• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories
    The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories
    by Christine Sneed

NPR-affiliate, WBEZ on-air review by Donna Seaman, 4 Jan. 2011

Local author channels the heartbreak of being a Cubs fan

Local writer Christine Sneed had an epiphany while writing an essay for the anthology Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year. She realized that just like a Cubs fan, she’s had to rely on near-fanatical optimism to keep writing year after year without a book contract. But then her luck seemed to change.

Salman Rushdie chose her short story "Quality of Life" for the collection  The Best American Short Stories 2008. Then Sneed won the Grace Paley Prize in short fiction for her collection Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry.

WBEZ's literature contributor Donna Seaman has a review of her stories:


“Mr. Fulger called when he wanted to see her and she obliged.” Such restraint, such formality, and yet how subtly sexual and ominous this opening salvo is. Mr. Fulger is an elusive, wealthy, worldly older man. He passes his phone number, along with a mammoth tip, to 26-year-old Lyndsey while she was working as an intermission bartender at a concert hall. An enigmatic arrangement ensues. And it proves corrosive for increasingly lost and isolated Lyndsey.

This perfect story establishes the configurations and concerns that shape many of the nine stories that follow: tricky age-gap love affairs, abuses of power, secretiveness, insecurity, and resentment. Christine Sneed’s cut-glass stories brilliantly illuminate the maze of the psyche. They decode the often toxic chemistry that undermines interactions between family members, lovers, friends, even strangers.

The title story, “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” is a devilishly caustic, delectably nuanced, and haunting tale of inheritance, ambition, fame, and envy. April Walsh is a film school graduate with no prospects. Her grandfather, a famous artist and infamous womanizer, gives her three of his sketchbooks and instructs her to tell no one. He then dies the very next day under startling circumstances. Lidia, his sexy, mischievous, and much younger girlfriend, introduces April to Barrett. He’s a problematically handsome and struggling painter. Lidia warns April that Barrett will most likely only be interested in her because of her celebrity artist grandfather. Sure enough, Barrett is insufferable, and April is at once repelled and smitten. But as this sly and riveting story unfolds, we realize that we cannot trust April, that her take on Barrett may be all defense and zero insight. You never know until the very end of Sneed’s compelling stories which characters will make others cry, and why.

It may sound as though Sneed, who is, without question, notably incisive about sexuality, is skeptical of love. But wait until you read “Twelve + Twelve.” That is a story about the pins-and-needles tenderness between a 30-year-old nurse and a 54-year-old friend of her father’s who has just lost his daughter. Or the gorgeously sensitive, finely detailed, and poignantly funny “By the Way.” In that story, Sasha, a 55-year-old dance instructor and copyeditor (now there’s a curious mix) is terrified that she’s succumbing to early Alzheimer’s. She simply cannot believe either the cruel molestations of age or the sweet courtliness of her much younger lover Miles.

Disbelief is a reigning emotion in Sneed’s short stories, just as misdirection is one of her many skills. Both work to indelible effect in “Alex Rice, Inc.” An American literature professor at an urban university is shocked and dismayed when she sees the name of a very famous, very handsome 32-year-old movie actor on her class roster. This situation Sneed sure-handedly steers in unexpected directions as she considers the magnetic draw and burden of celebrity.  

The stories in “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” are exceptionally smart and stealthy, beautifully crafted, stingingly witty, and rich in disclosures about doubt and fear. They are also about the many ways we do ourselves harm, and how splendidly we can surprise each other when we trust compassion and love.


Chicago Reader review, 13 January 2011

Women in Love

by Robert Duffer

The short story collection is the bastard child of publishing, seldom mentioned unless it does something that can't be ignored. The conventional thinking among commercial publishers is that they're hard to define and even harder to market.

Yet every few years an unignorable bastard comes along. Junot Diaz created a Dominican male immigrant archetype in his raw yet suave 1996 collection, Drown; 11 years later he resurrected it for his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and won a Pulitzer Prize. In 2000, the honor of a Pulitzer was accorded Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri's debut collection about love and homesickness of the immigrant Indian variety. And American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell's collection focused on working-class rust belters, was a 2009 National Book Award finalist.

If short story collections rarely break through into the mainstream, they're still crucial to the development of new talents. Without Drown, there would be no Oscar Wao. So some small presses (like local darling OV Books) specialize in them and some awards are devoted to them—including the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, which offfers $5,000 and publication of the winner's manuscript. Last year it went to local writer and DePaul teacher Christine Sneed for Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry, which is out now.

Sneed's collection doesn't sing the immigrant song or highlight an underrepresented voice. Most of its ten stories deal with heterosexual romance. But don't dare think of it as chick lit. Neither victims nor heroes, Sneed's protagonists are women caught between the realities of life and their expectations of love.Most of them are smart enough to know that a man won't rescue them from themselves, but that glimmer of hope is far more alluring than the bitter pill of cynicism.

In the opener, "Quality of Life" (anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2008), a young woman named Lyndsey has an affair with a much older man about whom she knows nothing except his sexual preferences and that when he calls on her she'll meet him because "it was breathtaking—in part for her shame, in part for her astonishing pleasure." "Mr. Fulger" keeps his real identity from Lyndsey and insists on paying her in cash or presents after each tryst. He's rich, she's an artist, the money helps, and so she rationalizes the arrangement. "Certain words she did not allow herself to consider—concubine, whore, slut." But then Fulger, who travels a lot, urges her to relocate to a more convenient city, offering double the salary she gets designing posters for movie studios. What do you think she does? In 12 pages, I felt I knew Lyndsey well enough to console and admonish her.

There's a paradox inherent in putting together a short story collection. No two tales should sound the same, yet there ought to be some thematic resonance, however subtle. The author should show her range, but the collection has to be more than just a showcase. Sneed reconciles the contradictions in Portraits, making each piece distinct even when its theme feels familiar.

"Quality of Life" is one of four stories where the age difference between lovers spans decades. "Twelve + Twelve" derives its title from the formula Brynne, the narrator, prefers to use rather than state the 24-year divide between her and her boyfriend outright. The man is a pal of her father who lost his own daughter before pursuing her, but Sneed knows better than to succumb to Freudian mumbo jumbo. "We were a couple," Brynne says, "one whose future together was as unpredictable as most couples."

Rather than focus on what drives lovers apart, Sneed explores the more difficult and illuminating question of what keeps them together—whether it's desperation or beauty, foolishness or something ineffable. There are no overreaching statements on love. That nebulous sensation is seen as particular and peculiar to each relationship.

Sasha, the 55-year-old narrator of "By the Way," is aware that her mind is fading along with her beauty and worries about driving her 37-year-old lover, Miles, away. But age isn't as important to him as fidelity. Referring to Sasha's former husband, with whom she still runs a dance studio, Miles asks, "I would like to know if Leslie is still allowed some part of you that I want only for myself." I don't know any guys who talk like that, but then I don't know any guys as romantic and heart-struck as Miles, who's realized enough to seem alive beyond the page.

Not every story works. The last one in the collection, "Walled City", concerns a mayor who's been banished from the rigid social structure she once served. The rules of decorum Sneed propounds are amusingly absurd, but an extended bit about a complaint hotline employing only one operator falls flat. The parable doesn't do much, but its novelty impressed me anyway: I'd rather a writer try something different than just repeat what we already know she does well.

Other stories deal with belonging and with characters attempting to live with their choices. In "For Once in Your Life" a newcomer from the big city decides to remain outside the catty power structure of a small-town women's group—as long as she knows she can join if she wants. In "Alex Rice Inc.," a teacher frets when a movie star enrolls in her class, only to find herself charmed by someone else who can make better use of her attentions: the star's bodyguard. "A Million Dollars," meanwhile, is one of those stories that shows Sneed's range. It concerns a 19-year-old waitress who has to weigh the sleaze factor involved in letting a customer take modeling photos of her against the benefits of inspiring jealousy in her on-the-sly boyfriend the cook, whose "public girlfriend  . . . is a nutjob who thinks that every guy on the planet wants to boff her."

Honors like the Paley Prize might win an author the esteem—or envy—of her peers. And the shiny little dust cover stickers that sometimes come with them may help make some sales. But Portraits has the authority, range, and freshness to deserve the next level of success: getting passed from one reader's hand to another's.  


Elevate Difference review, 23 January 2011 

by Carolyn Espe

Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry is a collection of short stories by Christine Sneed, the winner of the Grace Paley Prize in short fiction. The book is one of the most well-written, heartrending, and remarkably real collections I've ever read. Nothing is left to do after reading Sneed's collection except go back to read the same stories over again for their raw, hard, and gritty overwhelming of the senses.

If you find yourself detached from your emotions, read one of Sneed's short stories, and it will cause you to look at yourself from a new view. From story to story, the author delivers truth and meaning to the reader, who can't help but be absorbed into the world of each protagonist. With an underlying feeling of selfishness, the characters prove that life is painful, regardless of a role one plays in the world. The angst-ridden, trying personalities intensely attempt to assert their power and needs, laying their story open raw. Displaying her characters flaws and insecurities, Sneed exposes us to thoughtful and caring people who question life, yet proceed in living.

Sneed teaches creative writing and literature courses, and you may imagine her creations spring from the classroom. The slices of life may be drawn from her experiences and her characters may be extensions of her students. When faced with life's confrontations, compassion and sensitivity pour into every page, garnering steps towards redemption. Thoughtful and introspective artists and everyday people arise in the stories, which simply demonstrate the struggle of everyperson. Subtle and solemn, Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry will knock you out again and again.


_Portraits_ Named One of Time Out Chicago's Favorite Books of 2010

16 December 2010

Compiled by Time Out Chicago's books editor, Jonathan Messinger

There’s always a sense of inevitability with end-of-the-year lists. LeBron James is going to polish another MVP trophy, Eminem will force the Grammys to create new categories so he can receive 355 nominations, and Jonathan Franzen or whomever the middle-aged critics of America fall in autumnal love with will be deemed “notable.”

This business is about 95 percent anticipation: looking ahead to what’s coming out in the next few months and sussing out what might be of most interest. But as any reader knows, sometimes the books we enjoy most and remember best are the ones we happen across: A friend recommends it and the title sticks in our brains, we see someone reading it on the El, or it stands out from the crowd on the bookstore display table. So here are the books that came out of nowhere for me in 2010, and will stick with me well beyond.

A Very Bad Wizard, by Tamler Sommers
This book came out in December 2009, but hey, it’s my list. Subtitled “Morality Behind the Curtain,” the book features nine conversations between Sommers and philosophers, exploring a number of big questions in just about the most engaging manner you could imagine. Considering how rapidly the national conversation has eroded in the last couple of years, this book feels more like an antidote than ever. Twelve months later and I still dip into it now and again, just to enjoy the comfort of cool rationality.

The Professor, by Terry Castle
Everyone has these authors in their life. You discover one of her books, fall in love with it, and suddenly realize everyone has been reading her for years. Everyone has those, right? I was immediately charmed by Castle’s book—a collection of personal essays, the title one concerning an affair with her teacher—and started telling co-workers how much I loved it, only to be met with, “Oh yeah. Terry Castle. She’s great.” Behind the curve or not, this was probably my favorite book of the year (tied with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, but I was waiting for that one).

A Common Pornography, by Kevin Sampsell
Truth be told, Kevin is an acquaintance. In fact, if you’re at all involved in independent publishing it’s difficult not to become Portland native Sampsell’s acquaintance, the guy’s been at it for so long and with such passion. Regardless, his memoir, which collages together various memories of growing up in rural Oregon, and catalogs his obsessions, was the most refreshing take on the form this year.

Ten Walks/Two Talks, by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch
If you were to ask me what my ideal book would be, I would not respond: “It’d have to feature a guy writing about walking around New York City, and then that guy sitting down in a Whole Foods to talk with a buddy.” And yet, this collaboration by poets Cotner and Fitch was probably the most mesmerizing book I read this year.

A Life on Paper, by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
I received this book from French writer Châteaureynaud, with word that he’d been billed as “the French Vonnegut,” and I couldn’t get over how much he looked like Vonnegut on the cover. The simple and strange stories inside were definitely of a piece with the greatest American writer of the 20th century (I will hear no objections).

Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, by Christine Sneed
It’s easy to get beaten down by this job: Read a series of mediocre books and you begin to feel like you’ve lost that loving feeling. The best part of the gig is that a book always comes around to smack you out of your daze. Sneed’s debut story collection was this year’s wake-up call. Simply beautifully written stories.

SPRAWL, by Danielle Dutton
I didn’t quite know what to make of this book at first, another novel about the barren life of the suburbs’ inner life. But Dutton writes the way we wish all writers would: With an unshowy intelligence and a keen sense of humor that had us laughing out loud on the train.

Read more: http://chicago.timeout.com/articles/books/90936/best-unexpected-books-of-2010#ixzz19zodfTBS


San Francisco Chronicle Review, 25 Dec. 2010

Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry
By Paul Wilner, Special to The Chronicle

Christine Sneed's short-story collection, "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry," winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, examines the isolated, often unhappy lives of her mostly female protagonists and follows in the angry, sexually charged tradition of writers as diverse as Mary Gaitskill and Jean Rhys.

The opening piece, the ironically titled "Quality of Life," depicts a Nabokovian semi-sadomasochistic affair between Sneed's 26-year-old protagonist, Lyndsey, and Mr. Fulger, a wealthy older man who picks her up when she is bartending at a concert, offers her cash incentives to continue the "relationship" and then refuses to set her free to find more age- and emotionally appropriate relationships.

Sneed is unsparing about Lyndsey's own complicity in these complicated arrangements, writing: "Mr. Fulger called when he wanted to see her and she obliged. For a while, it was all very matter-of-fact, like a visit to the library. Regret rarely played a part."

The title story is a Jamesian portrait of the emotionally conflicted protagonist's affair with a moderately talented disciple of her grandfather, a noted artist and even more noted rake, whose death has left his already tangled aesthetic and emotional legacy in further disarray.

In a common theme of Sneed's work, at least judging from this collection, strong sexual connections between the two young lovers make up for an almost complete disconnect in other respects.

"He was much better than she had expected," she writes. "Sadly, he was very close to phenomenal. Despite the terrific chaos that had overtaken her body when he parted her legs and made his big move, her mind dimly recognized that his expertise at such a delicate, necessary task could be disastrous for her. For a fevered second, she had a picture in her head of the lunatic in Fitzcarraldo, a man obsessed with carrying a boat up a mountain."

Although she knows the relationship is doomed, by the end of the story she agrees to show some hidden notebooks of her grandfather's sketchbooks of "women's morose faces" - the works whose title bears the story's name - as a kind of consolation prize for the dead end to which the couple is surely heading. It's bleak and unforgiving.

Two other stories deal with inequalities of age and emotional balance.

In "Twelve+Twelve," a nurse has an affair with a divorced man - a friend of her father's, whose daughter, a schoolmate of hers, had died a year earlier in Spain.

"Weeks ago he had stopped looking as paternal to me as he once had," Sneed writes. "He was fifty-four and I was thirty. The age difference was not so bad when I thought of it as twelve plus twelve rather than two dozen, or the daunting, flat penalty of twenty-four."

"By the Way," a 55-year-old woman has disguised her age from her younger lover, but deeper differences persist, even after the truth (which he has already guessed) comes out. "Miles tells me that he wants me to stay the night," she writes. "I say that I will. I have him now and will keep him for as long as I can. This is the way of all things, I supposed. This is the long way."

Hemingway famously said that fiction was like an iceberg: "There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows."

This is clearly the case in the lost, struggling lives of the characters Sneed depicts, whose style and substance lands her somewhere between the minimalism of Raymond Carver and such earlier chroniclers of domestic unhappiness as John O'Hara.

"You're So Different" describes a screenwriter's visit to her high school reunion in the Midwest, and a close encounter with the anger and jealousy she encounters from those left behind.

Not everything works. The final story, "The Wall," a "Twilight Zone"-esque affair about an out-of-control hot line in a gated community even more repressive than the suburban bastions with which we're already familiar, teeters unsuccessfully between political commentary and allegory. It's a riff, and feels hollow.

When she does speak more directly, particularly on the themes of sexual tension that haunt her characters, Sneed's "portraits" demonstrate a compellingly honest and affecting voice, however. That part of the iceberg is not submerged.