This Year’s Lit 50

June 10, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

This was published in Newcity’s weekly magazine. Happy to see one Zach Dodson in there and, of course, Jesse Ball. You can read the entire list and blurbs by going here.

Lit 50: Who really books in Chicago 2010

Illustration: Pamela Wishbow

A strange and unpleasant wind blows through the literary land. Our obsession with technocultural toys, whether iPhones, iPads or Kindles, makes the foundation of thought almost since thought was recorded, that is ink on paper, seem increasingly destined to be twittered into obsolescence. And it’s not just mere media frenzy, either. Massive upheaval among major publishers these last few years has left some of Chicago’s finest writers stranded in a strange land: that is, the work is finished, but no one is around to put it out. Who knows, maybe in two years when this version of Lit 50 returns, some, if not all, of our authors will be publishing mostly, if not entirely, in the digital realm. If that’s the case, let’s enjoy an old-fashioned book or two while we can.

As noted, this year’s list is limited to authors, poets, book designers and so on, with next year bringing back the behind-the-scenesters. As it was, this year’s project was daunting, with 126 viable names in consideration for fifty slots. The loss of our last #1 is most noteworthy, with the passing of Studs Terkel, but the list is populated by nineteen new faces, who either return to the list after an absence or show up for the first time. To make way for new names, some stalwarts had to be set aside; in many cases, this was due to their status as still between projects since our last go-round. We tried to limit ourselves in most cases to those with new work published between 2008 and 2010.

Lit 50 was written by Brian Hieggelke, Naomi Huffman, Tom Lynch, Andrew Rhoades and Rachel Sugar


Friday April 24, 9 pm
Bar Nine
807 Ninth Avenue, between 53rd and 54th Streets
C, E to 50th Street

A $15 cover includes a copy of the latest issue, featuring work from: Daryl Scroggins, Ronald Hobbs, Jody Barton, Greg Mulcahy, Erich Hintze, Scott Garson, Christopher Kennedy, Jesse Ball, Daniel Grandbois, Cooper Renner, Michael Hemmingson, Darby Larson, Karl Taro Greenfeld, Christine Schutt, Ken Sparling, Robert Lopez, S.G. Miller, Atticus Lish, Michael Leone, Kim Chinquee, Anthony Luebbert, Rachel Sherman, Jason Snyder, Justin Taylor, Jessica Anya Blau, and an interview with Diane Williams by Kevin Sampsell.

10 pm: Doppelganger
Doppelganger is a rock & roll duo from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Through the most basic instrumentation, they write primal music with memorable hooks.

Born out of frustration with the local NYC music scene’s lack of energy in the spring of 2008, Ryan Oh-No (vox, drums) and R. Francis (guitar, vox) started writing music, drawing influence from a variety of genres: early rock & roll, garage, surf and shoegaze. But it was mainly the energy of the punk scene that they both grew up with that permeates their style. It was decided not to take on additional members as they found that the limitations of being a duo lead to a different approach to songwriting and arrangement that enhanced their creativity.

11 pm: Demonlover
Demonlover formed in 2008 when Billy Jones, James Buonatuono and Sean Maffucci joined together, tired of the same old rock n’ roll music/scene, as an experiment to make music without the preconditions of the “two guitars, bass and drums” stereotype.  While not denying any genre as an influence, Demonlover is focused on constantly looking outwards, towards new directions in sound through hazy borders of objectivity, while at the same time bringing the listener in with dark introspective lyrics, Anatolian guitar sounds seemingly flowing from the Bosporus, catchy eastern and pseudo-pop melodic synthesizer progressions, and rhythmic elements sometimes reminiscent of Raï, Baile Funk and Pygmée style syncopations.

Jones and Buonotuono, formerly in Other Passengers, released a handful of records with the UK label SIC including: Is It Nothing To You, All Those Who Pass You By? and We Are All.  Jones also performs solo as AppleDeaf, a one-man testament to how far the solo act genre can push past its own limitations.  Maffucci previously played guitar in Am Radio, later renamed Icewater Scandal, whose well-revered debut record was recorded and produced by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo.  After Icewater Scandal’s disbandment, Maffucci released Janisary Music (s/t) on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label and turned his ears to engineering and producing records at his Junkyard recording studio, mainly for The Social Registry label.  There he engineered/mixed/produced records for many bands, including Growing, Psychic Ills, Jeffrey Lewis, Harvey Milk, Kid Congo Powers (of Cramps, Gun Club fame), Bear In Heaven, and Gang Gang Dance’s critically acclaimed albums God’s Money and St. Dymphna.

12 am: The Choke
NYC’s punk ‘n’ roll darlings The Choke filter the influences of Motown, soul, and garage rock through the attack of anthemic punk. Since its debut in 2005, the band has performed for large audiences throughout New York and London, performed an intense live set on DJ Terre T’s infamous garage-rock show Cherry Blossom Clinic on WFMU 91.1 FM, and twice hosted the Exploding Punk Inevitable! Revue, a weekly residency at the ultra-hip and intimate Slipper Room in the Lower East Side featuring burlesque girls and circus freaks, and culminating with The Choke performing a blistering punk rock set.

The band has also appeared at a special NYC Animal Rescue Benefit opening for Beastie Boys and Debbie Harry, toured with the legendary Buzzcocks, completed two UK Tours, playing major academy venues throughout England and Scotland, and flooring various crowds filled with garage-mod rockers and the UK’s punk aristocracy. Three U.S. tours of the Midwest have yielded more press, attention and fans of The Choke’s high-intensity music and performances, most recently DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, who played their “Face For The Radio” on his influential show Rodney on the ROQ, on KROQ 106.7 FM in L.A.

We believe in the power and urgency of the story and the story’s ability to describe and illuminate the interior and exterior landscape: we believe in the power of narrative and its ability to make life more astonishingly alive.

Published by The Cupboard

February 25, 2009

posted by Nick Sarno

Parables & Lies

review by Naomi Henderson


Parables & Lies by Jesse Ball, is the first in a series of publications put forth by The Cupboard in Summer 2008. It is divided into three sections, however I see no obvious change in theme or scenery from one section to the next. This led me to wonder, was that section all lies, all parables, or perhaps both? The book is quite diminutive in size, and each entry is no more than two pages long. Every descriptive scene is like a condensed fairy tale, replete with fantasy, violence and character types, such as “the merchant” and “the seamstress.” In almost every instance, I could imagine these small paragraphs being fleshed out into entire novels. Despite this, I did not find them terse or unfulfilling. The book seemed to be the outpouring of midnight inspirations and potent snapshots. As an example, I will share the entry entitled “The Carriage-Driver” from section Three:

“In the midst of a terrible storm, a carriage comes thundering down a narrow drive, and pulls up at the entrance to a large mansion. The carriage doors are thrown open and a man with a haughty, powerful bearing exits the carriage and goes to the house. Hours pass. The storm is a brutal call from an angry host, and the tree line flails upon the near hills; the mud churns, pounded by the water’s ceaseless assault. Still the carriage driver waits, trembling. He wants to rub the horses with a soft blanket, but he cannot, for the mud about their hooves is too deep now for him to stand in. In fact the carriage has now sunk so that only half of its wheels rise out of the mud. The horses are curiously dead, slumped in their harnesses, unmoving. Soon the mud will cover them. Then and only then will he knock upon the house’s great door. He will not speak when the door is answered, but will simply point, dumbfounded, at the carriage as it sinks from sight.”

the original site for this review can be seen here.

Book Review

Jesse Ball: Samedi the Deafness

Large Image

As a child, I learned to conceal my love of fantasy. Reading it was apparently a geeky pastime, and other kids didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm for talking animals and magical forests. These days, it’s a very different story, with pop culture tropes like cute robots and unicorns, artists like Bjork, and a slew of mainstream movie adaptations following in the vastly successful footsteps of Lord of the Rings. Having cast off my mantle of fantasy shame, I can proudly acknowledge that my literary diet of fairy tales, young adult mysteries like The Westing Game, and fantasies like The Dark Is Rising prepared me well to appreciate the half-lit pleasures of Samedi the Deafness, the lyrical first full-length novel by author Jesse Ball.

A dreamlike literary thriller, Samedi the Deafness plunges readers into a dubious reality that seems to have been distilled from the burdens and escapist tendencies of our modern society. Elements of the fantastic and of the absurd pepper the narrative, which concerns one week in the life of James Sim, who stumbles across a mysterious conspiracy that may or may not threaten a doubting nation.

Samedi the Deafness gets going as James Sim is taking his Sunday walk and encounters a dying man in a park, who tells him the desperate details of a conspiracy unfolding on the lawn of the nearby White House. Sim has been trained as a mnemonist, able to remember in detail everything he sees, which comes in handy as he investigates the dying man’s story. The novel follows a common plot outline from thrillers of decades past: A bewildered protagonist meets a mysterious and fetching young woman. The young woman turns out to be the daughter of the man who is the powerful, shadowy figure at the center of a mysterious conspiracy carried out by an intimate circle of male colleagues. The protagonist must deal with a steady stream of secret notes, numerous lies and half-truths, and the occasional death as he fumbles his way towards an ambiguous truth.

Sim’s character is developed at a leisurely pace, introduced as a pondering sort of soul. Left a largely blank canvass, he emerges as a somewhat naïve figure who makes a few errors in judgment, forcing the reader to cringe slightly, but also to identify with him. A series of vignettes illuminates some hazy and emotional episodes from Sim’s childhood. Upon re-reading the book, I realized just how much rumination on childhood is inserted into a generally fast-moving plot.

A series of suicides taking place on the lawn of the White House is the only reference that places Samedi the Deafness in the United States or in any other modern nation. Very soon, Sim arrives at a wealthy estate that is removed from the routines of normal, daily life, where the inhabitants abide by a set of elaborate rules governing conversation, dress, and even naming conventions.

But the series of dreamlike scenes that intersperse the main narrative remove us from modern society as Sim’s childhood is presented in an otherworldly light. These scenes, in which Sim talks with his best friend, an invisible talking owl, are hardly a whimsical throwaway, as the author develops a melancholic theme on childhood and its relationship to truth and clarity to complement and interact with the main narrative.

Author Jesse Ball’s lyric yet spare style brings a finely balanced melancholic emotion to the journey of James Sim, reminiscent of Murukami’s finest works (at least in the English translations). A tension quietly builds as Sim enters the eerie country house and encounters a gently bizarre landscape of characters who share names but not their meals, quarters but not a social life. Even though very little explanation is given, even less might be desirable, leaving the reader to independently interpret the themes of lies and responsibility, childhood and honesty.

While many have remarked on Ball’s genre subversion of the thriller, I was equally struck by how organically he integrates elements of children’s fantasy into Samedi the Deafness. The nonsensical wordplay of Lewis Carroll and the dimly-lit foreboding of Susan Cooper are as strongly evoked as the bewildering complexity of Thomas Pynchon. Samedi the Deafness is almost pitch perfect in technique, and approaches greatness in substance. I expect Ball will only continue to develop his talents, fine-tuning his unique amalgamation of plot and style in the forthcoming World’s Fair 7 June 1978.