Brian Gruley’s Bleak Harbor

            Life is indeed bleak for many of the town’s residents in Bryan Gruley’s newest mystery, Bleak Harbor (Thomas & Mercer 2018; $24.95). Carey Peters’ autistic son is missing, lured away by the offer of a milkshake and his mother and stepfather need to come up with $5.145 million to get him back.  Carey, frantic about her son, also has other secrets. After receiving a promotion to executive assistant, finance, at Pressman Logistics in Chicago, she ends up in bed with her boss, Randall Pressman, after the two share a celebratory dinner. It gets even more complicated. She turns down future intimate opportunities with Randall– she is married, after all. When Randall retaliates by harassing her at work, Carey steals incriminating documents proving his involvement in illegal activities and blackmails him for their return. 

            But that’s just part of the many ominous doings in Bleak Harbor. Pete, Carey’s husband, runs a medical marijuana dispensary and was buying cheap supplies from a Detroit drug ring. Besides her blackmail scheme, Carey’s mother, the malevolent family matriarch, Serenity Meredith Maas Bleak, has her own hidden past. Yes, Carey is related to the founder of the town which Gruley based upon a darker version of Saugatuck, a lovely waterfront destination in southwest Michigan.

            Gruley, who shared in the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Wall Street Journal in 2002 for its coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and is now a staff reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek, draws upon his investigative journalism for ideas.

            “As a journalist, I’ve written stories from a lot of small towns,” says Gruley. “What I often discovered was that, whatever the larger theme of the story I was writing, be it an antitrust investigation or telecom deregulation, the real story was rooted in small ‘p’ politics—vendettas, rivalries, and grudges between the locals.”

            Gruley took a liking to Saugatuck as a model for Bleak Harbor while reporting a story there for The Wall Street Journal some years ago. Part of the interest is because of the lost village of Singapore, a boom town near Saugatuck during the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire.

“I learned about Singapore when I was reporting that WSJ story, and it fascinated me. A timber town buried in the dunes—what’s not cool about that,” says Gruley. “As for Pete and Carey, I started from a premise that they each had secrets they were hiding from each other and that those secrets might have put their son in danger. I had no idea at the start what those particular problems might be, but they came to me as I wrote. In Pete’s case, his struggles with the legal marijuana business stemmed in part from my reporting on a medical marijuana entrepreneur for a Bloomberg Businessweek story.”

Gruley added mystery writing to his resume with his Starvation Lake trilogy (also based in Michigan). His first, Starvation Lake won the Strand Magazine Critics Award and was an Edgar Award nominee and his second, The Hanging Tree not only was the No. 1 IndieNext Pick for August 2010, a Michigan Notable Book for 2011 and a Kirkus Reviews Best Mystery of 2010 but has also optioned for a movie by writer-director John Gray. Even before its December 2018 release, Bleak Harbor became a #1 bestseller through the Amazon First Reads program.

Gruley, who lives in Chicago, says Bleak Harbor isn’t quite as nice as the Saugatuck he and his wife enjoy visiting.

“But that’s OK, because I’m writing about dark deeds and dark people, and I think the title should indicate that,” he says.” I don’t think of myself as a dark person–except, perhaps, when the Red Wings aren’t playing well. But I do gravitate to the sad, the brooding, the melancholy, the menacing, in the stuff I read, watch, and listen to: for instance, Lehane’s Mystic River, the film “Manchester on the Sea,” the twisted lyrics of Richard Thompson. I love the Star Wars movies, but my favorite is probably the darkest, “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Given that penchant and the doings in Bleak Harbor, Gruley says the name Happy Harbor just wouldn’t have worked.


What: Bryan Gruley book events

When & Where:

Book Signing & Meet and Greet

January 8 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm

Cook Memorial Library

Cook Memorial Library

413 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Libertyville, IL

(847) 362-2330;

Authors on Tap

In conversation with Jonathan Eig

Wednesday, January 16 @ 7 pm

The Beer Shop

1026 North Blvd

Oak Park, IL

(847) 946-4164;

Conversation with Gregg Hurwitz

Friday, February 1 @ 7:00 pm

Volumes Bookcafe

1474 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Chicago, IL

(773) 697-8066;

Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home


When six-year-old Gonker, a much loved family pet decided to do some typical canine spontaneous off-site exploring when navigating the Appalachian Trail with his owner Fielding Marshall, he was expected to shortly return. But after a while, though repeatedly calling the six-year old Golden Retriever’s name, Marshall began to worry that his dog was lost.

To make it even more serious, Gonker suffered from Addison’s—a serious disease that effects dogs and is characterized by a deficient production of glucocorticoids and/or mineralocorticoids. If Gonker doesn’t get the necessary hormone medication needed to control the disease, he will die within 23 days.

The story of the search for Gonker is told by Marshall’s brother-in-law, journalist Pauls Toutonghi in his compelling book, Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home (Knopf 2016; $25).

It’s a tale of a family’s search to find their dog in time and also of how, after Fielding’s mother, Virginia, sets up a command center, the community and ultimately the country. Indefatigable—she long had mourned the loss of her own dog decades ago, Virginia uses a map and phone book to jump start what will become a nationwide network of those wanting to help find and save Gonker.

Relentlessly contacting radio stations, park rangers, animal shelters, the police and local retail stores, Gonker’s disappearance and the family’s search gets a write-up in a local newspaper where it is picked up by AP. Before long the nation is offering their help in finding the missing dog.

Chicago by the Book: 101 Publications That Shaped the City and Its Image

The Caxton Club of Chicago, founded in 1895, has dedicated itself to the field of book arts—the creation of volumes using the structural, creative and craft disciplines such as design, typography, printing, papermaking and bookbinding needed to produce books that are more than readable; they’re also beautiful works of art.

Courtesy of Grove Atlantic

            The little-known organization has grown from the 15 original members to over 300, but its focus remains the same.Over the last 123 years, in addition to sponsoring regular programs and occasional symposia devoted to the book arts, the club has published 60 books,each uniquely lovely—almost sensual in a way. And that is true of its latest, Chicago by the Book: 101 Publications That Shaped the City and Its Image (University of Chicago Press, 2018; $35), Its glossy pages, smooth to the touch, feature beguiling visuals of book and magazine covers, inside spreads, photos, song sheets and architectural plans and perspectives (by such notables as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) spanning more than a century and a half. 

             “We don’t do a book every year, but maybe a book or two every decade,” says Susan Rossen, editor of Chicago by the Book and former publisher at the Art Institute of Chicago, because, as she explains, the work required is done by members pro bono, and time is needed for fundraising. Rossen became a Caxtonian in the early 1980s in order to meet other book lovers. She collects early twentieth-century volumes for adults illustrated by woodcuts and wood engravings.

Illustration from Narrative of the Massacre at Chicago courtesy WikiCommons.

 “One of our major focuses is the book arts of the Midwest, and this book is an example.  It’s a book of books about Chicago—101 titles that reveal Chicago and its image as seen through the lenses of many different disciplines.”  The first entry in Chicago by the Book is Narrative of the Massacre at Chicago, written in 1844 by Juliette Kinzie.  The last is Sara Paretsky’s crime novel Brush Back.,published in 2015. In between, there are titles we might expect as exemplifying the city, such as  Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; Gwendolyn Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville; Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago,; Mike Royko’s Boss: Richard J. Daley and David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations, as well as  lesser knowns—A Portfolio of Fine Apartment Homes and The International Competition for a New Administration Building for the Chicago Tribune.

Cover courtesy of

Each title is partnered with a narrative by writers,academics, and book aficionados. For example, Alex Kotlowitz, whose groundbreaking There Are No Children Here is included among the 101, writes the commentary for Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make. Andplaywright Regina Taylor discusses Lorraine Hansberry’s Pulitzer–prizewinning Raisin in the Sun.

            Amazingly, of all these publications,even those published in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, just a handful are out of print. Most of those  can be found online and at local libraries.The very rare ones are available for viewing at such places as the Newberry Library, the Ryerson  and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Public Library, and the libraries of local universities. 

Chicago by the Book is less specialized than most of the books we’ve done in the past,” says Rossen. “We believe it will appeal widely to lovers of books and lovers of Chicago. It represents current scholarship, but the writing isaccessible and engaging. And we believe the book’s reasonable price–$35—will be attractive too.  This  is a book you don’t need to read from cover to cover. It’s arranged chronologically, but you can pick and choose what appeals to you. Hopefully, the entries and illustrations will introduce you to new reading experiences and/or inspire you to reacquaint yourself with books your ead long ago.”

Israeli Soul: Easy, Essential, Delicious

I had never heard of hummusiyas before reading Israeli Soul: Easy, Essential, Delicious by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (Rue Martin Books 2018; $35). It turns out word refers to the numerous restaurants in Israel specializing in hummus (who knew, right?).  The two authors, who own several award winning restaurants include Zahav (they won a James Beard Award for their cookbook of the same name), methodically researched traditional Israeli recipes for their book–the kind passed down through generations. Describing them as the “soul”of Israel, Solomonov then adapted these traditional recipes so they could easily be prepared in American kitchens. Their 5-Minute Hummus With Quick Tehina Sauce exemplifies that concept as do the 24 toppings for hummus also included in the book.

Michael Solomonov Making 5-Minute Hummus

                  Solomonov and Cook timed the release of their beautifully photographed book to coincide with the anniversary of the founding of Israel 70 years ago. But I thought it would also be nice to talk about Israeli Soul and share recipes in conjunction with Hanukkah, which this year runs from Sunday,December 2 to Monday, December 10.  Sometimes also called the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration of the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greek army. Dishes traditionally served during the holiday include potato-leek latkes and fried challah sufganiyot, a type of jelly donut.                  

                  In their take on sufganiyot,  Solomonov and Cook use eggs to make a challah dough instead of the typical egg-less yeast dough most donut recipes call for. They then roll the sufganiyot after it comes out of the oven in a mixture of finely ground pistachios and sugar. Though if you want to be really traditional, according to Solomonov, you can substitute dried rose petals for the pistachios—if you can find them.

Potato-Leek Latke

Makes 1 large latke

2 medium russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and grated

3 leeks, whites only, thinly sliced and rinsed

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

Canola oil, for frying

Mix together the potatoes, leeks, flour, and salt in a large bowl. Set aside for 10 minutes to allow the potatoes to release some starch, which will help hold the latke together.

Pour about ¼ inch of canola oil into a medium skillet and place over medium- low heat. Make one big pancake by spooning the batter into the skillet and pressing it down evenly in the pan. Fry for 10 to 15 minutes per side, or until cooked through and crispy on the outside. Let cool slightly, then cut into wedges.

Turkish Salad

Core, seed,and chop 3 red bell peppers. Chop 2 onions. Thinly slice 4 garlic cloves. Slice a bunch of scallions on the bias. Sauté the peppers with 1 tablespoon kosher salt and ¼ cup canola oil in a large skillet until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the onions and garlic. Cook until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes.

Fold in 1 pint halved cherry tomatoes. Add 2 teaspoons smoked paprika and 2 teaspoons ground coriander and toast the spices for about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl,add the sliced scallions, taste, and add a pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a drizzle of olive oil.

5-Minute Hummus With Quick Tehina Sauce

Makes about 4 cups (4 servings)

Quick Tehina Sauce

1 garlic clove

 Juice of 1 lemon

1 (16-ounce) jar tehina

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 to 1½ cups ice water


2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Make the Tehina Sauce:

Nick off a piece of the garlic (about a quarter of the clove) and drop it into a food processor.

Squeeze the lemon juice into the food processor. Pour the tehina on top, making sure to scrape it all out of the container, and add the salt and cumin.

Process until the mixture looks peanut-buttery, about 1 minute.

Stream inthe ice water, a little at a time, with the motor running. Process just until the mixture is smooth and creamy and lightens to the color of dry sand.

Make the Hummus:

Add the chickpeas to the tehina sauce and process for about 3 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as you go, until the chickpeas are completely blended and the hummus is smooth and uniform in color.

Fried Challah Sufganiyot

Makes about 24.

For doughnuts:

½ cup granulated sugar

1 cup warm water

1 packet active dry yeast

3¾ cups all-purpose flour, spooned into cups and leveled  off

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons olive oil

3 tablespoons canola oil, plus about 1 quart for frying, divided

½ cup egg yolks (about 6 large yolks)

⅔ cup butter, softened

About 2 cups seedless raspberry jam

For pistachio sugar:

1 cup granulated sugar

½ cups shelled pistachios

For the doughnuts: Mix sugar and water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Stir in yeast. Let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes. Add flour,salt, olive oil, 3 tablespoons canola oil and egg yolks. Mix on low speed until dough comes together and begins to pull away from sides of bowl, scraping sides and mixing with a spatula.

Gradually mix in butter, mixing for another minute until blended. Scrape down bowl and continue mixing about 2 more minutes until very smooth. Remove dough hook. Cover bowl with plastic wrap; let dough rise at room temperature until quadrupled in volume, about 4 hours.

For pistachio sugar: Whirl sugar and pistachios in food processor until nuts are finely ground. Transfer to shallow bowl; set aside.

Fill large, deep, heavy saucepan with generous 2 inches of canola oil. Heat over medium heat until oil registers 350 degrees on candy thermometer. Line baking sheet with paper towels.

Use small ice cream scoop to scoop up heaping balls of dough, dropping them into hot oil,adjusting heat as necessary to maintain oil temperature. Fry doughnuts in batches, turning, until golden, 4 to 6 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon to lined baking sheet. Cool slightly.

Poke a hole in each doughnut with tip of paring knife. Spoon jam into large zip-top plastic bag, press out air, and twist the top until bag feels tight. Snip off a corner of the bag and squeeze jam into each doughnut until a bit oozes out. Roll filled doughnuts in pistachio sugar. Serve warm.

The above recipes are excerpted from ISRAELI SOUL © 2018 by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook. Photography © 2018 by Michael Persico. Reproduced by permission of Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

The page-turning book about how Rocky Wirtz turned the Blackhawks into winners

I’ve only been to a few hockey games — always under duress — but that didn’t keep me from reading “The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks,” well into the night.

Typically I don’t expect sports books to be page-turners, but Bryan Smith, a two-time winner and six-time finalist for the National City and Regional Magazine Association’s Writer of the Year award, never intended “The Breakaway” to only chronicle the rise of the Blackhawks from a team that couldn’t even fill one-sixth of the United Center, to a three-time Stanley Cup winner under the leadership of Rocky Wirtz.

“I’m not a sportswriter, never was,” says Smith who chatted on the phone between book events — he was on his third in two days.

“What really attracted me to the story was the almost-Shakespearean family dynamics of three generations. It started with Arthur Wirtz, founder of the family fortune, and then follows his son, Bill,who was famously or I should say notoriously famous for his management of the team and refusal to allow the games to be broadcast on television — to his oldest son, Rocky, who led the team to what Forbes magazine described as ‘the greatest turnaround in sports business history.’”

Arthur Wirtz, the son of a Chicago cop, had the foresight to scoop up real estate during the Depression, buying buildings such as the Bismarck Hotel and the Chicago Stadium (where the Blackhawks, a team founded in the1920s, played) as well as other arenas and halls in Chicago and around the country.

He next had to figure out how to fill his arenas. One of his creative ideas was forming the Hollywood Ice Revue to showcase Sonja Henie, a Norwegian figure skater who won three gold medals in three consecutive Olympic games.

The shows were a success, Smith says, citing as an example one night in 1940 when a Henie performance in New York City raked in $80,000.

Besides real estate and entertainment, Arthur Wirtz moved in to other areas, and currently the privately held Wirtz business portfolio consists of liquor distribution, insurance, banking, real estate, some smaller things and, of course, the Blackhawks.

Why Bill Wirtz, who took over the business after his father’s death, didn’t try to take the Blackhawks to a higher level is difficult to understand, Smith says. Arthur’s first-born son had a pugnacious style in general and in particular even toward his own family, so that Arthur disinvited Rocky and his children from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and once came to blows with him.

When Rocky took over after Bill’s death, like their father, the rest of the family weren’t interested in seeing the Blackhawks change direction and were instead content to let the team, which was losing $30 million a year, continue on in the same manner.

“The team was hurting other parts of the Wirtz business,” Smith says.

“It was a no-brainer, but in the last years of Bill’s life, it was an issue of stubbornness; he dug in, and it really alienated the fans. It was like he was sticking a fork in their eyes. It’s amazing that (Rocky) was able to turn it around and even more so, when you remember that it was 2007 when Rocky took over the team; at the time, the whole nation’s economy was cratering.”

Smith says that Rocky doesn’t take the credit for the team’s success.

“He credits John McDonough,” says Smith about the Blackhawk’s president and CEO, who Wirtz hired away from his position as president of the Chicago Cubs in 2007.

Family feuds and dysfunction can run deep, and Rocky Wirtz is estranged from many family members, even though the Blackhawks are now revered by fans and not draining funds from other family businesses. Wirtz, it seems, lost his family while trying to save them.

If you go

What: Reading and book signing with Bryan Smith

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 14

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

Cost: Free

FYI: (773) 293-2665;

Book review, signing: New book offers fresh take on Gary/Chicago resident, Nelson Algren

Mary Wisniewski was a college student when she first discovered the writings of Chicago writer Nelson Algren.

Author Mary Wisniewski

“Many of his books were set in Wicker Park where my family was from which intrigued me,” says Wisniewski, noting that though Algren’s novels are about shady characters, drug addicts, grifters, drifters and those on the margins of society, she found his writing lyrical, beautiful and poetic.

“It turned me into an Algren hag,” she says

“I told all my friends to read his books, and I started reading everything he had written that I could find — I found it surprising that his writings weren’t part of the literature canon in colleges,” Wisniewski says.

From there it became a natural progression to writing “Algren: A Life,” winner of the 2017 Society of Midland Authors award for best biography and the Chicago Writers Association award for best non-fiction, and the first biography about Algren in more than a quarter-century.

Delving more and more into his life, Wisniewski even read his FBI file, a mammoth collection of investigative reports because of his leftist leanings and, as Wisniewski says, “his belief that the crust of civilization in America is pretty thin.”

Algren lived a chaotic life that included a long-term love affair with French writer, Simone de Beauvoir, who had another lover, the French philosopher, Paul Sartre. Besides sharing a woman, they were friends and liked to box.

Algren often was short of funds — famed Chicago writer and broadcaster Studs Terkel, who was a friend, lent him money, which Algren always repaid. And he married and divorced three times. Having the FBI hounding him and taking away his passport didn’t help.

He also became discouraged with his lack of commercial success, even though two of his novels were made into films with major stars — “The Man with the Golden Arm” starred Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak (another Chicagoan), and “Walk on the Wild Side” featured Lawrence Harvey and Jane Fonda. Through it all, he continued writing.

Surprisingly for someone who wrote about the underside of life, he also expressed feminist sensitivities much earlier than most, Wisniewski says.

“In the 1950s, he wrote an essay about how Playboy magazine objectified women and turned them into commodities,” she says.

Algren, whose grandfather and father were from the Black Oak neighborhood of Gary, also had a Northwest Indiana connection, owned a home in Miller Beach.

The Nelson Algren Museum of Miller Beach, located in the 1928 Telephone Building once owned by his friend, David Peltz, is now owned by the Indiana Landmarks Foundation.

“I think Algren’s time has come again,” Wisniewski says.

“I think he’s like Dickens in London; he’s given Chicago a way to see itself. I always tell people that once they get a Chicago address and CTA card, they need to buy his book, “Chicago: City on the Make.”

If you go:

What: Join Mary Wisniewski as she discusses Nelson Algren and his work. Book signing to follow.

When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 11

Where: The Betty Barclay Community Room at the Edgewater Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 6000 N. Broadway, Chicago.

FYI: (312) 742-1945;

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