Our five picks for readings and lectures
by Jayne Anne Phillips
Scribner (October 15)
In 1930, Cornelius Pierson, alias Harry Powers, really Herman Drenth, began writing to Asta Eicher, a widow from Park Ridge, through a matrimonial bureau—the Depression-era version of eHarmony. Before they even met, Eicher agreed to marry him, and the two soon set off on a road trip to Pierson’s home in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. A week later, Pierson returned alone to Illinois to fetch Eicher’s three children. The following month, beneath a garage on Pierson’s property, police discovered Asta Eicher’s jewelry and bank book and a puddle of blood. Buried in a nearby ditch, they discovered the bodies of all four Eichers and Dorothy Lemke, a divorcee from Massachusetts who had also corresponded with Pierson.
Jayne Anne Phillips grew up in West Virginia hearing stories about the murders. She spent years researching the real-life Eichers and creating the fictitious Emily Thornhill, a reporter who covers the murder investigation and trial for the Tribune with a degree of intuition and empathy for Annabel, the youngest Eicher child, that borders on psychic.
Quiet Dell isn’t so much a whodunit or a whydunit as a howdunit. Phillips’s account of the investigation and trial is spooky and compelling. Its greatest fault is Emily Thornhill, who was based on Phillips’s mother and has no faults at all. You’d hope for this in the memory of a mother, but not in a fictional character who ought to be as human as the rest of us. —Aimee Levitt
Phillips reads at the Book Stall’s Women Writer’s Luncheon; call 847-446-8880 to RSVP. Thu 10/17, noon, Avli restaurant, 566 Chestnut, Winnetka, thebookstall.com, $30.
by Samantha Irby
Curbside Splendor Publishing (September 24)
On her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, Chicago writer and performer Samantha Irby acts as our collective id. She writes about being too smart for dumb dudes, too picky for bad food, and sometimes too honest for her own good. As the cofounder of Guts & Glory—”live lit for the lionhearted”—she promotes a fearless and ferocious approach to storytelling and community building. Her raw and powerful new Meaty is a collection of essays on everything from postbreakup rituals and dating workshops to gut-wrenching accounts of looking after her disabled mother while struggling to take care of herself. With admirable candor Irby recounts bad (and worse!) dates, her struggles with Crohn’s disease, and her general approach to suffering (or not suffering) fools. You’ll wish you had her nerve. But once the initial shock wears off, you’re left to marvel at her touching sincerity and lacerating wit. Then you’ll wish you had her writing chops. And finally, you’ll realize that what Irby best speaks to, and for, is our hearts. —Danette Chavez
Release party (“Meat and Greet”) Fri 10/4, 7 PM, Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster, 773-871-3610, barnesandnoble.com; also the Book Cellar Fall Showcase, Fri 10/12, time TBD, Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, 773-293-2665, bookcellarinc.com.
The Decline of Pigeons
by Janice Deal
Queen’s Ferry Press (July 16)
Downers Grove resident Janice Deal gave up her career as a librarian to focus on writing. Maybe she misses the stacks. All of the main characters in her debut collection, The Decline of Pigeons, are dealing with some kind of personal tragedy: a deceased spouse, a miscarriage, disfigurement by fire (don’t smoke in bed, kids). These are regular midwestern folks (along with a couple ne’er-done-wells) trying their best to cope with loss.
In one of the stronger of the nine stories, “Nature,” a young woman named Nikki, who’s lost part of an arm in a car accident, finds it difficult to reengage in life, despite her husband’s encouragement. She finds a degree of solace in tending to her garden. She also finds solace in the attentions of her gardener neighbor Feldon, a former cop on disability who’s a fellow reluctant recluse because of his huge size. Yet Nikki finds that “another person won’t make you whole.”
This isn’t beach reading. This is serious, mature stuff. To the author’s credit, as in real life there aren’t many epiphanies here; as one narrator says, “You never get over some things. You might learn to live with them, because you have to, but that’s not the same.” Sometimes you just have to deal with it. —Jerome Ludwig
Wed 10/16, 7 PM, Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, 773-295-2665, bookcellarinc.com.
Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football
by Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 29)
The only football team I’ve ever loved, aside from the Dillon Panthers of Friday Night Lights, were the 1985 Chicago Bears. This was the team of Ditka and McMahon and Payton and Singletary and the Fridge, the team of “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” with its endearingly amateurish rapping and dancing. And I was a kid in Chicagoland, which had not seen a victorious sports team since the Bears won the NFL championship in 1963. How could I not love them?
Rich Cohen was another Chicago kid in 1985. He had the great good fortune to go to New Orleans to watch the Super Bowl up close. He drank a lot and cheered like an idiot. And on the flight home, he felt a sense of deflation. Nothing would ever be as good again.
In a way, his premonition proved correct. Even before the end of the Super Bowl, the team had started to break up. So now, 28 years later, Cohen tries to recapture that season, game by game. And he goes back to the earliest days of pro football to find the source of the magic: how the franchise’s gruff, wily guiding spirit (and coach and owner), George Halas, transformed the humble Decatur Staleys into the Monsters of the Midway.
In Monsters, the past is much sweeter than the present. Most of the Bears are done with football. Their bodies have broken down. Their lives range from ordinary to tragic. Payton is dead. So is Dave Duerson, who committed suicide to avoid the effects of brain injuries. The team muddles along, season after season. It’s never won another Super Bowl. —Aimee Levitt
Reading Thu 11/7, 7 PM, Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, 773-293-2665, bookcellarinc.com.
Not quite 20 years ago, when Infinite Jest was first making a splash, David Foster Wallace praised George Saunders as the most exciting writer around. These days everyone seems to have joined the fan club. “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” a profile in the New York Times Magazine declared of Tenth of December, his fourth book of short stories, which debuted at number three on the Times best-seller list. Now Saunders is so much in demand that the commencement address he gave last spring at Syracuse, where he teaches in the MFA program, is slated to become a book.
At the heart of Saunders’s speech was a simple directive: Be kinder. That message also figures in what is arguably Tenth of December‘s darkest story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Termed a “dystopian domestic comedy” by yet another Saunders convert—you might as well call Dante’s Inferno a road trip—it’s without question darkly funny. But it also shows the outrage at consumer culture that underlies his call for compassion and decency.
Saunders spent a good chunk of his adulthood struggling—while in Chicago he lived in an aunt’s basement and worked as a roofer—and that time, he’s said, showed him “the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything. It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home.” He’s a MacArthur fellow and Guggenheim awardee, sure, but he’s paid his dues. In fact, the image that sticks with me is his description of himself a few years later, broke and slogging to work on his bike in “a set of lab goggles, a rain poncho, and some high rubber boots” that, he seems to recall, “had little spacemen on them.” —Kate Schmidt
Wed 10/9, 6 PM, Art Institute of Chicago, Rubloff Auditorium, 230 S. Columbus, saic.edu. Free