Archives for category: Book Briefs

The voice of Lizzie McMann, the 12-year old narrating Bonnie Shimko’s Letters In The Attic, will live in your head after you finish the book. Blunt, funny, and endearing, Lizzie’s at a turning point when the book begins. It’s the early 60s. Lizzie’s mother’s long-term boyfriend (and her alleged father) bring home a floozy, and Lizzie and her mother Veronica face being evicted from the sleazy motel that is the only home Lizzie knows. Luckily, they can fall back on Veronica’s childhood home of Ridgewood, New York, the small-town paradise she ran away from for love. And love finds them both when they return: for Veronica in the shape of Lizzie’s gentlemanly seventh-grade teacher, and for Lizzie, in the unlikely shape of a Natalie Wood look-alike. Eva Singer is Jewish, dyslexic, and a year older than Lizzie.

This book is billed as a teen lesbian romance in the tradition of Annie on My Mind. I’d say it’s so much more than that. For starters, the lesbian content is surprisingly slight, but handled so that it doesn’t overwhelm the book’s larger themes of forgiveness and weathering life’s storms and disappointments. The twists and turns and introductions of new plot points feel surprisingly natural and patterned after what real life is often like: running into old friends, scandals, and heartbreak. Yet despite the sheer amount of dark situations the book packs in, it never feels like a soap opera. All the characters have engaging little quirks, such as Veronica’s striving naiveté (she goes so far as to fabricate loving birthday cards from her lowdown ex) and her conviction that her teenage years as a prize piano pupil are worth something in the working world. Eva’s Natalie Wood circa Rebel Without A Cause dialogue hides her bruised psyche. By book’s end, you feel a real affection for Ridgewood and its plucky inhabitants.

But it’s Lizzie who will steal your heart. She constantly drops gems of inner thought. Here’s what she has to say about how she talks to her mother:

“ ‘Oh, okay’. I hear myself say in a tape-recorder voice—like when you hear yourself for the first time and you don’t believe it’s you because you couldn’t possibly sound like that much of a dope.”

Honesty like that plus a genuine good nature makes this girl one heck of a catch. It’s never clear if Eva reciprocates Lizzie’s love, but if she lets her go, I’d be next in line to date her.~Liz


Most eight-year-old children play games of pretend, games in which they imagine themselves hiding from a “monster” who is after them, fantasizing about undergoing journeys across raging rivers or snow-covered mountains to outwit this evil presence that seeks them. For young Julian Padowicz, these types of adventures were no game of make-believe –instead, they are very real memories of a childhood spent eluding the Nazis during WWII. Loves of Yulian, the final book in a three-part series by Padowicz, recounts his incredible experiences fleeing Nazi-occupied Poland with his beautiful socialite mother, who sells her jewelry, including her engagement ring, to finance their escape.

In a journey that takes him from Poland to Hungary to Rio de Janeiro and, finally, to New York, we see Yulian as a child struggling to establish an identity during a time of intense upheaval and confusion. Raised by a Catholic nanny, Padowicz writes about being unsure where the “good Jews,” like his late father, went after they passed away. In his child’s mind, he strives to grasp the concept taught by his nanny that “bad Jews,” like “bad Catholics,” go to Hell, but there is no place in Heaven for the “good Jews.”  Still possessing the innocence of childhood despite the harrows he was subjected to, Yulian grapples with, and to some extent, resolves, this sense of confusion, of alienation and non-belonging, with the guidance of a respected Polish poet and from the companionship of his (Yulian’s) own stuffed animal. As the story progresses, the young Padowicz abandons the pretense of Catholicism he was forced to adopt under the Nazis, and embraces with increasing pride his identity as a Jew.

Additionally, Padowicz writes with sensitivity and nuance about his mother Barbara, an excellent writer herself whose book Flight To Freedom would be published in 1942, the first of the WWII escape stories. Fiercely committed to ensuring her and her son’s safety, Barbara uses her cunning and resourceful nature to pull off an escape many were unable to. She is a character rife with duality- at once a pillar of steely strength and resolve, yet also surprisingly dependent. As she begins a loving but ill-suited relationship with a man in Brazil, we see Padowicz’s yearning for a father figure, his strong and understandable desire for guidance and consistency in his young, uprooted life. He depicts the struggles he went through to “fit in,” his ongoing battle against the stuttering that hampered his ability to communicate his thoughts and emotions to others, and his all-consuming love for an older fellow refugee named Irenka.

Loves of Yulian shows a young boy thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and how he copes with the resulting backlash of these events is the crux of the story. The specter of the Holocaust is constantly in the background — as Yulian grows and evolves out of the trauma, so too does the world around him try to contain, and ultimately, recover from the horror. ~Nicola

The life of a writer has always been romanticized. We tend to think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in bars, not bent over a typewriter. Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day, and strained and struggled over those words, but he often did it on a yacht. That was the life of a certain type of manly author, who were, of course, men.

Dorothy Parker could have kept up with the men in the bars, as could Patricia Highsmith. Virginia Woolf divided her time between writing book reviews, essays, and novels that changed the way novels were written. All three women were incredibly prolific: two had unhappy, childless marriages, and one was a serial womanizer.

The women writers who had children in those days were, oddly, mass-market paperback types: Agatha Christie still tried to dote on her daughter Rosalind in between pounding out her whodunits. Mary Higgins Clark had a rule for her boys that I’d think about adopting if I had kids: don’t interrupt me unless there’s fire or blood.

Having children and great literary success is no longer mutually exclusive: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Joan Didion all had children, though they kept it to one girl. They were the first of generations of women writers who felt like they could do anything, and did. Until recently, I’m not sure anyone had thought about a woman writer’s balance between work and family for a long time. Among my older female writer friends, I know equal numbers of parents and non-parents. While many of my writing galpals are still young, their desire for kids seems to be more dictated by their personalities rather than their professional goals. But after Amanda Craig wrote a piece about how the late Maeve Binchy’s writing would have been different had Binchy had children, all hell broke loose.

Craig’s error, to me, is that she implied Binchy’s writing would have improved with a few kids. That’s silly. That’s like saying that Flaubert’s Bovary isn’t a masterpiece because he didn’t have Emma’s anatomy. You can write what you know, and doubtless your knowledge strengthens your writing, and you can also write what you don’t know and still do just fine. But Craig does raise the same point that Anne Marie Slaughter raised in a more general professional capacity in an article in the Atlantic: that women still don’t have it all. Neither extreme, the well-balanced life, or the archaic choice between family and work, holds true for the modern women: extremes rarely hold true for anyone.

There still aren’t many high-ranking, powerful women in the professional world.  Much like women supposedly go into English and History because they don’t like science and math, many assume women choose less structured, demanding jobs because of the demands of family. What I would resent most is if anyone assumed that writing was a better way to balance work and family life than a foreign policy career. Both Craig and Slaughter cite cases of women rising at ungodly hours of the morning to work, but ask yourself: did P.D James have an uncomplicated job?

We no longer picture hard-partying, glamorous writers. The bar has been replaced by Starbucks, the typewriter with a MacBook. Other than fickle vagaries of temperament that require coffee and ambient noise, writing seems like a job you could do from home, with a batch of cookies in the oven, and children piling blocks on top of blocks (or waving around Wii controllers) in the living room. But even though I have no children, and don’t know if I’d want to, trust me on this: it won’t be any easier to write a novel with kids in the living room. And they won’t make your writing better, either.~Liz

Ron Tanner’s memoir is a story of his quest to buy, own, and restore an old Queen Anne house in near ruin, live with and marry his girlfriend, and accomplish something big in his life. 4,500-square-feet big.

After buying an old brownstone house in Baltimore that was in total disrepair after a fraternity had once inhabited it, Ron Tanner and his girlfriend Jill worked on turning it from a condemned property to the home of their dreams. While everybody thought that they were nuts and fated to fail, they worked endlessly—sometimes together, sometimes independently, and sometimes against each other—on the impossible task of re-establishing a safe and livable environment for themselves. With great and often naïve optimism, and “failure is not an option” as the only rule, Tanner embarks on the biggest project and headache of his life. He must find his way out of not only the never-ending dangers of having to repair everything from the ground up, but also his old habits of stubborn independence and perfectionism. The restoration of the house clearly parallels the restoration of Tanner’s life and relationships.

From Animal House to Our House takes a thoughtful approach in how it conveys the pitfalls of today’s desire to buy what we can’t afford, and the trend of attaining before earning. But what is perhaps most refreshing and enjoyable about the book is the author’s upfront honesty throughout; A modern story of the American Dream, Tanner portrays himself as much as a crazy dreamer as an ambitious and driven individual reaching for eventual success. He captures the feelings and reasons behind his constant need to work on the impossible rehab project when he admits that, “It was pride and desperation and obsession and superstition and blind fear all balled into one overwhelming sense of dread.” This is a must-read for anyone who likes or is about to begin a renovation project—or for anyone who has ever had a crazy dream that they just couldn’t let go. ~Rachel

There are very few books, let alone nonfiction ones, that make me shake with rage as I read them. It’s not at David Ansell, the author of County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital. In fact, for a medical doctor who presumably hadn’t written much before, he has a natural grasp of detail and scene. And it’s those descriptions that have me upset. County starts off with something you’d never find in a private hospital: two busy doctors diving over the top of a filthy bathroom stall only to discover the patient they thought was in the throes of a seizure is just homeless and combative. There are rows of beds full of sick patients calling for nurses. Machines that don’t work and politicians that don’t care. A community dying, literally, for a broken healthcare system to be fixed.

County is Ansell’s first-hand account of Cook County Public Hospital from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Now the Chief Medical Officer at Rush’s Medical Center, after hearing about the troubled county hospital in medical school, the idealist and iconoclast from childhood made Cook County his only choice for an internship. His commitment never lessened. Whether he’s discussing the rookie shortcuts and mistakes he and his unsupervised colleagues made, the protests they later led for better care and patient conditions, or programs they started—the Breast Cancer Screening and Sable-Sherer HIV/AIDS Clinics among them—Ansell’s dedication to his profession and former workplace leak through every chapter. He’s at his most moving when he talks about his patients: the woman whose blood pressure never went down after her grandchildren were killed on their front porch, the throngs who wait patiently for hours to see “the best doctors” (who really are the only doctors who’ll see the poor and uninsured), the woman who asked to see his newborn son before she died.

Part memoir, part history book, part call to arms, County is a quick, gripping read. Yet its impact lingers on the reader as much as the hospital itself lingered on Ansell. My train home goes by old County’s neighborhood, and I find myself craning my neck to find the crumbling façade of this place where so many lives were saved, lost, or thrown off course. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Ansell’s book will help us remember not just what was, (and Chicago public health care hasn’t changed too much since County’s time) but what can change with the help of passion and devotion such as his.~Liz

Each Tuesday we’ll be posting a review about one of Academy Chicago’s recently published books! This one is for a novel by Tony Ardizzone, called The Whale Chaser:

Tony Ardizzone’s, The Whale Chaser, is many things—a coming-of-age novel one of them. Ardizzone’s novel navigates falling in love, sex, and growing up in the tumultuous 1960s of Chicago through the perspective of protagonist and narrator Vince Sansone. Told in a most straightforward manner, this story shows the hard realities of growing up and trying to be the person others expect. As one of the girls Vince Sansone encounters, Harmony, says: “What we do to kids as they get older simply reduces them, you know, bit by bit by bit, wearing them down like a lead pencil pushed into one of those metal sharpeners hanging on a classroom wall.”

What sets apart Vince is his quiet care about doing what is right, in the midst of those who don’t and within an era that values what is detached and carefree. Yet he cannot help but find himself making mistakes, getting hurt and hurting the ones he loves. With a compulsion to keep order in an incontrollable world ruled by chaos, Vince is haunted by his history and mistakes. With a deep desire to protect whatever feels pure, he grows more and more cynical with each experienced loss and begins to believe that “The world never leaves a new place alone… Once a new place is discovered, it’s ruined.” Vince Sansone’s journey is one of self-redemption, moving away from his past in search of a place that makes some kind of orderly sense.

Ardizzone not only knows how to write a breath-taking sentence, he also understands people; the complexities of love and sex are not skimmed over for the sake of a tidy picture of a beautiful sunset, but are presented in the most bare way– letting the reader explore each character and what their loyalties or betrayals say about them and humanity. Heartbreaking yet compassionate, his novel takes the reader on a journey toward acceptance and the rightness of the natural universe. The Whale Chaser encompasses but ultimately transcends a coming-of-age novel, a love story, and 1960s period fiction in its exploration of the human experience, of fate and free will, of learning when to let go.~Rachel