When during the summer of 2014 Bill Hillmann made the news for getting gored by a bull, I was shocked but not surprised. When I heard him read publicly months before, my former Columbia College classmate had told a harrowing tale of a pileup he had witnessed during his 2013 trip to Pamplona. Despite the terrible scene described to us that evening, one where he had to drag a body out of the tunnel leading into the arena, Bill said he planned to return and run with the bulls. Later I’d learn Hillmann wasn’t surprised by his goring either. As he writes in his new book “Mozos: A Decade Running with the Bulls of Spain,” his first thought after the horror of it was “Accept it. You knew this day would come.” Read the rest of this entry »
Nonfiction Review: “Drawn From Water—An American Poet, An Ethiopian Family, An Israeli Story” by Dina ElenbogenChicago Authors, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »
The search for identity is always fraught, involving questions that the seeker does not even know to ask at the start of the journey. Dina Elenbogen finds this out firsthand in her new book “Drawn From Water: An American Poet, An Ethiopian Family, An Israeli Story” in which she takes the reader on an exploration to Israel after Operation Moses in 1984, a rescue mission that brought 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to the country. Read the rest of this entry »
“The Girls of Usually” is Lori Horvitz’s debut, bite-sized chunks of memoir from a woman of many places. Now an English professor in North Carolina, Horvitz would periodically interrupt her New York City life in her twenties to traverse Europe. Those twenties were edgy politically and personally. Burdened with a Communist sometimes-boyfriend, living in an AIDS-ravaged neighborhood, Horvitz slowly realized her burgeoning lesbian identity, complicated by her youth.
Her essays stay brief when dealing with her childhood and mid-twenties, growing longer with age and importance. Characters and objects illuminate Horvitz’s history and locale. Communist Russia is defined by blonde, blue-eyed Rita (the anarchist British tour guide, the first woman Horvitz ever sleeps with) and the packs of gum she trades with locals on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Read the rest of this entry »
“With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths,” by Bryon MacWilliams, captures the fractured identity of contemporary Russia with high fidelity in a way that is at once tender and clear-eyed. This book is introspective American travel writing at its best. A genre-defying mosaic of memoir, historical research and a reflection on time and place, “With Light Steam” is easily in a league with “Travels in Siberia,” by Ian Frazier for spectacular American travel writing on Russia.
MacWilliams takes the reader on an insightful, but never belabored tour of the history of Russian baths, which play a major role in the nation’s history if for no other reason than that many major events of Russian history occurred in these steamy rooms (e.g. in an act that initiated the early Russian state as an independent power, its matriarch, Princess Olga, burned to death an entire delegation of Drevlians—a rival tribe—in a banya to revenge her husband’s death). Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago photographer Art Shay—the same man who photographed royalty, presidents, sports figures and historical moments like the 1968 Democratic Convention—now presents us with a collection of photographs featuring his “beloved wife and model,” and owner of Titles, Inc. for more than thirty years, the sprightly Florence Shay.
One of the very first photographs in “My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story,” is from the Shays’ 1944 honeymoon, in which a twenty-two-year-old Art in U.S. Air Force uniform looks upon his beaming bride with enormous adoration in his eyes, clearly enamored. He looks grateful to be in such close proximity to someone so beautiful and full of life. The photographs in Shay’s latest collection portray his late wife’s brimming effervescence in that same spirit of reverence and love. Read the rest of this entry »
By Amy Friedman
“After a few months in Chicago, Florence Kelley’s soft-voiced but electric style of public speaking, as well as her magnetic personality and her demonstrated commitment, made her prominent among the advocates for the cause whose day had come.” While Leigh Buchanan Bienen here describes her book’s subject, the factory inspector, reformer, attorney, writer and mother who fought for the rights of workers and children in 1890s Chicago, these words could have just as easily been written about the author herself. As an attorney and champion of just causes, Bienen fought tirelessly to abolish the death penalty, first in New Jersey and then in Illinois. She also served as Director of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project that transcribed handwritten documents into online records, making data available to the public on more than 14,000 homicides in Chicago between 1870 and 1930. Bienen is a prolific writer and a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, among many other accomplishments. Reading her latest book, it’s easy to see why Florence Kelley, a fellow Cornell graduate, attorney and advocate for the underdog, became Bienen’s focus.
The book unfolds through a unique format that weaves together three distinct narratives: Kelley’s private struggles as a single mother of three living in Jane Addams’ Hull-House and her public accomplishments as a factory inspector pushing for legal protections for workers in the late nineteenth century; Bienen’s personal account of life as the wife of Henry Bienen, fifteenth president of Northwestern University, as well as her professional efforts to end the death penalty; and the changing modern political landscape that in so many ways mirrors the struggles and events of Kelley’s world. Read the rest of this entry »
Nonfiction Review: “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” by Amanda PalmerBook Reviews, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »
Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” is not about crowdfunding. Her TED talk covers that just fine. It is a love story about art, audience and the business of both, starring two men (a mentor and a husband), and one woman, Palmer herself. The indie cabaret pianist is not everyone’s darling. The internet routinely critiques Palmer’s privilege, patriotism, ableism, feminism. One person’s read of her as genuine and sassy is another’s self-absorbed and tone-deaf.
Palmer wrote a portrait of an artist in real time, an artist flailing in front of us, and when an artist flails, we can either point and laugh or we can learn something. Palmer’s book is a segmented essay of varying brilliance, covering an intensely rough year where her best friend and mentor Anthony is diagnosed with cancer and she deeply questions her marriage to Neil Gaiman because of his emotional distance and lack of dancing ability. Read the rest of this entry »
I wish I’d had a taxi driver like Dmitry Samarov when I immigrated to Chicago. Our driver got lost on the way from O’Hare Airport, pulled over on a dark, midnight road by the Des Plaines River so we could check our map, then crashed through roadwork and over a bunch of orange traffic cones. Samarov seems a more careful driver, a meticulous observer of people and a sharp storyteller.
“Where To? A Hack Memoir” is a series of linked vignettes that are wry, hilarious and sometimes melancholic. Samarov, the immigrant “progeny of Soviet intelligentsia and an art school graduate,” describes the cab driver as a passing presence who sees the ugly, the beautiful and the inexplicable. Cab drivers are frequently immigrants, former professionals, now “forced back down to the bottom rung of the societal ladder.” They contend with a gritty city and ruthless cops. The bureaucracy is a time-sucking revenue collector, its authority figures despotic. Passengers are lovelorn, snowbound, disabled, drunk, sweet, amusing, obnoxious and sometimes famous. We glimpse it all. Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Megan Stielstra’s writing career is forever changing. She tells me this as we sit on couches in the office space for her new nine-to-five job, and it looks like a sushi bar, all square lines and pale stripes of wood and white blocks. The walls are whiteboards and she can’t wait to take a marker to them.
Stielstra’s writing career has never been about the best-selling novel she hoped to write. It took shape as she scrubbed floors in Florence and read a lot. When she went to Columbia College, she walked out of her first class feeling like she had smoked everything there was to smoke, so high was she from the excitement of writing.
The writing career detoured when a trusted professor asked her if she’d ever thought about teaching. Yet she can’t stand in front of a classroom without writing, or else she’d violate some incredible trust with her students. It still amazes her that they trust her with first drafts: she would balk at handing over hers like that. Read the rest of this entry »
A Mockingbird Sings? A Conversation with Marja Mills about her Controversial Memoir of Her Onetime Neighbor, Harper LeeAuthor Profiles, Memoir No Comments »
In 2001, reporter Marja Mills met up with Harper Lee, or Nelle, as she is known, and her older sister Alice Lee, in Monroeville, Alabama, while on assignment for the Chicago Tribune after the Chicago Public Library had chosen Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” as its One Book, One Chicago selection. Mills went back and forth to Alabama—and in 2004, she even moved next door to the sisters—and struck up a friendship with the two women. The story of the unusual camaraderie is the topic of Mills’ fascinating, touching and, it must be said, respectful, memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.” In the following email conversation, Mills recalls the first time she read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, as well as the recent controversy over Lee’s very public disavowal of the memoir.
Do you remember the first time you read “To Kill a Mockingbird”? And your reaction to it?
Yes. I was in the West High Library in Madison, Wisconsin. I felt as if I were in Maycomb, Alabama, walking those dusty, red clay roads. Harper Lee drew that world so vividly. It was transporting.
Can you say a bit more about how you were feeling when Alice Lee invited you into the house for the first time? You indicate you were surprised, thrilled and even a bit regretful. Is there anything else that you care to add?
She was so gracious, and here I had made this petite woman with the walker and raspy voice get up and answer the door. I kept telling myself to remember every detail of every room, because I wouldn’t be there again. But she seemed to enjoy the conversation, as did I, and it became the first of many. Read the rest of this entry »