reviews of portraits of a few of the people i've made cry
Starred review from Publishers Weekly, 4 October 2010:
* Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
Christine Sneed, Univ. of Massachusetts, $24.95 (160 pp) ISBN 978-1-55849-858-7
Ten finely delineated tales featuring protagonists entangled in less-than-ideal romantic scenarios constitute this year's winner of the Grace Paley Prize. The best stories feature women caught up in liaisons with men either much younger or older. In "Quality of Life," a 26-year-old woman begins seeing a wealthy man more than double her age, Mr. Fulger, who takes her out infrequently and presses money on her, which she takes because it "made her life more easeful." She dates other men her age, but can't seem to stop seeing Mr. Fulger, whose solicitousness eventually has unexpected consequences. In the title story, the granddaughter of a late, famous artist becomes involved with a young artist who may be playing her to obtain the precious notebooks bequeathed to her. Teetering on the brink of self-possession, Sneed's protagonists aren't sure they trust themselves, such as the 55-year old narrator of "By the Way" who can't admit to her much younger lover her fears of faltering memory and mortality. Sneed writes with the care of a fine stylist and the heart of a sympathetic reader. (Nov.)
Reviewed by Alan Cheuse
Special to the Tribune
10:32 PM CST, December 24, 2010
By Christine Sneed
Univ. of Massachusetts Press, $24.95
Why do you want to take your precious time and give yourself over to the first collection of short fiction by a relatively unknown Chicago writer Christine Sneed? (Especially when it comes in a volume with type almost too small for normal human eyes to perceive?)
Because in a number of these sophisticated stories she takes you to places you might not have been before and gives them the feel of authentic experience, which is to say, gives us stories that become part of our public memory. That's what all good fiction does, I think. It gives us the memory of our culture, as writers have conjured it up, and extends our lives in terms of years as well as geographically and psychologically, if not in actual physical longevity. If you think I've said something quite silly, stop reading now, please. But if you have the sense, as I do, that reading fiction gives you powers that approximate the strengths of at least the lower rung of the gods, keep going, because I have a recommendation for you.
Sneed writes mainly about women, young and old, women with open hearts and women who are terrifically observant of their own emotions as well as the souls of others, and in this collection offers a much wider world than most debut assemblages of a new writer's magazine stories. She carries us in to the world of art and finance, and she also does portraits of nurses and artists with equal strength, and of, in the story titled "Quality of Life", a young woman taken up by an older man, and in the story "Twelve + Twelve", an account of an older woman carrying on an affair with a younger man. In the title story age evens out a bit as a young woman, whose father, a famous artist, suffers sudden death and bequeaths to her a legacy both of artifacts and emotions. In "Alex Rice, Inc.," a community college instructor improbably encounters a famous (and devastatingly attractive) young movie actor, and tries to survive their professional relationship.
In these stories Sneed's gift for conveying sexual experiences in a sharp effective phrasing becomes quite clear. "He had worked her over for close to three hours," she writes in the title story, about the relationship between a young artist and the daughter of the famous newly deceased great artist. "Only four other men in her life had tried to do what he had done to her. One had succeeded, the others had merely thought they had." So the world of Sneed's stories widens not just in terms of the subject matter but in relation to experience. There's a freshness to lines such as I have just quoted, and there is a freshness to the points of view she employs such as I have just described.
Along with the freshness of her prose and the revelations she employs it to reveal comes a problem, however. In some of the best stories, the openings and middles resonate with emotion and insight. Only the endings seem to trail away. In the story about the movie star who takes a college class drama sparks up between him and the instructor and between his instructor and one of his body-guards. But the story ends without revelation, just some off-hand comments about halfway down the train toward insight.
In the title story, we read that the daughter of the great artist will give in to the younger artist - he wants to see the old man's sketchbooks, she hesitates about allowing him access - without ever become witness to a scene in which this occurs. "She knew she would have to show him the notebooks," Sneed writes. "With little hope, he had been waiting for this."
Am I missing something here? Could be. But maybe not. The gifted (now) almost elder statesman of the American short story, Minnesota writer Charles Baxter, suggested in an essay some time ago that perhaps we as writers - and readers - have shifted, perhaps evolved, into a state where we might now eschew the creation of epiphanic (as in suddenly revelatory) endings. "I disapprove of epiphanies and their phony auras," Baxter said, "but I am besotted by them - can't get enough of them in life or elsewhere..."
Sneed may be playing with this notion. Or not. Perhaps she thinks she has given us satisfactory endings, but a reader such as myself just doesn't get them. Be that as it may she offers enough in these stories to make the book attractive to anyone interested in the contemporary short story, its surprises and daring successes, and failures.
Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune
Portraits Named One Time Out Chicago's Favorite Books of the Year
16 December 2010
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
Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry
San Francisco Chronicle
Reviewed 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.
"Chicago-style Romance Powers Christine Sneed's New Stories"
Lit Life column
By Julia Keller
16 January 2011
Love is a many hindered thing.
It's thwarted at every turn, imperiled every second, and the fact that it works out for anybody anywhere for any length of time whatsoever is an absolute miracle - yet here we all are, fools for love, chasing the emotion as if it were a runaway puppy heading for the highway at rush hour.
While it can produce pain and frustration, love also produces something else: great fiction.
Romance-related snafus are at the heart of a smartly arch new story collection by Christine Sneed, a Chicago-based author of uncommon narrative skill and nuanced psychological acuity. In story after story in "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry" (University of Massachusetts Press), her characters fall in love, fall out of love and try to figure out why. They seethe and they burn. They suffer and rejoice.
They sit and wait. In most cases, they think altogether too much. Love, of course, is a theater, the best arena we have for highlighting the human tendency toward emotional self-destruction. Sneed carefully arranges each story on that stage, and the brisk little dramas are insightful, moving, funny, sometimes brilliant.
Along the way, she offers wincingly accurate pictures of Chicago in all seasons, including the gloomy one that's just around the corner. "We were exhausted and cynical under cloudy skies," grouses the narrator in "Twelve + Twelve," "our pants cuffs perpetually caked in grit and mud, our car tires spinning and spinning on snow-choked streets."
The narrator is "stuck in an ugly, listless March, ice visible everywhere and clinging to our lawns like a dense gray scum." Not only that, but the narrator also must put up with creepy visits from her new boyfriend's ex-wife.
In the story "Alex Rice Inc.," a young English professor at a Chicago university that sounds very much like DePaul discovers that a Hollywood star has decided to return to his hometown and - you guessed it - enroll in her class. The story is beautifully told. The teacher's internal monologue of self-deprecation ("She is a teacher, a necessary nuisance in their trajectory through four years of sex and drinking and perfunctory study") is interrupted by this strange new fact in her world: A famous man, handsome and charming, is sitting in her classroom. What now?
The best story in the book is "Quality of Life," a cross between a lighthearted romantic movie like "Pretty Woman" and an eerie, baffling "Twilight Zone" episode, the kind in which the tension builds by steady, unsettling degrees. A woman's romantic relationship with a mysterious older man goes from intriguing to sinister, but so casually that she's barely aware of the change - until it's too late. For Sneed, 39, an Evanston, Ill., resident, the collection is the culmination of many years of hard work. She toiled diligently at her craft, enduring rejections and periods of self-doubt because she believed she had something to say.
"The women in my book are caught in webs of habit and stereotype and expectation. These stories are about that moment of self-knowledge, when you learn things about yourself that you don't like," she said in an interview. "I try to write stories that I would want to read."
Born in Wisconsin and raised in Libertyville, Sneed graduated from Georgetown University. She was a secretary in Chicago for several years before heading to Indiana University to earn a graduate degree in creative writing.
Since her return to Chicago, she has been teaching writing at DePaul. Of writing stories, she said: "I've found a career that I adore. There's such joy in it." Sneed sounds like a woman in love. Yet if the stories in her collection are any guide, that means she could be in for real trouble.