Traveling Through Time and Around the Globe

The quote from Jean Batton, an early female aviator was the inspiration for Maggie Shipstead to write “Great Circle” about a female aviatrix who disappears in Antarctica in the last century and a modern day movie being made about her.

In 1914, Marian Graves and her twin brother, James, are among the last to be saved when the Josephina Eterna sinks in the North Atlantic. With their father in prison and their mother gone, the two babies are bundled off to live with their Uncle Wallace, an artist in Missoula, Montana. Wallace, preoccupied with his painting, lets the kids run wild, and while James is a sweet-natured child, Marian is a daredevil who revels in the freedom to do what she wants.

That helps explain her attraction to the lifestyle of barnstorming aviators and her decision at 14 to drop out of school to learn to fly.

Fast forward a century. Actress Hadley Baxter, whose Hollywood stardom is somewhat diminished, is starring in a movie about the disappearance of Marian Graves in Antarctica.

The story of these two women takes us back and forth from past to present and around the globe in Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle” (Vintage Books 2021; $24).

The disappearance of a woman aviator is familiar. After all, movies and articles are still being written about Amelia Earhart, whose plane vanished in the Pacific Ocean in 1937. But there are many other female pilots from the early and mid-1900s, though they’re exploits are mostly forgotten now. Writing “Great Circle” required Shipstead to research and travel to give the book its authenticity. She visited the Arctic five times and Antarctica twice.

Why so many times, I asked Shipstead.

“I’m drawn to those regions by some weird instinct,” she said. “I think a lot of people are. But I’ve also been lucky to keep getting opportunities to go. Polar travel has become a bit of my specialty, so I’ve been sent on assignment to Alaska, the New Zealand subantarctic, Antarctica, the Canadian high Arctic twice, Greenland twice. I did an artist residency on a ship in Svalbard. In a way, one thing kept leading to another, and I have no complaints.”

The inspiration for “Great Circle” came to her in New Zealand. She was between books and a story line for her next novel that she had thought looked promising, wasn’t. In the airport, she saw the statue of early aviator Jean Batton, its base inscribed with her quote “I was destined to be a wanderer.”

She knew she had her book.

Given how much she has traveled, I wondered if Shipstead was destined to be a wanderer.

“Destined is probably strong,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in travel, but my life could have taken lots of twists and turns that would have precluded traveling as much as I have. Really, this book turbocharged my traveling because, A, I was motivated to get to more and farther flung places in the name of research, and B, it took so long to write the book that I had the chance to start writing for travel magazines.”

I next asked if she ever considered becoming a pilot given her interest in the subject.

“Never,” was her response. “My brother used to fly C-130s in the Air Force and wanted to be a pilot from childhood, so that was always his territory.”

This article originally appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.

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Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us

              Does the current state of the world seem overwhelming? Do our leaders often seem to be all about themselves and not about us? Is it easier to turn on a sitcom rerun than to sit through the news because we feel so helpless to change what’s going on?

            You’re not alone. Brian Klaas, a columnist for the Washington Post Assistant Professor of Global Politics at University College London, and author of the new book “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us” (Scribner 2021; $28), has taken on the task of interviewing more than 500 world leaders from the best to the worst– to answer questions like the following. Does power corrupt or is it that corrupt people are drawn to power? What personality types are drawn to power? Why are so many dictators sociopaths and narcissists? And why do even good people, once in a position of power, become authoritarian?

            Here is a brutal fact that will make you reach for remote and flip to an episode of “Green Acres” where the biggest problem of the day is whether Arnold the Talking Pig can take that trip to Hawaii he won.

            Democracies are dying with more and more countries sliding towards authoritarian rule says Klaas who writes that there are no countervailing forces.

            Indeed, Klaas who created and hosts the award-winning Power Corrupts podcast, says “There’s nothing that rewards being a sober moderate who believes in democracy and tries to govern by consensus.”

            Describing democracy as being like a sandcastle, one that can be easily wiped out by a big wave or successive small hits, Klaas gives Turkey as an example.

            “Initial coverage of Erdogan’s 2002 election was positive, showing him to be someone was a populist who would shake things up, go up against the elite and status quo, and bring democracy to Turkey,” says Klaas who looked back through New York Times archives to highlight how that country has changed for the worse. “For 19 years now, he’s chipped away at democracy instead.”

            Though the book’s subject matter might seem dull, it’s not. Klaas is a strong writer with a sense of humor and he is very capable of delivering telling anecdotes that reflect the changes a democracy can encounter and how quickly that can happen in a compelling way.

            “If you lose the battle for democracy, you don’t get to battle for taxes, infrastructure, healthcare, or any of the policies that change lives,” says Klaas, who earned a MPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford (New College) and an MPhil in Comparative Government from the University of Oxford (St. Anthony’s). “In the places that I’ve studied where democracy has died, it’s still dead pretty much everywhere.”

            How to fix it?

            Klaas suggests becoming active. Call your congressperson or senator, run for local office, become politically active, and in general, participate in making changes to bring about change.

            “That’s the type of activity that ultimately can transform the political system at the national level,” he says.

            But there’s no time to delay.     

            “If we don’t fix it in the next two to four years,” he says, “it probably won’t get fixed.”

Follow Brian Klaas’s podcast Power Corrupts.

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.”

Capote’s Women: The Story of the Writers’ Swans

“There are certain women who, though perhaps not born rich, are born to be rich,” author Truman Capote wrote about the beautiful, well-dressed, and style-setting women he called his “swans.”

The ultimate arm candy for the wealthiest and most powerful of men, these women of the mid-20th century were trophy wives before the term existed. And they counted Capote, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and creator of the true crime genre with In Cold Blood, his chilling recounting of the brutal murders of a Kansas family, as their best friend.

In Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, New York Times best-selling author Laurence Leamer takes us back to a time and a world where jet-setting, making the best-dressed list, attending and giving A-plus list parties, and dining at the most wonderful places whether in New York, Paris, London, or wherever your yacht happened to be moored were what these exalted women excelled at.

Obtaining their lifestyles depended upon a confluence of beauty, wit, moxie, and marrying and knowing when to discard husbands as they worked their way up and up. At times, divorce papers were barely signed before the next wedding was held.

“You have to enter into their lives,” says Leamer, explaining how he so succinctly captured the personalities of the swans: Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Slim Hayward, Pamela Churchill, C.Z. Guest and Lee Radziwill who constantly seethed because of the attention her older sister, Jackie Kennedy, always received.

“Even though,” Leamer points out, “unlike Jackie she didn’t want to do the hard work that it takes to achieve something.”

These women knew how to climb to higher heights. Gloria Guinness had transitioned from a childhood of constant motion in Mexico and marriage at age 20 to a man 27 years older to marrying a German aristocrat and a romantic involvement with a top Nazi during World War II. Her third marriage was to the grandson of an Egyptian King and her last, the biggest prize, was to a scion of the Guinness beer family who was also a member of Parliament. Other wins were modeling for big time designers and the best of the fashion magazines as well as being on the International Best Dressed List for several years.

But ultimately, she wasn’t happy says Leamer who believes she committed suicide.

There was also Barbara “Babe” Paley whose mother raised her   three daughters to marry money. Paley, who had been badly injured in an automobile accident when young, spent her life in considerable pain. Her husband expected perfection in all things and so she never slept in the same bedroom, so she could the loss of her front teeth.

But being the best wasn’t always the answer to happy life. The swans may have had uber-wealthy husbands, but they didn’t have good husbands. Frequently husbands and wives were flagrantly promiscuous, and the swans often led separate lives not only from their spouses but also their children.

“For them, to be a mom was to be hands-off,” says Leamer. “And the children often paid a price. They didn’t necessary learn to do anything because they were going to inherit a lot of money.”

Ornamental to the max, these were women who did nothing but did it extremely well. And Capote, despite his great literary successes, spent a lot of time doing nothing with them. He listened to their secrets and ultimately decided to write a book revealing what he had heard. When an article he penned revealed some of those stories, the swans all turned against him, and he was exiled from the society he craved.

“I went to a family wedding recently,” says Leamer noting the warmth and connectiveness that everyone had. “These women and Capote never had this.”

It’s such a cliché to say money doesn’t buy happiness. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And it certainly is delicious to read about the lives of women who many thought had it all even though they didn’t.

Online Book Event


Join Laurence Leamer in an online event hosted by the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago when he reads from and discusses his new book.”

When: October 13 at 6:30 p.m.

How to Join In: This program will be hosted online via Zoom. To register, visit americanwritersmuseum.org/program-calendar/laurence-leamer-capotes-women/

Pullman: The Man, the Company, the Historic Park by Kenneth Schoon

               Kenneth Schoon, professor emeritus at Indiana University Northwest, has immersed himself in the history of the Greater Chicago/Northwest Indiana area for decades, writing books starting from the area’s earliest beginnings such as “Calumet Beginnings: Ancient Shorelines and Settlements at the South End of Lake Michigan” and “Swedish Settlements on the South Shore of Lake Michigan.”

               In his latest book, “Pullman: The Man, the Company, the Historical Park” (History Press 2021; $21.99), he showcases what once was among  the ultimate company town and is now a Chicago neighborhood. George Pullman, whose last name became synonymous with plush railroad sleeper cars, believed that happy workers were productive workers and so developed his town along the western shore of Lake Calumet in the late 1800s.

               I thought I knew company towns having grown up in East Chicago, Indiana my friends whose parents worked at Inland Steel lived in Sunnyside in Indiana  Harbor. On the East Chicago side there was Marktown built in 1917 by Clayton Mark, for those employed at the company he owned, Mark Manufacturing.

               But they’re different Schoon tells me. Both Marktown and Sunnyside were residential neighborhoods. But Pullman was an actual town with its own schools, library, churches, Masonic Hall, businesses, and even a band. Garbage and maintenance was paid for by the company.

In 2015, then President Barack Obama proclaimed Chicago’s Pullman District as a National Monument, encompassing many of its surviving buildings such as the former Pullman Palace Car Works, the Greenstone Church, formerly the Greenstone United Methodist Church, the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, workers’ homes, the Pullman Administration Clock Tower Building, Arcade Park, and the Florence Hotel, named after Pullman’s oldest daughter.

               Though I vaguely knew about the town of Pullman, it had never been on my radar as a place to visit even though it was less than eleven miles from where I lived.

               “The same with me,” says Schoon who remembered going to the Florence Hotel, one of the fanciest structures in town, to eat when young never to return until hired by the Historic Pullman Foundation to write about the history of the town for their brochure.

               Today we talk about experiences, but that’s what Pullman was all about back then. His sleeper cars were luxurious, but the brand also meant great service. After the Civil War, he hired recently emancipated African American men, to work as porters becoming the largest employer of Blacks in the U.S. Their jobs were to attend to passengers needs by serving food and drink, shining shoes, tidying up the train, making sure the temperature was just right and that lighting fixtures worked.  Black women were hired as maids to take care of women guests on the most expensive cars—babysitting children, helping with their baths, giving manicures, and fixing their hair.

               Pullman was no dinky little town. The Arcade Theatre could accommodate 1000 people and Schoon says it was, for a time, the finest theater west of the Hudson River.

               With the advent of automobiles and highways, the need for sleeper cars lessened. But luckily many of Pullman’s historic buildings remain including the Florence Hotel which is currently closed for renovations but expected to open within a few years.

               “The old stable is now a store,” says Schoon. “The old fire station is still there and of the 600 residential buildings all but three are still standing.”

               In an interesting tidbit, Schoon notes that Pullman was originally dry because George Pullman was a Prohibitionist. Luckily for those who  wanted to imbibe, Kensington, the town next door had 23 taverns at the time.

               Kenneth Schoon will be signing copies of his book during the Labor Day Weekend at the Grand Opening of Pullman National Monument Visitor Center and Pullman State Historic Site Factory. For more information about times and other events, visit www.pullmanil.org

George Diamond’s: A Northwest Indiana Classic

            In 1924, Peter Levant’s opened what was one of Whiting’s famous “perch palaces,” a place that served freshly caught perch right from Lake Michigan. They also advertised such menu items as steak, chicken, and, of course, this being The Region, frog legs—mostly likely from nearby Lake George.

            Indeed, frog legs were so in demand that Vogel’s—which was just down the street and totally classy—raised their own frogs for legs in the lake. But that’s a different story.

            Located at 1247 Calumet Avenue, Levent’s became the home of Juster’s Charcoal Broiled Steaks and then later George Diamond’s. Though my mom liked to cook, my parents were totally into eating out as well and though its been years and years, I remember going with them to George Diamond’s. It was the kind of place where everything was overlarge—the steaks, the salads, the charcoal flames, and even the menus.

            That Diamond (yes, there was a George Diamond) even opened a place in Whiting shows the town’s status as a food destination. Indeed, around that time, there were a lot of great restaurants–and I’m sure I’m leaving a lot of places out–Vogel’s, Phil Smidt’s, Margaret’s Geneva House, Al Knapp’s Restaurant and Lounge, and the Roby Café. But Diamond was international. Besides his flagship restaurant at 630 S. Wabash Avenue in Chicago that was said to have cost over $1 million to renovate in a style I call 1950s swank, all red velvet and red upholstery, he had places in Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Antioch, Illinois on a golf course, and Acapulco, Mexico.

            What I remember most was the house salad dressing which they bottled and sold on the premises. It was so unique that even now it has a cult-like online following with people  searching for the recipe.  It wasn’t Russian and it certainly wasn’t French or at least not the orangish French dressing we buy in bottles now. Diamond’s dressing was an almost translucent reddish pink. And if the recipe I found online is close to the original, it’s main ingredient was tomato soup.

  There’s nothing left of Diamond’s empire today. Diamond died in 1982 at age 80 and the building housing the Wabash Avenue restaurant went up in flames in 2006.  But people still remember that dressing.

George Diamond’s salad dressing

  • 1 (10-ounce) can condensed tomato soup
  • 2/3 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup each: white vinegar, sugar
  • 1 small onion, peeled and grated
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon each: salt, ground black pepper

Place undiluted soup, oil, vinegar, sugar, mustard, salt, pepper, onion and garlic in a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade. Cover and blend or process on high speed until pureed, about 2 minutes. Serve chilled. Store covered leftovers in refrigerator.

            I’ll be signing copies of my book Classic Restaurants of The Region at Miles Books. 2819 Jewett Avenue in Highland on Saturday, August 21st from 11:30-3pm. For more information, 219-838-8700.

               Hope to see you there.

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.”

Hour of the Witch

“Hour of the Witch,” Chris Bohjalian’s well-researched and chilling new novel, takes us into a past where, just by trying to exercise her independence and desire to lead her own life, a woman could be castigated as a witch.

Bewitchingly beautiful with delft blue eyes, porcelain skin and blonde hair, Mary Deerfield has a handsome, wealthy husband, a lovely house, and bruises on her face that she tries to hide under her linen cap. Thomas, her husband, is almost twice her age and given to drunken rages, particularly as time goes on and Mary does not become pregnant.

Mary’s parents are respected and well-to-do but can’t protect their daughter. There are no organizations to help battered women, no social workers or psychologists to dispense advice, nor can Mary just leave her home, move to another city and get a job. After all, this is Boston in 1662, and women have few, if any, rights. Ironically, Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the 21st century, was back then the kind of place where they burned women as witches.

Hour of the Witch,Chris Bohjalian’s well-researched and chilling new novel, takes us into a past where, just by trying to exercise her independence and desire to lead her own life, a woman could be castigated as a witch.

“When we think of New England’s history of hanging people for witchcraft, we beeline straight to Salem in 1692,” said Bohjalian, a New York Times bestselling author of 22 books whose works have been translated into 35 languages and three times made into movies. “But in 1656, the governor of Massachusetts had his own sister-in-law hanged as a witch. And the first real witch hunt was Hartford in 1662 — three full decades before Salem. One thing many of the women executed as witches had in common was that they were smart, opinionated, and viewed as outsiders; sometimes, they saw through the patriarchal hypocrisy that marked a lot of New England Puritanism.”

Mary puts up with a lot; after all, she has little choice. But when Thomas drives a three-tined fork into her hand, she’s had it and files for divorce. Bohjalian said he was looking for a way into writing a suspense novel about the 17th century and found it when he came across the records of a woman named Nanny Naylor in the 1600s who successfully sued for divorce and won.

“I was off and running,” he said.

Bohjalian enjoyed studying Puritan theology at Amherst College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude.

“Puritans lived with anxiety and dread — just like me,” he said. “Of course, for them, Satan was as real as your neighbor and they fretted constantly over whether they were saved or damned. My anxieties were more of the 1980s ‘Breakfast Club’ sort.

“I think ‘Hour of the Witch’ is very timely for a novel set in 1662,” he said. “And that was by design. When a magistrate on Boston’s all-male Court of Assistants calls my heroine, Mary Deerfield, ‘a nasty woman,’ I knew the reference would not be lost on my readers. Now, I never want to write polemics, but yes, there is a political undercurrent to the novel that will resonate.”

Bohjalian said it wasn’t difficult getting into the Puritan mindset.

“If you’re the sort of person who always questions your motives and has a healthy dollop of self-loathing, it’s actually rather easy,” he said.

What, of all the research he did, surprised him the most?

“The fact the Puritans didn’t use forks and drank beer like they were at fraternity parties in 1978,” said Bohjalian. “Their table manners must have been atrocious.”

This review previously ran in the Times of Northwest Indiana.

The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Chicago Cubs

         Carrie Muskat, who started covering the Chicago Cubs in 1987, has written The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Chicago Cubs (Triumph Books 2021; $16.95).

         “Really there are more than 50 moments because it was hard to limit them so it’s 50 plus,” Muskat tells me in an early morning phone interview. “I always say I’m bad at math.”

Totally immersed in baseball and the Cubs, Muskat’s latest book has an introduction by Anthony Rizzo, the first baseman for the Chicago Cubs and a three-time All-Star who in 2016 helped the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908. Her other books include Banks to Sandberg to Grace: 5 Decades of Love & Frustration with Chicago Cubs.

Carrie Muskat

Described as “the perfect primer for new Cubs fans and an essential addition to a seasoned fan’s collection,” the book recounts the living history of the team and features such greats as Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, Anthony Rizzo, and Ernie Banks among others.

 Muskat, who has conducted numerous interviews with players, at times takes a different approach in her book by not only relying upon her own interactions but also by talking to people who worked behind the scenes about the moments included in  The Big 50. It was a way to gain a new perspective on some of the players such as Sammy Sosa that she knew so well.

“I talked to broadcaster Craig Lynch about Pat Hughes, the radio play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs and got his insights,” she says, as a way of giving an example.

In some ways, the those decades covering the Cubs was like being part of a large family.  In her time writing about Major League Baseball—she started in 1981—Muskat says she’s watched players like Kerry Woods, the two-time All Star former Cubs pitcher who is now retired, grow. The same goes for Anthony Rizzo.

“I’ve enjoyed talking to people’s families, like Anthony’s, just talking about things,” she says. “I covered Shawon Dunston and then his son.”

In her book, Dunston shares his insight on Andre Dawson in Moment 16 of  titled “The Hawk.” Dunston recalls having a locker between Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, who he describes as the quietest guys in the world. “Combined, they didn’t say more than 20 words a day, and I’m not exaggerating.”

At the time, Dunston says he was “talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.” But by being between them, he learned to be quiet and think about the game before the game. “I learned how to be a professional because of Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg.”

These scenes from the book support Muskat’s contention that players are really just people.

“That’s one of the biggest things,” she says. “Even if they’re superstars, they’re just people when you get to know them.”

There have been changes. Reporters used to sit in the dugout but not anymore.

“It’s not as relaxed,” she says. “My favorite time is spring training which is more relaxed.”

Muskat is freelancing now but she still is on the sports beat.

“There’s always a story, every player has one,” she says.

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