Elena Colas reviews Curbside Splendor’s reading series The Marrow

MarrowThe marrow is the soft core of our animal bones where the blood cells are made. Its mineral tang is a reminder that you are eating the construction materials of another living thing. The nourishment packed inside is the primal reward for the work it takes to crack them open. The Marrow, with a capital M, is an aptly named reading series in the softly lit basement room of Punch House on 18th street.

On the third Sunday of every month, Leah Pickett and Naomi Huffman of indie publishing house Curbside Splendor host a rotating group of writers. The Marrow had been on my list for quite a while, and after the show I officially made a vow to drag my north-side self down past the loop more often.

I waited at the bar with a glass of the Dusek #3, for someone cooler than myself to pull the right lever and open the secret bookshelf door. Sure, I have no problem sharing humiliating moments with total strangers, but I was not about to get caught yanking furiously on the bow of a tiny ship or a book firmly glued in place. For the record, just as he opens the door to enlightenment and peace, the Buddha also opens the door to the private room at Punch House.

Although I hesitate to try and categorize the wide spectrum of live-lit in Chicago, the focus at The Marrow seemed to be more on the writing than the performance aspect, which was a great new experience for me personally. While the room itself is private, you will want to sit away from the stairs- at times the music and chatter floating down from Dusek’s upstaged the tellers. Just after 7:30, the hosts introduced our first performer and the show began.

Tyler Snodgrass is a standup comedian and the founder of We Still Like You, a storytelling series about shame. With just a tiny sliver of southern twang he opened the night with the harrowing story of his first hour as an English teacher. He was given the advice to “be a real dick,” on the first day, and create the illusion of a hard-ass lest the kids take advantage of his niceness. That wisdom was useful for about the first ten minutes, before a student let him in on a traumatizing experience with a nonchalance that shook him to the core. Many kids in this country face challenges that get the better of people with decades more life experience. At the end of his first day Tyler had concluded, as so many educators do, that another tough-guy adult was the very last thing his students needed.

After that, we got a sneak peek of Columbia alum Susan Hope Lanier’s foray into non-fiction. At our current moment in history, it can be hard to preserve the arc of a story about police violence without descending into a lecture or sacrificing details to generalizations. From the first line, it was clear that this story would not succumb to those easy pitfalls. A white picket fence surrounded an ordinary high school life complete with AP History study sessions, sustained by Denny’s grand slam breakfasts and punctuated by cigarette breaks. This “normal” illusion fell apart years later when a police officer shot a high school friend over a check for pancakes left unpaid at a local IHOP. In only the first few pages, Susan gave us an expertly constructed story of the questions and doubts that filled the strange void left in his wake.

Up next came Catherine Eves, Programming and Events manager at Curbside Splendor. Her family immigrated to the United States from Australia in 1998, and she recounted a childhood living with three generations under one roof. While that might not be as common an experience among American kids today, it shapes life in many other countries and is often a huge part of moving as a family. She described the myriad of influences that made her who she is today, including her journalist grandmother and her own mother, dispensing expert cooking advice from her wheelchair. Drawing her story to a close on a note of reflection, Catherine reminded the roomful of twenty- and thirty-somethings that we are truly a collection of those that have come before us.

Host Leah Pickett’s story picked up the thread of illusion and yanked hard, unraveling the thick curtain maintained by women who suffer from eating disorders. It is not always easy or even possible to look back clearly on the experiences that truly test us, but Leah narrated the details of her own spiral with bravery and astonishing clarity. At times, it was hard to reconcile the woman before us with the one she described: a stern general waging a vicious war against her own body, exhausting all means to reach a warped version of perfection, success, and progress. She went straight for the marrow on this one, and listeners responded with cheers for a story that was both heartfelt and extremely well written.

Growing up, The Reader contributor Danette Chavez had a fixation with consumption, now known as tuberculosis. Poring over stories and TV series whose main characters contracted TB, she became interested not just in the diseases but in the weirdly romantic way it seemed to affect their lives. You can imagine her conflicting feelings when, as a teenage hospital clerk, she was told she must be tested after interacting with a patient who did not disclose the disease. She spent the 24-hour testing period mourning her old life while preparing to be the star of her own solitary series. While the test came back negative, that fact did not actually stop her from becoming the protagonist in a great story about tuberculosis.

Megan Kirby, freelancer and Publicity Assistant for Curbside Splendor, closed the show with a burst of energy in defense of fan fiction. The proud author of more than 70,000 words of Harry Potter fan fiction in addition to pieces for the Chicago Tribune and xoJane, Megan is done caring which side of her writing audiences take more seriously. She acknowledged that it is so tempting to categorize fan fiction as a silly hobby or somehow less valid than work published for the masses. She described the sheer pleasure and fun of playing by another author’s rules and hours of moon-phase research conducted for the sake of accurate werewolf character development. Her hilarious saga of years spent explaining her passion to many an ignorant muggle culminated in this firm reminder, that no time spent writing is time wasted. I would not be surprised at all if a few of us return from visiting our parents this Christmas with our old books in tow.

In any reading series you can’t be sure that each story will be as tangy as the ones that came before it. That being said, there are two things I can promise you: if you come check out January’s show on 18th you will walk away nourished, and you will see me there in line, hungry for seconds!

4 out of 5 stars 

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