Monthly Archives: July 2014

Local Author Spotlight: Rebecca Makkai Has ‘Chicago’ Written All Over Her

CBR_Logo2“We’ve been blessed with some crappy weather, which is really nice.”

For a writer who counts among her greatest fears giving a reading to which only one person—her ex—shows up, it turns out that crappy weather is a blessing in disguise.

About the East Coast events during her current book tour, author Rebecca Makkai says that, “They’re going really well. Most of them have been kind of extraordinary turnouts. You never know what kind of turnout you’re going to get in the summer. If it’s really nice, no one comes because it’s summer.”

100yrhouse1Makkai is spending much of this summer promoting her latest novel, The Hundred-Year House. From Maine, New York, and Vermont to Arkansas, Colorado, and Minnesota, Makkai will be greeting readers and fans across the country. Of course, she’ll also be making a number of stops in Chicagoland, which she calls home.

The Hundred-Year House hit bookstore shelves earlier this month, to rave reviews. The novel centers around a couple living in a hundred-year-old estate north of Chicago, a house which once served as an artists’ colony. The story travels among 1929, 1955, and 1999 as the history—and mystery—of the house and its inhabitants unfolds. Early praise for the book describes Makkai’s writing with myriad positive terms, among them “expert,” “clever,” “lyrical,” “hilarious,” “heartbreaking,” “absorbing,” “spirited,” and “delicious.”

This effusive acclaim comes on the heels of the glowing reviews for Makkai’s debut novel, The Borrower (Viking, 2011), which Wendy Smith in the Chicago Tribune praised, noting that “Makkai’s probing novel reminds us that literature matters because it helps us discover ourselves while exploring the worlds of others.”

Author Rebecca Makkai

Author Rebecca Makkai (Photo by Phillipe Matsas, Opale)

Makkai herself has been exploring some new worlds: The publication of her novels has opened to her the world of publishing. And, although publishing her first novel left Makkai thrilled but terrified—a new experience that thrust her into the world of writers and editors and publishers and booksellers—the publication of her sophomore effort has left her thrilled and relatively relaxed. Relatively.

“This time I’ve had a better idea of what to expect, and I enjoy it. I can revel in this moment,” she says. “Everything’s been very exciting.”

Part of that ability to revel in the moment might well come from Makkai’s conviction that The Hundred-Year House is a stronger story than The Borrower—which was almost universally praised. But even so, Makki seems more confident about her second offering. “I really strongly believe that this is a better book than my first one,” Makkai says. “It’s a richer, more ambitious book.”

That doesn’t mean that there’s no pressure, however, with this sophomore effort. Expectations are a little higher. The measuring stick is a little taller. The fan base is a little bigger. But all of that has added up to something wonderful. “The really amazing thing about the second book is that people are looking for it,” Makkai says, a tinge of awe in her voice. “With this book, there were a lot of people who were looking forward to it, who asked me when it was coming out.”

borrower2Although she might have had a smaller fan base and she might have been something of a publishing outsider before the publication of The Borrower, Makkai is now in the thick of this new world with legions of fans and followers, reviewers and critics. And she didn’t even have to leave town to get there.

A Chicagoland girl born and bred, Makkai has spent most of her 36 years in the city’s suburbs, in Edgewater, and in the city proper. Her upbringing and her experiences here have shaped her work, and they play a big role in her latest novel. The Hundred-Year House, for example, not only is set in the area but “Chicago is very much a presence in it,” Makkai says, as is the culture of the North Shore, including its wealthy neighbors, its baronial estates, its coach houses, and its artists’ colonies.

Chicago has lent Makkai not only fodder for her novels but also a place to call home and a supportive community of cohorts and colleagues. “It’s an endless city,” she says. “But it’s small enough that there is cohesion in the literary community.”

That community is now one to which Makkai fully belongs. And it’s one that she’s liking quite a bit. “There’s something really cool about the way the Chicago press supports Chicago writers,” Makkai says. “I think there are enough major writers here, too, where people now see Chicago as a literary hot spot.”

Chicago is certainly a literary hot spot for Makkai. Not only does she live here, not only does she write here, not only are her books set here, but she also teaches here (at Lake Forest College and StoryStudio Chicago). And that’s not all: She promotes her books here, too; Makkai will be reading and signing and chatting about her books at a number of locations in the city and suburbs during the next several weeks. It’s something of a virtuous circle, and it’s one that Makkai is pretty pleased about.

“I really can’t see living anywhere else,” she says. “It’s a perfect place to be a writer.”

—Kelli Christiansen

Rebecca Makkai is the author of, most recently, The Hundred-Year House as well as the novel The Borrower. Her short fiction has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008; The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009; New Stories from the Midwest; and Best, American Fantasy.

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Decoding Hemingway

CBR_Logo2Influencing Hemingway:
People and Places That Shaped
His Life and Work
by Nancy W. Sindelar

Although it is a matter of debate whether Ernest Hemingway actually said of his hometown that Oak Park was a village of “broad lawns and narrow minds,” it is certain that growing up in the Chicago suburb influenced his life and his writing. This influence, as well as numerous others, is detailed in Nancy Sindelar’s well-researched biography of the award-winning writer, Influencing Hemingway: People and Places That Shaped His Life and Work.

hemingway-cover-200Sindelar, a board member of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, taught American Literature at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and her students encouraged her to research Hemingway’s school years and how life in Oak Park affected him. From Oak Park to Cuba and places in between, Sindelar studied Hemingway and his life, and, she writes, this book is “a modest attempt to document how Ernest Hemingway’s early years and the people and places Ernest was drawn to in his adult life contributed to his thoughts, actions, and writing.”

And so it goes that Sindelar’s take on Hemingway follows a chronological trajectory from his birth in July 1899 to his death by suicide in July 1961. From his parents, siblings, and uncles to his several wives to his many friends and colleagues, Sindelar chronicles the key people who populated his life. From a childhood spent in Oak Park and Walloon Lake, Michigan, to adult years in Kansas City, Paris, Pamplona, Havana, and Sun Valley, Sindelar traces Hemingway’s travels, showing how various places influenced his life, his perceptions, and his writing. And, from war to bull fights to safaris, Sindelar also examines the events that shaped his life.

As with any human, the people, places, and events that colored Hemingway’s life colored his work. None of us can escape the things around us, and the same is true of Hemingway. In this way, Sindelar’s short biography doesn’t pose a challenging hypothesis: Of course Hemingway was influenced by the people and places around him. But Influencing Hemingway does reveal in detail the myriad ways in which Hemingway learned from and was affected by those influences.

With a mixture of analysis and reportage, the book presents an objective examination of Hemingway’s life and times. Packed with quotes from Hemingway’s letters and writings and observances from those who shared his life, Influencing Hemingway reveals Hemingway’s affinities, aspirations, and anxieties. Several dozen photos illustrate the people and places that colored his life, providing readers with glimpses of the world in which he lived.

Sindelar has done a fine job of documenting the people and places that influenced Hemingway. As such, the book does exactly what it has promised in its title and subtitle. Much of the material in these pages likely will be new to readers, providing a fresh perspective on the life of a famous author about whom so much has been written.


Author Nancy W. Sindelar

Unfortunately, the text doesn’t always feel so fresh. In some ways, it seems as though Sindelar herself has taken a page out of Hemingway’s own style manual, writing with few adjectives and adverbs. As a result, the text feels somewhat humorless and colorless. With its somewhat flat tone, the book reads rather like an academic text, making the material something that may be of interest more to scholars and students than to general readers. (Scholars and students, however, may well be disappointed in the book’s anemic index, which fails to include key figures and places. Martha Gellhorn, for example, one of Hemingway’s wives, is not even listed.)

The book also suffers from repetition as the author reiterates certain facts numerous times. Readers are told again and again that Hemingway’s parents were significant influences on his life, his character, and his writing, and that they were critics of much of his work, which they viewed as not in keeping with his conservative, Christian upbringing. At least twice are readers informed that upon his death, some of Hemingway’s fishermen friends melted down their boat propellers and anchors to create a bronze bust in his memory. Readers also are told several times that, as a young reporter, Hemingway was required to follow the Star Copy Style Sheet at the Kansas City Star, which contained 110 rules that were the best he “ever learned for the business of writing.”

Similarly, readers are told more than a few times that, even at an early age, Hemingway expressed a certain courage and bravery toward life. Early on, readers learn that, in a response to his mother, Hemingway claimed that he was “’fraid a nothing!” Oddly, though, this quote then appears in different formats through the book, including “afraid of nothing” and “’fraid of nothing.” Similar inconsistencies in editing are littered throughout the text.

Stylistic and editorial issues aside, Influencing Hemingway nonetheless provides readers with an interesting take on the life of one of the world’s most famous—and among the most analyzed—writers. Fans of Hemingway will find the book of interest, as will those new to his work or interested in his life in general.

Two-Star Review

May 2014, Rowman & Littlefield
$35, hardcover, 187 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8108-9291-0

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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“For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning
where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.
He should always try for something that has never been done
or that others have tried and failed.
Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.”
—Ernest Hemingway, 1954


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A Novel Approach to Illinois Politics

CBR_Logo2O, Democracy!
A novel

by Kathleen Rooney

Chicagoan Kathleen Rooney is no stranger to either politics or publishing, and she launches an excellent one-two punch with her novel O, Democracy, a compelling story about a young politico in the midst of a quarter-life crisis.

In this emotionally impactful novel, Rooney has written about what she knows, and that insight shines brilliantly in these pages. A former staffer for Senator Dick Durbin, Rooney has expertly captured the inner workings of government, the wizardry behind the curtain, the stuff most of us are afraid to look too closely at: the glacial pace of change, the two-faced personas of glad-handing politicians, the overly idealistic young hopefuls who staff offices while jockeying for position as close to their favorite politician as possible. Indeed, the novel is autobiographical, and in crafting this story, Rooney clearly has drawn on her experience in Durbin’s office.

o democracy rooney coverRooney, who also is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, knows how to tell a good story. Her publishing acumen is evident in O, Democracy, which is tightly written in colorful detail rich with emotion. Indeed, the story rings true and feels authentic in just about every aspect.

O, Democracy traces the professional coming-of-age of Colleen Dugan, a twenty-something junior staffer who (like Rooney once did) works in the office of “the Senior Senator from Illinois.” Dugan works in the Senator’s press office, one of many young staffers who long to do something important with their lives. But, far removed from any position of power, Dugan finds herself driving all over Illinois advancing poorly attended media events, answering phone calls from obstinate constituents, writing first-draft press releases, and handling other menial tasks, much the same as the even younger interns in her office do, day in and day out. Making policy, setting strategy, driving political agendas—all of that is way above Dugan’s pay grade.

Set in 2008, when the “Junior Senator from Illinois” is running for President (Rooney never actually names either Barack Obama or Dick Durbin at any point in the novel, though their identities are very thinly veiled and therefor clearly recognizable), O, Democracy captures the “Yes We Can!” optimism that Dugan and her colleagues feel toward liberal politics in general as well as the individual professional angst that Dugan herself feels. And it is this paradox that largely provides the tension in the story.

Struggling to make herself recognized as a valuable asset in the office of the Senior Senator from Illinois while honoring the office and his position, Dugan finds herself in possession of information that might or might not advance the Senator’s election bid. What she does with that information will seal her fate.

At times funny, at times heartbreaking, O, Democracy captures the angst and antics of Dugan and her colleagues as they navigate the muddy waters of Illinois politics. Much of this angst is palpably cringe-worthy. Indeed, watching Dugan make false steps and missteps, her earnestness and eagerness overwhelming any sense of political savvy she might possess, is painful, like watching someone trip badly on the sidewalk, tumbling face-forward, knees and hands bloodied and bruised.

It is in capturing the behind-the-curtain reality of politics and in drawing Dugan as an imperfect, multi-faceted person that Rooney shines. Several other characters also are compelling in their authenticity, and these people come together to create a rich cast that drives the story forward.

Rooney does well weaving subplots into, through, and around the main storyline, creating a world that is easy for readers to identify with. In addition, with its insider view, O, Democracy feels somewhat voyeuristic, as though readers have been given a back-stage pass to Illinois politics. In this, Rooney has crafted a novel that is nearly a real page-turner.

Nearly. Rooney has a distinct, unique writing style. It is a style that readers will likely either love or hate. Her writing is peppered with oblique references to people, places, and things, many of which go unnamed. Instead, readers are left to puzzle out what or whom Rooney is referencing. For example, in describing one of the main characters, she writes that “Sometimes he gets taken for the mononymic lead singer of a reggae-inflected British rock trio popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s.” Music fans of a certain age may well know who this is supposed to reference; others, however, are left in the dark.

Similarly, Rooney later describes a selection of food at a picnic as “potato chips from a Chicago vendor whose mascot is a snackbag wearing sunglasses and playing a saxophone.” Locals and/or junkfood aficionados might get this reference, but others might not.

Such descriptions at first feel funny and clever, but soon begin to feel snarky and long-winded. What is the point of such obfuscation? Instead of saying “They pull up in front of the hotel where they always stay when they attend the [State] Fair, rising like an air traffic control tower above downtown Springfield,” why not just write that they pulled up to the Springfield Hilton? Why make readers work so hard to cipher out the author’s meaning?

This intentionally enigmatic style seems at odds with several interludes peppered throughout the book. Whereas oblique descriptions force readers to figure out whatever it is that the author is talking about, a dozen or so italicized interludes apparently designed to guide the reader toward a better understanding of the story pop up here and there throughout the book. These strange passages feel as though they come from a second omniscient narrator (ostensibly the country’s Founding Fathers), one who needs to make sure that readers fully understand where the story is going and what is happening with Dugan, as though readers are somehow unable to figure this out on their own and need a little extra guidance in order to comprehend the full story.

These unnecessary interludes, coupled with the long-winded, enigmatic descriptions peppered throughout the book do, unfortunately, serve to slow down Rooney’s otherwise well-paced story. But, in the end, these are stylistic issues, and whether they work or not will depend on the reader’s preference.

At bottom, though, O, Democracy is a winning tale built on strong characters living authentic lives in a richly drawn world. It is in these aspects that Rooney’s story shines, and they alone make the novel a worthwhile read.

Three-Star Review

April 2014, Fifth Star Press
$24, hardcover, 397 pages
ISBN: 978-0-98465-109-2

 —Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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