The Poisoned City by Anna Clark

Like an accident in slow motion, Anna Clark, a Detroit-based journalist followed the crisis of toxic drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
“I had my head in it for years and it’s still there, I talk about it and I can’t get my head about how it happened,” says Clark, who has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico.
This obsession with the government’s failure to provide clean water in a once thriving manufacturing city whose population of about 99,000 is largely African American compelled Clark, who was a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, compelled her to research and write The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy (Metropolitan Books 2018; $30) which was an Amazon Best Book of 2018 . But she didn’t do so as a faraway observer. Clark, who graduated from the University of Michigan’s Residential College with highest honors, double majoring in History of Art and Creative Writing & Literature, and minoring in Crime and Justice and received an MFA from Warren Wilson College, has always been a doer.
For almost two years, citizens of Flint complained about the water, showing up at meetings with jars of the putrid looking liquid that came out of the faucets and talked about how people were getting ill from drinking it. The GM plant in Flint actually changed their water system because the city water was corroding the auto parts they manufactured.
“It wasn’t good enough for the machines, but it was good enough for the people?” Clark asks rhetorically. “I wanted to really dig deep. I loved the research and the long conversations with a lot of people. I traveled to Flint a lot, to attend events, meet people and just hang out. I audited classes at the University of Michigan on metropolitan structures, legal issues and water rights. There was so much information to connect. I really couldn’t stop until my publisher said I had to turn in my manuscript.”
Clark says most of the credit for the crisis being covered by major media sources is due to the city’s residents.
“They would go to Lansing to meet with legislators and attend meetings, the mapped where the symptoms were occurring,” she says, noting their work propelled the story to a national level which is when the state finally started took action. “I really think many people in positions of power didn’t think the people in the city mattered very much. The clear message is we don’t actually care to do anything sizable about it.”
But what happened in Flint could happen anywhere. Clark also sees this as an urgent public health care issue and one that is even more important as the national conversation is about dismantling safety regulations.
“Even people in less disadvantaged cities have lead in their popes,” she says. “At the base level of what a city should do for its citizens, I think safe drinking water is pretty basic.”

What: Anna Clark discusses The Poisoned City and then will be joined in conversation with Rick Perlstein, the author of several books. A Q&A will follow the discussion.
When: Thursday, January 24 at 6 pm
Where: The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL
Cost: Free
FYI: 773-752-4381;

Young Lincoln: Growing Up in Southern Indiana

Many people aren’t aware that Abraham Lincoln spent his formative years in Southern Indiana, moving there from Kentucky with his family at age seven, leaving with them when he was 21.Jan Jacobi head shot

It’s these years that Jan Jacobi, an avid Lincoln enthusiast and an award-winning educator who currently is teaching at St. Michael School of Clayton in St. Louis, chronicles in Young Lincoln (Reedy Press $16.95), his recently released book for readers ages 12 to 16.

Growing up in New York, Jacobi moved to St. Louis in 1992 to take a teaching job and says he quickly realized how close his new home was to areas where Lincoln had lived including Southern Indiana and Springfield, Illinois, inspiring him to read book after book about the president.

“One of my students asked me if there was a book he could read about young Lincoln,” recalls Jacobi who because of his towering height is frequently asked to portray the president.  “I said there really wasn’t one for his age range. And he told me that I should write one then.”

Jacobi’s publisher agreed but with one more stipulation. He should write it in first person, using the voice of Lincoln as a youngster.

“I thought no one can do that,” says Jacobi. “But then gradually the voice came to me—I just had to marinate in it.”

Spending time in Spencer County, Indiana where Lincoln grew up, Jacobi talked to some of the residents whose ancestors had been friends of the Lincoln family. They shared with him their views of the Lincolns that had been passed down generation after generation.

Thomas Lincoln has always been somewhat of a cipher—the youngest and least successful of three brothers who all witnessed the death of their father, another Abraham Lincoln, who was shot and killed by a Native American . When the future president was a youngster, Thomas Lincoln was a harsh father but that wasn’t unusual in pioneer days. Thomas also thought his son was wasting his time reading and learning and tried to discourage it. Young Lincoln, in turn, was contemptuous of his father’s illiteracy and failures to get ahead in life and sought the mentorship of other men  in the community who were learned and successful. Southern Indiana at that time was a wilderness where cougars and bears were always a menace, food was often scarce and life was harsh and often deadly. Lincoln’s mother died after contracting milk sickness as did a friend she’d been nursing for the same disease; his sister died in childbirth.

As an adult, when his father was on his deathbed, Lincoln, now a successful lawyer, refused to visit him despite the appeals of his step-mother with whom he was exceptionally close and his step-brother. When Thomas died, Lincoln didn’t attend his funeral.

“People in Southern Indiana are kinder to his father,” says Jacobi. “I’m a little harder on him.”

How did Lincoln develop the resiliency that would allow him to overcome his early adversity to lead the country during one of its most tumultuous periods is a question that Jacobi says he has longed tried to answer.

“Lincoln is a remarkable human being,” he says. “There are so many dimensions to him. We have to be careful not to turn him into a saint; but his essential goodness speaks to me.”

So much so, that Jacobi is planning his next book about Lincoln’s time in Springfield.

“Lincoln is endlessly fascinating,” says Jacobi. “He is the quintessential American. The only other person I put in that category is Mark Twain.”


What: Jan Jacobi discusses Young Lincoln. He will be joined in conversation by syndicated columnist Steve Chapman. A Q&A and signing will follow the discussion.

When: Saturday, September 22 at 3 p.m.

Where: 57th Street Books, 1301 E 57th St, Chicago, IL

Cost: Free

FYI: 773-684-1300;


Lake Success

“I’ve always wanted to travel the country by Greyhound bus,” says Gary Shteyngart, the New York Times bestselling author about Lake Success, his latest book Gary Shteyngart © Brigitte Lacombe(PenguinRandom House 2018; $28) which tells the story of Barry Cohen, a hedge fund millionaire who, unable to deal with all the issues impacting his life, jumps on a bus to find his college girlfriend.

“I know, I’m nuts. But I thought it would be a very visceral way to see the country at a difficult time in its history,” continues Shteyngart.  “And it sure was.  As for the hedge fund part, I guess I realized there were so few people left in New York who weren’t connected to finance one way or another. Everyone else had been priced out.”

You might think that Cohen, a man worth millions who is married to a beautiful, exotic and intelligent wife, has, if not it all, at least a lot more than most of us. But beneath the surface, it’s all breaking into pieces for Cohen, a self-made man who overcame the intense insecurities he had as a boy. His only child is severely autistic, his wife is drifting away having fallen in love with a married neighbor and the Feds are opening an investigation into how his hedge fund lost a billion or so.

Chucking it all including his Black Amex card, cell phone and access to his millions, Cohen has only a couple hundred dolalrs and his expensive watch collection which emotionally means more to him at the time he starts his journey than anything else in his life.

Shteyngart was able to nail down the personalities of his characters by immersing himself in their world.

“I spent three years hanging out with hedge fund people and their spouses and sometimes children,” he says. “A strange alternate reality began to take shape in my mind. I started jotting down the little tics and conversations, but mostly the fact that the real world of the 99.9 percent was no longer available to them. They had moated themselves in to an almost feudal level. In fact, large parts of Manhattan started to seem like a series of gated communities.”

There’s a parallel to Shteyngart and Barry’s upbringing. Both grew up poor and saw Wall Street as a way to make up for the huge amounts of insecurity they felt.

“In our country, being poor is almost considered a moral failing, though often to get rich requires a true moral failing,” he says.

Unlike Barry, Shtenyngart, who immigrated with his parents from Leningrad at age seven, turned to writing dark comedic novels such as Super Sad True Love Story (winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize) and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction). It’s humor, based in part upon his parents who he says have a very satirical approach to reality honed in the Soviet Union, where laughter was the only defense against a very stupid system.

“Being an immigrant is also a nice way to observe a society because you have to learn it from scratch,” he adds.

To learn how to become a hedge fund manager, watch this video by Shtenygart and Ben Stiller:


What: A conversation and book signing with Gary Shteyngart

When: Friday, September 21 at 6:30 p.m.

Where: KAM Isaiah Israel Congregational,1100 E Hyde Park Blvd, Chicago, IL

Cost: $30 tickets include admission for one and one copy of Lake Success

FYI: 773-684-1300;




The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

Told that his surviving newborn daughter would soon die just like her twin, William Conlin grabbed the premature child and, hailing a cab, fled. But he wasn’t going to the hospital, he was leaving it and heading to see Martin Couney who had no office but operated on the midways of carnivals and fairs such as New York’s Coney Island and Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress.Dawn Raffel_final author photo_credit Claire Holt

A sideshow novelty along with bearded ladies and brothels (yes, many fairs had “female boarding houses” back then) attracting tens of thousands of people, Couney exhibited “weakling” babies that would typically be left to die in hospitals.  Instead he saved them through the use of a new and unusual medical device called an incubator. He was often quoted as saying “If we have a child for seven days in our charge we never lose it.”  It wasn’t a boast, it was mainly true. Couney operated his Infant Incubator Company at a time where eugenics, based upon the idea that only the strongest, healthiest, smartest and best looking should survive in order to create a perfect race.

“In literature these babies were called ‘weaklings’,” says Dawn Raffel, author of the recently released The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies, by Dawn Raffel (Blue Rider Press $27), adding that Couney’s story was almost forgotten.

Indeed, Raffel, who grew up in Milwaukee, had only learned about Couney in passing when her father mentioned going to the Century of Progress and seeing the exhibit.

“I didn’t even know there was a World’s Fair in Chicago,” was Raffel’s first take away from their conversation. But she later became intrigued and after a visit to the Coney Island Museum embarked upon four years of research.

At first information was difficult to find even though Couney had been the main go to person for premature babies for 40 years. And even then, most premature American babies didn’t survive.

“If you weren’t a place where  Couney had a show—and that was only in the summer—you were pretty much out of luck,” she says.

A positive turn in her research came about when Raffel learned about Lawrence Gartner, a highly regarded neonatologist and professor emeritus of pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago who called himself a Couney buff. In an interesting connection to Northwest Indiana, Lawrence’s wife Carol Gartner, another Couney afficianado, retired as a professor of English and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Purdue University Calumet.

Raffel also interviewed some of the babies, now grown up, who had been saved by Couney.  Among them was Barbara Gerber, who was 80 years old at the time she spoke to Raffel and though living in California had grown up on Chicago’s South Side. Gerber and her twin sister, Joanie, were underweight when born. Joanie, at four pounds, was placed in an incubator at the University of Chicago’s Lying-in Hospital until she gained a pound and then was sent home. Barbara, at three pounds, was considered a goner and ended up with Councey where she spent three months. Health wise, Barbara prospered while Joanie suffered lifelong issues, dying at age 48.

A showman and possibly not a doctor at all, Couney made money by exhibiting premature babies in incubators to fair goes and used all sorts of marketing tricks to increase the crowds. One barker, hired to lure people in by yelling “Don’t forget to see the babies” would change his name from Archibald Leach and move to Hollywood where he became known as Cary Grant.

But Couney’s heart was in the right place.

Over the decades, before incubators, which were invented in Europe and widely used there, became commonplace in the U.S., Raffel says he probably saved between 6,500 and 7,000 lives. He also claimed that 85 percent of the babies in his care survived, with most deaths happening with 24 to 48 hours of their arrival.

“One doctor is quoted as saying he’d never seen a hospital as clean as Dr. Couney’s place on the Midway,” says Raffel.


What: Dawn Raffel talk, book signing and reading with award winning author Stuart Dybek.

When: 6 p.m., Wednesday, September 5

Where: Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL

FYI: (773) 752.4381;

What: Multimedia presentation and talk moderated by Donna Seaman

When: 6 p.m., Thursday, September 6

Where: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Public Library, 400 S. State St., Chicago, IL

FYI: (312) 747-4300;


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