“The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead” by Chanelle Benz is a wide-ranging debut collection that spans time, genre and place.
It isn’t often that readers open a book of literary short stories and find themselves launched from the very first page into a Western, complete with a brothel, saloon, bank robbery and a narrator who says things like, “Alone, jest us two, in what I had by then guessed was her actual room, tho it had none of the marks of the individual, the whore put the whiskey between my fingers.”
The story, “West of the Known,” is one of two Western-style tales in Benz’s book, and it exemplifies what she’s best at: trying on voices and settings like costumes and using them as a lens through which to view contemporary life. The variety of these stories is striking. “The Peculiar Narrative of the Remarkable Particulars in the Life of Orrinda Thomas” is an epistolary tale in the voice of a slave who finds notoriety as a poet; “Adela” takes the form of a 19th-century gothic tale with scholarly annotations.
This kitchen-sink approach is not without risk. As in any ambitious performance, readers may sometimes feel Benz straining to embody, say, the voice of a 16th-century monk. But when the author finds a fit, she soars, as in “James III,” the story of a young boy running away from an abusive stepfather. Perhaps as impressive is Benz’s ability to connect historical experiences of race and gender to the present day with subtlety. As the book ends, its final sentence, set in the 1500s, resonates outward: “Make me a clean heart. Renew a right spirit within me … O God, in the most corrupt of centuries, hear my prayer.”
An ambitious book that marks Benz as a writer to watch.
Chanelle Benz will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing.
John Hughes therapy
“Searching for John Hughes (Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned from Watching ’80s Movies)” is Brooklyn-based writer and editor Jason Diamond’s memoir about how watching films as an adolescent gave meaning to his troubled life.
Rolling Stone sports editor Diamond grew up a member of the Jewish minority in suburban Chicago. For the first few years of his life, his mother and his candy manufacturer father lived an American dream that included “two cars (and) … a house …built with the money made from rotting the teeth of children who could only afford to spend a quarter on snacks.”
His life changed dramatically after his parents divorced. By the time he was 7, he had attended four different schools and become “the weird kid (whom) nobody knew.” It was then that a babysitter introduced him to Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink,” which immediately became his favorite film for the comfort it gave him that even kids who were different could “still be cool.”
As Diamond grew older and began watching more of Hughes’ movies, he found that they helped him to make sense of things like the social divisions in high school, where “everyone had his or her place, just like in a Hughes movie.” But then his mother, who could not cope with their rocky, adversarial relationship, moved away and left her son to fend for himself. Clinically depressed, homeless, and often drunk or high, Diamond turned even more to Hughes’ feel-good films to help him make sense of an unforgiving world. He then moved to New York, where he decided that he would write the director’s biography. After spending most of his 20s bouncing between Chicago and New York, often unhappy and endlessly revising a book he would never publish, his life finally came together. Both funny and heartbreaking, Diamond’s memoir is not just an account of how one director’s films impacted — and perhaps saved — his life. It is also a memorable reflection on what it means to let go of the past and grow up.
A quirky, intelligent memoir of finding oneself in movies.
Jason Diamond will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 6 p.m. Jan. 21 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing.
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