Book review, signing: New book offers fresh take on Gary/Chicago resident, Nelson Algren

Mary Wisniewski was a college student when she first discovered the writings of Chicago writer Nelson Algren.

Author Mary Wisniewski

“Many of his books were set in Wicker Park where my family was from which intrigued me,” says Wisniewski, noting that though Algren’s novels are about shady characters, drug addicts, grifters, drifters and those on the margins of society, she found his writing lyrical, beautiful and poetic.

“It turned me into an Algren hag,” she says

“I told all my friends to read his books, and I started reading everything he had written that I could find — I found it surprising that his writings weren’t part of the literature canon in colleges,” Wisniewski says.

From there it became a natural progression to writing “Algren: A Life,” winner of the 2017 Society of Midland Authors award for best biography and the Chicago Writers Association award for best non-fiction, and the first biography about Algren in more than a quarter-century.

Delving more and more into his life, Wisniewski even read his FBI file, a mammoth collection of investigative reports because of his leftist leanings and, as Wisniewski says, “his belief that the crust of civilization in America is pretty thin.”

Algren lived a chaotic life that included a long-term love affair with French writer, Simone de Beauvoir, who had another lover, the French philosopher, Paul Sartre. Besides sharing a woman, they were friends and liked to box.

Algren often was short of funds — famed Chicago writer and broadcaster Studs Terkel, who was a friend, lent him money, which Algren always repaid. And he married and divorced three times. Having the FBI hounding him and taking away his passport didn’t help.

He also became discouraged with his lack of commercial success, even though two of his novels were made into films with major stars — “The Man with the Golden Arm” starred Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak (another Chicagoan), and “Walk on the Wild Side” featured Lawrence Harvey and Jane Fonda. Through it all, he continued writing.

Surprisingly for someone who wrote about the underside of life, he also expressed feminist sensitivities much earlier than most, Wisniewski says.

“In the 1950s, he wrote an essay about how Playboy magazine objectified women and turned them into commodities,” she says.

Algren, whose grandfather and father were from the Black Oak neighborhood of Gary, also had a Northwest Indiana connection, owned a home in Miller Beach.

The Nelson Algren Museum of Miller Beach, located in the 1928 Telephone Building once owned by his friend, David Peltz, is now owned by the Indiana Landmarks Foundation.

“I think Algren’s time has come again,” Wisniewski says.

“I think he’s like Dickens in London; he’s given Chicago a way to see itself. I always tell people that once they get a Chicago address and CTA card, they need to buy his book, “Chicago: City on the Make.”

If you go:

What: Join Mary Wisniewski as she discusses Nelson Algren and his work. Book signing to follow.

When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 11

Where: The Betty Barclay Community Room at the Edgewater Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 6000 N. Broadway, Chicago.

FYI: (312) 742-1945; chipublib.org

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean’s newest book, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, $28), is about a fire and a library but like all things this New York Times bestselling author writes (The Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin), it’s so much more. A lover of libraries since she was very young, Orlean had been toying with the idea of writing about the subject when her son, then six-years-old, announced that his class assignment was to write about a city employee and instead of the typical fireman or policeman interview, he wanted to write about a librarian.Susan Orlean_credit Noah FecksSusan Orlean_credit Noah Fecks         Then, after moving to Los Angeles, Orlean was at the Los Angeles Central Public Library when the librarian opened a book, took a sniff and announced that you could still smell the smoke. Orlean asked if that was from a time when smoking was allowed. The answer was no, instead the aroma dated back to April 29, 1986 when an inferno blazed for seven hours, reaching 2500 degrees. It took half of the Los Angeles’s firefighting resources to extinguish the blaze and by then flames and water had destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000.
“It was the combination of all of these that gave me the final push; it was as if I was being nudged, repeatedly, to look at libraries and find a narrative about them to write,” says Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of seven books. “Learning about the fire was definitely the final nudge that made me sure this was the story I wanted to tell.”

But how to tell the story? For Orlean, who is obsessive about details and research—it took her almost as long to write the book as it did to rebuild the library—she had to figure out her focus.

“That’s exactly what the challenge was–it was a topic that was both broad and deep, with so much history and so many ways I could pursue it,” she says. “I finally decided to treat it as a browse through a library, with stops in different ‘departments’ of the story, such as the history, the fire, the present day, my own library memories. By visualizing the story that way I was able to move through the topic and engage as many aspects of it as I could.”

Her attention to details, both past and present is amazing and intriguing. We learn that Mary Foy, only 18, became the head of LAPL and also, because the fire was set by an arsonist, she delves into previous book burnings such as when in 213 B.C. Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered any history book he didn’t agree with be destroyed. The act, says Orlean, resulted in over four hundred scholars being buried alive.

In keeping with her compulsive exploration, Orlean even tried burning a book herself, just to see what happens and how it is done.

Asked to name her favorite library, Orlean mentions the Bertram Woods branch library in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

“That’s where I fell in love with libraries and became a passionate reader,” she says. “Of course, I’ll always feel a special attachment to the L.A. Public Library, because of the book, and it’s a great library to be in love with.”

Orlean also hopes people appreciate the gifts library give us.

“I want people to think about the nature of memory, both individual memory and common memory,” she says. “Our individual memories are as rich as a library, full of volumes of information and vignettes and fantasies. And our common memory is our libraries, where all the stories of our culture reside. I love reminding people of the value of both.”

Ifyougo:

What: Susan Orlean discusses her new book followed by a book signing.

When: November 13th at 6 pm

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

Cost: Free

FYI: (312) 747-4300; chipublib.org

 

Author Peter Cozzens Discusses The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West

For most cozzens_jacketof us who learned about the Wild West from movies, novels and TV shows both old and new, we’ve seen the concept of Native Americans go from persecutors to persecuted. But neither reality is true says Peter Cozzens, author of 16 books on the American Civil War and the Indian Wars that followed. Indeed, many senior army officers were sympathetic to the Indians and advocates of their rights says Cozzens in his latest book, “The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West” (Knopf 2016; $35).

“Another myth is that the government was exterminationist—cultural extermination, yes, but the government never contemplated the physical eradication of the Indians in the west,” says Cozzens who will be signing copies of his book on both Saturday and Monday in Chicago. “The War Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were constantly at odds over Indian policy with the military often more humane and restrained in their treatment.”

The third myth, according to Cozzens, is that the Indians stood united in opposition to white encroachment on their lands. Instead, in ways that helped doom their way of live, tribes continued to fight amongst each other at the same time they tried to stave off the encroachment of their lands.”

Cozzens, who retired from the American Foreign Service, is an avid researcher into the history of a time in our country so few of us really understand. It’s a very complicated period where many fascinating characters stand out including President Ulysses Grant, George Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Red Cloud and General William Tecumseh Sherman. He soughtcozzens_author-photo out many Indian sources, weaving their information with American history in order to balance each one.

Spending so much time immersed in this time and place, Cozzens says that when he went to tribal lands in the West, places that haven’t changed much over the last century, he can feel what it must have been like for both the Indians and the military all those years ago.
Ifyougo:

What: Peter Cozzens book signings and talks at two Chicago venues.

When & Where: Saturday, October 29 at Noon. Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, 824 W. Superior St., Suite 100, Chicago, IL and Monday, October 31 at 6pm at the Chicago Public Library, Harold Washington Library Center, Cindy Pritzker Auditorium (lower level), 400 South State St., Chicago, IL

Cost: Free

The Daughters of the Last Tsar

In her latest book, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (St. Martin’s Press 2015; $17.99), historian Helen Rappaport writes about the four young women who, as daughters of the Tsar of Russia, were swept up in the Russian Revolution in 1917.

“I had a very longstanding desire to write about the Romanov sisters because I felt very strongly that they had been totally marginalized by history – they had always been the pretty set dressing to the bigger more dramatic story of their parents, Nicholas aRomanov Sisters cover_Fotornd Alexandra, and their tragic young brother who was heir to the throne,” says Rappaport. “I wanted to tell their story, as individuals, to describe their own unique personalities, for they were very different from each other, and show what a loving and supportive group of sisters they were to their sick mother and brother, and how they kept everyone’s spirits up after the revolution changed their world so irrevocably.”

Known to most of us by photos showing them dressed in exquisite white dresses and large hats and by the movies and novels based upon the mystery of Anastasia, the youngest of the sisters and whether she had escaped the mass slaughter of the rest of her family (she didn’t, says Rappaport), the author did extensive research finding newspapers, memoirs, journals and letters scattered across the globe.

It was a time full of so many imponderables and so much that could have been different says Rappaport including how the revolution could have been averted if Nicholas II had agreed to political concessions and the formation of a truly democratic government or if the tsarina Alexandra had not allowed herself to be so in thrall to Rasputin because of her desperation at keeping her son Alexey, who was a hemophiliac, alive, thanks to his supposed gifts of healing.

“I always live with my subjects very intensely when writing my books and immerse myself very deeply in the period of history,” says Rappaport, author of 12 books.  “But I have to say that of all the books I have written, the Romanov sisters lived in my heart and my mind much more than any of my other subjects. I am myself a mother of two daughters, and have a granddaughter the age Anastasia was when she died. By the end of my research Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia felt like my own daughters.   And they will always be with me, no matter what else I write.  I wanted so passionately to tell their story.”

Ifyougo:

What: Author Helen Rappaport Discusses the Romanov Sisters

When: 6:30-8:00 p.m., Wednesday, May 11

Where: Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State Street, Chicago IL

Cost: Free

FYI: (312) 747-4300

 

 

 

 

 

 

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