Sunday, May 31, 2009

Radio Review

Steve Amick's novel, Nothing But a Smile, is unusual in subject, tone, and perspective. I had great fun reviewing it concisely for Booklist, and then at length for Chicago Public Radio, where music enhances the ambiance. Take a listen:

And if you would like to read along:

Nothing But a Smile, a novel by Steve Amick (Pantheon Books). Review for Eight-Forty-Eight by Donna Seaman. Air date: May 20, 2009.

During hard times when jobs are scarce, the more creative and intrepid among us draw on their entrepreneurial instinct and willingness to gamble, and put to use what they’ve been given, be it brains or beauty. Or both if you’re Sal Chesterton, the guiding light in Steve Amick’s naughty-but-nice novel Nothing But a Smile. Nothing But a Smile is a tale of good-old American ingenuity and self-reliance, and a spicy and sly novel about sex, hypocrisy, extortion, censorship, and sleaze. Nothing But a Smile is nothing if not fun and tantalizing.

It’s 1944 and Wink Dutton, an artist who got lucky and landed a spot as an illustrator for Stars and Stripes while serving in the Pacific, badly mangles his drawing hand in an absurd and demoralizing accident. He doesn’t know what sort of work he can do now that he can’t hold a pencil or pen, but at least he can fulfill his promise to his photographer buddy, Bill Chesterton, and look up his wife Sal when he gets to Chicago. She’s been managing their family camera shop all by herself. A shop in the Loop that Chicagoans may well picture as Central Photo on Wabash Avenue between Adams and Jackson––the city’s oldest camera shop, and a Chicago landmark with its classic old sign facing the shadow-casting el tracks.

Sal is happy to meet Wink, maybe a little too happy, but she doesn’t let on that she is struggling to keep the shop in business. Folks are broke and not inclined to spend their few precious dollars on cameras or film, and her bills are piling up. Plucky and resourceful, she’s been moonlighting at the Chicago Tribune as a darkroom technician. Hoping to earn more money and make better use of her skills, she asks an editor about working as a photographer. He tells her, “We’re not quite there, yet,” and suggests a secretarial job instead. Infuriated by such blatant sexism, Sal decides to capitalize on her know-how and good looks and sets to work shooting her first roll of girlie pictures, using herself as the model. She also decides to rent Wink the empty apartment above the shop, across from her own. Why not? She can use some help, and, given the spate of break-ins in the neighborhood, some protection. Wink doesn’t have to know about her little sideline.

But of course he finds out. And while Wink’s hand is damaged, his artist’s eye couldn’t be keener, and soon he’s behind the camera while Sal and her friend Reenie, a living, breathing pinup with a cheerfully risqué imagination, vamp it up, “exposing parts of themselves in ridiculous predicaments,” as Sal puts it. After some experimentation, the three hit the jackpot with their cleverly staged, cute-pie sexy photos, described in, let us say, lingering, if not loving detail. Clearly, Steve Amick conducted exhaustive research into classic 1940s pinups, suffering mightily in pursuit of historic accuracy. And if their peek-a-boo slapstick seems familiar, it’s because Amick is paying homage to a real-life Chicago-based illustrator renowned for his antic portraits of leggy, disarrayed beauties, Glen Elvgren, called the “Norman Rockwell of cheesecake.” Elvgren appears in Nothing But a Smile (does the title make more sense now?) as does a “hatchet-faced young guy named Hef,” a nod to another bit of Chicago skin-trade history as the home of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy.

If it sounds like Amick makes girlie pictures seem wholesome and harmless, rest assured the novel does not fail to address the darker side of the industry. Sal, Reenie, and Wink are threatened by mobsters, insulted by outraged neighbors and family, and arrested during a shoot on a North Side beach. The trio also contends with a shocking tragedy, a military cover-up, and trouble with the feds at the onset of the McCarthy-era Red Scare. When the Tribune publishes one of Wink’s serious photographs, a powerful portrait of a wounded G.I. reading the want ads, he’s tagged as a communist.

Steve Amick’s novel, Nothing But A Smile, is an unusual mix of literary and pulp fiction, a bawdy romp and a true romance. A wily work satire that asks, What is actually obscene? Nudity or war? Sex or sexism? Titillation or poverty? Amick’s artful and affecting novel of pinups and put-downs is a zesty inquiry into fairness and decency, free speech and justice, and the value of work and creativity. Nothing But a Smile is fresh, witty, immensely entertaining, and provocative in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A review

My latest review for the Chicago Tribune:

Housewife finds her wings watching the world's birds

By Donna Seaman | Special to the Tribune

May 23, 2009

"Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds"

By Olivia Gentile

Bloomsbury, 345 pages, $26

Her mother said it best, "Phoebe is a bird, afraid of being caged." Crowned "the world's leading bird-watcher" by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1994, Phoebe Snetsinger described her devotion to birding as "emotional salvation." In her quest to see more bird species than anyone had ever imagined possible, she traveled the seven continents many times over, surpassed many ornithologists in expertise, published zesty birding articles and became a legend. She also skipped her mother's funeral, missed her eldest daughter's wedding and left her husband alone for months at a time.

The daughter of Naomi and Leo Burnett, founder of the renowned, Chicago-based advertising agency, Leo Burnett Co., tomboy Phoebe dreamed of becoming a scientist while growing up in Glencoe and Lake Zurich. But she graduated from college during the 1950s, and, as journalist and first-time biographer Olivia Gentile so astutely observes, not even a brainy and ambitious gal like Snetsinger was immune to society's husband-and-children-first directive for women. Accordingly, Snetsinger married, assumed the role of a suburban, stay-at-home mother of four and became so depressed "she felt like she was inside a tomb." Until the day a friend handed Snetsinger a pair of binoculars and pointed out a Blackburnian warbler.
An eagle-eyed stoic with a steely memory, Snetsinger was a natural in the field, and her "life list" of the bird species she saw and identified grew at a dizzying pace. As the first woman to tally 5,000 birds, she was exultant. Informed just before her 50th birthday that she had advanced melanoma and less than a year to live, she was devastated. Did she hang up her binoculars and cease circling the globe like a migrating bird? Certainly not. Time was short, so she planned even more arduous expeditions. Gentile wonders if perhaps Snetsinger hoped that perpetual motion and a fierce concentration on birds would enable her to outrun and outsmart the disease.
What astounding birds Snetsinger saw, the most exotic vividly described by Gentile, a bird convert under the influence of her compelling subject. Here are striking word sketches of the gray crowned-crane, lilac-breasted roller, harpy eagle, red bird-of-paradise, shoebill, Ceylon frogmouth and rufus-necked wood-rail. Snetsinger was blessed with enough time and money to be able to follow guides into swamps, jungles and deserts, up mountains and across rivers and oceans, often under the most grueling conditions. Over time, her journeys grew increasingly urgent. Not only because she was racing against death, but also because the planet's birds, "mostly as a result of habitat destruction and other human blunders," are facing extinction. Snetsinger experienced ecstasy in the presence of magnificent birds, but also faced despair, peril and terror.

Gentile chronicles Snetsinger's miraculous survival of treacherous trails, a lethal strain of malaria, a brush with tribal warfare, a potentially fatal boat accident, a sprained ankle and a broken wrist. She was taken hostage in Ethiopia, and, most horrifically, gang-raped in Papua New Guinea. But nothing stopped her. Each trauma toughened her resolve and intensified her sense of mission. Snetsinger's life list was her lifeline, and no one saw as many species as she did. She reached 8,398. Death claimed her in Madagascar at 68 in 1999. And no, it wasn't cancer (a vehicle accident on a birding tour).

Gentile tells Snetsinger's staggering story with clarity and verve. She reflects incisively on the shadow side of Snetsinger's quest¿¿the perverse metamorphosis that turned a liberating passion into a devouring addiction, and perceptively elucidates and celebrates her accomplishments. A remarkable woman of tenacity, courage and transcendence, Snetsinger leaves a profound legacy, which will now be more fully appreciated and treasured thanks to Gentile's enthralling, provocative and inspiring biography.

Donna Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist and a book critic for Chicago Public Radio. Her author interviews are collected in Writers on the Air.

"Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds"

By Olivia Gentile

Bloomsbury, 345 pages, $26

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hot off the press

I'm thrilled to announce that the issue of TriQuarterly I had the great good amazing fortune to guest edit is now available.

#133 is a big, juicy issue full of poems, fiction, essays, and photographs by writers of phenomenal powers. Not to mention the beautiful and provoking drawing, "Snapdragon," on the cover by Chicago artist Jayne Hileman. The theme of the issue is "Strong Medicine," and here's a bit of my introduction:

My respect for the mystery implicit in creativity runs high, so I decided not to interfere with the process in my role as guest editor for this brimming issue of TriQuarterly. I did not name a theme, or assign a topic. Instead, I sought out writers who see life whole, who are curious about the interconnectivity and complexity of existence, and who care, deeply and unabashedly, about the world. When asked what I was looking for, I simply said, “strong medicine.”

Medicine, the dictionary tells us, is not only “a substance or preparation used in treating disease.” It is also “something that affects well-being,” and “magical power or a magical rite.” Reading and looking at art are not only intellectual and emotional pursuits. We read with our entire body; we take in a painting or sculpture with every cell. We feel the impact of stories, images, and music in our very bones. There are, after all, no divides between body, mind, and spirit, and many of us rely on literature and art to keep us alive and well, just as we need food, air, and water, sleep and touch. Good writing is a tonic. The work of inquisitive, imaginative, unfettered, and courageous observers, thinkers, and dreamers provides succor. Heat and light. Food for thought and balm for pain. Lucid and compassionate literature breaks the isolating fever of the self.

Clarion writing is strong medicine for what ails us, and the list of our disorders, our follies and crimes, is long and harrowing. The suffering we cause and endure is beyond diagnosis; our destruction of the living world is suicidal, malignant, terminal, evil. Yet we do try to make sense of our perversity, our brutality. We do learn; we do change. And it is the stories we tell that alert us to our maladies and suggest modes of healing. Without stories, chronicles, and poems, we would have no clue to what goes on in the minds of others, no insight into how other people live and define life. Right and wrong are embedded in stories; the great, glimmering web of life is best traced with words; the symbiotic relationships that make possible this planet’s mantle of green and intersecting family trees of creatures great and small, marine and legged, are best revealed by those who have a gift for precision and metaphor, for finding words for the beauty and wonder they discern everywhere they look and listen.

I treat my own afflictions of the spirit with art and writing that is revelatory, insurgent, and transforming. I imbibe images and language electric with that green force that through art’s alchemy reorients and recalibrates our perceptions, affirms our belonging. That essential radiance is present in each of the poems, essays, stories, and photographs that follow. Here is serenity and anger. Tragedy shocking and ordinary. Satire and suspense, lyricism and irony, desire and elegy. The brazen and the enigmatic. The absurd and the dire. Writers cross borders between the past and the present, the wild and the cultivated, the personal and the universal, the actual and the imagined, the rational and the incomprehensible, the horrific and the sublime. The creators take risks, and we the readers take chances as we accept each infusion, elixir, shock, or shot.

For a table of contents, look here:

Thank you to everyone who contributed to TriQuarterly#133. And thank you to the wonderful TriQuarterly staff, Susan Hahn and Ian Morris.

Let me know what you think.