criminal-class-press

Good morning, Thumblr!
We’re playing this tomorrow!
Literally all the information is on this flier, EXCEPT that it’s in our hometown of Chicago and that we play at 8 o'clock. Please come and support Criminal Class Press’s cause, and see some great bands/hear some great readings! 

Book Review: Bedrock Faith

Bedrock Faith, written by Eric Charles May and published by Akashic Books, is a third-person novel written primarily from the point-of-view of Mrs. Motley, an elderly black woman living in a predominantly African-American, middle-class neighborhood of Chicago. More than ten years prior, Mrs. Motley’s neighborhood, Parkland, was terrorized by a young miscreant named Gerald “Stew Pot” Reeves, until he was arrested for allegedly raping a white woman on the north side. But Stew Pot leaves jail a changed man–the first thing on his agenda is going to Mrs. Motley to apologize for the terror he caused her and to ask, with genuine sincerity, to borrow her bible. But just when it seems like this thug finally wised up and turned a new leaf over, he starts using the bible to condemn the sinners of the neighborhood as a zealot for Christ, forcing one after another out in an effort to purge Parkland of the devil. Using their secrets against them, the block’s denizens dwindle little-by-little and Mrs. Motley is forced to admit that maybe Stew Pot hasn’t changed at all.

Eric May and I go back some ways–I never took his class, but I had every intention to. At Columbia College Chicago, I was a regular character among the students actively committed to making a presence. Eric, himself, was just as present, though he had a much better reason for being there than I did. He was already a writer with a lot of accolades and found just as much meaning in writing as he did in teaching writing. He remembered my name and made casual conversation in the hallway, greeted me whenever we ran into each other, and took time out of each day for a lot of us, like we actually were his students. To this day, people like me who never even took his class remember with a fondness reserved for past friends or mentors. However, thinking about my own mark on that school, I remember all that I hoped to accomplish for legends like Eric, like getting published in the school lit magazine or getting published at all (something I actually like, I mean), but people generally remember me because I wrote some asshole sex stories and framed them in a comedic light. Truth was, I wasn’t really writing for myself back then–just for a quick laugh, and certainly putting no effort into my short stories while I worked on one novel or another in an effort to discover my, “voice.” Always the long form for me, though to this day, I regret never just pushing one good short story to its fullest capability. However, I succeeded well at the business end of writing and started working with a literary magazine publisher before I even graduated, which has given me a bigger name in the Chicago literary scene than I could have earned through the skill of my work alone–though I hope skill had something to do with it. As a result, Eric and I ran into each other regularly–either at a lit event I helped throw or a reading that either one of us might be reading at. The business end of it used to be easier, because I wanted to rub elbows with all the authors that I looked up to. Eric just so happened to be one of those authors.


(Damn, we look good.)

Community. That’s the best way to describe our literary scene and that’s the best way to describe this novel too. May has so many characters that, at first glance, it’s difficult to keep track of them, but he quickly establishes a unique tone for each character in the way they speak or look or how they behave, setting them apart from the other characters by leaps and bounds instead of just letting the mere minutiae differentiate them. But this isn’t a novel about solitary characters–this is, in fact, a novel about community. Each character has thoughts or feelings about every other character in this story, often with story-in-story to explain how those characters grew to become friends or enemies. So long as they interact with someone, even if they never interact with each other, everyone has an opinion on everyone else. It’s this element that makes the story so goddamn real, because it creates a web of interpersonal relationships that you want to follow, since each new event affects each relationship differently. As a result, you can’t help but grow to love Parkland’s citizens (except maybe Stew Pot) and care about what will happen to them as chaos ensues, because you know them better than you know the people in your own goddamn neighbors. I did, anyway.

I was supposed to take a class with Eric May actually, well after I graduated. Columbia College Chicago used to offer story workshop (the method they taught, invented by John Schultz) sessions to alumni and I went out of my way to sign up for Eric May’s workshop session. Only I missed it. Why? I had a date with Heather, a Suicide Girl–those counter-culture, tattooed models who drop trou on the web. I didn’t really care for this girl’s personality much, but she wrote–not all that great, but it’s better than nothing sometimes. Either way, she dragged me off to some Suicide Girl midwest meet-up and it happened to fall on the day of my workshop with Eric. Being one for chaos, I took to the road with this girl instead of following something I actually felt passionate about–I liked her though, because she made me feel like I wrote better than I fucked and I thought I fucked pretty well, but I didn’t like her enough to regret missing that workshop. In fact, we had a terrible time, and if it weren’t for the sex, I would’ve thought it a huge fucking waste. The sex was all right, at least. Though my time with Heather did make for a hell of a story and provided me with sufficient chaos for a while, I yearned for the opportunity to learn about what made a good author’s work stand out. Luckily, Eric and I found plenty of time to fraternize since I worked a press that published one of the first excerpts of this novel, Criminal Class Review. We even had him read at our show: Naked Girls Reading, an event where burlesque dancers stripped into the bare and read stories from our newest publication. Eric May, like the other authors we invited, stayed clothed though.


(I’ve been naked on stage once. That’s a different story though.)

Chaos is what moves this novel forward too. You have to keep in mind–even if everyone in Parkland has a negative perspective on every other person, at least they put up with each other–that is, until Stew Pot comes back. Stew Pot is just that–a mix of elements that stirs trouble up. He doesn’t literally force anyone to leave Parkland–he shows the secrets of his victims to his neighbors, embedding their remaining time there with a deep, overwhelming shame. The premise of this novel is that Stew Pot isn’t actually doing anything illegal–at least nothing that the police can prove, but he is making trouble in a big way, thus acting as an almost invulnerable catalyst of chaos for an otherwise quiet neighborhood. It’s this chaos, that sees no resolution until the end of the novel, that stirs up conflict and continues because May knew what strings he could realistically pull, showing us how not all trouble is the trouble that we expect. With each new chapter, he pushes the limit of Parkland and the worry of his readers further by giving Stew Pot some new crusade and not a damn person can stand in his way, without submitting to the illegal activities themselves that drove Stew Pot to jail in the first place. It’s the Story Workshop chapter on opposites, but everyone is Stew Pot’s opposite–only as the story progresses further, the people of Parkland just start to look uglier and uglier until they’re one in the goddamn same.

I still see Eric Charles May out and about. He recently did an event with the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, and though it’s not necessarily official, I do have some ties with that organization. He’s also a regular at Reading Under the Influence and has read there a number of times and shown his support. In fact, that’s where I bought his book and where he autographed it for me. “To Ben, Happy reading, and many thanks for carrying on the RUI tradition.” It’s just one small role we all play as we evolve throughout our lives, our communities, and our careers. It didn’t take Eric May to show me that, but seeing him and talking about his novel at the CCLaP event recently really did show me how much things have changed over the years and how, in so many ways, things haven’t changed at all.


(Sheffield’s, on School and Sheffield in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.)

It’s change that makes this novel fantastic–because as it progresses, we not only get to see how people changed as a result of Stew Pot appearing in their lives again, but how they changed as a result of confronting their own secrets they dreaded to share for the first time. Illustrating character evolution can be so contrived, but it’s fluid for May–since he understood who his characters were from the onset and where they were headed by the end. Mrs. Motley’s evolution is, no doubt, the most poignant as she confronts her own mortality and makes distinct effort to admit the truths she neglected to attend to for her whole life. While some characters in the book presume that Stew Pot hasn’t changed, there’s no doubt in the reader’s mind that he changed before the narrative even began–and that his changes to come will be paramount to the novel.

Knowing your characters is one thing, but knowing your setting is another. In addition to having the neighborhood mapped out in words, May doesn’t submit to the audience’s expectation of what a cultural author is supposed to write. The characters speak colloquially, but without an accent or dialect that’s become synonymous with culturally exploitative writing. He lets every audience in and makes this novel a home to themselves, because he writes it truly as he perceives it and not to string the audience along on some exploration into a different world. These are our people and though May claims that this book is meant to capture the African-American middle-class culture, it suitably captures the American culture. 


(The Q&A portion of this was awesome, by the way. Check out the podcast.)

There’s nothing I can find in fault about this novel. It ended quickly and in some ways, I don’t feel like everyone’s story was necessarily tied up, but the pivotal characters reached the end of theirs. One could argue that we should see how everyone turns out in the final chapters, but I’ll be blunt–I look forward to May’s next novel, to see if any of them come around again. I already miss them.

The Riahi Rating:
★★★★★
5/5 stars.

About the publisher:
Akashic Books is a New York based, small-press publisher with a focus on Urban Lit. Like any good small press, they give a lot of support to there readers, including flying out to Chicago to help coordinate literary events that their readers take part in. In fact, I think I met their editor-in-chief once, back stage at a lit reading at the Chicago Metro. I drunkenly asked him about why he published one book in particular and, probably to my distinct disadvantage, criticized him for it. At least, that’s what I think happened. I really need to cut back to a three-drink minimum at literary readings from now on. Anyway, though they’re not frequently accepting new submissions, they do keep their eyes open for new talent. Show them you got the stuff and you might get their attention. 

Criminal Class goes Hollywood.

Many of you are well-aware of my involvement with a literary magazine, Criminal Class Review, where I play the role of public relations and business consultant. So, according to my associates, the recent success of the west coast tour which I scheduled and publicized, in partnership with Dana Kaye Public Relations, has increased our national notoriety. Most notable for this is my schedule of a reading at Book Soup, a Hollywood Book Store that has hosted events by several renowned writers, actors, and comedians, and was featured on the television show, Californication

So… I’m doing something right, it looks like. If you happen to be in Los Angeles, check out Book Soup’s event page.

Book Review: The Old Neighborhood

The Old Neighborhood, written by Bill Hillmann and published by Curbside Splendor, is a fictitious memoir written from the point-of-view of Joe, a boy living in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood in an era of racially-motivated gang violence. Joe’s older brother, Lil Pat, is one of the heads of the TJOs, the gang that runs the old neighborhood, and Joe’s social circles are well on their way to joining the fight too, though Joe’s other older brothers, Rich and Blake, manage to stay out of the way. Nonetheless, all of them are affected by the world they live in, including Joe’s adoptive sisters, Jan and Rose, and it isn’t long before violence grips every member of Joe’s family during the coming storm. The worst blow of all comes when Lil Pat takes the thug life too far and heroin works its way into his lifestyle. The result? He’s put away and the rest of the TJOs look to Joe to step up. After all, Rich is too volatile for friends and Blake is trying to maintain a reasonable grade-point average to stay in a college he barely got into. But Joe’s not alone–his crew steps up too: Ryan, the brother of another lead TJO, and Angel, a young playboy with a twisted sense of humor, both join Joe as they start selling marijuana and making stands against other north side gangs. But as Joe falls in love and discovers an interest in particle physics, he begins to realize that the thug life was not what Lil Pat wished for him after all.

I got this book courtesy of our friends at Curbside Splendor, though I’ve got history with Mr. Hillmann. The first literary reading I ever attended was hosted by Bill–the Windy City Story Slam, with guest reader Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting. It wasn’t long before I got to hear all about their relationship–Hillmann, Irvine Welsh, and Don DeGrazia, author of American Skin, used to get into bar fights with cops, or so I heard. Who can tell with writers? Either way, while studying under DeGrazia and becoming a regular attendee at The Windy City Story Slam, I got to learn a lot about Bill and his escapades. It wasn’t long before I stepped up to the plate and Bill put me on Windy City Story Slam’s bill.


(Probably the first time I appeared on a poster.)

Andersonville, Edge Water, Bryn Mawr–whatever you want to call it–I lived there for 22 months, no doubt on the same block as Joe and other characters of this novel. The only difference is, while Joe is in the streets battling back rival gangs, I saw a lot of young professionals starting their first families and college youths still trying to get drunk off Pabst Blue Ribbon and two-dollar bottles of wine from Trader Joe’s. Gentrification, I guess? It wasn’t like the neighborhood was devoid of trouble–there were a couple of low-rent housing apartment buildings and homeless guys hanging around outside of the bodega trying to bogart my cigarettes. The experience I remember most is a neighbor in my own apartment building–his name was Don, a young chef, and we talked restaurants while we smoked cigarettes outside of the building. One afternoon, Don approached me with a twitch in his eye. He told me that he had a dream where the grim reaper followed him down the street and then, according to Don, raped him. But it only began as rape and became love-making. As uncomfortable as I felt, I didn’t want to be a dick–so I asked him what the grim reaper looked like. He unlocked the door to the building and said, “You don’t know?” The twitch in his eye strobed to a silent rhythm as he grinned with years of embedded hurt. Then he slammed the door in my face. Unsettling, sure, but I’d seen that behavior before. Back in college, I had a roommate who was a recovering heroin addict. The behavior, denoted by paranoia, social ineptitude, and broken motor functions was all too familiar. When I saw Don again, he apologized for slamming the door in my face, but made it clear that he didn’t trust me. He pointed to a hoodie I wore, with the Legend of Zelda logo on the breast, and said that I wore symbols of the enemy. He said he and his friend built a time machine to fight the enemy, a time machine in their minds, and using their time machine, their whole community can fight the enemy. I decided then that I needed to move out. That’s why I now live in Pilsen now.


(Edgewater, courtesy of choosechicago.com.)

Of course, Joe’s interpretation of the neighborhood weighs heavily enough on himself, what with heroin coming into the neighborhood and danger lurking around every corner. Hillmann does a fantastic job of capturing Joe’s fear as he runs around the neighborhood, dropping a new dread or trouble on Joe’s lap with each new chapter. From problems as meager to cheating on his girlfriend to issues as dangerous as wondering why his sister’s running with a rival gang to thoughts so profound as questioning the meaning of life through science, Joe’s fears are all captured in the serious, gritty tone captured in the colloquial speech and world-building tangents. We closely follow Joe’s thoughts because we’re in his head, so we feel what he feels as Hillmann gives a physical description to the hurt of Joe’s anxiety. It’s these descriptions, paired with the ambiguity of what actually waits around the corner, that makes this novel a relentless bulldozer on the audience’s emotions. Even Joe’s nightmares distinguish this book among others in the way it continually thrashes its main character–in these horror fantasies, the Assyrian (a young man that Joe watched die at his brother’s hands) commands a monster composed of Joe’s grotesque imagination that aims to hunt and devour everyone that Joe cares about–the monster, however, is the neighborhood and the Assyrian is the vengeful ghost of Joe’s conscience and the neighborhood’s victims. This personification comes in tandem with Joe’s own physical ache resulting from his anxiety and not only compels the audience into Joe’s emotional state, but the physical state that results. And no matter where Joe goes, a new torture awaits him.

Bill Hillmann, like myself, also worked for Criminal Class Press. He was the talent manager and, upon joining as an intern before becoming the publicist, I was given a very unusual request by Bill. Plaster-casting my cock, live and on stage. You see, I made quite a name for myself in the literary community by talking about my dick. Legendary, they said, though whether that’s in reference to my audacity or the size of my wang, who knew? Either way, Bill caught wind of it and asked me to join the stage and be the first person to get a plaster-cast mold of his dick made before a live audience. If it’s half-as-bad as I remember it, it’s probably not worth recording here, but I never said no to a challenge–it was done by Jo-Jo Baby, a local artist who sculpts statues out of plaster-cast cock moldings, and I was given a bathrobe and a screen. While the molding happened, Bill set up a microphone so I could answer questions by the packed Viaduct Theater while Jo-Jo put a cool, thick lather on my joint. I only had one problem–stage fright. I could answer the questions just fine, but I couldn’t get hard. One thing that I failed to mention in my stories is that I’m a “grower” and not a “show-er.” The result was one, tiny penis sculpture–and though I still had fun, and Bill and I built our relationship, I believe I’ll think twice before volunteering to do that again.


(Great fucking idea, Behnam.)

Like myself, Joe is on blast on the regular–though he’s mostly trying to run under the radar, everyone seems to seek him out because of what he represents to the community and his group of friends. With a huge trove of characters, all of whom know Joe all too well, it’s no surprise that he needs someplace to go. For relief, Hillmann invites us into Joe’s memory–times spent with his grandfather on the pier or at the lake with his family. Water represents peace in Hillmann’s piece and it’s these flashbacks that allow us to rest through the chaos of Joe’s dysfunctional community. These flashbacks aren’t just moments of rest, but thematic too–they represent where the story begins and where it ends. Joe’s dreams, like his nightmares, are surreal, and instill a sense of ease as much as his nightmares create one of unrest. Using water as Joe’s safe-haven is especially poetic, considering that his nightmares are inspired by a neighborhood known specifically in the story as “Edgewater.” It’s this juxtaposition that gives the narrative a well-crafted beauty that’s both subtle and deeply meaningful, painting meaning to the drama of Joe’s life. In addition to adding an extra layer to the story, characterizing the neighborhood in Joe’s nightmares as a monster and embodying water in Joe’s dreams gives the reader clues as to what may happen next as he fights to overcome each new painful discovery that awaits him, while still raising the stakes because the allusions are both soft and hard, both scenic and destructive.

I worked with Bill a little while after the plaster-casting on both events for Criminal Class Press and for Windy City Story Slam. With Criminal Class, he and I toured the east coast together and, while I drove the company’s car rental from Chicago to New York, he drove from New York back to Chicago. We split the stage on a number of occasions and sat in on a number of company meetings in an effort to make Criminal Class Press what it eventually became, prior to both of us quitting. After New York, I also did some publicity for Windy City Story Slam–but as the Story Slam faded behind Bill’s own ambitions to become an author, my public relations career slowly ended with my desire to leave the literary community and focus exclusively on finding my own voice as an author. Still, in spite of it, I clutched on to the things Bill told me. He explained in depth that The Windy City Story Slam, his baby, happened as a result of constantly pushing. He explained to me how he could barely fill a small room for that first Story Slam and by the end, he had magnificent theaters packed. He described the importance for a budding author to promote themselves and overcoming fear to face the world through story–I think that’s why I left the community. I just wanted to bring something bigger to the table to promote, although you never know what it is that will draw you back in again.


(Hillmann and Welsh. There’s a duo I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.)

There are things that I took issue with in this novel too–it wasn’t all just grit and poetic irony. In my opinion, the book needed another round of edits. Though mostly stylistic choices, the book uses a lot of sentences composed exclusively of capital letters and redundant punctuation in order to express an extension of volume or push an idea–however, it’s hard to take stylistic decisions like that seriously. It brings too much levity to the dark, gloomy world that Hillmann is attempting to create. The use of colloquial conjunctions doesn’t help either–gonna, wanna, etc. Nor does replacing words like “that” with “dat,” when writing the way Joe speaks as a child. Overall, a lot is lost in the creation of this world with this style and I think the story speaks loudly and clearly enough without manipulating type-face or tongue-and-cheek phonetics to capture the world that they live in. In spite of that though, the story is engaging as hell and if you can allow yourself to look past it, you’ll find a rich, substantial world that both teaches you in great detail about the neighborhood you once called home and pushes you to the edge of your seat.

Though I’ve awaited this for a long time, Bill’s publication with Curbside Splendor brings new life to his career. In all the years I hosted readings, publicized publications, edited manuscripts, or generally struggled in the literary industry, I’ve never met anyone who worked so hard and promoted himself with such enthusiasm to become an author as Bill Hillmann. Reading excerpts from this novel in Criminal Class Review were not enough to inform me about how grand of a novel that this would become and I consider myself privileged to have both worked with Bill and to have read this wonderful piece in its entirety. I look forward to his next work and, with any luck, I hope we get to see Joe and his fucked-up family again. All of the characters of this novel were so well-written and deeply moving that I’ve come to consider them regulars from my own neighborhood, even if I’m not living in Edgewater anymore.

 The Riahi Rating:
★★★★☆
4/5 stars.

Other reviews of Curbside Splendor books:
Zero Fade, by Chris L. Terry

Introduction.

So, before we begin this, I want to start by introducing myself!

My name is Behnam Riahi. I graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Now I know that a bachelor’s doesn’t sound like much, but over the last few years, I’ve become very involved in the publishing business. In fact, I’ve formally work for a publisher known as Criminal Class Press and writing series, Windy City Story Slam, I work with several publishers and book store owners in Chicago, and I attend literary readings at least once a month. 

This blog is my intent on continuing my work–what you will see a lot of is the following!

  • MFA programs.
  • Places to submit to.
  • Literary readings (although primarily in Chicago)
  • Book of the week! (whatever I’m reading)
  • Articles, interviews, and discussion on process.
  • The status of my own work.
  • The publishing business and how to market yourself.

Website.

Facebook.

Twitter.

Linked-in.

Printer's Row Literary Festival: The Follow-up.

Well, I didn’t get the chance to hit Printer’s Row much–it’s just one of those things, unfortunately, that it didn’t fall at the right time and place for me. However, for the short time that I was there, I did do a little performance, with Criminal Class Press and the Windy City Story Slam.

Apart from spending the majority of the festival selling Criminal Class Review books and handing out flyers for our event, I had the advantage of dress in full, criminal regalia and stepping out on stage to read from the new issue. You see, Criminal Class Review, issue 4.2 isn’t like previous issues–the whole thing was written by criminals at San Quentin State Prison, over in California. It was edited together by Keith and Kent Zimmerman, who’ve done books with Alice Cooper, the Hell’s Angels, Chicago mafia snitches, and the like. So they went to this prison and did a workshop with these prisoners, to write their stories and what-not. Anyway, we published it. Why? Maybe it’s because we’re such nice guys, but the hype is phenomenal. In fact, even our buddy, Tony Fitzpatrick who’s got artwork in exhibits all over the goddamn country donated us a cover. It was pretty solid shit–nothin’ bogus. So, that in mind, the issue turned out pretty goddamn strong.

Anyway, for the reading from it, we all got a bunch of advanced copies since it doesn’t actually drop until next month. Then the readers got into these prison get-ups and read two-to-three pieces from it. I chose stories related to scars, because recently, I acquired this big one on my forehead, just about my left eyebrow. It’s still kind of nasty-looking, but it's noticeable, and worked perfectly for the pieces I was reading. I kept referring to it as I was going through it. The problem with reading someone else’s work aloud during a reading is this though: You just don’t know the work. There were a few moments that I slipped up on a word or phrase and just ad-libbed through, based on what I could remember about the piece. For instance, there was one moment where the text said, “I would’ve capped her,” where I ended up saying, “I would’ve busted a cap in her ass,” instead. Pretty reasonable slips, but they happen to the best of us. The worst part about not really knowing your piece though, is that you can’t remember it as well–so you find yourself looking down at the text, instead of making eye-contact with the audience. 

However, despite all that, I still had fun. And other readers included John Schultz, the guy who developed the method of teaching that I’ve studied under for three years. I had him as a professor for one semester and the things he taught me were profound–Everything that I know about using point-of-view in third person and the right questions that you should ask yourself when you write were inspired by his teaching, and for actually creating the method, he was a pretty laid-back professor. In any case, he tore it up, amongst some of our other favorites at Criminal Class Press and as a writer who studied at Columbia College. 

Also, I look good as a convict. Can’t wait to show you the pics.