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.”

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.

Save Me the Plums: Ruth Reichl’s Memoir

            A decade ago, out of all the food magazines published, the most famous was Gourmet, which offered a sophisticated look at culinary trends and cookery. And Ruth Reichl, who formerly had been the food critic for the New York Times, a job that entailed wearing disguises because her photo was plastered on a large number of kitchen walls in the city’s restaurants, was the editor-in-chief of the magazine. It’s a story she recounts in her latest book, Save Me the Plumst (Random House; 2019 $27). You don’t need to be a serious foodie to enjoy her take on what she calls “the golden age of magazines.”

            Reichl didn’t want the job and though she had collected Gourmet magazines starting when she was eight, she saw it as old fashioned and stuffy and at first said no. But the publisher wanted to take the magazine in a different direction and saw Reichl as the person to be able to make that happened. So, she signed on to a job that included a limousine service, first class airfare and a lavish expense account. The selling point after turning it down the first time was that she would be home in the evenings with her son, not critiquing restaurants.

            “I never wanted to become that person,” says Reichl about the luxuries and perks. She recalls flying coach and seeing two of her colleagues boarding the same flight as they were going to the same place and they looked at her in wonderment as they headed to the first class section. She took the bus until a limo driver shamed her into using his service on a regular basis.

             Despite being the food editor and restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times, the experience of being Gourmet’s editor-in-chief made Reichl quickly learned how much she didn’t know. She recalls freaking her first day when the staff started talking about TOCs and she had to desperately call a friend and ask what that meant as she didn’t want to look ignorant in front of her employees.

            “Table of Contents,” she was told. How simple but it shows the type of learning curve Reichl was encountering in her new career.

            Being Reichl, multiple James Beard-winning and bestselling author, she also includes a few recipes in her book.

            “All of my books have recipes, so I had to have some,” she says. That includes the turkey chili she and her staff used when the gathered in the Gourmet test kitchen on 9/11 and cooked for the first responders.

 “I still love cooking and get an enormous amount of pleasure from it,” she says. “And I like to cook for other people. Every morning I ask my husband what he would like to eat.”

Indeed, for Reichl, food is such a sensory experience that she often likes to eat alone so she can savor every mouthful, letting it take her back to the source of what she’s consuming.

            From the magazine folded and everyone went home, Reichl knew she’d write a book about her time at Gourmet and kept copious notes and saved emails. “But then my editor had to torture me into actually writing it.”

            She wants readers to come along for the ride when reading her book.

            “I want them to get the sense of what it was like,” says Reichl. “I want them to enjoy themselves as much as I did.”

Ifyougo:

What: Ruth Reichl in-conversation with Louisa Chu, a Chicago based food writer.

When: Wednesday, April 24 at 6 pm

Where: 210 Design House, 210 West Illinois, Chicago, IL

Cost: The cost of on ticket is $56 ($58.95 w/service fee) and includes a copy of the book, wine, and tastes made from Ruth’s book My Kitchen Year. 2 tickets include one book, wine and tastes for $80 ($83.79 w/service fee). To purchase, visit brownpapertickets.com/event/4102551

FYI: The event is sponsored by the Book Cellar. For more information, (773) 293-2665.

Journalist Fiona Barton keeps suspense going with ‘The Child’

As a journalist, Fiona Barton investigated crimes, attended trials and then wrote and filed her stories. But as the author of the just-released “The Child” and her best-selling novel, “The Widow,” both psychological thrillers, Barton had to switch gears.

“It sounds ridiculous, but I had to stop being a reporter in order to write a novel,” Barton says. “I knew how to write — I’d been doing it for a living for more than 30 years, but what I was writing came from other people. Journalism is listening, probing, testing other people’s words and telling a story concisely and often under 500 words,” she says.

“Writing ‘The Widow’ meant unlearning a lot of things. It was incredibly hard at first and I got to 10,000 words and thought I had nothing left to say, but there was a moment where I gave myself permission to fully invent. It was a real crunching of gears but wonderfully liberating to be free to create my own world in both books.”

Barton’s done it again with “The Child,” which brings back Kate Waters, the newspaper journalist who first appeared in “The Widow.” Wanting to impress her boss, Kate follows up on the discovery of a small skeleton in a recently demolished building. Barton says that the inspiration for the story came from exactly the same place that Kate finds it in the book.“As a journalist, I’m always looking for stories,” she says. “I tore interesting items out of newspapers and magazines — my hairdresser hated me — and shoved them in my handbag for later. They were often just a few lines in a story but it was the unanswered questions that drew me in. One of the scraps of paper lurking in the bottom of my bag many years ago was about the discovery of a baby’s remains. Like Kate, I wanted to know who the infant was? Who had secretly buried it? And who else knew?”

%d bloggers like this: