Please Don’t Move This Chair: Nina Sankovitch at The Book Cellar
by Jess Millman

Letter Writing

NINA SANKOVITCH. PHOTO COURTESY OF CTPOST.COM.

Banana bread, root beer, and weekday night readings – you’re probably at The Book Cellar. If you were there last Wednesday night, you’d have been sitting with me in the tight, country kitchen geometry of their café, listening to Nina Sankovitch (author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) read us bits and bobs from her newest book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing.

Sleeve the cheese off the title; the veal inside is good. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is not a simple letter collection reprint or a preachy lament about the lost art of honest-to-God handwriting. Sankovitch has written a memoir interlocked with a historian’s desire to discover people by reassembling – piecemeal – their words, memories, ink blots, and willowy penmanship. The book (and Wednesday’s talk) began with the story that in turn began the book: a steamer trunk of old college letters found inside a writer’s new home. She read us passages from inside that trunk, mostly consisting of a homesick freshman’s thoughts to his mother in the early 1900s. They are the peacefully mundane stuff of daily life: someone is cavorting, someone will study tomorrow, someone is about to receive a tuition bill. But one of those keepsakes, not more than a scribble on a loose page, stands out: “PLEASE DO NOT MOVE THIS CHAIR.”

Why does it resonate? We’ll never know exactly what the sentence means. Maybe an event placeholder, Sankovitch guesses; maybe a boy protective of his favorite seat at the drawing table. But that’s the fun of it – the honesty of a glimpse into a life in-motion. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is about these loose pieces and the impressions of people they leave behind. When you read a writer’s letter, you may learn her secrets, obviously; you may read her insecurities, her catchphrases, her losses and wins. You may, in her words, “fall in love with this stranger” because they seem so like or unlike you. But what’s more lasting, Sankovitch says – what we lose in this technocrat era of attachments and delete keys – is the mistakes. There’s nothing more genuine and vulnerable. When you read a writer’s letter, you see, firsthand, the finger stains and stumbles and misspellings that show there is a human speaking; these are the footprints can’t be backspaced away.

Sankovitch fed listeners spoonfuls of history between readings from Signed, Sealed, Delivered. While the evening was casual with occasional pips of nostalgia, the discussion points dipped into scholarly domains; topics ranged from the literacy of ancient Egyptians, the duties of scribes, Mike Royko’s tender underbelly, and how receiving handwritten letters differs – psychologically and emotionally – from clicking open e-mails.

I’ve been writing and listening in Chicago for several years now, and I still can’t shake the sly twitch I get at public readings. It feels like I’ve got my shotglass to the wall – like grabbing an editor’s peek, furnished with commentary, into an author’s writing process. Listening to Sankovitch, with some kind of glazed Book Cellar cake sticking my fingers together, this feeling was a little like those intimate feelings she described as the experience of reading letters. We heard love letters she’s found, in federal archives and in attics; we heard poignant moments from Martin Ginsburg’s deathbed; we heard her speak wryly on the rude, rambunctious, puckish odes James Joyce dedicated to gassy sex with his wife. This sounds like a Friday class at a liberal arts school. But pretension had no place at The Book Cellar. After trading us her letter stories, Sankovitch invited the audience to share their own.

Full disclosure: I was skeptical. But midway through the night, expecting lectures and waiting for the demonization of the internet generation, I felt a spot ripen in me. I do have a letter story. I have a shoebox full of sealed envelopes my mother, two trimesters swollen, wrote to me – about her day, about the white-plumed cat, about how many colors my father paints the ceiling of what will soon be my room, about sore feet in the seventh month, about things she wanted me to break out of her body and find. It is an ongoing story; I’m not meant to open them until she breaks out of this world, and I hope with every stitch of me that it never happens, but I know it will, and when the weight of being finite begins to flatten my lungs, I remember those letters will be there. My mother will still have something to say. And she will say it straight to me, on wide-ruled notebook paper doodled with tulips and starbursts and fuzzy-haired faces. Maybe, as Sankovitch teases, the joy of this is not about licking the perfect stamp or curling the perfect flourish onto your calligraphic D-e-a-r, but in that letters are infinite. They are a continuous moment, talking to us whenever we uncrease them.

The crux of it all can be boiled down to this: letter writing is not just about emotionality and communication, but about, in Sankovitch’s view, “painting a portrait of ourselves.” I – AIM child, Skype-caller, GrubHub ordering phone-o-phobe – have a letter story, and I bet you do, too. With letters, she explained, we are creating a fragment that will give us voice in the eternal present tense – a place where my mother is always talking to me, where a son is always writing home. And while we may never have an exact image of these writers or their histories, “a letter is gift – to read, reread, answer or ignore if we choose – without the pressure of an immediate action.” This gift is three-pronged and it has no expiration date; it’s in the receiving, in the (re)reading, and in defining our legacies through writing.

One of the joys of letter writing? You can’t keep them from moving your chair. But you can, centuries later, fill it up with a messy, inexact, intimate portrait of you.

EVENT: NINA SANKOVITCH, “SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED: CELEBRATING THE JOYS OF LETTER WRITING”| WEDNESDAY, JULY 16, 2014 AT 7PM | THE BOOK CELLAR

Related:
Nina Sankovitch interviewed by the Evanston Public Library
A New York Times essay: “The Death of Letter Writing”

 

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Mood Surreal: Boris Vian’s L’Écume des Jours
by Julia Fine

PHOTO COURTESY OF WEARETHEFRONTIER.COM

PHOTO COURTESY OF WEARETHEFRONTIER.COM

Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (either Froth on the Daydream or Foam of the Daze in English, depending on your translation) has been called unfilmable, but on July 25th Michel Gondry’s recent cinematic adaptation will open at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 164 N State St. (Take note: friends of Literary Chicago can get a discounted ticket by using the code “LIT.”)

Despite its reputation, this adaptation actually marks the novel’s third appearance on the silver screen. In 1968, French director Charles Belmont released a version called L’Écume des jour, and a Japanese adaptation by director Gô Rijû, called Chloe, came out in 2001. This time around, Gondry is using the English title Mood Indigo—a textual deviation, but a fitting name for a whimsical story that plays across the page like jazz music.

The novel’s plot is fairly simple: Colin, a wealthy bachelor, spends his days and his fortune on such fancies as the ‘pianocktail’ (a piano that, you guessed it, makes different cocktails depending on the song that’s being played), hanging with his friend Chick, an acolyte of the prolific “Jean-Sol Partre,” and feasting on the gourmet concoctions of his personal chef, Nicolas. As all wealthy bachelors versed in Jane Austen must, Colin embarks on a search for love that lands him Chloe, his dream girl. The crux of their trouble begins soon after their marriage, when Chloe comes down with an unusual illness: a water lily growing in her lung. The remainder of the novel shows us Colin’s downward spiral as he tries to care for Chloe, his fortune evaporates, and his world slowly narrows (quite literally— his house shrinks).

Throughout the 200-page romp-turned-tragedy, Vian bombards his readers with fabulous, surreal events and images. Mice speak and wear fancy clothes, broken windows grow back, and rifles are incubated by human bodies as they take root like potatoes in the ground. This proliferation of creative ideas has earned L’Écume the title of cult classic, but also its “unfilmable” status. An example of how Vian might be hard to represent on screen: early in the novel, Nicolas prepares a cake for Colin and Chick. They cut it open, and, says Vian, inside there is “a new article from Partre for Chick and a date with Chloe for Colin.” Tough to capture that on film, no matter what your special effects budget might be.

At first, like many of the book’s bizarre events, I found this bakery development delightful. But as I continued reading, I quickly realized this scenario is all too representative of Chloe’s character, or rather her lack of character development. Chloe’s entire purpose is to be first perfect, and then sick, hastening Colin’s demise and spending his money. Sure, her sickness is exciting—she has a flower growing inside of her and must be surrounded by flowers at all times in order to survive. (But also sometimes she kills flowers by breathing on them…? What makes this novel more Jorge Luis Borges than George R. R. Martin is the discernible lack of rules that govern the magic of its world). Still, her sickness is her character entirely. Chloe is cardboard, purely here to service her husband and the plot, to be the dying woman teaching her reformed man-child how to love. In Gondry’s film, Chloe is played by the incomparable Audrey Tautou, who from the previews seems to embody her with slightly more punch. It remains to be seen whether Gondry takes advantage of Tautou’s natural charisma and lets Chloe be more than a trope, but novel-Chloe left me rather disappointed.

Also disappointing from a feminist perspective was this late-in-book exchange between Colin and Chick’s former lover, Alise:

‘Why did he throw me out?’ said Alise. I was really very pretty.

I don’t know why, said Colin, but I really like your hair and face.

Look, said Alise. She stood up, pulled the little ring that closed her dress and it fell onto the floor. It was a light wool dress; underneath, she was wearing nothing.

Yikes. We certainly won’t be using Vian as an example of how to write compelling, opposite-sex characters. In fact, the shallowness of his women takes the whole novel down more just a notch in my esteem. I’ll admit that some of this might stem from translation: Brian Harper did a fabulous job with my copy (Foam of the Daze), but even in his introduction explains that it is often impossible to convert all the nuances of Vian’s wordplay into English. Harper’s edition provides extended notations at the end of the full text to clue us Yankees in on some of the original cleverness, but can not mask the sense that we are losing something by not reading the book in French. Perhaps in its original language these ladies make more of an effort to hold their own? I hope so.

If this review has taken a harsher turn, it should not dissuade you from picking up the novel — the imagery alone is enough to entice curious readers. I am incredibly excited to see how Vian’s visions play out on the big screen: roofs falling in on academic conference-goers, lovers traveling by cloud, a machine called the heartsnatcher. Gondry is known for his fanciful style (see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, or one of his many music videos), and seems like just the director to take us on a frothy, foamy journey through this richly imagined world.

Join me at The Siskel Center July 25-31 to see how it all turns out, and remember to use “LIT” to get your discount!

Related:

Mood Indigo

Gene Siskel Film Center | 164 N State St | 312-846-2800 | Starts Friday, July 25, 2014

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Staff Q&A: From Page to Screen

In this regular feature, we ask our staff a literary question that we’re dying to have answered, and we also want to hear from you! Please use the comments section to tell us about your literary tastes, recommend some reading, or even call us out on something if you disagree.

books-vs-movies

PHOTO COURTESY OF PRINCEOFTHEUNIVERSE.WORDPRESS.COM

This time, we want to know:

What is your favorite book-to-screen adaptation? What book-to-screen adaptation is the absolute worst?

Alba Machado  I’m going to start with the bad: years ago, Audrey Niffenegger told an audience at Columbia College Chicago that she hadn’t seen the film adaptation of her book, The Time Traveler’s Wife. I hope that’s still the case. Hollywood took a magical story about the slippery, shifting nature of relationships through time and churned it into one of those Lifetime-style “chick flick” romances with gently wafting curtains, soft lighting, and rising violins. It also took a strong Chicago setting and reduced it to a jog along Lake Michigan. No book-to-film adaptation has ever made me cringe more. As for the good, I’m a sucker for Fight Club, both book and movie, although I’ll admit that everything else I’ve read by Chuck Palahniuk has made me roll my eyes the way you do for simple middle school gross-out stories (intestines sucked out of your asshole through a swimming pool pump?). With both versions of Fight Club, though, I’m blown away by style and voice and pacing. Super sexy. And both raise interesting questions about masculinity, financial debt, consumerism, apathy, activism, and the individual versus community. I left both page and screen itching for discussion, and wanting to blow shit up. (Of course, not literally, with actual buildings toppling over. More like petitioning for the arts in schools, that kind of blowing shit up.)

Daniel Camponovo I waffled between No Country for Old Men and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly for a long time before remembering I could do whatever I wanted on the internet, so I’ll say my favorite book-to-film adaptation is both of them. The Coen Brothers’ Oscar-winning No Country is as close to a blow-by-blow retelling of Cormac McCarthy’s book as I’ve ever seen, with entire conversations and confrontations lifted word-for-word from the page. Their personal style and humor also make things pop that were otherwise a bit dull in the book: Anton Chigurh went from a respectable-but-bland McCarthy villain to a cinematic icon in Javier Bardem’s alternately funny and horrifying portrayal. On the other side of the spectrum, Julian Schnabel took Jean-Dominique Bauby’s petite 150-page memoir and stretched it out, using his wonderful imagination (and absolutely brilliant cinematography) to bring us inside the paralyzed body of the author after suffering a massive stroke that wrecked his body but left his mind fully preserved. It is the most life-affirming (in that it literally affirms the power of life) book I have ever read and the most beautiful film I have ever seen. As for worst adaptation, I just cannot get into Michael Mann’s Manhunter. A retelling of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, it has since gained cult status for the very reason I can’t get into it: it’s just so heavily stylized, with neon colors and lasers and general 80s-ness overkill. For the most part, I applaud artists for taking risks, and Mann certainly took a risk in melding the classic Hannibal Lecter novel with his signature style. I just think the end product is nigh-unwatchable.

Karen McKinley I think the worst was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. The book was a funny, insightful, and a wonderful tale of a woman’s journey back from a difficult divorce/guilt over not having children/continuing bouts of depression. Now I love Julia Roberts, but Hollywood barely even covered what led Gilbert to her journey, let alone what it really meant to spend her time in India and Indonesia. The Indonesians’ take on death, the idea of physical labor in India and how the daily Bhagavad Gita meditation was her nemesis for a long time while she was there, all was missing from the film. For best, I will say anything Harry Potter, with the exception of the last book, whose final fight series between Harry and Voldemort differed from the text quite a bit.

Jeff Toth  I have to say my least favorite is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I mean, COME ON. Hogwarts is filled to the parapets with Death Eaters and absolutely no one fights back!? And by the way, what was this movie called again? Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, you say? Well, who is the Half-Blood Prince and why? A two and a half hour movie, and the producers are all like “Look, if you want to know why you-know-who is the Half-Blood Prince, read the book.” Oh, really, Steve Kloves and David Yates? You know what? You know what? CRUCIO! My favorite is Field of Dreams. The only thing I remember about Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella was that Annie’s nipples poked through a tank top that said “Rah!” across the front. (Mind you, I was 12 or 13 when I read it.) The only thing I remember about Field of Dreams is that it MADE MY CHILDHOOD. 

Jess Millman Will I be filleted if I say I really do think Shawshank Redemption makes a great film? The cinematography is sentimental, and some of the drama is overplayed and clichéd, but I’ve got a sappy, Morgan-Freeman’s-voice-hypnosis attachment to it I can’t fully explain. Will I be carbonadoed if I say I feel a pinch of aggression every time I see a clip from The Great Gatsby? It’s a personal bias; it’s not even a terrible film. But some book-to-screen adaptations are just unholy. “Tobey Maguire is Nick Carraway” is unholy.

Julia Fine I feel like I’m stating the obvious in going with the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries as my favorite, but I have yet to see anything that captures its source material in as faithful and wonderful a way. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth are divine, practically every scene is included with dialogue quoted from the novel, the score is perfect, basically I love everything about it. The miniseries is the epitome of why I think most books are better suited to television than filmthe minor details that get swept away in other P&P adaptations are out in full force. As for least favorite, I could not have been more disappointed in the film adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. The original novel is brilliant, (though admittedly my least favorite of the His Dark Materials trilogy), philosophical, thought-provoking, great for both adults and kids. The movie is a cookie-cutter film that in all ways fails to recreate its spark. Even with an all-star cast and awesome special effects, the production just doesn’t cut it. Luckily, there was a British theatrical adaptation of Pullman’s entire series that got rave reviews. My fingers are crossed that it will some day show up in the U.S. to school all those who judged the book by its terrible film what is really up with Dust, the Alethiometer, and the most bad-ass heroine I know (other than Lizzie Bennett).

Do you have a question that you’d like us to answer in a future installment of Staff Q&A? Let us know in the comments!

 

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Not All Who Wander are Lost: Finding an Honest Guide in Ben Tanzer’s “Lost in Space”

Lost in Space

“So you also look for signs to provide you some kind of roadmap for where things might possibly be going, because even a sign that is hard to read or navigate is better than none.” — Ben Tanzer, from the essay “The Boy with the Curious Hair”

Full disclosure: despite what may seem like a daunting title, Ben Tanzer’s Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again is neither hard to read nor difficult to navigate. It is, instead, an incredibly honest take on the joys and fears every parent experiences, sometimes long before their children are even a part of the picture. With a blend of humor, inventive structuring, and sometimes sobering truth, Tanzer explores the wide array of influences and instances that continue to shape his journey as a father and as a man. As signs go, Lost in Space is everything a person in need of a guide through the uncertainty of adulthood, manhood, parenthood, personhood, could hope for. At least that was the experience of this reader. I’ll explain.

I first encountered the author and his latest collection of essays in Seattle of all places. We set out separately from our respective homes in Chicago in late February to attend the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP)—Mr. Tanzer, no doubt, kissing his wife and two sons goodbye before setting out to share his work with the literary masses, while I was taking the last trip I would ever take on my own before becoming a father myself. Then again, it wasn’t so much a “trip” for me as it was an exploratory mission. Continue reading

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Down-and-Dirty Writing Process: Jen Bosworth

Jen Bosworth

IMAGE COURTESY OF ADAMNNICELADY.COM

If you spend any time exploring Chicago’s live lit scene, you’re bound to run into Jen Bosworth. A graduate of The Theatre School of Depaul University with a number of stage and screen credits, including The Steppenwolf’s adaptation of The House on Mango Street, Bosworth has—for a decade—been combining her love of writing, her theater background, and her personal experiences to tell hilarious and heartbreaking stories in reading series throughout the city, including her own, the sorely missed Stories at the Store. She’s also a damn nice lady. That’s what her website says—adamnnicelady.com—and we know it’s true, because her solo show, Why Not Me…Love, Cancer and Jack White opens this weekend—it runs from July 18 to August 17 at the Heartland Studio in Rogers Park—and yet here she is, in the midst of opening week preparations, sharing the intimate details of her writing process with us at Literary Chicago, in the first installment of our ongoing feature: the Down-and-Dirty Writing Process. Let’s do it.
Continue reading

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The Write Spot: Star Lounge Coffee Bar
by Danette Chavez

PHOTO COURTESY OF NEEDCAFFEINE.COM

I’m not the most disciplined writer: my attention is easily diverted, and I give myself a lot of time to “decompress” from my day job. So I’m often in search of a place to get work done without feeling tied to another desk. Oh, and to  enjoy several cups of delicious (read: strong) coffee. Star Lounge Coffee Bar (2521 W Chicago Ave) fits the bill, with lots of space, a friendly staff (with excellent taste in music), and said delicious coffee. I’m somewhat hesitant to add to their kudos, because I’d rather not fight any more folks for a spot at a table. But since this is one of my favorite spots to work away from home–and work–I’ll give you the rundown.

Beverages: As the “birthplace and living face of Dark Matter Coffee,” Star Lounge offers on tap, iced, pour-over, press pot and “kone” coffee. If you’re on the go,  you can order one of two rotating daily blends (Giant Steps and Burundi are two personal favorites). Otherwise, treat yourself to a Wake & Bake (espresso-based beverage) or a Cortez the Thriller (a must for any fans of Mexican hot chocolate). There are lots of teas and tea drinks as well, including yerba mate.

Food: There’s an assortment of pastries and sandwiches provided by West Town Bakery, and donuts courtesy of Do-Rite Donuts, but no hot food.

Atmosphere:  I would be remiss not to mention that Star Lounge is a popular spot. It fills up quickly on the weekends, so you’ll want to get there early to stake out a spot. Luckily, it’s quite spacious: there are two levels and a patio. You can grab a stool at the bar (a gorgeous wooden one, that almost runs the length of the space) to pore over some reading while waiting for your pour-over. There are several tables to share with bespectacled strangers, and no one ever minds the company. Earphones are a must, even if you concur that Star Lounge’s staff have great musical tastes. But if you’ve got some transcribing to do, the second level is your best bet: it’s quiet (no speakers), and has plenty of electrical outlets. There’s also free Wi-Fi (the password’s posted at the bar)!

Location: Star Lounge is conveniently located on Chicago Ave (#66 bus), between Rockwell St and Campbell Ave. It’s in one of those nebulous neighborhoods that could be annexed by Ukrainian Village, but is referred to as Humboldt Park in the Yelp listing. However, the West Town Chicago Chamber of Commerce pennants that fly on posts right outside the café would suggest that it’s in West Town.

Price Range: Reasonable. A 20 oz brewed (or “on tap”) is only $2.50 to go, but if you’re going to stay a while, you can get a bottomless cup for $3.50. Nothing’s above the $5 mark.

Word Count: On my last visit, I wrote a blurb (300 words) for an upcoming event, and finished a 500 word TV review. YMMV, especially if you work in a long form (novel, research project), but with free Wi-Fi and lots of space, Star Lounge has the right stuff to help you write stuff.

Do you have a favorite writing spot that you think we should review? Let us know in the comments — we are always on the lookout for new and exciting places to be productive.

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The Power of Story
by Scott Eagan

Once I Was CoolI have an admission I’d like to get out into the open before moving onto Megan Stielstra’s wonderful collection of personal essays, Once I Was Cool. I know the author. I mean, we’re not besties or anything. There was this time, not so long ago, when I decided, on a whim, to take a class taught by Bobby Biedrzycki and Megan Stielstra called Story and Performance—an experience I hold as one of the high points in my pursuit of an MFA degree at Columbia College Chicago. (Bobby makes a very powerful appearance in Once I Was Cool, in the essay “Dragons so Huge.”) For fifteen weeks I got to learn from Megan, while being exposed to fragments of this collection. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. And every so often, as I read this book, these small moments would sweep in and leave me with this sense of familiarity, because I heard a part of the story, like with the first line to the essay “Those Who Were There.” Or like with this striking bit of insight on the nature and importance of story, which I highlighted then promptly wrote down in my journal:

Story—when done right—can help you find yourself in others, share realities that can’t possibly be real, and show a person or people a world that you never before imagined.

Here’s the thing: writing, like anything else in life, is a process. Even this review—the approach of which is a bit unorthodox, but who the hell says a review needs to be orthodox—is part of a process. A presentation of my opinion on Once I Was Cool with the intent to persuade—totally the case with this book—or dissuade—not the case with this book—the reader. But, and this is the important part, I need to first understand why I think Once I Was Cool is so good. Is worth both your money and time. Accomplishing that is not just about pinpointing the things that I liked, or admired. It’s also about the distillation of the work into those themes that resonate the strongest with me. And sometimes that can be tricky. So I’m going to walk you through the process I underwent in order to find those themes. Continue reading

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A Bookish Holiday: Celebrating Independent Bookstores
by Alba Machado


Ah, bookstores. New releases, staff picks, favorite sections, bookish novelty items, and friendly and knowledgeable booksellers. It feels like it was just yesterday when I last perused the stocks of a beloved brick and mortar. Oh wait. It was. I got myself a copy of Roxane Gay’s Untamed State from 57th Street Books in Hyde Park. My bookseller dad started taking me on weekly pilgrimages to bookstores before I even knew my ABCs, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

57th Street Books is among my favorites, and it’s one of the nine bookstores participating in the first ever Chicago’s Independent Bookstore Day this Saturday, July 12. It’s the start of what will undoubtedly be a happy tradition for the local community of readers and writers, which, of course, includes you. During the celebration, these shops will be offering special deals, free books, and refreshments. Also, adding a mild but fun element of The Amazing Race to the occasion, from July 12 to August 3, each bookstore will give out a handful of puzzle pieces to the first twenty customers who ask for them, pieces that will fit together to create an exclusively designed frameable print by Lilli Carré—free with a $30 purchase. Featured events include a signing by Pulitzer-prize-winning advice columnist Mary Schmich at Women and Children First, gourmet gazpacho from The Soup and Bread Cookbook author Martha Bayne at City Lit, pie from The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie author Paula Haney at Open Books, and vegetarian comfort food from The New Chicago Diner Cookbook authors Kat Berry and Jo Kaucher at Unabridged Bookstore. See website for additional details. Chicago Independent Bookstore Day | Nine bookstores throughout Chicago | Saturday, July 12, 2014 | Website

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