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Thursday
Jan032019

Book Review: Pushing the River

Pushing the RiverBarbara Monier. Northfield, IL: Amika Press, August 3, 2018. Trade Paperback and E-book, 249 pages. 

Reviewed by Caryl Barnes.

Pushing the River is Barbara Monier’s well-received third novel. It reflects Monier’s continuing interest in how families, particularly mothers, react to change. The story focuses on Madeline, a woman living alone in a large house, empty since her children left home and a traumatic divorce. For various reasons, six family and non-family members, including Dan, a new lover, move into her house for stays of varying lengths. Living again in a full house delights Madeline but also alarms her. As she says in the opening sentence, “I have lived in the company of ghosts.” Madeline’s ghosts had been well-behaved; even the ghost of her traitorous husband existed in a cozy, head-of-the-household space in her hazy, timeless, dream family.

Ghosts should stay in the past, not burst forth into the present. A mixed-bag of people crowd into Madeline’s nine-room house: her medical school daughter, Kate; her son, John and his dog; her daughter-in-law, Clare; Clare’s fifteen-year-old pregnant sister, Savannah; Clare and Savannah’s mentally ill mother, Billie; and Dan, the new lover. All bring their own histories, emotions, and problems, and Madeline tries to understand each person and care for all. As one Amazon reader put it, the book “illuminates that tricky place so many of us live in, the interactions where our desire to remain rooted in the past collides with the need to move forward into the unforeseeable future.”

The book is well written in a straightforward style, and the characters are complex and interesting both as individuals and through their interactions. Kate hates Dan on sight, Dan can’t stand Madeline paying attention to anyone but him, and Billie and her two daughters erratically buzz around each other. Dan leaves in petty fury, but in the end, the other characters are more closely connected in love than they were at the beginning.

There is one scene in the book that affected me, a non-mother, powerfully. Savannah does not understand how to nurse her newborn son, Dylan, so Madeline shows her. I had been curious about this myself although I assumed it somehow just came naturally. There is much to it, I learned, and enjoyed the bond Madeline created with Savannah and the baby and how she helped Savannah create a bond with her own son.

As I read the book, I puzzled over the meaning of the title. I didn’t see how Madeline or any other character “pushed the river.” I saw the people struggling to keep afloat, not trying to rebel or strike back at fate. At the end of the story, however, I understood: the point of the title is that you can’t push the river! Madeline, sitting contentedly alone with Dylan on Christmas Day while the others have escaped to a movie, murmurs to the baby. “It turns out I can’t really push the river; I can’t make it go in a different direction than it’s going to go. I have no idea what crazy twists and turns your life may take. All I know is that you’re here and that matters. All I have to offer, all I’ve ever had to offer, is love. My messy, flawed, crazy-ass love. I will do the best I can. I will.”

 

Sunday
Dec302018

Book Review: Lost Restaurants of Chicago

Lost Restaurants of Chicago. Greg Borzo. The History Press, December 3, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 224 pages.

Reviewed by Stephanie Wilson Medlock.

It may not surprise anyone that so many of life’s important moments take place in restaurants. Perhaps especially in earlier decades, when Americans did not eat out as much as they do now, a restaurant was often selected for the proposal dinner, the graduation celebration, the luncheon after the funeral, the Easter brunch, or the Mother’s Day family reunion. Restaurants represented occasions we all remember, and we particularly remember the restaurants where they took place.

Lost Restaurants of Chicago will evoke that feeling of nostalgia and memory in anyone who has lived a couple of decades in that city, long enough to have enjoyed and then lost a cherished eatery. 

But Lost Restaurants of Chicago is much more than a list of restaurants by category that have disappeared. It represents a cultural history of Chicago from a gastronomic point of view, from wonderful details about the first taverns and inns that provided probably awful grub to travelers in 1838, to descriptions of the influx of various immigrant groups who brought their own cuisines with them and opened the restaurants that honored their heritage. Packed with wonderful photographs of these lost eateries and written in Borzo’s signature energetic style, the book examines restaurants that lasted a century, as well as those that disappeared after only a few seasons.

For example, according to Borzo, the city’s first luxury hotel, the Lake House, opened in 1835, and with it came the first restaurant with white tablecloths and fine food, including oysters transported “from New England by sleigh.” 

The development of the railroad, and later public transportation, was key to the growth of Chicago eateries. Around 1875, The Harvey House Restaurant opened at Union Station catering to travelers. It was the nation’s first chain restaurant, eventually operating at eighty train stations around the country.

As more men and women worked farther from their homes, because they could take buses or trains to commute, Chicagoans began to eat their midday meal in restaurants, rather than returning home. Coffee shops, lunchrooms, and sandwich shops all emerged to provide quick lunches at affordable prices. Thompson’s Cafeteria, for example, opened in 1891 on State Street and soon added other locations. It is credited with developing the “cafeteria line” concept to speed up the service of lunch to workers with limited time.

Lost Restaurants of Chicago describes how restaurants reflected the gradual emancipation of women (who were not at first allowed in taverns or saloons, or welcomed in even fine dining establishments unless accompanied by a man), the Civil Rights movement where black-owned restaurants became centers for political rallying, and even the impact on restaurants of the early years of commercial airline travel. Imagine the mid-1950s at Midway Airport, where The Cloud Room on the second floor and the Blue and Gold Café on the first served food with spectacular views of the runway. Few would pay for that privilege today.

Borzo divides the book into sections devoted to the early history of Chicago restaurants, the development of fine dining, strange and unusual restaurants, and then examines the ethnic restaurants as they emerged onto the scene. Of course, he also features delis, diners, and hot dog stands, and, finally, memorable restaurant entrepreneurs.

The section in which he profiles dining establishments whose cuisine, flamboyant owners, or other interesting attributes made them memorable for a time, is particularly entertaining. Most eccentric in that list was Flo’s Restaurant and Cocktail Parlor, which in the 1960s and ‘70s featured a trapeze artist who performed out of doors in front of the building at 17 W. Randolph Street. 

In its French food section, Lost Restaurants describes the Chicago obsession with French food, once considered the highest of all cuisines. Of the restaurants profiled, Jacques, a French eatery at 900 North Michigan that featured a lovely faux garden at its center with a retractable glass roof, was a memorable establishment for this reviewer. On a special date in 1967 while still a teenager, I went to Jacques with my boyfriend, and we ordered crab crepes and a bottle of wine. The bill for the two of us came to fifteen dollars. We nearly passed out at the expense of it!

This book will no doubt evoke similar memories in any Chicagoan who is over forty. It is an ideal gift for the local resident of a certain age, and anyone who enjoys examining how changes in cultural attitudes affect the way we eat out.

 

Monday
Dec172018

Book Review: The Truth Behind the Lies

The Truth Behind the Lies. Chrishana Greer and Brooklyn Davis. Self-Published, June 9, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 80 pages. 

Reviewed by Kandice Cole.

The Truth Behind the Lies, by Chrishana Greer and Brooklyn Davis, is a realistic novel that follows the life of Ebony Harris, an African American college student born and raised in Chicago. Ebony is an ambitious young woman determined to create a better life for herself. She decides to attend college in Atlanta, leaving her on-again, off-again boyfriend Juelz back home. Ebony eventually returns to Chicago for summer break and finds that things are not quite the same between her and Juelz. She decides to start dating someone new, named KJ, who gives her the attention and affection she deserves. Unfortunately, things don’t last long between Ebony and KJ, and Ebony attempts to rekindle her relationship with Juelz. An unexpected chain of events changes Ebony’s life forever and she is forced to come to terms with her complicated and often unhealthy relationships. Eventually, Ebony realizes the love she desires from Juelz and KJ is the love she actually needs to give herself.

This book is a gritty and authentic coming-of-age tale. The author dives deep into the mind of a young woman trying to figure out what love really means. Throughout the book, the author shows Ebony as strong, yet vulnerable. Though Ebony has a confident façade, she struggles internally to realize her worth. The reader is invited into Ebony’s stream of consciousness as the story unfolds, making the plot line believable.

The author doesn’t shy away from themes of domestic abuse, violence, and online bullying. The story is a roller-coaster ride of events, with Ebony literally fighting for her life. It offers a glimpse into how relationships can go from great to horrible in very little time and how difficult it is to get out of relationships that are not

If you are fan of urban fiction and dramatic plots, I recommend picking up this quick read.

 

Monday
Dec172018

Book Review: Meow Mayhem

Meow Mayhem. Lisa Lickel. Prism Books, an imprint of Pelican Ventures LLC, January 25, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 256 pages.

Reviewed by Sue Merrell.

If you like your mysteries nice and cozy, curled up and quiet like a sleeping cat on your lap, then you may enjoy Meow Mayhem, the first book in a new series by Lisa Lickel. 

Of course, as any cat owner knows, a purring feline can disguise sharp claws and a lightning-fast pounce. It’s knowing that the power is there, but controlled, that makes a sleeping cat so beguiling. 

Meow Mayhem unfolds in Apple Grove, Illinois, a sleepy little town about two hours from Chicago. We soon learn there’s more than church gossip and city council complaints percolating in this little burg. 

The heroine, Ivy, has recently moved her tech business there from the Chicago suburbs after breaking up with her fiancée. She makes friends with Adam, who has opened a branch of his Chicago-area coffee shops in Apple Grove. Both have been lured to the little town by development grants promised by Mayor Donald Conklin. 

The mayor is missing and soon found dead, though the cause is a bit mysterious. While the mayhem that ensues is mostly little stuff—a pickpocket, a smoke bomb, arson—the underlying motives are big bucks and corruption. Ivy’s mother, who teaches criminology at a junior college, comes to visit and assigns several students to investigate the mayor’s death as a class project. This is a handy device that reveals all sorts of comments, clues, and town secrets.

The three main characters—Ivy, Adam, and Donald—each own a Mau cat, a rare spotted domestic breed that comes from Egypt. This is a delightful detail for a cat fancier like myself, but I hoped to learn more about the cat personalities and behaviors. The felines make only minor appearances, at least until late in the book, where they are featured more prominently.

The publisher, Prism, is an imprint of the Pelican Book Group, a Christian publisher that wants to “entertain readers with fiction that uplifts the gospel.” Ivy and her friends are people of faith who pray when they face problems and make room in their schedules for regular Sunday worship and bible study groups. They discuss ethical concerns effectively without getting preachy.

The growing romance between Adam and Ivy is sidetracked by a mysterious secret admirer, which actually becomes a viable alternative. As you might expect, the tale has a happy ending, but the resulting relationship seemed to lack good communication and mutual respect.

In Meow Mayhem, author Lisa Lickel has established some strong main characters surrounded by a likable supporting cast that could well figure into a series of mysteries in Apple Grove.

 

Friday
Nov162018

Book Review: The Pear Tree

The Pear Tree. Karen M Sandrick. Self-Published, August 29, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 355 pages.

Reviewed by Wayne Turmel.

The Pear Tree is a poignant, well-written, and extensively researched look at the events surrounding the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and its lingering, horrible aftershocks on the people of a small village. Sandrick has taken several stories and woven them into a picture of what happens in wartime and the ripples long after the shooting stops.

When the local Nazi commander is assassinated (it’s the same event as the 2017 movie Anthropoid), blame falls on residents of the village of Lidice. Every man in the village is executed, and the women and children either killed, sent to internment camps, or shipped off to Germany for relocation with “true German” families. The village itself is razed to the ground, wiping out its very existence. Families are torn apart, lives forever ruined, and villagers turn on each other in a desperate bid to survive.

The book follows several interwoven stories that give a sense of the paranoia, fear, hopelessness, and small sprigs of hope that emerge from the tragic events and their aftermath. Sandrick does a terrific job of creating a sense of what’s happening in the village of Lidice as fear takes hold, families bicker and betray each other, and people do what they believe is necessary to survive. The effects of propaganda, rampant nationalism, organized brutality, and denial are well played out and very credible. The parallels to today’s world are evident. Particularly chilling is the often-repeated line, “What do we have to worry about? It’s not like we’re Jews.”

Most stories of internment camps and Nazi atrocities are centered on the Holocaust and the experience of Jewish Europeans. Many modern readers will find this tale more chilling because it deals with “regular” Czechs—people who thought themselves safe from the chaos and violence impacting the more obvious, easily targeted, victims.

Sandrick creates wonderful characters and tells a believable story well worth reading. I highly recommend The Pear Treefor readers of historical fiction.

 

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