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Book Review: Wicked River

Wicked River. Jenny Milchman. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, May 2, 2018, Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and E-book, 464 pages. 

Reviewed by Caryl Barnes.

Wicked River by Jenny Milchman is a high-stakes literary thriller involving three main characters: Natalie and Doug, naive newlyweds on a backwoods canoe honeymoon, and Kurt, a murderer with stunning wilderness skills. Through a series of misadventures, partly caused by Doug’s betrayal of his new bride, the pair become lost without supplies and almost die. Kurt, who has created a solitary nest in the Adirondacks three years after his commune fell apart, may be the most desperately lonely character I’ve ever met. All he wants is to trap one or more people and keep them in his backwoods camp for life. Like his psychiatrist parents before him, Kurt does not seek a relationship with those he entraps; like them, he craves living material to cram into his bottomless lack of an identity, a soul.

While Kurt is fascinating and weird, Natalie and Doug are much more ordinary. It was Doug’s idea to take his bride into the wilderness, an adventure for which she was ill-prepared. Because both accepted that Doug was in charge, Natalie agreed. Neither one of them knew themselves very well nor did they understand how superficial their relationship was. Through their numerous harrowing adventures, they began to trust and help each other despite Natalie’s horror after learning of the crimes Doug had hidden from her. Kurt not only saved their lives before his murderous intent became clear, but he also saved their marriage. Had they not become honest with themselves and each other in their dire circumstances, their marriage would have ended before it really got started.

I can’t say enough good things about Milchman’s complex and riveting main plot, the depth of her main characters, and her superb depiction of the wilderness. However, a long subplot involving Natalie’s niece, Mia, was unnecessary and not very interesting. Because I admired Wicked River, I reread the book to see if Mia was in any way necessary to the plot or character development. I thought I had maybe missed something crucial. I don’t think I did; it feels like the Mia story—of an adolescent growing up—is the skeleton of a different book. A second subplot about Doug’s sidekicks since childhood was integral to the main plot but I learned both too much and too little about them, more than I needed to know but not enough to care about them.

Milchman is a good writer. Some of her language is wonderful. When Natalie swims alone at night and a shot rings out, her “heart began to throb, she felt it cast waves through the water, turning the entire river into one great, beating drum.” Sometimes she is terse to good effect. After someone with a gun chases them, Doug and Natalie panic, drop everything, and race miles away from the trail. Milchman intones: “No food, water, maps, or gear.” Chilling.

Skilled as she is, Milchman could benefit from tighter editing. A writing teacher once told me that part of the cost of being a writer is eliminating your “darlings,” meaning the metaphors you think are beyond wonderful. After calling the woods an “ivory forest,” an inaccurate description of verdant summer forests, the author describes “the stalks of the trees” which “shone like tusks in the sunlight” and then added that it looked “as if moonbeams had planted themselves in the earth.” That’s just too fancy. 

Milchman has published three previous books. I plan to read more of her. I recommend Wicked Riveras a good summer read.



Book Review: The Purpose of Being

The Purpose of BeingUndra L. Ware, Sr. Self-published, December 17, 2017, Trade Paperback, 40 pages.

Reviewed by Gail Galvan.

Drawing inspiration from God and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ware wrote his book of prose and poetry with the hope of “uplifting human spirits.” For me, his insightful, upbeat book achieved this goal.

In sections bearing such titles as “A Growing Seed,” “What is Life?” “What is a Man?” and “Potential Growth,” Ware works to live up to his book’s ambitious title—The Purpose of Being.

In his poem titled “A Graduation for Brother,” he touches on one of his major themes: Embrace “a positive attitude to reach the right altitude.” In that poem he also advises his brother to understand and have “respect for the ignorance and less knowledgeable.” As he speaks to these heartfelt, spiritually-based themes, he emphasizes the notion that a positive, faith-engaging attitude—along with compassion, understanding, and tolerance—can comfort, teach, and unify us all.

While his poetic beats of prose and rhyming could flow a bit smoother at times, the content is full of wisdom and deals with past and contemporary civil rights issues.

His most profound writings address the sentiments, concerns, challenges, and possible solutions for black men in America and the world. In poems such as “Black Butterfly,” “The Black Man,” “The Quest of Black History,” and “King Greeting Card,” he writes with a compassionate tone that promotes equality and understanding. His voice is that of a spiritual healer and unifying force—a peacemaker—and one who would act as a catalyst for those struggling toward a healthier self-worth, optimal potential, and a fairer, loving, brighter world. His writing expresses the confidence that it is all possible.

His positivity is on display throughout the book. In his poem “The Strength,” he writes: “Power will always live throughout the human race, so let’s put it to use and pray for grace.” In another spot, he again stresses that positive momentum: “The force is among us; it is we that must bring it forth.”

The author, like Dr. King, wants our most honorable ideals to thrive. “In the end, we all know that the King Dream will always ring, for the light is forever shining.” All of us who dream truly hope that writers like Ware can make a difference toward creating a fair, equally-treated, and peaceful world.



Book Review: Secret Chicago

Secret Chicago: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and ObscureJessica Mlinaric. St. Louis: Reedy Press, April 1, 2018, Trade Paperback, 216 pages. 

Reviewed by Greg Borzo.

Recently I was asked to give a talk at the Chicago Cigar Society. Huh? What’s that and where could such a group possibly gather in public? 

About the same time, I fortuitously came across a copy of Secret Chicago: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, by Jessica Mlinaric. Right there, on page 182, was the answer to some of my questions. Iwan Ries, a tobacco company at 19 S. Wabash Avenue, operates the Loop’s only smoking lounge, grandfathered in because the business was founded in 1857. That makes Iwan Ries America’s oldest family-owned tobacco shop! The lounge has three beautiful rooms lined with carved, wooden paneling and filled with leather chairs scattered around under sparkling chandeliers. And it’s located in Louis Sullivan’s oldest surviving building.

These are the kinds of things you’ll discover as you read about the unusual, yet fascinating, places that Jessica Mlinaric profiles in her intriguing new book. 

This extremely readable book will introduce you to turtle races in a bar called Big Joes; trapeze lessons at Aloft Circus Arts in a former evangelical church; an iconic, 14-foot-tall, bespeckled Indian sculpture that advertises, of all things, an eye clinic; and Plant Chicago, a “vertical farm” focused on energy conservation and the constructive reuse of waste products. This nonprofit is home to sixteen (and counting) sustainable food production businesses, including a brewery—if we can include beer as food. 

Even if you think you know Chicago well and are familiar with some of its out-of-the-way haunts, you would be surprised to learn from this book about many more hidden gems, quirky attractions, and lonely landmarks that have stayed below the radar—until now. You may have heard of Dunning, the long-shuttered Cook County insane asylum on the northwest side, but did you know that 38,000 unnamed souls remained buried on the former grounds? You may have walked down the wooden-block alley behind the Archbishop’s Residence on State Parkway, but did you know that in 1891, a full 62 percent of Chicago’s 774 miles were similarly paved with wood? You’ve heard that Mies van der Rohe designed much of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s campus, but did you know that IIT’s Ed Glancy Field was used to train Michael Jordan, Madonna, Tom Hanks and other famous people to play baseball? 

Ever since moving to Chicago from Cleveland eight years ago, Mlinaric has been captivated by the amusing, offbeat, perplexing, and even cheeky things she encountered while walking and biking around the Windy City. Her curiosity led her to start listing these oddities, with the intent of investigating and writing about them later for her blog and freelance articles, which have appeared in the Chicagoistand other publications. 

“I expected to just check things off my list, but the list kept growing and I kept modifying it,” she said in an interview. “I would add new things that friends would mention and drop other things that turned out to be less interesting or inaccessible to the public.” 

Yes, Mlinaric is still keeping that list, and we hope it will lead to another book, since this, her first book, is clear, concise, and engaging. In addition, she shot the photographs, including sixteen color photos in the middle of the book, all of which help to illuminate the often-mysterious subject matter.  

True to the spirit of her book, Mlinaric will launch her new book on May 6, 2018, from 2-5 pm at The Drifter, one of the sites she profiled in Secret Chicago. This hideaway is in the basement of The Green Door Tavern, which was a speakeasy during Prohibition. If you attend, you’ll surely learn the meaning of the tavern’s name. But don’t worry if you feel a little disoriented by the way the building leans, “a tilt that’s been disorienting drinkers for nearly 150 years,” Mlinaric wrote. “Just select a cocktail from the list printed on tarot cards and enjoy the night’s entertainment.” On the night of the book launch, that may or may not include The Drifter’s usual offering of burlesque, magic and sword swallowing.



Book Review: They Called Me Margaret

They Called Me Margaret. Florence Osmund. Self-published, January 31, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 262 pages.

Reviewed by Hallie Koontz.

They Called Me Margaret by Florence Osmund has a plot fit for its mystery writer protagonist: with a neighbor suffering amnesia after a mysterious accident, a husband who acts more suspicious with each passing day, a wayward daughter returning home with a secret, and the imminent launch of a bookstore, Margaret has a lot on her plate—and so does the reader. 

Margaret—known, to her chagrin, as Mags, Maggie, and Madge throughout the book—and her husband, Carl, have just arrived in Lake Beulah, Wisconsin for the summer when their neighbor, Lance, goes missing. He is found in the woods having no recollection of the incident, and, although we have been told that Margaret’s suspicions have been aroused by Carl’s recent behavior before we see it ourselves, this is arguably when the plot threads start being dropped. 

Although the plot threads are all interesting and have a unique effect on Margaret’s life, they start to feel like dead weight after a while. Osmund does a good job of introducing each new thread at key moments, but since these different problems are not forced to interact in interesting, effective ways, the momentum is lost and previous threads that have already been established seem to stop mattering. Margaret comments several times on the strange behaviors exhibited by the other characters, but never seems to want to investigate past her initial observations, which seems a strange choice for a book that markets a mystery—the protagonist’s husband acting similarly to her own book characters—as one of its main plot threads. 

As a slice of life novel, They Called Me Margaret holds up better. There are goals Margaret wants to accomplish that the reader is invested in, and the interpersonal relationships and backstories all have weight to Margaret. But at times it can feel like everyone is against her in a way that frustrates more than causes interesting conflict. The characters can be needlessly argumentative and even ignorant of what Margaret sees as the underlying problem. These communication failures could be their own issue but are not used in a constructive way, and so the original problems continue for longer than they need to, causing conversations to be repeated and the resolutions to be ultimately disappointing. This issue is almost tackled when Margaret faces a health issue later on, but the implication that she was contributing just as much to the earlier problems doesn’t quite ring true. 

Still, They Called Me Margaret comes together for a heartwarming ending. By the time all of the plot threads wrap up, the reader has been through quite a journey with Margaret, and the book does have a wonderful ending line. They Called Me Margaret may fall a little short for readers expecting more mysteries and nuance, but for those wanting a slice of life with vivid characters, it’s worth the read. 



Book Review: Under the Birch Tree

Under the Birch Tree: A Memoir of Discovering Connections and Finding Home. Nancy Chadwick. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, June 19, 2018, Trade Paperback, 243 pages. 

Reviewed by Susan Fox.

The word journeymost commonly implies a destination. To “take a journey” evokes a sense of distance, of miles traveled. Some might describe a journey as a movement, as in the passage from childhood to adulthood, or from a state of confusion to making sense of things. Some journeys have a circumspect goal: graduating from college, finding a job. Some are a movement away from a painful past. 

An inner journey does not cover physical distance, nor does it have a preconceived goal. But the journey to “Know Thyself,” as Socrates observed, may be the most important expedition any of us embark upon.

Such is the journey undertaken by Nancy Chadwick in her memoir, Under the Birch Tree. The story begins as a little girl grows up in a suburb of Chicago. Her life is ordered, almost to the point of perfection. She revels in a perfectly decorated bedroom, plays on a manicured lawn, and attends a private school. The perfection tarnishes, however, with a mother who is needy and insecure, and a father who is distant and unaffectionate. As her family becomes increasingly dysfunctional, the author feels drawn to a grouping of birch trees in the corner of the yard. She feels connected to them, to their beauty and grace, but most of all to the fact that they are rooted—planted in this place she calls home. 

When her parents ultimately divorce, Ms. Chadwick moves away from the only home she has ever known. She misses the birch trees—the silver peeling bark, the shade in summer, and the branches overhead. She misses the sense of place they gave her, the security she felt under their rustling leaves. She wonders how she will ever return to that place of belonging, and so her journey begins.

She wobbles through a new high school with little support from her family. Her father remarries, and her mother becomes even more distant and self-absorbed. There are times the author feels she is the caregiver for her mother and so misses out on many of the usual high school activities, adding to her sense of isolation. She finds her way more solidly in college at Marquette University. She is on her own now, and majors in Journalism. She makes friends and finally begins to feel that she is a part of the world around her. Just when she is comfortable with herself, however, she faces graduation and the prospect of finding a job. Daunted, she seems to be starting all over again.

Her journey continues from Chicago to San Francisco, through relationships, job changes, and new apartments. She learns to be alone but not lonely; that it’s not selfish to take care of herself, and that she cannot be responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Each time she comes across a birch tree, she is reminded that even though she is uprooted, she has completed the most significant passage of all: the journey of self-discovery.