A joint review by Liz Baudler and Emily Roth
With multicolored Christmas lights twinkling from every corner of the room, large, worn-out couches on and in front of the stage, and a sign over the bar that asks, “Your Brain Or Mine?” the atmosphere of Hungry Brain sort of feels like someone’s basement, but in a good way. Even if the bartender does have to use a flashlight to read the labels on the liquor bottles. It’s a cash-only hipster bar, but a charming, cozy one, and having piles of cookies on the table only adds to that feel. On Tuesday night, Two Cookie Minimum, a monthly reading series, took over the bar, to celebrate Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department.
Two Cookie, as it is affectionately known, is the brainchild of John Wawrzaszek (since no one can spell his last name, he’s better known as Johnny Misfit.). He’s a one-time radio major, which explains his superior microphone banter, but a zinester and a writer and Columbia College grad. He wanted to find some way to combine the various aspects of his artistic persona, and so Two Cookie Minimum was born. Its first home was a bakery, hence the whimsical name, a play on a bar’s “two drink minimum.” But Misfit believes that the venue is important so long as it gives the series a consistent time or place. “There’s no excuse for not coming then,” he says.
The more open form of Two Cookie and its tendency to spotlight groups of writers and artists leads to a constantly changing vibe and lineup. “I just book the talent. If you’re not hooked by the talent, sorry.” Misfit stated. This focus on variety in turn has created its own sense of community, or at least a sense among the lit and zine tribes that Two Cookie Minimum will always be a good show. Even though the readers all came from one school, Misfit noted too that he’d diversified the readers for the Columbia show by making sure to get alumni and currently students both grad and undergrad and faculty, and even had a host of a competing reading series. He deviated from his normal process by getting current students to submit and choosing two readers from those submissions. He chose well.
Virginia Baker, a current Fiction Writing Department student and one of the submission selections, read first. The bar was already so crowded that the famous “Tamale Guy” showed up shortly after she started reading. Her story chronicles a drunken night between two disillusioned college students—it was quiet and introspective, with great attention to detail like “the way the wax cried down the bottle,” and a perfect start to the show. Tony Luce, an alumni, was next, and read a story about a sixteen-year-old boy giving his girlfriend a stick-and-poke tattoo. He moved swiftly from scene-setting to how-to explanation to grand philosophical statement, and as testament to his tremendous skill, the bar grew even quieter as he read. Megan Stielstra, Literary Director of Second Story and a department faculty member, followed with a story about a young girl raised in an Alaska community where they “trained for the hunt the way others trained for the SAT,” who watches as her male family members prepare to shoot a boy who had punched her on their first date. Stielstra is always a good show—which might be expected from someone who runs a performance series. Jael Montellano, an alum, was up next, with a beautifully poetic post-apocalyptic tale about a vampire who is also a mercy killer.
After a brief intermission, Liz Grear, an MFA candidate, read a story about a man in a strip club who could read the bartender’s fortune by touching the tips of her hair (although he tries to touch more of her than that)—but, in a twist, his reading is accurate. Cyn Vargas, a graduating MFA candidate, read a bittersweet story about two young writers trying to figure out if they are in love, including a sex scene involving a fishing show on TV that eerily echoed their relationship. Only Cyn Vargas, the Columbia grad student queen of oddly perfect metaphor, could get away with that one. Aaron Golding, another faculty member, read next, a story about a young Lakota boy who plays an extra in Dances with Wolves and, through finding an unexpected feeling of belonging on the set, reclaims a sense of his history. Jenny Seay, an alumni and host of Tamale Hut reading series, finished off the show on a strong note with a tale about two wrestlers who reach a turning point in their personal and professional relationship, with gripping, realistic dialogue, and (amazingly, by Fiction Writing Department standards), the only graphic sex scene of the night. Her style almost felt like Hemingway compared to someone like Luce, but it was equally compelling.
All of the readings were done with the signature fiction writing cadence—clear, even pacing. The department’s focus on voice paid off, as so many of the stories as well as the readers swam in voice. Metaphors were singular, word choice steely, action flew out of pieces like the sentences themselves threw knives. If a phalanx of Columbia professors were there, the eight readers would have done them proud, each in very different ways, showing how multifaceted Columbia itself can be. Overall, Two Cookie was a blast. We can’t wait to go back next month for more cardboard cookies and kick-ass stories
Two Cookie Minimum is the first Tuesday of every month at 9 pm, Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL. 21+.