Best of 2008
We offer up the books, trends and people that made this Chicago's year.
It wouldn’t be hard to make the argument that 2008 was the year Chicago’s literary scene took center stage. Was there a more prominent best-seller than our own Barack Obama? Not only were his books flying off the shelves and into the hands of his believers, the anti-Barack crowd loved to pass around misquoted excerpts in chain e-mails. More than a few wing nuts even claimed he didn’t write Dreams from My Father, and that it was actually penned by Chitown’s other most famous author of 2008, Bill Ayers. Such was the power of Obama’s book-selling strength, after he mentioned on 60 Minutes that he was reading a book on FDR, three academic studies on the topic went into reprints.
But the city had a lot more going on at the grassroots level this year. When we think back on Chicago’s 2008 literary scene, we don’t think of Obama strolling from press conference to town car with a copy of Team of Rivals in his hand. Instead, we think of the people and the books that made this year for the folks living here.
Brightest unsung literary star: Kathleen Rooney
Over the course of calendar year 2008, Rooney had only three books come out. Only. But if we fudge a little and include February 2009 in the equation, we’re looking at four books over the course of 14 months. In April of this year, the second edition of her book about the Oprah Book Club, Reading With Oprah (University of Arkansas Press, $15.95) appeared, as did her collection of collaborative poetry with Elisa Gabbert, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Otoliths, $12.50). In October, locals Switchback Books released her solo debut, Oneiromance ($14), and next year her book about her time as an art model, Live Nude Girl, hits shelves. Oh yeah, and she runs a great publisher of tiny books, Rose Metal Press.
Most ado about not much: Small Press Month
It has all the haziness and lingering regret of a bad dream, but back in March, Chicagopoetry.com proprietor CJ Laity sounded the alarm when he felt as if the annual celebration of the little guys wasn’t properly representing Chicago. We took exception, folks lined up on both sides, and in the way the Internet makes all of our lives worse, a four-week argument ensued. Then the Chicago event came and went, nothing really changed, and all of us fighters felt, and looked, silly.
Biggest bummer: Impetus Press folds
We know Impetus wasn’t a Chicago press, but it’s a bummer to see a new press come and go so quickly. The localized bummer comes from the fact that Gina Frangello’s second novel, London Calling, which had been scheduled for fall of this year, then spring of next year, currently sits in limbo while she searches out another publisher.
Best poetry chapbook as determined by a magazine that doesn’t write much about poetry: The Partial Autobiography of Jane Doe, by Daniela Olszewska
We’re not going to pretend we’ve read anything close to a representative sample of poetry chapbooks this year, but having said that, we’d put Olszewska’s debut against any comers. Olszewska’s work is both frighteningly beautiful and beautifully frightening, and at times funny as hell.
Clearest sign the apocalypse has been postponed: StepSister Press For all of the talk about the decline of print, Chicago has seen something of a renaissance of small presses popping up in town, including Orange Alert Press and the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography’s new imprint. StepSister, which launched this spring, has put out a carefully curated line of books, bowing to the publishers’ predilections over market forces. After four books this year, including two coinciding with art installations in town, we’re excited to see what’s on the docket for 2009.
Best reading series: Quickies!
It’s short. It’s fun. We like it.
Greatest book-as-playground: Demons in the Spring, by Joe Meno
Even if you’re convinced that print is in decline, you still have to hand it to the likes of Akashic Books, which, with Meno’s gorgeous new story collection, shows you what print can do. Designed by Chicago artist Cody Hudson and decorated by some of the best illustrators working today, it’s easy to get lost in Demons. Both the pretty pictures and the pretty writing are bound to snag you.
Biggest loss: Studs Terkel
This one’s a no-brainer. No one combined Studs’s intellect with his oratorical flair. For years, people had been saying Studs was irreplaceable. And now, it’s painfully apparent.
For more on Studs, read our salute to him here.
Biggest bullet dodged: Third World Press
Just as the Ayers controversy was heating up, Third World Press editor Haki Madhubuti was putting the latest book by the former Weatherman on ice. Third World had planned to release the new book by Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, Race Course: Against White Supremacy, in the fall but decided to postpone it until 2009 to, as Madhubuti says, “help Barack.”
Best Chicago novel: The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon
Nominated for the National Book Award, Hemon’s second novel tackles the immigrant experience in Chicago throughout its history, and does it in a language that recalls Hemon’s Chicago literary forebear, Saul Bellow. Though Hemon has hardly been Chicago’s secret, it’s been gratifying to see him get the national attention he deserves. And we’re still holding out hope for February, when the Pulitzers are announced.