Tag Archives: Chicago

The Night Chicago Died

City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist (Broadway Books, $14.95, 384 pages)

“Oh, the winds of Chicago have torn me to shreds….” Bob Dylan, “Cold Irons Bound”

City of Scoundrels (nook book)

Those who have gone on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruise will never again look at the city’s buildings the same way. There are many cities in America (New York, with an aura all its own, and Los Angeles with its own unique vibe) that typically rule the pop culture landscape. But there is one city in this country so uniquely American that it is better experienced than described or imagined — particularly when it is paradoxically and arguably the most corrupt city in our nation’s history.

Yes, there is the blue-collar folklore, The Jungle, and everything else, all of which is either true or has elements of truth to it. But Chicago is, and always has been, a mystery of wonder — simultaneously brilliant, politically corrupt, awe-inspiring and bad at baseball.

Gary Krist’s City of Scoundrels attempts to capture the essence of Chicago through the lens of twelve particularly challenging days in 1919. The book starts with a blimp crashing into a bank and then, after it gets our attention, chronicles several events, circling back to this tragic event. A racial incident, transit strike (oh, the unions in this great state), and senseless murder of a six-year-old transpire in rapid succession. These events allow the author to paint a picture of a city and its leaders, including the iconoclastic mayor, William “Big Bill” Thompson, who dreamed of making the city the architectural gem of the world.

In the meantime, for the baseball fans among us, references to the Black Sox scandal are sprinkled in, and the even more corrupt decade of the 20s and Al Capone foreshadowed in the Epilogue.

The factually accurate City of Scoundrels features meticulous research. It is interesting, though this is likely more confined to those who have some existing knowledge of or personal interest in Chicago. It would be less interesting for general readers.

It is a very good book, but despite the shocking events described, it does not capture the raw emotion inspired by the true experience of Chicago — getting off at the train station and being pressurized out of the building into the sights and sounds of the city, seeing the sun over a brick outfield wall as the latest edition of a terrible team attempts to play baseball on a weekly afternoon, or seeing the juices of a barely edible pizza run down the side of the cheek of another innocent victim.

The book feels like an essay. It would be better if it were an essay that felt like the Windy City.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Brand New Day

Oxford Messed Up: A Novel by Andrea Kayne Kaufman (Grant Place Press, $24.95, 336 pages)

“I was lost, double crossed with my hands behind my back…”   Van Morrison (“Brand New Day” – Moondance album)

Yale grad Gloria Zimmerman is so germ-phobic that she endures an overnight flight from Chicago to London and then an excruciating car ride to Oxford University without peeing.   When she and her nearly bursting bladder finally reach her flat – and the private bathroom that she will sanitize and make her own – she discovers to her horror that she must share it with a neighbor.   Not only that, but he is messy and dirty – and he is occupying the toilet when she arrives.

Gloria is a Rhodes Scholar who is studying feminist poetry.   Her untreated Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) has always prevented her from forming close friendships.   But even though flatmate Henry Young, a music student and son of a priggish and disapproving Oxford don, is an “unrefined, germ-infested oaf,” he intrigues her.   Or, more to the point, his taste in music does.   They share a love of the music – and the poetry – of the iconic rocker Van Morrison.

That small spit of common ground is enough for love to wedge its foot between the door and the jamb.   Henry embraces Van Morrison’s “fatalistic optimism” and dedicates himself to releasing Gloria from the prison of her cleaning compulsions.   But is it enough to keep the door open when the true extent of Henry’s vile germs becomes apparent?

Author Andrea Kayne Kaufman is a lawyer and a professor of educational leadership at DePaul University in Chicago, where she serves as chair of the Department of Leadership, Language, and Curriculum.   In an interview on her website, she speaks of her belief that people can overcome “irrevocable” damage with hard work and hope.   Her characters Henry and Gloria both view themselves as unlovable.   But as Van Morrison wrote, “It’s a marvelous night for a moondance…” and attraction compels them to muster the strength to try to help each other

Experts on OCD have raved about Kaufman’s sensitive and accurate portrayal of the condition as viewed from the inside.   But readers of all stripes will appreciate Oxford Messed Up for its unique take on what it means to love another human being, warts and all, and for its profound message of hopefulness.   Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Oxford Messed Up is also available in a trade paper version for $14.95, and as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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Breakdown

Breakdown: A V. I. Warshawski Novel by Sara Paretsky (Putnam Adult, $26.95, 448 pages; Brilliance Audio, $36.99, 13 CDs)

Once again this reviewer has been moved to extol the virtues of audio books.   Breakdown is the first of Sara Paretsky’s mystery novels that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.   No doubt the choice of Susan Ericson as narrator was the key to the richness of the experience.   It was almost as though V. I. Warshawski herself came to life and led the circuitous tour of Chicago and its neighboring towns during the hunt for the vampire killer.

Ms. Paretsky is a mystery writer whose works clearly reflect her loyalty to Chicago – Paretsky’s home town.   Happily, the main character, V. I. Warshawski, continues to find mysteries to solve that include her group of buddies; family (niece Petra), neighbors (Mr. Contreras, Peppy and Mitch) and dear friends (Lotty and Max).   Although the recurring cast of characters is wholesome and comforting, the topic of this mystery is dark and unnerving.

The central figure in the tale is Chaim Salanter, a Jewish man who is one of the world’s wealthiest persons.   His past includes a boyhood escape from his homeland, Lithuania, during the Nazi occupation.   Salanter is a grandfather with secrets and an ideal target for anyone who wishes to drag his name through the mud.   Although this novel reaches into the past, it is firmly grounded in the present thanks to the not-so-charming antics of a group of tweens – including Salanter’s only grandchild – who are fixated on a series of books about vampires.   Paretsky also adds into the mix some right-wing politicians and broadcasters who are out to get Salanter and the liberal politician he is backing, which makes this an only-in-Chicago kind of story.

It is worth noting that there is a very large Lithuanian community in Chicago, including the Lithuanian National Cemetery where this reviewer’s maternal grandparents are interred.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.

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A review of Breakdown: A V. I. Warshawski Novel by Sara Paretsky.

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You’ve Got a Friend

MWF Seeking BFF [Married White Female Seeking Best Friend Forever]: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche (Ballantine Books, $15.00, 384 pages)

Rachel Bertsche finds more than just friendship in her fun and spunky memoir MWF Seeking BFF.

Having recently moved away from her best friends in New York to start a new life with her husband in Chicago, Rachel Bertsche is having a difficult time making new, meaningful friendships.   She loves spending time with her husband but acknowledges the importance of hanging out with her friends and the loss she feels without her best friends forever available on a regular basis.   So after a year of waiting, she decides to set off in pursuit of a new BFF.   Her goal is to have 52 “girl dates” over the course of one year and she’s willing to try just about anything to make the right connections.

Bertsche writes with blatant honesty as she posts a want ad, joins a self-improvement class and seeks out friendships in each and every possible situation.   Along her journey of friend-seeking, the reader will enjoy not only her diary of weekly dates but also her insight as she learns about more than just the importance of having a BFF.

Bertsche’s prose is clear, direct and refreshing and the accounts and reflection of her “dates” are stories everyone can relate to (and some are just downright hilarious).   Her insights are laden with relevant references to friendship-related studies and as a data gal myself, I was highly entertained with her extensive research and statistics that are brilliantly interspersed along her stories.   Bertsche delights the reader by quoting social scientists, psychologists, professors and authors that she considers experts in the field of social interaction-friendships.

I truly enjoy reading stories and memoirs that motivate the reader to do a bit of soul-searching and encourage us to step outside of our personal comfort zone.   Having recently moved to a new area myself (just outside of the Chicago area, ironically), I sympathized with her struggle to make new friendships as a married adult.   She provides great ideas on how to think outside of the box and be open to friendships in every venue.   After reading this novel, I have a newfound love for my own book club and current friendships.   I recently started a club of potential BFFs in my new hometown.

What are you doing to broaden your group of friends?   Read this playful memoir for inspiration!

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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A review of MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend by Rachel Bertsche.

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The Last Worthless Evening

The Last Blind Date: A Real-Life Love Story by Linda Yellin (Gallery Books, $15.00, 316 pages)

As I was finishing the Prologue (“Some Pertinent Information You Should Know Up Front”) of The Last Blind Date, I was thinking that this was going to be one entertaining popular fiction novel about love and romance.   Also, a very funny one…  It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I noticed the subtitle on this book, “A Real-Life Love Story.”   Oh, so this is not a novel but a memoir.   Interesting.

Linda Yellin’s book arrives at the  right time for those impacted by either Seasonal Affective Disorder – the aptly abbreviated SAD – or the holiday period blues.   Or maybe you’ve just done too much shopping or quaffed too much eggnog and you need something to bring your spirits up.   Belly up to the bar run by Ms. Yellin, a Boomer who offers healthy servings of humorous observations about life and living.   (Yes, she’s a baby boomer and you will find yourself asking, “How old could she be if she can remember watching Sky King on TV as a child?”)

In our household the mark of an engaging read is the number of times that I read excerpts to my wife or vice-versa.   In this case, I interrupted many episodes of Law and Order to read passages such as this one:

Commenting on other women’s relationships has always felt dicey for me…  I never know when to scream Red flag! and when to keep my trap shut.   I figure if you tell a friend she’s dating a jerk, don’t expect to be a bridesmaid if she marries the jerk.   Then, again, couldn’t at least one of Eva Braun’s girlfriends have sat her down and said, “Eva, sweetheart – trust me.   You can do better.”

What is the book about?   Glad you asked.   Yellin lost her first husband to cancer, lives in Chicago and had pretty much given up hopes of ever  being happy again when she’s set up on a blind date with a resident of New York City.   This is her true tale of how she found the right man, even if by blind accident, and became his second wife and the stepmother to this two children and their robot dog, Eddy.   (Yes, everyone needs at least one robot in their happily ever after home.)

The Last Blind Date is also about the culture shock experienced by a Midwesterner moving to the Big Apple, where everyone wears black and comments on one’s “strange” accent.   It’s also a story of learning to  love what you already have, and appreciating the fantastic experience of being a parent:

…along the way she’d break some hearts of her own, followed by lonely nights when she doubted herself and wondered why love came quickly for others but not for her.   Until there was finally a matching up of souls, and it seemed that every event in her life had led up to this one man, and she realized that if love were any easier, any less fateful – it wouldn’t feel like magic.

That’s Yellin writing about her stepdaughter Phoebe, but once you finish Blind Date, you’ll realize that it’s also about Yellin herself and her long, strange road to meeting and marrying her husband Randy.   Read this book and play Don Henley’s song, The Last Worthless Evening.   You’ll be so glad you did.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Last Blind Date was released on October 4, 2011.   Linda Yellin is also the author of the novel Such a Lovely Couple.

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A review of The Last Blind Date: A Real-Life Love Story by Linda Yellin.

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Magic Carpet Ride

The Valley of Shadows: A Novel by Mark Terry (Oceanview, $25.95, 291 pages)

Mark Terry, author of the novels The Fallen and The Devil’s Pitchfork, has produced a “ripped from the headlines” novel about terrorists acting in the  U. S.   In The Valley of Shadows, members of Al-Qaeda plan to simultaneously attack five American cities:  Washington, D. C., New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.   So it’s up to five-person teams assigned to each of the targets to find the terrorists hiding in plain sight, and interfere with their plans to use dirty bombs and maybe nuclear weapons.

Our protagonist, Derek Stillwater, a wild, wooly and instinct-based troubleshooter for the Department of Homeland Security, is assigned to the L. A. team.   Derek and his four team members (who will be under the leadership of Cassandra O’ Reilly, Ph.D., of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; a one-time flame of Stillwater’s who has little love or use for him now) have just 48 hours to complete their impossible mission.   Oh, and if this isn’t enough to heap on their plates, it seems that the terrorists plan to destabilize the U. S. national election by assassinating one of the two major party candidates for president.   The candidate plans to arrive at LAX for a previously scheduled southern California campaign stop.

Start reading this unique thriller and you’re likely to put almost everything else aside for the next 48 hours, or less, in real-time.   It’s an e-ticket, fast pass, wild ride from start to finish – from Islamabad, Pakistan to Santa Monica – that never takes a wrong turn.   Author Terry has done his homework, having been briefed by members of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration (an air traffic controller has a key role in the story), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.   It’s clear that he – like his alter ego Derek Stillwater – has friends in high places, and he makes full use of inside information in the crafting of this all-too-realistic tale.

If you’re a fan of authors like Michael Connelly, Joseph Finder and David Baldacci, you may be ready to join the Mark Terry fan club…  And unless you plan to purchase a new Porsche Cayman S, you’re not likely going to experience a better ride.   Trust me on this.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Valley of Shadows was released on June 7, 2011.   “Terry mashes the action pedal to the floor in this solid Derek Stillwater novel.”   Publishers Weekly

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Weight of the World

The Life You’ve Imagined: A Novel by Kristina Riggle (Avon; $13.99; 334 pages)

“…I’m thinking of making a change myself.”   She gapes up at me, searching my face as if she’s not sure who I am.   I know the feeling.

If you love the novels of Elizabeth Berg, and especially The Last Time I Saw You, you’re likely to feel a great sense of fondness for this book by Kristina Riggle.   As with Berg, she hits the sweet spot of human emotion in telling the stories of women who’ve arrived at the point in life where they must either evolve or accept their failure in life.   In the words of Bob Dylan, Riggle’s characters are either busy being born or they are busy dying.

Like Berg’s The Last Time, this is an ensemble piece…  The Life is about four women, three still relatively young and one clearly not, who are united by circumstances in the town of Haven, Michigan.   Haven is not to be mistaken with Heaven.

Anna Geneva is the high-powered Chicago attorney who returns home after being rattled by the death of an older male colleague and mentor.   Here she must deal with her mother Maeve, whose mom-and-pop convenience store is failing.   Morever, Maeve holds out hope of being reunited with the man who long ago abandoned her and Anna.   Anna will also encounter two of her best female friends from high school – Cami Drayton, who has come back to live with a monster of a father, and Amy Rickart, the now slender and beautiful bride-to-be who used to be overweight and socially ostracized.

Only Amy lives a life to be envied as she prepares to marry the loving and considerate man of her dreams.   But her husband-to-be’s career will place him in conflict with Anna and Maeve and Cami and she will soon come to wonder about his values in life.   She will even come to wonder if he loves her at all after he announces that their wedding must be postponed.

About three-quarters to four-fifths of the way through the telling of this tale, you – the reader – will figure out exactly what the resolution will be.   Except that Riggle has other ideas and soon you’re following unexpected twists and turns as you near the end.   In this fashion, it’s like real life which is never quite what we imagined it would be.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “A richly woven story laced with unforgettable characters…”   Therese Walsh, author of The Last Will of Moira Leahy

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