Book Reviews

  • A Review of The Game We Play by Susan Hope Lanier (Curbside Splendor, 2014)

     By Bethany Bendtsen, Managing Editor

    Six blocks later, they turn right onto Kinzie and crane their heads like tourists up at the Trump Tower construction. Sophie holds her right hand up to the sky and covers the building with the butt of her cigarette. She closes one eye, and the building plays peek-a-boo.

    Isn’t it beautiful?

    “Yeah, if you like concrete and steel,” Sophie says dropping her cigarette and stepping on it.

    “You don’t think it’s beautiful?”

    Sophie thinks the tower looks like a giant metallic lighter, or a lipstick case, or a shard of glass. She thinks people want to think it is beautiful. That people want it to be art, but really it is just a building surrounded by other buildings in a city that doesn’t need any more fucking buildings. It is the spinal tap of Chicago. She doesn’t say any of this to Jamey.

    Sophie Salmon says, “It’s just a building.”

    “That’s sad,” Jamey says, and lights another cigarette with chapped red hand.

    They turn left onto State and cross the river. The tower guts the horizon behind them now, waiting to be crowned with a lightning rod.

    The excerpt above comes from “Sophie Salmon,” one of ten stories in Susan Hope Lanier’s debut short story collection The Game We Play. If I had to pick one story from Lanier’s collection that stands out just a little more than the rest, that cuts to the core of what all the pieces seem to be about, it’s this one, sandwiched in the middle of the collection’s one hundred and twenty breezy pages. In it, the main character, an employee at the Michigan Avenue Border’s, makes one final attempt to spark a relationship with her coworker Jamey on his last day of work. Sophie is plagued by an unknown, serious illness for which she refuses to seek medical treatment and her obvious fragility permeates throughout her after-work interaction with Jamey; after a few hours at the bar, back at his apartment, for example, he simply holds her in his arms, gently, as if she was made of tissue paper.

     As in the except, much of the power of “Sophie Salmon” comes from the implications of all that goes unsaid, all that remains unresolved. The dialogue and character interactions in the piece are driven forward by whisper-subtle nonverbal cues, a quality it shares with the collection as a whole. Lanier’s prose is conversational, straight-forward, and refreshingly lacking in pretense. In a few of the other stories, namely “Over Shell Drive” and “Nighthawk,” the same subtlety and simplicity of language prove to be their downfall, as the stories build but never quite . . . crescendo. Here, though, Lanier’s writing prowess is on full display as is the collection’s underlying conflict, the struggle to connect with another human being, to bridge the shortcomings of communication and the reality of innate human separateness.

     This central theme unifies a collection that has little else in common; the stories have neither a shared set of characters, setting, or point of view, and they span a myriad of relationships and contexts: a baseball player at-bat to win the championship, a wife in a grocery store roleplaying to save her marriage, friends on a bender, to name only three. Some, like “At Bat” and “Felicia Sassafras is Fiction” are playfully, delightfully experimental, while others like “Cat and Bird”—my personal favorite, in which a college freshman attempts to make sense of a newfound friendship that is as intense and fraught as the 2000 presidential election against which it is set—adhere to a more linear and traditional mode of storytelling.

     However, all revolve around a character’s attempt to connect with someone else on a deeper level, to understand exactly what another person wants and thinks, and the stories echo with the sharp pain of coming up short, of realizing that the connection between people is so often tenuous, insufficient, imperfect. While the collection itself is imperfect in some ways—as Newcity suggested, and I agree, the stories themselves could have been ordered differently to better showcase the strongest pieces—the overall result is a piece of work which demonstrates Lanier’s ability to do so much, which, in terms of pages, is so little. After reading this collection, I will definitely be watching to see what Lanier, a Columbia College Chicago graduate, has to offer next.

    Similar Works:

     Literature: Dear Life by Alice Munro

     Film: Scenes from the Suburbs directed by Spike Jonze

     Music: “Youthemism” by Coral Bones

    When Bethany’s not writing “fiction” about falling in love with everyone she meets, she spends her time eating cheese fries, obsessing about her outfit, and being generally shady. Her favorite color is glitter. 

  • The Everynovel for Everyone, 10:04 by Ben Lerner (Faber & Faber, 2014)

    By Cody Lee, Reviews Editor

    The Upper-Middle-Class White Man has spoken, and god, I can read his prose book and book again. Let me explain that there is nothing unique about this story (a thirty-three-year-old writer slugs around N.Y.C., writing things, getting drunk, and overanalyzing his thoughts). It’s essentially a tale that the fellow walking down Michigan Avenue might explain over a glass of Glenfiddich 15. However, that’s what makes 10:04 by Ben Lerner golden, and furthermore, human; the colloquial tone intertwined with Lerner’s poetic (sometimes, perhaps, pretentious) language leads the reader into a bittersweet tunnel of intrauterine insemination, Ketamine, and New Yorker articles, all during an assumed apocalyptic countdown.

    Although the novel’s only 241 pages, Lerner is able to squeeze a myriad of information into the text (e.g. his love of cooked baby octopi, the process in which instant coffee becomes packaged, the little pre-piss dip and lift that men do when pulling out their own package), but above all, Lerner discusses the omnipotent deity: The Dollar Bill. 10:04 reads as a nagging mother with nil more than money on her mind, which can be upsetting, but all Mom’s trying to do is prepare the reader for the real world. Perusing the book as a college student (in a liberal arts school, especially), one might become quite frustrated while listening to the narrator brag about his “strong six-figure” advance, but realistically, who wouldn’t boast a bit if they received two full-year salaries for one unfinished novel? As annoying as the money-talk seemed sometimes, I wanted more, more, more because not many (fiction) authors seem to supply such data. In 10:04, Lerner points out that an article in the New Yorker pays approximately $8,000. No one wants to say how much they’re paid . . . I would thoroughly enjoy sitting in a small white room, directly across from Ben Lerner while he spits out number after number in relation to the writing community. As dull as digits seem to writers, I can speak for myself—and probably a few others—when I say that, as a twenty-two-year-old African-American “kidult” with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, it’s definitely a dream of mine to live like an upper-middle-class white man, and talk about my funds (acquired via publications, stipends, etc.) for hours on end.

    The story bounces back and forth in this meta I’m-writing-a-novel-that’s-super-similar-to-my-actual-life first-to-third-person mashup, which works surprisingly well in its subtlety for the first few switches, but once it grows obvious that the narrator’s basically narrating himself, the point-of-view seesaw becomes cute, but not much more.

    What I find delightful about 10:04 is the narrator’s disgust of the art world in which he’s involved fused together with his obvious knowledge that he himself is indeed associated with the bourgeoisie, and not just some ghost, hovering over the masses and laughing at their idiocies (although, one could argue that the middle class does hover over the masses, but typically avoids laughing because laughing at people is uncivilized and an example of improper etiquette). This becomes apparent when the narrator’s at dinner with a few acquaintances—mostly distinguished writers or English professors—and he observes “the distinguished male author” spaz out (in Spanish) on the busboy who poured him still water instead of sparkling. Directly after, when the narrator’s water is poured, he’s unsure whether to thank the worker in English or Spanish . . . clearly, the narrator has never worked any sort of service position, because anyone who has knows that a simple “thank you” will suffice.

    I can’t help but think of Lerner’s (page-and-a-half) reference to Walt Whitman: the self-proclaimed Everyman, although apparently not, since he was Walt Whitman and all . . . I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Lerner’s the neo-Whitman, but the arrogance, married with the pedestrian-esque blanket that’s thrown over the arrogance (not to mention the eroticism) definitely allows my mind to imagine a bloodline connecting the two; one drop counts, check history textbooks.

    10:04 does exactly what a novel is supposed to do: it takes the reader out of their own unexceptional life, and transfers them into the shoes of someone else. However, this “someone else” happens to be just as ordinary as the reader, thus relatable, thus automatically okay. This is in regards to the content, now add money that I don’t have but would love to learn to obtain, and sprinkle in a layer of poetics (all novels aside, Ben Lerner is a poet), and out comes 10:04: an intelligent look into the brains of the bifocaled souls on train rides home, or rather, you, me, and everyone else with hopes of living as The Upper-Middle-Class White Man, the Everyman.

    Similar works:

    Literature: Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

    Film: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World directed by Lorene Scafaria

    Etc.: “there’s too much blood in the attic today” by happy jawbone family band

    Cody Lee has no sense of humor, and hates everyone. He’s smart, too.

  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 2014)

    By Karina Corona

    Haruki Murakami is a man of incredible talent. With 19 titles and translated into 50 languages, this Japanese writer is considered by some to be one of the leaders in postmodern literature. 

    As a twenty-something college student living in a major U.S. city, I already know what you’re thinking dear reader. You’re thinking, "Murakami? Is this another review on Norwegian Wood?" To this, I have the following to say: um, Norwegian Wood is a wonderful book that deals with the many dimensions of personal trauma and recovery and no, this review is actually on Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  

    Right from the first line, Murakami captures the reader and pulls them into the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a 36-year-old railroad engineer living in Tokyo. Following a traumatic event that took place during his sophomore year in college, Tsukuru is left emotionally crippled and exiled from the only friends he’s ever known. With nothing but the thought of dying keeping him company, Tsukuru almost reaches the point of no return before deciding to revisit his past and get an answer to the question which left him restless for nearly 16 years: Why? 

    The wonder of Murakami's writing is in the detail of his characters. For example, Tsukuru translates to “to make or build” and his surname, Tazaki, contains no color or symbol which sets him apart from the group of friends he is later exiled from as all of their sur names contain sort of relation to a specific color—a detail that is unrelated to his exile, yet meaningful nonetheless. In addition to the classic Murakami style, there is a mysterious character involved and a plot twist even sharper than his character development. 

    While some may argue that each Murakami novel is alike, I will argue that that very thing is the beauty behind his writing. To take a story and mold it in a way that is consistent and universal but still keep true to the individuality of the story and its characters is what keeps me and the millions of other Murakami readers coming back for more.   

  • The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe by Romain Puértolas (Knopf, 2015)

    By Emma LaSaine

    Romain Puértolas’s debut novel, much like its name, spans a great breadth. Geographically, the story carries readers, along with the titular fakir, from Paris to England, Barcelona to Rome, all the way to Libya, then back to France. At the start of this journey, Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod (Aja for short) is a self-interested swindler on a quest to buy a fakir-style bed of nails from Ikea, which he plans to resell for a profit upon his return to India. When Aja, spending the night in Ikea because he cannot afford a hotel, finds himself trapped inside a wardrobe that is shipped to England, he unintentionally becomes an “illegal alien.” Along the way, Aja suffers several “electric shocks” to the heart—epiphanies that broaden his world view, redirect his moral compass, and give him a newfound sense of purpose through his love for Marie, a beautiful French woman he meets along the way, and his desire to be worthy of her affections.

    From the start, Puétorlas plays with perception, a key technique throughout the novel. We first see Aja through the eyes of Gustave Palourde, a Gypsy Cab driver who Aja cheats out of his fare by means of a counterfeit 100-euro bill (printed only on one side) and some invisible thread. Gustave, who turns out to be a violent and slightly dishonest member of the Romani community, recognizes Aja as a foreigner, and views his request to go straight from the airport to Ikea as bizarre. However, when Puétorlas backtracks and immediately retells the encounter, this time listening in to Aja’s thoughts, we discover that he has made an express effort to blend in with the Western locals and that this entire journey, while not a normal activity for the fakir, is perfectly reasonable (if morally dubious, considering that it has been financed through a series of dishonesties) in his mind.

    Puétorlas uses this shifting third person to accomplish a sweeping array of tones and play with the reader’s perception of events. To Aja, the different display rooms constructed in the Ikea reveal real human lives—futures of young couples considering kids, evenings spent on the couch watching TV—despite the fact that these rooms are all false. To him, the automated doors on the front of the store are a technological miracle worthy of appreciation, to the French customers, they are only an aspect of everyday life. Aja’s outsider perspective makes readers question their own perceptions of Western culture and behavior. As Aja’s voyage ensues, the audience quickly discovers that they are merely along for the ride in this rapid-paced adventure where the ridiculous becomes rational and the accepted is revealed to be absurd.

    Puétorlas manages to construct a largely farcical (and at times whimsical) journey that recalls such immersive adventures as Around the World in 80 Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, all the while establishing the fact that Aja’s journey takes place within our hardly fictional modern global reality. The novel handles humorous intricacies of pronunciation that come with transcultural encounters—Ajatshatru’s name alone is interpreted as “A-cat-in-a-bat-suit,” “A-jackal-that-ate-you” and “A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh!”—along with solomn geopolitical tensions and practices surrounding immigration and the divide between developing nations and what Assefa (“I-suffer”), a Sudanese migrant Aja encounters, calls “the good countries.”

    Drawing, no doubt, on his time working as a French boarder guard, Puétorlas writes with remarkable intimacy about the way immigrants are transformed by the hardships they face, describing how “even the sturdiest men become vulnerable: beaten animals with lifeless expressions, their eyes full of extinguished stars,” when he lives with the eternal fear of being caught and sent back to the country and the situation he has worked so hard to escape. In our modern world wracked by war and the politics of refugee crises, Puétorlas aptly notes the absurdities and tragedies surrounding immigration restriction.

    It is important not to be fooled by the humor of Aja’s occasionally slapstick encounters. Although the fakir makes his living by performing petty magic tricks, a master of perception in a sense, this mastery has its roots in a dark brush with the abuse and power dynamics that rule our postcolonial world. Aja may be a loveable fool, the good-natured cheat, but he also provides a window into the disparity in access to modernity, technology and basic quality of life that exists between “have” and “have-not” nations. As Aja travels throughout Europe and beyond, the reader also travels, learning to question their perceptions of what is “banal” and what is “magical,” while reshaping their sense of personal identity within the larger framework of global events, getting in a few good laughs along the way.

    Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN MagazineSlacktivistThe Lab Review, and on her website,

  • My Only Wife, by Jac Jemc (Dzanc Books, 2012)

    By Jennifer Bostrom

    It’s a quick read that demands patience and fond visits. It demands to be left within reach, to be randomly flipped through, and enjoyed for only a moment. It demands to be read in one stretch, pouring over quirks and secrets. My Only Wife (Dzanc Books, 2012) demands attention. Written by Jac Jemc (These Strangers She’d Invited In, 2010; A Different Bed Every Time, 2014), a Chicago-based writer, My Only Wife explores the pains, pitfalls, and pulchritude of a marriage from its beginnings to its damnation.

    In postmortem of his marriage a husband falls in and out of love with his wife as her quirks shift into eccentricities. To quote Kundera, “Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory,” Jemc captures this notion to the very letter through the eyes of the husband; He is a man in love, a man infatuated, a man who understands his wife with perfect clarity and blinding befuddlement. “My wife was the start of me. If someone were to ask how I had changed since I met her I would be unable to find the words. It wasn’t that I changed because of knowing her. It’s more accurate to say that I began.” 

    Though they are never named, the man and wife are outlined through a series of idiosyncratic vignettes, each one more lovely and disheartening than the next. While it could have been a hindrance, Jemc deftly handles the lack of titles by making tangible the severity of the husband’s loss through his repeated mantra, “my wife.” 

    “My wife was a clumsy acquaintance who lumbered through days.”

    “My wife wore trousers . . . She filled her clothes the way one fills one’s skin: exactly.”

    “She was my only wife and I accepted her for all that she was, all quirks, all inconsistencies and unexpected preferences.”

    The wife in question has one habit in particular that begins as endearing and quickly turns isolating. She records stories. After talking to strangers, she returns to her home every night and records stories that no one hears, stories that she hides way in her closet—a closet she keeps locked, only showing her husband once when they move in together.

    “‘Can I see the closet again?’ I asked, at five years.

    ‘You know better,’ she said, locking it behind her and struggling to reattach the bracelet to her wrist, key dangling. 

    ‘Why not?’

    ‘That was a one-time thing. I told you that. You understood. That’s the end.’ She wasn’t amused. . . .

    She was a bit bewildered by my stubbornness. ‘That closet is mine, and I get one thing that is only mine. No, you can’t look inside.’”

    Her husband is tethered to her uniqueness from the very beginning, but the quirky woman who so hauntingly captures her husband’s heart is off-putting as much as she is beautiful, a train wreck demanding attention. His wife is an affable, irascible despot, moving from inclusivity and intimacy to independence and indifferent cynicism at the drop of a hat, leaving a sense of whiplash in her wake.

    Jac Jemc wrestles the demons of love and loss in a sketch of two people fighting inevitability. Their “love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”

    Jennifer Bostrom is a BA Honors Fiction Graduate from Columbia College Chicago, Academic Excellence scholarship recipient (2013-2016), Production Editor of CCC’s award-winning Hair Trigger anthology, and former contributer for HYPERtext MagazineJennifer's fiction can be found at The Copperfield Review and Habitat Magazine or on her website