literally layered over with vibrant colors and rotund figures. It is almost a bit jarring to see Jack with his colorful future technology in Clowes’ visual idea of yesteryear. 

    Daniel Clowes wrestles with ideas of love and loss in Patience, often times forcing the reader to ask themselves questions throughout about the things they would do, the depths they would sink to, and the sacrifices they would make to save a loved one. All the while letting the reader know ultimately no matter what you try, no matter what you do, that some outcomes are inevitable, but that for the ones that are capable of change, that change might not be immediate and often times one must exercise a certain degree of patience.


    Davis R. Blackwell is a Chicago-based author. You can catch him ignoring you on the Red Line eating a six-piece chicken dinner from Harold’s.

  • A Review of I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

    by Marygrace Shumann, Contributing Editor

    Told from alternating perspectives, I’ll Give You The Sun is a poignant character study on twins Jude and Noah as they deal with the intricacies of self-worth, death, and love.

    Noah’s sections are told before their mother passes away in a car crash. Throughout his sections, Noah begins to having feelings for a boy named Bryan while, at the same time, growing apart from his twin sister, Jude. This sort of cosmic connection that Noah himself describes with, “Unlike most everyone else on earth, from the very first cells of us, we were together, we came here together. This is why no one hardly notices that Jude does most of the talking for both of us, why we can only play piano with all four of our hands on the keyboard and not at all alone, why we can never do Rochambeau because not once in thirteen years have we chosen differently,” is broken as Noah’s love and understanding for art brings him closer to their mother, while Jude (who doesn’t feel her art is as worthy as Noah’s) becomes jealous of their connection. Throughout his sections, Noah is trying to get into a prestigious art school. As he learns more about himself as an artist, Noah begins to draw in his head, allowing the reader to merge the gap between art and artist. He describes his own process saying, “When I draw it, I’m going to make my skin see-through and what you’ll see is that all the animals in the zoo of me have broken out of their cages.” The novel itself breathes like a painting, a sculpture, a sketch. The descriptions are not only vivid, but both lifelike and mystical. Noah’s sections in particular are bursting with imagery that feels unworldly and yet, like a beautiful painting, so anchored to reality. The style Nelson takes allows us to better understand that line between what we feel and what is, which rings particularly true as both Noah and Jude begin to face the harsher realities of life.

    While in Noah’s sections, Jude is belligerent and rebellious, in her own section, years after their mother’s passing, we find Jude to be more reserved. Attending the art school her brother felt was destined for him after she destroyed his application, Jude is filled with an unspeakable guilt. Everything she tries to make is destroyed, Jude believes, by the ghost of her mother. While Noah’s sections are filled with vibrant imagery—emotions described with color, sounds described with scene—Jude’s sections deal closely with her ability to put into words both her own feelings, and the feelings of those around her. Noah paints, but Jude is more concerned with making a sculpture. Throughout her sections, Jude wants to make something solid, something she believes won’t break. This is shown through a more matter-of-fact style of writing. As Jude falls for a boy her brother painted years before, and accidentally becomes the student of the man her mother was having an affair with, Jude begins to understand the lines between forgiving yourself and forgiving others. As she grapples for answers, Jude’s ultimate character growth comes in her ability to let things be, let things break, and let things come back together on their own. “Because who knows?” she says, “Who knows anything? Who knows who's pulling the strings? Or what is? Or how? Who knows if destiny is just how you tell yourself the story of your life?” As Jude finally forgives herself for what she did to her brother, she gives her brother the freedom to confess to her the guilt he feels surrounding their mother’s death. It is this freedom of confession that finally allows Jude to understand the middleground and see things less as a plan to follow through with, and moreso as something messy, the breathing nature of relationships and self.

    Told with a vibrancy and emotional maturation seldomly found in Young Adult fiction, Nelson weaves a haunting and meaningful story about family and self-discovery.


    Marygrace Schumann, lesbian mother of the team, is a senior at Columbia College Chicago studying Fiction Writing. When she’s not writing, it’s all about Cheesie’s and serenading her friends with ’80s music.