Monthly Archives: April 2016

A Week in a Life Forever Changed

CBR_Logo2The Reason for Time
A Novel
by Mary Burns

The summer of 1919 was a dramatic one, even by Chicago standards: a dirigible, the Wingfoot Express, crashed in the Loop; riots broke out after a racial incident at the 29th Street beach; six-year-old Janet Wilkinson went missing; strikes and lockouts broke out across the city; and the Spanish Influenza continued to claim victims here, across the country, and around the world.

burns reason for timeGary Krist told the tale of these “12 days of disaster” in his highly acclaimed 2011 book, City of Scoundrels. Author Mary Burns tackles this remarkable stretch in her latest novel, The Reason for Time.

Set over the course of a matter of days in the summer of 1919—July 21 to July 30—The Reason for Time is told by one Maeve Curragh, an Irish immigrant living with her sister Margaret in a shabby boarding house for women. The novel opens as Maeve witnesses a blimp fall out of the sky and crash into flames, right into the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, killing thirteen people. Maeve, walking nearby on Jackson Boulevard among the throngs leaving work for the evening, suffers a cut on her neck from some sort of debris, leaving her with a story of her own on that notable day.

A news junkie, Maeve scours late and morning editions for news of the crash—as she does for the rest of the week, which has no shortage of alarming headlines: the blimp, the riots, the strikes, the Wilkinson story. As it turns out, the week is a momentous one for Maeve as well.

Where Krist reported the events of the time, Burns takes a different tack, imagining how the week unfolded during the life of one individual. It’s a compelling angle. That week in July was much more than just the story of the thirteen who lost their lives when the blimp crashed into the bank, much more than the story of the transit strikers who risked their jobs, much more than the story of the hundreds of rioters who tore through the streets of Chicago, even more than poor Janet Wilkinson’s story. Indeed, millions of Chicagoans had their own stories of that week.

Maeve drives this story, recounting the strange days that would forever change her life. From her goings-on while working at the Chicago Magic Company to her involvement with the charming streetcar conductor Desmond Malloy, Maeve lives her own life—a life at once ordinary and remarkable—while the city reels in tumult.

Burns blends fact and fiction in The Reason for Time, a day-by-day account of these strange days colored by attention-grabbing headlines that heighten the tension. Maeve is drawn to these loud headlines, shouted breathlessly by newsboys hawking their wares. At the same time, she looks inward, contemplating the events that are shaping—and have shaped—her own world. As such, the story is both fevered and thoughtful as the days unfold, a well-paced work that ebbs and flows with just the right amount of tension.

Packed with detail, The Reason for Time is told in Maeve’s Irish dialect, full of contemporary idioms. Maeve’s voice has a distinct rhythm all its own, which can be difficult to decipher at first, but in the end lends the story a rich authenticity. Maeve herself feels real as well, a complex character full of hope and savvy, flawed but not too flawed, doing whatever it takes to survive the immigrant life in a tough, dirty, bustling big city. A spirited, spunky young woman, Maeve is not perfect. But she is likable, and her story is compelling… Compelling, if not a wee bit predictable. One might say predictable with a twist. It’s not too difficult to see where Maeve’s story will end, although Burns somehow manages to make the ending still feel surprising. Even if some readers might be a step ahead of the plot, The Reason for Time is still satisfying.

Full of history, local color, compelling characters, and a complex storyline, The Reason for Time is a quick read, but one that lingers and makes one wonder about the many other stories that could be told of that tumultuous summer of 1919.

Four-Star Review

April 2016, Allium Press of Chicago
$16.99, paperback, 216 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9967558-1-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen




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April 30 = Indpendent Bookstore Day! = Yay!

CBR_Logo2More than 400 bookstores across the country will celebrate Independent Bookstore Day this Saturday, April 30. So successful has the event been in years past that organizations like the American Booksellers Association, publishers like Penguin Random House, and distributors like Ingram have joined in to host events.

indie bookstore day 5462509Closer to home, several area bookstores and a number of publishers have booked events around Chicago and the ‘burbs to celebrate the day. These are some great ways to support indie bookstores as well as local authors and publishers. Here we share a round-up of just some of the Independent Bookstore Day events happening in and around the city on April 30. left arrowCheck out our list of bookstores right over there on the left to see what’s happening at your favorite shop.

  • Agate Publishing
    The Evanston-based indie house will co-host special appearances by several local bestselling and award-winning authors at independent bookstores across Chicago, including Maureen Schulman (The Eli’s Cheesecake Cookbook) at The Book Cellar, Freda Love Smith (Red Velvet Underground) at Women & Children First, Raymond Lambert (All Jokes Aside) at 57th Street Books, and Ina Pinkney (Ina’s Kitchen) at Unabridged Bookstore. For information, visit
  • The Book Cellar
    4736–38 N. Lincoln Ave.
    The Book Cellar will celebrate Independent Bookstore Day between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., with authors Marc and Maureen Schulman (The Eli’s Cheesecake Cookbook), Renee Rosen, and Rebecca Makkai. Events include a Bloody Mary Bar, special discounts, and gift bags for the first ten customers to spend $30 or more. For information, visit
  • The Book Stall
    811 Elm St.
    The Book Stall begins its celebration at 9 a.m. for an all-ages day full of give-aways, author conversations, snacks, and games. For information, visit
  • Bookends & Beginnings
    1712 Sherman Ave., Alley #1
    In Evanston, Bookends & Beginnings will feature fun, games, and access to 16 different exclusive items, among them a Neil Gaiman coloring book and a new book by Ann Patchett, The Care & Feeding of an Independent Bookstore, signed by the author. The day’s events also include a Literary Quiz Bowl and Open Mic & Mocktails. For information, visit
  • The Bookstore
    475 N. Main St.
    Glen Ellyn
    Glen Ellyn’s The Bookstore will celebrate Independent Bookstore Day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Events include a visit from Curious George, children’s crafts, give-aways, and author visits from local authors Bob Raczka and Andrew Brumbach. For information, visit
  • Roscoe Books
    2142 W. Roscoe St.
    Roscoe Books will celebrate with events and activities scheduled throughout the day. For information, visit
  • Unabridged Bookstore
    3251 N. Broadway
    Unabridged Bookstore will celebrate Independent Bookstore Day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with a “Breakfast Club”-themed shindig featuring a display of classic 1980s literature and free sweets and coffee courtesy of Vanille Patisserie and The Coffee and Tea Exchange; a book signing with legendary Chicago restaurateur Ina Pinkney; and readings by six stellar authors: Chelsea Martin, Mira Gonzalez, Juliet Escoria, Amanda Goldblatt, Elizabeth Ellen, and Chloe Caldwell, all of whom have been published by local press Curbside Splendor. For information, visit
  • Women & Children First
    5233 N. Clark St.
    Women & Children First will celebrate Independent Bookstore Day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The first 10 customers to spend $100 or more will receive a Women & Children First mug. Events include music from Freda Love Smith, Jake Smith, and Anna Steinhoff; a conversation between local authors Ana Castillo and Cyn Vargas; and special deals all day. For information, visit

MC900048059With so many bookstores, local presses, and local authors, there’s a lot to celebrate on Independent Bookstore Day—and every day! Be sure to check out some of these events and, as always, #ReadLocal and #ShopLocal.


Happy Reading!

—Kelli Christiansen

“Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”
—Henry Ward Beecher

** Got something planned for Independent Bookstore Day? Leave a comment and let us know! **

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Escapades in High Society

CBR_Logo2The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel:
A Story of Marriage and Money and the Early Republic
by Margaret A. Oppenheimer

Prostitute, murderer, and gold-digger? Or businesswoman, art connoisseur, and society maven?

9781613733806_eliza jumelEliza Jumel, née Betsy Bowen, it seems, was all of these things and more, depending on who was doing the telling. Margaret Oppenheimer brings Eliza Jumel and her many facets to life in her historical biography of a woman whose story riveted nineteenth-century New York—if not the entire nation.

Born into poverty in 1775, the woman who became Eliza Jumel spent her early years living in a brothel housed in an old jail that had been converted into a residence. She spent several spells in a work house, became an indentured servant, and eventually made her way to New York. It was there that her transition from penniless wretch to wealthy socialite would begin.

Eliza would eventually marry Stephen Jumel, a wealthy merchant who hailed from France. Years later, after Jumel died as the result of an accident, she would become the second wife of former Vice President Aaron Burr, who, at the time of their marriage in 1833, was practicing law in Manhattan. Eliza would make the most of both marriages, becoming one of America’s wealthiest women by the time she died in 1865.

But her rise from poverty to affluence would be neither a straight path nor one without complications. Eliza Jumel’s life was an intricately woven patchwork of relatives in America and France, a sticky web of colorful characters who would vie for a slice of the sizable estate she had amassed by the time she died: $1 million (about $15 million today) in various assets, including a mansion, a summer home, and several hundred acres of prime real estate. That estate and those characters would lead to numerous legal battles—one of which even reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Margaret Oppenheimer

Author Margaret Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer has done an admirable job here of untangling the crazy web of people in Eliza Jumel’s life: former husbands, nieces and nephews, siblings and step-siblings, various in-laws at home and abroad—the people in Eliza’s story are almost too numerous to count. And, as it would turn out, all of those people had their own notions of who Eliza Jumel really was.

Rumor and innuendo seem to have followed Eliza throughout much of her life. Gossip surrounded the story of her marriage to Stephen Jumel, which was considered by many to be an unequal bond that greatly elevated Eliza’s status while doing little for Jumel. Gossip and speculation were part and parcel of Eliza’s life, much of it her own doing as she embellished stories in order to augment her status.

Indeed, status was one thing that Eliza continually sought. Oppenheimer details countless examples by which Eliza would weave colorful tales in order to associate herself, no matter how tenuously, with luminaries of the day such as Napoleon I and Charles X. Contemporary news articles, correspondence, and other materials point to Eliza’s unstoppable penchant for self-aggrandizement. For example, shortly before her death, Eliza invited the Prince de Joinville to visit at her mansion, writing to him that she had known his father, the late King Louis-Philippe of France.

Such letters were not uncommon, as Oppenheimer shares many stories about Eliza’s various escapades in high society. Most of these stories were exaggerated by Eliza herself to show her in the best light possible, and many such tales were planted in newspapers by Eliza, who was very much a shameless self-promoter in her never-ending quest for fame and fortune.

As such, Eliza Jumel is not entirely a sympathetic subject. Although it is easy to admire the rags-to-riches story of a driven, savvy woman who, in many ways, was a woman before her time, Eliza also comes off as cunning, conniving, greedy, and vain. Her determination is enviable while her dishonesty is not. Her ambition is admirable while her duplicitousness is not. Her strategizing is commendable while her scheming is not. (Of course, one wonders if the greed, vanity, duplicity, and scheming would be either overlooked or easily forgiven had Eliza Jumel been a man rather than a woman.)

Regardless of whether readers will find Eliza a character who deserves compassion, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel does a good job of shining a light on an overlooked bit of history. Although a woman of notoriety at the time, Eliza Jumel’s story is not one that many readers likely will have learned about in history courses. Oppenheimer has woven together a well-researched biography of a woman who, although ahead of her time, has in many ways been lost to history. That said, gaps in the history have left a considerable number of holes, which Oppenheimer often fills with informed speculation, leaving numerous passages hedged with phrasing borne out of educated guesses marked by “it’s possible that” or “it may have been” or “it probably would have” or “it must have been.”

Even so, The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel is an interesting historical biography of a compelling figure, part rags-to-riches story, part history of early America, part court-room drama, colored by gossip and scandal that makes for a good read.

Two-Star Review

November 2015, Chicago Review Press
$29.95, hardcover, 347 pages
ISBN: 978-1061373-380-6

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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