History Through the Headsets

It didn’t take long for Notre Dame senior defensive signal-callers Reed Gregory (No. 50) and John Mahoney (No. 25) to get to yes when then-defensive backs coach Terry Joseph asked if they wanted to write about what most likely will remain the most unique time period in the school’s football history.

John Mahoney

The two, both members of the class of 2021, were on the sidelines signaling during practice recalls Maloney when they looked at each and asked, “do we really want to do this?”

They did indeed. After spending spring and summer writing, their book History Through the Headsets: Inside Notre Dame’s Playoff Run During the Craziest Season in College Football History (Triumph Books $26.95) has just been released during what is a much saner season.

Reed Gregory

            Neither was an English major—Mahoney, who majored in finance and minored in history and now works as a management consultant in Minneapolis and Gregory, an economics major with minors in Russian and digital marketing who now works in wealth management in New York City. Still they knew what to do.

            “Once we spoke to each other and decided that’s what we wanted to do, we went to the bookstore and looked through every sports book for the name of the publisher and then contacted everyone we could,” says Gregory. They chose Triumph Books, a Chicago publishing house.

            Next came the writing part. That was easier than they thought as well.

“We wrote a lot of it in first person and a lot of it was recounting the personal memories we have,” says Gregory while Mahoney notes that as defensive signalers they had the inside story on every snap. Plus, they added their owner firsthand experiences about being on a football team during the pandemic. Both mention working out while wearing masks while attempting to keep the correct social distancing. There was also the experience of playing against Boston College where the empty stands were filled with paper cutouts of people.

“More than anything we hope the book is a memento of the time—and hopefully one that will never be repeated—and what our lives were like in the daily process as a football team,” says Mahoney.

Both count the double overtime win against Clemson last November as the best moment in a season of ups and downs.

Their work is appreciated by then-Notre Dame Head Football Coach Brian Kelly who in the book’s forward “This 2020 edition of Notre Dame Football was a very special group to me because of the strong character they possessed, and Reed and John are the epitome of that as much as anyone in our program.”

Florence LaRue: Grace in Your Second Act

              “People ask me when I’m going to retire,” says Florence LaRue, “and I say retire? I know I can’t do what I did when I was 70 but I do have the energy to keep moving and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”

            LaRue, now 80-years-old, is certainly on the move. In the month or so between when her publicist contacted me about doing a story about her new book, “Grace in Your Second Act: A Guide to Aging Gracefully,” and the day LaRue called to chat, she’d been touring with the 5th Dimension, a music vocal group that LaRue has been performing with as the lead singer since 1966. Now more than half-a-century later, LaRue, a six-time GRAMMY-Award winner, she is the only remaining original member.

            LaRue never planned or even wanted to be a singer.

“There were two things I always wanted to do,” says LaRue who was born in a small town in Pennsylvania. “One was to teach—I had a wonderful 5th grade teacher, and the other was to act.”

Indeed, LaRue, a graduate of California State was just starting to teach when she fulfilled her duty as the 1962 winner of the Miss Bronze California by crowning her successor. When Jet Magazine photographer Lamonte McLemore had a different plan. His cousin, gospel singer Billy Davis Jr., and Ron Towson were putting together a group called the Versailles.

“He came up and said he wanted me to be in their group,” says LaRue who agreed to do it for fun just for a while.

The Versailles isn’t a group many people remember. But they do know The 5th Dimension which between 1967 and 1973 charted 20 Top 40 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 with songs such as “Go Where You Wanna Go,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Never My Love,” and “(Last Night) I didn’t Get to Sleep at All.” Their 1967 song “Up – Up and Away” and 1969’s “Medley: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” both won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. Aquarius achieved tremendous success, shooting up to number one where it stayed for six weeks, selling over a million copies in less than a month.

“I owe my career to winning that contest,” says LaRue. “Years later a man came up to me and said I know you don’t remember me, but I was one of the judges. All the other young ladies came out wearing their gowns and sang. But when you came out in a white suit with a white hat, holding the hatbox, singing “April in Paris” in French, Eartha Kitt turned and said to us, ‘There’s your winner.”

LaRue does some acting but never had the time to pursue it as a fulltime career. When I suggest that singing on stage is a form of acting, she quickly but sweetly corrects me.

“I have to feel what I’m singing,” she says. “There’s no acting to it. If I don’t feel it, I can’t do my best.”

Feeling it is also part of LaRue wrote “Grace in Your Second Act.”  She wants older women to embrace their lives as they grow older.

“Don’t regret growing older,” she says. “It’s a privilege denied to many.”

But her book is not only for those who are in their second act. The best way to prepare for the second act, she says, is by taking care of yourself during your first act.

It worries her that people don’t eat well, consume to much sugar, and don’t exercise. Before she called at 10 a.m., LaRue had already done her exercises and walked a mile to get ready for her day.

We end out phone call with LaRue taking down my address. She’s going to send me her recipe for chicken curry.

“It’s one of my favorites, I’m sure you’ll like it,” she tells me.

I’m sure I will.

All Her Little Secrets

              Most of us keep secrets from those we love—whether it’s simply misdirection about how much that new dress really cost or an outright lie like what really happened at the work party your partner couldn’t attend.

              But in Wanda Morris’s All Her Little Secrets, attorney Ellice Littlejohn has taken it to a new level. Sure, she graduated from an Ivy League Law School and she’s extremely bright and hardworking. She’s also the only Black lawyer at the company where she works. Indeed, she is just one of a few Blacks working there at all. Which explains why there’s a constant stream of protestors outside the company’s building protesting their hiring practices.

              But who is Ellice? She’s not from Atlanta, Georgia like she tells everyone. Instead, she grew up in a poverty-stricken small town where she lived with her alcoholic mother and sadistic stepfather.  She did attend a prestigious boarding school, but it was as on an academic scholarship not because she was a rich kid like most of the other students. And no, she’s not an only child, but her brother Sam, who she dearly loves, has been in and out of jail. That’s not the kind of back story Ellice has created for herself. It doesn’t go with the fancy condo, expensive clothes and car that define her Atlanta lifestyle, one she’s perfected to keep others from finding out about her past including what exactly happened to her stepfather whose body has never been found.

              All these falsehoods start to unravel when she takes the elevator up to the 20th floor to meet with Michael, her boss, for one of their all-too frequent early morning meetings. But Michael’s dead, an apparent suicide and Ellice instead of calling for help, leaves.

              Michael is also her long-time lover. The problem, at least it would be for some women, is that he’s married. But Ellice isn’t sure if she loves him nor is she certain she wants to take over his job when offered that plum promotion. She’s been keeping secrets for too long to know what she wants or how she feels.

              As complicated as all this is, it becomes even more so when the police discover Michael was murdered. To add to the stress, Ellice’s brother Sam was caught on camera using his sister’s ID to get past security at the office. Did Ellice have Sam kill Michael so she could get his job and his plush office (redecorated, of course), or did she kill him herself? And why won’t the police believe her when she tells them that Michael had discovered criminal activity on the 20th floor?

              Morris, who has held positions as an attorney in several Fortune 100 companies, says she thinks both her work as Black female lawyer and her fascination with thrillers helped shape the story.

              “Ellice’s experiences are an amalgam of what many women experience in their lives,” says Morris, who is married with three children and lives in Atlanta. “Think about it, you are the only women working in a predominantly white male space and your colleagues despise you simply because of your race and/or gender and put obstacles in front of you.”

              A fan of mystery/thriller writers like Karin Slaughter, Lucy Foley, Walter Mosley and Joe Ide, Morris wants readers to see the distinctive viewpoint Black female writers can bring to the genre.

              “I’ve always enjoyed books by other thriller authors like John Grisham and Joseph Finder, but I couldn’t find many books like theirs with female protagonists who liked me,” she says. “Black women should be able to find themselves in all types of books including thrillers with smart, sophisticated Black women chasing down bad guys through dark office towers at night without a gun or an ounce of regret.”

An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

Chicago author Alex Kotlowitz has always been willing to tackle the big issues that impact our society and in his book An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, he looks at one summer in Chicago to tell the story about violence throughout the United States. Kotlowitz discussed his book with Northwest Indiana Times correspondent Jane Ammeson.

What was the inspiration for writing An American Summer? And can you give us a synopsis of the book in your own words?

I feel like I’ve been working my way to this book for a long while. When some thirty years ago I was reporting There Are No Children Here, it was the violence that unmoored me.  The numbers are staggering. In the twenty years between 1990 and 2010, in Chicago 14,033 people have been killed, another 60,000 wounded by gunfire. I’ve long felt we’ve completely underestimated the effect of that violence on the spirit of individuals and the spirit of community. And so I set out to tell the stories of those emerging from the violence and trying to reckon with it, people who are standing tall in a world slumping around them. The book is set in one summer, 2013, and it’s a collection of 14 stories, intimate tales that speak to the capacity of the human heart, stories that I hope will upend what you think you know. 

How did you choose who to talk to? How did you find them? And how did you go about choosing which stories to use?

I spent that summer speaking with as many people as I could. I’ve been reporting on many of these neighborhoods for thirty years, so I visited with many of the people I knew. I embedded with a homicide unit. I spent time at a trauma center. I hung out at the criminal courthouse. I spent time on the streets, in churches, at taverns, halfway houses. I was looking for stories that surprised me, that knocked me off balance, hoping they might do the same for readers. And as is often the case, I wrote about people who on some level I admired. For who they are. For how they persevered. For their character. I wrote about people who I came to deeply care about. I wrote about stories that made me smile and that left me anger. I wrote about stories that left me with a sense of hope. 

You’ve been writing about violence for 30 years? Do you ever get worn out by it?

It’s by no means all that I’ve written about, but, yes, a lot of my work has dealt with the profound poverty of our cities. I write out of a fundamental belief that life ought to be fair, and so much of the time I land in corners of the country where life isn’t fair at all. Do I get worn out by it? Sometimes. But I come away each time inspired by the people I meet along the way. 

I know the number of murders has gone down but so has the number of murders and shootings that are solved. Any thoughts on why that is? And does that have an impact on the continuing violence?

Murders have gone down from the early 1990s, though we saw an unsettling spike in 2016 which approached those numbers of 30 years ago. And, yes, you’re right the clearance rate on homicides and shootings are remarkably low. You have a three in four chance of getting away with murder in Chicago, and a nine in ten chance of getting away with shooting someone and wounding them. Those numbers aren’t a misprint. That inability to solve violent crimes only erodes even further the distrust between communities of color and the police. It erodes even further that there will be justice. And as a result when there’s a sense that there’s no justice, people take matters into their own hands.

What would you like readers to take away from your book? 

The humanity of the people I write about. I’m a storyteller. My ambitions are reasonably modest. I guess my hope in the end is after reading these stories, readers will think of themselves and the world around just a little bit differently. And maybe it will nudge along politicians and policy makers to act, to recognize the urgency. 

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?

 One final thought. This book takes place in Chicago, but Chicago, despite its reputation, isn’t even among the top ten most violent cities in the country. I could’ve written this book about so many other cities. What’s more, these stories speak to who we are as a nation. In the wake of the tragedies at Newtown and Parkland, we asked all the right questions. How could this happen? What would bring a young man to commit such an atrocity? How do the families and the community continue on while carrying the full weight of this tragedy? In Chicago, in Baltimore, in New Orleans, in the cities across the nation, no one’s asking those questions. What does that say about us? 

An American Summer is available in hard cover, digital, and as an audiobook.

The Attic on Queen Street by Karen White

Karen White and I are talking about ghosts, particularly the ghosts haunting Melanie Middleton Trenholm in White’s latest novel, The Attic on Queen Street, the last in the series set in haunted Charleston, South Carolina.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” she asks.

Not really, I reply, but I also don’t like staying in places that are supposedly haunted when I’m by myself.

White feels the same way because, as we both agree, you just never know.

It’s then that her phone goes dead.

“I don’t what happened,” says White when she calls back. “My phone was charged and everything.”

Coincidence? Most likely. But still, it makes you wonder.

But phones going dead are the least of the problems for Melanie, a Charleston real estate agent with young twins, a husband who is deciding whether he wants to stay in the marriage, and a teenaged stepdaughter whose room is haunted. Indeed, the entire house on Tradd Street is haunted. Some of the ghosts are helpful, some are evil, and one is the ghost of a dog—which is fine as it gives Melanie’s dog a companion to play with. And to make matters worse, Melanie’s young daughter is already showing signs of being able to see ghosts.

Ghosts are such a problem that Melanie learned early on to sing ABBA songs loudly to drown out the sounds of the dead people trying to talk to her. But that only works sometimes and in this novel there’s plenty of evil for Melanie to deal with both living and dead. For starters there’s Marc Longo, who stole her husband’s manuscript and turned himself into a bestselling author. Longo is now heading a film crew in Melanie’s house while underhandedly trying to discover the diamonds he believes are hidden there. Melanie is also trying to aid a good friend in discovering who murdered her sister years ago—with the help of the cryptic messages the deceased sister keeps sending her way. And then there’s Jack, her handsome husband. They’re still in love but Jack is darned tired of Melanie always getting herself into deadly situations.

White first introduced us to Melanie in The House on Tradd Street in what was to be a two book series.

“But when it came out and was so popular, my publisher said let’s make it four,” says White. “This is the seventh and I’m really going to miss them.”

Well, kind of, as White is continuing the theme of a haunted city and the Trenholm family, only with Melanie’s stepdaughter in the key role who has to deal with her only supernatural beings when she move  to New Orleans in a book due out this coming March called The Shop on Royal Street.

Interestingly, the Tradd Street series was originally going to be set in New Orleans. White went to Tulane University and in 2005 she was all set to go with her family back to New Orleans to do research for the first book when Hurricane Katrina hit.

“I knew that there was no way with all the catastrophic flooding, and deaths that I could write this story without having Katrina in it and this wasn’t that kind of book,” says White, who has authored 23 books,

Choosing Charleston made sense as White had ancestors who lived in Charleston in the late 1700s and family who had lived on Tradd Street. In ways, she says that when she visited, she felt the pull of genetic memory—a sensation of a past shared life.

“I smelled what they call pluff—which is rotted vegetation,” recalls White, “and I said oh doesn’t that smell so wonderful.”

Coincidence? Doubtful.

The Attic on Tradd Street is also available as an audiobook and electronically.

%d bloggers like this: