Windy City Blues

In her fun very readable Windy City Blues (Berkley 2017; $16), Chicago author Renee Rosen again takes another slice of the city’s history and turns it into a compelling read.

Rosen, who plumbs Chicago’s history to write such books as Dollface, her novel about flappers and gangers like Al Capone, and What the Lady Wants which recounts the affair between department store magnate Marshall Field and his socialite neighbor, says she and her publisher were racking their brains for her next book which encompassed Chicago history.

“She suggested the blues,” says Rosen, who didn’t have much interest in the subject.

But Rosen was game and started her typical uber-intensive research.

“When I discovered the Chess brothers, who founded Chess Records, I fell in love,” she says, noting that when researching she was surprised about how much she didn’t know about the subject despite her immersion in Chicago history for her previous books. “I thought this is a story.”

“As part of my research, I drove the Blues Highway from New Orleans to Chicago,” she says. “I also met with Willie Dixon’s grandson and with Chess family members.”

Combining fact and fiction, Rosen’s story follows heroine Leeba Groski, who struggling to fit in, has always found consolation in music. When her neighbor Leonard Chess offers her a job at his new Chicago Blues label, she sees this as an opportunity to finally fit in. Leeba starts by answering phones and filing but it soon becomes much more than that as she discovers her own talents as a song writer and also begins not only to fall in love with the music industry but also with Red Dupree, a black blues guitarist.

Windy City Blues was recently selected for Chicago’s One Book project, a program designed to engage diverse groups of Chicagoans around common themes. Rosen says she is very honored to be a recipient.

“I put my heart and soul into this book,” she says. “I think it’s a story with an important message. In it are lessons of the Civil Rights movement, what it was like for Jews and people of color along with the history of the blues and the role of Jews in bringing the blues to the world. After all, as the saying goes: Blacks + Jews = Blues.”

Good Rich People and the Bad Games They Play

            Lyla and Graham Herschel like to play games. Not board or video games. Too boring for this ultra-rich restless couple who live in a home high up in the Hollywood Hills and not too far from Graham’s overbearing mother who would certainly win any mother-in-law from hell contest.

            No, the games they like to play involve destroying people’s lives. And that’s what they intend to do to Demi Golding, who they believe is a high earning executive at a tech company.

            In Good Rich People, Eliza Jane Brazier, sets up an unwitting match between these heartless trio and Demi, who is homeless. But they don’t know that. By luck—and the cunning of those always on the brink of catastrophe—she has the necessary information to take them up on an offer to live on their property.

            Typically, son, mother, and wife set people up so they lose everything—their jobs, reputations, and money. But Demi doesn’t have any of those to lose and she’s learned how to survive during her tumultuous childhood, a skill she really needs to try to outwit the threesome who, suffocating with boredom, have upped their game to include murder.

            Brazier, who lived in London for years but now resides in California, knows a little bit about homelessness and having to scrabble to survive. After moving to England, she lost her job and was lucky enough to be taken in by a kindly man who would become her future husband.

            “He was always taking people in and helping them,” she says about her musician spouse who is now deceased.

            The jobs she was able to find didn’t pay enough to give her security and so what writing about the ultra-rich versus the poor really resonates.

            It’s typical of Brazier to draw upon her experiences for her books.

            “I worked at a ranch in Northern California which is where my book, If I Disappear, is set,” she says in a phone interview where she’s working on her fourth book. Her third, set in Los Angeles where she lives, is already written.

            When I ask her if the real ranch was as creepy and weird as the one in her book, she laughs and tells me it was worse. Wow.

            Life is different now with the success of her books. Brazier says she was always a storyteller but didn’t have confidence in her writing ability. When she finally decided to give it a try, she spent a lot of time honing her writing skills and learning the business. Now, she not only is writing mystery novels but also is developing If I Disappear for television.

            “It’s still unbelievable,” she says about the turn her life has taken. “I’m still somewhat in denial.”

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.

Bad Moon Rising: A Heidi Kick Mystery

         Bad Axe County has seen some bad days, but this may be the worse as Heidi Kick, former beauty queen and now sheriff learns that the medical examiners have determined that the homeless man recent found dead, had been buried alive.

         Even for Kick, who is pretty tough having survived the murder of her parents years earlier and the savage world of beauty competitions, this case is exceptionally hard. Being buried alive has always been one of her worst fears.

         So begins “Bad Moon Rising” In John Galligan’s third book in his Bad Axe County. Set in rural Wisconsin, Kick is grappling with her own fears and unresolved issues as more and more bodies are discovered. That’s not all that’s facing Kick. Married to a former standout local baseball player, she’s the mother of three young children and is up for re-election. Some people think she should be home with her children and start spreading lies about here.

         Galligan, who teaches writing at  Madison College in Wisconsin,  is also the author of the Fly Fishing Mystery series. Describing  Wisconsin as his favorite place to be, he also knows the culture of some of its more rural towns. Bad Axe County is fictional carved out by Gallaher between two real counties.  He doesn’t shy away from writing about some of the prevalent issues facing rural areas and how they impact his characters.

         “The region’s beauty and its challenges fascinate me,” he says. “There are hundreds of miles of spring creeks where wild trout still thrive. At the same time factory farms and sand-fracking outfits are moving in, and climate change is having a devastating impact.” There’s also meth to contend with and those who are so set in their ways they can’t accept a woman as a sheriff. In his books, he uses real situations to show what Kick is dealing with.

         Galligan also sees the closeness of such communities as well.

         “Neighbors look out for each other,” he says.  “You can find a pancake breakfast or a brat fry on any day of the week. People both leave and stay with equal degrees of passion.”

         This realistic look at the fictional Bad Axe County shows us why Kick remains despite everything.

         Country girls, says Galligan, can hunt, fish, shoot, get great grades in school, and be good at just about everything. That’s the kind of heroine he’s given us in this series.

Several 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.”

Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing

Lauren Hough’s parents were members of The Children of God, so she told people they were missionaries instead of belonging to that infamous cult. A student at a conservative Catholic High School, she hid her sexuality. As a member of the U.S. Airforce she visited gay bars using the name Ouiser Boudreaux, taken from the character Shirley MacLaine played in “Steel Magnolias” so that no one on the base would learn her real identity—and sexual orientation.

In other words she was always someone she wasn’t, trying to be what others expected of her.

“I’d learned to survive by becoming what they wanted me to be, as best I could,” Hough writes in her collection of essays, “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing.” “And when I couldn’t, I hid, erasing those parts of me that offended.”

The collection includes an essay she wrote for HuffPost titled “I Was a Cable Guy.” I Saw the Worst of America” which went viral. One reader reached out to Hough to tell her how much she liked it. That person was Academy Award winner, Cate Blanchett. The two struck up a friendship and when “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing,” Hough texted her to ask if she would read several of book’s eleven essays.

“Surreal is also a good word to being able to text Cate and ask her is she’s ever considered doing an audiobook,”  says Hough describing the entire experience not only of partnering with Blanchett in producing the audiobook but her life’s journey and how she ended up as a published writer corresponding with a movie star. As for Blanchard, she said yes.

“My conversations with Lauren over the last several years have been honest, raw, and sidesplittingly funny, and I treasure her friendship and penmanship beyond measure,” she writes.

Hough says she wrote many of her essays in the dark, just hoping to connect, if only to yourself. Growing up, her family had moved frequently, and she lived in seven countries including Switzerland, German and Ecuador, and Texas just to name a few placed, experienced violence and been abused. In adulthood, she’d worked a series of jobs—bartending, bouncer in a gay bar, livery driver, U.S. Airman, barista, and, of course, a cable installer.

Describing Hough as having hypnotic power as a storyteller, Blanchett says when she spoke Hough’s words in the audiobook that in “speaking her words, I truly understood the rhythmic heartbeat alive in every phrase. Aching to connect. Aching to be heard.”

In her long search for belonging and being connected, Hough’s writings seem to have forged the connectiveness she sought.

WIN! By Harlan Coben

He’s incredibly handsome, impeccably dressed, totally urbane, interested only in no-strings relationships, and so amazingly rich that it’s hard to remember when anyone in his family has ever worked besides, that is, practicing their golf swings. Of course, Windsor “Win” Horne Lockwood III is totally obnoxious or would be if he didn’t recognize and make fun of all those traits. He knows he was born into money not for any reason but the wining of the genetic lottery. Ditto for the looks. He doesn’t have to wear—gasp—hoodies but can instead with all that dough attire himself in sartorial splendor. As for the relationships or lack of them, well, Win has issues that started in childhood so you can’t really blame him for that.

CANNES, FRANCE – APRIL 7: Writer Harlan Coben is photographed for Self Assignment, on April, 2018 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Olivier Vigerie/Contour by Getty Images). (EDITOR’S NOTE: Photo has been digitally retouched).

          What he’s never had before is a mystery novel all about him. But now he does in “Win” (Grand Central 2021; $18.98 Amazon price) written by Harlan Coben, the bestselling author who has 75 million books in print in 45 languages as well as multiple number of Netflix series including “The Stranger” and “The Woods” with two more “The Innocent” and “Gone for Good” out soon.

          Up until now, Win has been a sidekick to Coben’s main character, Myron Bolitar, a sports agent who moonlights—often unintentionally—as a private detective.  Coben never intended to make Win the main character in a novel but that changed.

          “I came up with a story idea involving stolen paintings, a kidnapped heiress, and a wealthy family with buried secrets – and then I thought, ‘Wow, this should be Win’s family and his story to tell’,” says Coben.  “Win is, I hope you agree when you read the book, always a surprise.  He thrives on the unexpected.”

          The kidnapped heiress is Win’s cousin Patricia, who was  abducted by her father’s murderers and held prisoner until she managed to escape. She now is devoted to helping women who are being victimized by men. The stolen paintings include a Vermeer that was taken when Patricia was kidnapped. That painting along with another appear to have been stolen by a former 1960s radical turned recluse who was murdered in his apartment after successfully hiding from authorities for more than a half century.

          But keep in mind, that this is a Coben novel, so nothing is ever as it seems. The plots are devious, and the twists and turns are many. As Win goes on the hunt for the painting he has to deal with other difficulties that arise as well. His proclivity for vigilante justice (he knows, he tell us in one of the many asides he makes to readers, that we may not approve) has led to retaliation by the man’s murderous brothers who almost manage to kill him. The hunt for the Vermeer gets him involved with a treacherous mobster who is determined to find the last remaining radical of the group of six who he believes was responsible for his niece’s death.

          “Win has been Myron’s dangerous, perhaps even sociopathic, sidekick and undoubtedly the most popular character I’ve ever written,” says Coben.  “That said, you don’t have to read a single Myron book to read “Win.”  This is the start of a new series with a whole new hero.”  

          Coben decided to write a novel when he was working in Spain as a tour guide. Did he get the job because he’s fluent in Spanish? Not exactly.  

          “My grandfather owned the travel agency,” says Coben. “While I was there, I decided to try to write a novel about the experience.  So I did.  And the novel was pretty terrible as most first novels tend to be – pompous, self-absorbed – but then I got the writing bug and started to write what I love – the novel of immersion, the one that you get so caught up in you can’t sleep or put the book down.”

          With “Win” he has certainly done just that.  

What: Harlan Coben, #1 New York Times bestselling author, discusses his new book “Win” with moderator and author Shari Lapena.

When: Thursday, March 25 at 7 p.m.

FYI: Hosted by the Book Stall in Chicago, the event is free and open to the public. To register, visit the events page on the store’s website, www.thebookstall.com

President Obama’s Annual List of Favorites

“As 2020 comes to a close, I wanted to share my annual lists of favorites,” Barack Obama, the 42nd President of the United States, tweeted to his 127.5 million followers. “I’ll start by sharing my favorite books this year, deliberately omitting what I think is a pretty good book – A Promised Land – by a certain 44th president. I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I did.”

Somehow, the President forgot to include adding one of my books to his list again. Well, there’s always next year.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Luster by Raven Leilani

Sharks in the time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
Memorial Drive Natasha Trethewey
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
Missionaries by Phil Klay
The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Glass House by Emily St. John Mandel

“Central Indiana Interurban” chronicles the state’s electric trains

There was a time when electric railroads, called interurbans, crisscrossed the state, connecting the small villages and large cities of Indiana.

“I was about 10 when my mother first started letting me take the interurban on my own,” recalls Lorraine Simon, who was born in East Chicago in 1911. “My mother would put me on the train and I’d go to Chicago and get off and walk to where my grandmother worked sewing linings into hats for a millinery company.”

Interurban in Valparaiso. Photo from the Steve Shook Collection

Also, according to Simon, the interurban she rode, known as the South Shore, also served food — for awhile. “But that didn’t last long,” she says.

Interior of the Muncie Meteor, Courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images.

With names like the Marion Flyer and the Muncie Meteor, the electric-powered interurban railway was the first true mass transit in Indiana in the 20th century. Coined interurban by Anderson, Ind., businessman and politician Charles Henry in the early 1900s, the name meant between towns or urban areas.

Photo courtesy of the Shore Line Interurban Historical Society.

“Before the interurban, public transportation in central Indiana relied upon mules or horses to pull crudely fashioned passenger wagons,” says Robert Reed, author of “Central Indiana Interurban” (Arcadia, 2004, $19.95). The interiors of these passenger wagons were piled high with straw for warmth in the winter and candles were used after sunset to light the interior. It was, as can be imagined, less than an optimal way to travel.

“The genius at work was the idea of using electrical power, on the pavement beneath the tracks or on overhead lines, to power existing traction cars,” writes Reed in his book.

Muncie Meteor. Courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images.

Though the book’s title would seem to indicate a focus on the interurbans in Central Indiana, Reed points out that it encompasses many of the interurban lines that ran through Northwest Indiana.

“Indianapolis may have had the busiest interurban terminal in the world early in the 20th century but Chicago laid claim to the busiest corner in the world at State and Madison streets,” he writes. “Clearly interurban and cars were jammed in with all other traffic. The Chicago and Indiana Air Line Railway was established in 1901 at a cost of $250,000. Through reorganizations and acquisitions it grew from just over three miles of coverage in the beginning to nearly 70 miles of routes as the Chicago, Lake Shore and South Bend Railway, a decade and a half later. Eventually, encircled by its transportation lines were East Chicago, Indiana Harbor, Gary, Michigan City and Hammond.”

Photo courtesy of the Steve Shook Collection.

The Gary and Interurban Railroad provided 50-minute service between Gary and Hammond, according to Reed, and 60-minute service between Gary and Indiana Harbor. “In the years before the 1920s,” writes Reed, “one of their major routes began at Hammond and continued on to Indiana Harbor, Gary, East Gary, Garyton, Woodville Junction, Chesterton, Sheridan Beach, Valparaiso, Westville and LaPorte. Variations of the Gary and Interurban Railroad routes commenced at Valparaiso, Chesterton and LaPorte. Typically more than 20 different interurban cars from that line arrived and departed from Gary each day.”

From the Steve Shook Collection.

To highlight the popularity of the interurban throughout the state, Reed mentions how in 1908 the French Lick and West Baden Railroad Company connecting the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Resort & Springs, about a one mile route, carried 260,000 passengers.

From the Steve Shook Collection.

The book, filled with black-and-white photos from the interurban era as well as timetables and postcards from the routes, came about after Reed, a former magazine editor, wrote a book called “Greetings from Indiana” which showed the state’s history through early postcards. As Reed collected the postcards, he noticed that many were of the towns on the interurban route. “

From the Steve Shook Collection.

It made sense that people riding the interurban would send postcards of their stops and that these postcards were often of the interurban terminals,” says Reed who specializes in writing about antiques and collectibles. “I really became fascinated with interurbans because they were so much a part of Indiana.”

Laying tracks for the interurban was an expensive proposition. “It eventually got to where it was about $144,000 a mile,” Reed says. “And they reached a point where it was too expensive to expand.” Besides, by then Henry Ford had introduced his Model T and people were starting to drive more and more. “A lot of old timers say that if the interurban had survived until after World War II, they would be popular today,” Reed says. The one interurban to survive, the South Shore Railroad, did so because Samuel Insull, the utility magnate whose holdings included Commonwealth Edison and the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, also owned the South Shore.

Tracks in downtown Gary, Indiana. Photo courtesy of the Steve Shook Collection.

In other words, he helped usher the South Shore into the era of public subsidies for passenger transport. That is considered to be the reason why the electric train, which still travels from Chicago to South Bend and back on a regular schedule, is the only interurban that successfully made the transition to a commuter railroad.

Central Indiana Interurbans by Robert Reed.

All the others are now just vestiges of history — abandoned track lines here and there, faded black-and-white or sepia-colored postcards, a few timetables and even fewer fragile memories.

Beverly Shores Depot. Courtesy of Steve Shook Collection.
Beverly Shores, Indiana today. Jane Simon Ammeson.

How Quickly She Disappears

            Intrigued by the tales his grandparents told of living in Tanacross, a small Alaskan village back in the late 1930s, Indiana author Raymond Fleischmann has woven a mystery set in that time frame and location.

            “I grew up hearing their stories about Alaska, the cold, the isolation, the long days and the long nights,” says Fleischmann, the author of the just released How Quickly She Disappears.  “So, the setting is very real though my characters are fictional and not based on my grandparents at all who were very much in love and married for over 60 years.”

            That part is probably good as Fleischmann’s novel is about Elisabeth Pfautz who is living in Alaska with her husband and young daughter. The marriage is joyless, but her daughter is her delight and, more forebodingly, a reminder and connection with her twin sister, Jacqueline, who when she was eleven, disappeared. No one has seen or knows what happened to her since then.

              Haunted by her lost sister, experiencing reoccurring dreams of 1921 and the circumstances of the disappearance and saddened by the state of her marriage, Elisabeth is drawn to Alfred, a substitute mail pilot who lands in Tanacross. Elisabeth, who grew up a small German community in Pennsylvania, feels a kinship of sorts with Alfred, who is also of German heritage. But then things turn distinctly weird and terrifying. Albert murders another man, apparently in cold blood. But he also knows, he tells Elisabeth, what happened to her sister, something he will reveal to her at a cost.

            Fleischmann says he’s always been drawn to novels that are propelled by relatively simple, often violent acts, but do so in a way that’s careful, human, and deeply examined. From Alaska in 1941, Fleischmann takes us back to 1921 where we meet Jacqueline as well.

            “I thought it was important for people to know about her as well,” says Fleischmann, who earned an MFA from Ohio State University, “To me, at the time of her disappearance, Jacqueline is a lonely and somewhat stunted child who is having difficulty navigating the transition from adolescent to adult, just like many of us. So is Elisabeth and Jacqueline’s disappearance has left a big void in her life. As an adult she still feels very much alone without her sister and appears to suffer in many dysfunctional ways.”

            All this makes her vulnerable to Alfred’s cat and mouse game as does the voice she seems to hear, that of Jacqueline urging her to “come and find me.”

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