The story behind ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’

LINCOLN IN THE BARDOSeveral decades ago, George Saunders and his wife were visiting Washington D.C. when their cousin mentioned that anecdotal evidence indicated President Abraham Lincoln had surreptitiously visited the tomb of his 11-year-old son, Willie.

For years, the story of Lincoln, so overcome by grief, that he stole into the monument where his son was interred, nagged at the edges of Saunders’s mind. But Saunders, who teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University, had never written a novel and besides his writing was mostly satirical in nature.

“But this material has been calling me all these years,” says Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House 2017; $28). “It’s like their story was a stalker, it kept showing up at my window and it needed to get out.”

Justifying his foray into a new literary form by telling himself he’d had a nice run regarding his career—Saunders is an acclaimed short story writer who is included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people the world, he decided why not try “this Lincoln thing.”

Saunders still had doubts about his ability to tell the story in the way the way it needed to be told. But having grown up in Chicago as part of a devout Catholic family and now having adapted some of the tenets of Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition, he has written a book that though just recently released is already garnering great reviews.

Bardo is a Tibetan concept–a kind of transitional zone says Saunders.

“We’re all in the bardo right now that goes from birth to death,” he says, noting that Buddhists would call these transition stages reincarnation and noting that the book takes place just after that, in the bardo that goes from death to whatever comes next. “Now is the time to live–knowing that death is coming—if we can accept ourselves as a mess.”

With all his research, Saunders has come to see how Lincoln persevered despite the immense weight of the Civil War, the deaths of so many Americans and that of his son as well.

“We had a president back then who bent,” he says, “when others would have broken.”

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How the French Saved America

Give credit to France for the forming of our nation because without their help we might still be, as stereotypes go, eating crumpets, drinking tea and speaking with British accents.

That’s the focus of a new book by noted author Tom Shachtman in his latest book How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis Xvi, and The Success of a Revolution (St. Martin’s Press 2017; $27.99).

While many of us know about the Marquis de Lafayette whose help during the Revolutionary War was so vital that we’ve named cities after him–Lafayette, Indiana and Louisiana come quickly to mind. But the Marquis wasn’t the only Frenchman who risked his life to help America achieve its independence. Indeed, according to Shachtman in his extensively researched and wonderfully written book, almost ten percent of those who perished fighting for our cause were from France.

Those surviving include not only Lafayette but also Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse, commander of the French fleet during the Battle of the Chesapeake.  He and his men created a naval blockade of Yorktown thus allowing General George Washington and yet another Frenchman, Comte de Rochambeau, to defeat British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis in what was a decisive battle. Another, Louis Duportail founded the Army Corps of Engineers.

Even Shachtman, who has written or co-authored more than thirty books as well as documentaries for ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and BBC, taught at New York University and lectured at Harvard, Stanford and the Library of Congress, at first didn’t realize how much the French impacted America’s victory. He first became aware of France’s significance when writing another book Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment and decided to pursue the subject. The assistance the French provided included, among a long list, money to pay our troops, weapons, safe harbor for privateers, troops, battlefield leadership and engineering expertise.

So why is France’s contribution not better known?

“We are too invested in our own myths to acknowledge how much we owe our freedom to France,” says Shachtman, noting our belief in our rugged individualism and self-sufficiency could also play a big part. “The war might not have been won at all, or not been won by 1783 if not for the French.”

Ifyougo:

What: Tom Shachtman has three talks and book signings in the Chicago area.

When: Tuesday, October 17, 2017 6 pm

Where: The Newberry, 60 W. Walton St., Chicago, IL

FYI: 312-255-3610; publicprograms@newberry.org

What: Learn & Lunch with Tom Shachtman

When: Wednesday, October 18 at noon

Where: University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe St., Chicago, IL

FYI: 847-446-8880 to make a reservation

What: Tom Shachtman Reading & Signing

When: Thu. October 19 at 7pm

Where: The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL

FYI: (773) 293-2665

 

If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Bears: Stories from the Chicago Bears Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box

How hard was it to transition from football super-stardom to everyday life? I ask Otis Wilson, #55 of the Super Bowl XX
winning Chicago Bears and front row performer in the famed Super Bowl Shuffle which even now trends high on You Tube with 21,238 views in the last three months alone.

“You have to have a goal, a plan,” says Wilson who seems to have accomplished many goals since the Bears won in 1985 including a film career and his founding of the Otis Wilson Charitable Foundation which focuses on health, education, fitness and after school programs for children in disadvantaged neighborhoods, similar to the one where he was raised. Now Wilson can add author to his list of post-football career achievements with the recent release of If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Bears: Stories from the Chicago Bears Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box (Triumph Books 2017; $16.95).

Co-authored with Chet Coppock, an Emmy Award winning sportscaster who was inducted into the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame, Wilson, a natural born storyteller, is both philosophical and humorous in telling stories about his former teammates including those they called the Marquee Players such as Walter Payton and Jim McMahon.

Wilson, an outside linebacker was known as one of the most feared pass-rusher on the grid-iron but his demeanor off the field is genial and full of the homilies that helped shape him.

“My grandmother and mother told me to treat people as you’d want to be treated,” says Wilson. “If you give people respect, they’ll respect you.”

Another driving force for Wilson is to set a good example for his own children. But none of this means that Wilson can’t tell a good story including insight into the stars of the 1980s team, his upbringing and his insight into the changes of professional football since he played. He also likes to share his interactions with Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan, Mike Singletary and William “Refrigerator” Perry.

The book, written as a conversation between Coppock and Wilson, has an authentic voice. Crediting his mother who worked and raised six kids and a grandmother who was an entrepreneur and owned her own record store, with helping him achieve his success by teaching common sense and an appreciation for hard work and discipline.

Though initially Wilson says he blew a lot of money on expensive cars, big homes and $800 pairs of shoes, he now has learned simplicity (though there’s still that addiction to $3000 suits). He doesn’t need a two-million-dollar house, he’s happy living on the South Side of Chicago where he’s near his foundation where he spends five days a week or more.

“We’ve reached over 10,000 kids,” he says. “That’s success.”

Ifyougo:

What: Meet former Bears player Otis Wilson. Otis will sign autographs and pose for pictures.

When: October 12, 6-8PM

Where: Binny’s Beverage Depot, 3437 W. 95th, Evergreen Park, Il

Cost: Free

FYI: 708-237-7660; evergreenpark@binnys.com

Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago during Prohibition

Prohibition in Chicago was the ultimate business opportunity for the violent men who made up the many gangs who fought to control alcohol as well as narcotics, gambling, labor and business racketeering and prostitution in the city. And while there were turf wars during Prohibition in many American cities, Chicago was the bloodiest of all.

“The apex of the violence in Chicago was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre where seven men were killed,” says John J. Binder, author of  (Prometheus Books 2017; $25). “That was a record. In any other city, there were never more than two or three gang murders at one time.”

Chicago at that time was almost completely lawless and these mobsters thought they were untouchable says Binder, adding that gangsters like Al Capone even gave interviews which added to Chicago’s reputation as did the way they did business including machine guns, drive-by shootings.

Binder, who has been writing about organized crime for more than 25 years, is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Finance in the College of Business at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His background in business and finance is perfect for writing what is the first complete history of organized crime in Chicago during Prohibition because after all it is a business.

“The sole goal of organized crime is to enrich their members,” says Binder. “Sure, they’re violent and sure they kill each other, it’s useful in running the business. But the goal was to make money.”

While legendary figures like Al Capone have taken on almost mythical status, Binder says that many books don’t even cover some of the other 12 gangs who were major bootleggers in Chicago at the start of Prohibition.

“A lot of books about Prohibition in Chicago just cover the same thing,” he says, noting that five years of research went into his book.

The Chicago mobs’ reach also extended into Northwest Indiana says Binder who will be conducting a tour of Prohibition sites.

“The Canadian Whiskey Superhighway ran from Detroit through Gary to Chicago,” he says.

Ifyougo:

What: Talk and book signing

When: Tuesday, Oct. 10; 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. program

Where: Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois

Cost: $25, $20 members; cash bar available

FYI: 312-642-4600

What: Author and historian John J. Binder leads an in-depth tour of Chicago’s Prohibition and related crime history.

When: Saturday, October 14 at 1 p.m.

Where: Tour begins at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois

Cost: $55, $45 members; tour runs 3.5 to 4 hours

FYI: 312-642-4600