January 03, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Whether you are on a beach or in a blizzard, books seemed just the right January topic. I asked a few friends, some authors, some not:
What books are currently can’t you put down and what are your all-time favorites?
I am currently recommending The Book of Unknown Americans, a slim but profoundly touching novel about the lives of immigrants in America by another Chicago author Christina Henriquez. My takeaway was compassion and humility.
My favorite non-fiction book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by fellow Chicagoan Rebecca Skloot. She did such a brilliant job of weaving together history, ethics, and narrative that I think she set the gold standard for how a non-fiction book can read, inform, and inspire.
Monique, what are you going to write about next?
Right now I am following up on a character thread I picked up during the research of my first book. My research is taking me back to the OSS, the clandestine organization that was precursor to the CIA. For fun, I am messing around with some fiction and the topic of dictators’ wives, but it is far too early to tell if it will amount to anything.
How did you choose Madame Nhu for your first novel?
I originally got interested in her story because she was such a strong female character in a time and place where there are otherwise very few women that stand out. When I went to the library to find a book—any book, fiction or even scholarly biography—I was surprised when I turned up nothing that had been published focused on her instead of the men around her. I was even more surprised when I scratched the surface and the first thing I found was an article from the mid-1980’s about the murder of Madame Nhu’s parents when they were living in the United States, and murdered by their own son!
I knew I had uncovered a fascinating, if devastating, family saga. What intrigued me the most during all my research was how the span of Madame Nhu’s life coincided and interacted with the huge political and social changes taking place in Vietnam and the United States.
One of Chicago’s most personable people, David Kimball resides in River North and enjoys skiing, exploring Chicago and trying our town’s newest restaurants. David just celebrated his tenth anniversary with MB Real Estate, working in the commercial area.
Right now I am listening to an audio book which is part of the Great Courses, Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well Educated Person Should Know.
One of my all-time favorite books is The Big Short by Michael Lewis, also just out in the movies. It is a non-fiction account of some of the players in the financial crisis of 2008. It is very informative and well-written and tells the story of a number of beneficiaries, victims, and causes of the crisis. It touches on a number of technical aspects of things, but does so in an interesting narrative.
Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather are also on my all-time favorite list.
The author of A-Z children’s books based on some of her favorite cities, Maria Kernahan serves on The Woman’s Board of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and is a top-producing real estate agent with @properties Winnetka.
Although I usually prefer non-fiction, but I am now reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. My all-time favorites are Amanda Vail’s Everybody Was So Young about Gerald and Sara Murphy, who were at the epicenter of the golden age of Paris in the 1920s. I also love The Big House by George Howe Colt, a memoir of his family’s summer home on the Cape.
Tell us about your own book series.
When I was living in Aspen I wrote A is for Aspen as a lark and was delighted that it really did well. When we moved back to Chicago I did C is for Chicago then B is for Boston and T is for Texas. My latest is S is for Seattle. We will be bringing out N is for New York and W is for Washington, DC in the spring.
Maria’s brother-in-law Michael Schafbuch, who lives in Seattle, is her illustrator.
It is easy for this columnist to choose which book I read recently that I would most love to recommend: Waiting for Bones by Donna Cousins (Donna’s maiden name). Set on safari, the four characters encounter adventures they hadn’t bargained for – talk about suspenseful and fast-paced! Donna’s descriptions of the animals they find on the journey are incredible; almost as fascinating as her shaping of her human protagonists! Donna is also the author of Landscape (published in 2005) and is currently at work on a new book.
Donna and her husband Dirk are among the most effective members of the Old Town community, stalwarts of the June Art Fair where she works with the artist-vetting process, and encouragers of new authors through their work with Lincoln Park Village.
One, all-time favorite book? Impossible to choose – there are so many! I think my most memorable reading experiences, though, have come from stories too far-reaching for a single volume: Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet; Doris Lessing’s five-volume Children of Violence; The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last); Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends; and the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset.
I’m currently reading the fourth and final novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.
A book I would love to write would be about Larry Green’s work and that of others with his dedication to helping the homeless in our community. A deacon for 11 years at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church and a consultant who advises lawyers on business practices, Larry works with the homeless populations found under the viaducts on Wilson, Lawrence, and Foster Avenues – and on Lower Wacker Drive – with the CUMALI ministry headed by the Reverend Sandy Rex. No matter the weather, Larry takes volunteer groups out to deliver socks, non-perishable foods, and water to people with nothing to their names. If you are interested in learning more about his work, e-mail him at email@example.com.
I have been inspired by the daily meditations found in Advent in Narnia by Heidi Haverkamp, a priest in the Diocese of Chicago. You can either read it straight through or select a story daily.
After hearing former Senator John Danforth speak in Chicago recently I found his book The Revelance of Religion an excellent way of looking at politics and religion. In a time when it seems to be ‘my way or no way’, he offers suggestions on how to do the right thing.
Being a native Southerner, I love the way John Grisham writes about the rural South. I am captivated by his characterizes and style, particularly in Sycamore Row.
A graduate of the Latin School and daughter of beloved Chicagoans, Ron and Gwen Melvin, Mary Fleming lives in Paris and Berlin with her husband and five children. She is the author of Someone Else, and recently visited Chicago on book tour and to catch up with her sister Catharine Melvin and old friends. We love her Paris-Berlin Diary blog (http://mf.ghost.io/). Mary read the first pages of Someone Else at a party our friend Mary Grant hosted for friends. Books flew off the table.
I can’t say I have a favorite book, but two writers who have been very influential are Tolstoy and Proust. Tolstoy, for the way he gets into people’s heads and thoughts. Proust, for his astute observations of people, as individuals and as social creatures, and the importance he attributes to the role that memory plays in who we are as human beings.
I have great affection for Anna Karenina especially. She may even have been in my mind while I was creating the character of Elizabeth. Some contemporary writers I like are Alice Munro, J-M Coetzee, and Toni Morrison. Rather eclectic, I guess, but they all write very precisely, with no fuss.
Right now I’m in the middle of two multi-volume sagas that I would recommend: the Italian Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. They both have a 19th century generosity, but 20th century approaches and themes.
What is your writing schedule like?
The key for me is routine and the morning. I still get up between 6 and 6:30, when the world is quiet and my brain fresh, so I can get a good hour or two in first thing. After walking Elsa the dog, I’m back at it. I often review the morning’s work late afternoon, early evening.
What projects are currently keeping you busy?
At the moment I’m finishing revisions on my first novel, On the Rue des Martyrs, which is the story of Trevor McFarquhar, an American who has spent most of his life in Paris. Full of resentment and unresolved feelings about various traumas in his past, Trevor abandoned an early career as a photographer and reduced his existence “to a box: a one-room apartment on top of a one-room shop.”
A third novel, provisionally called “Civilisation française” is well under way. It’s a bit of a Gothic tale about several people whose lives intersect in a 17th century, largely abandoned hôtel particulier on the place des Vosges.
Tell our readers “something else” about Someone Else.
The genesis of my second book, Someone Else, is a fait divers about a woman, who as a 60s radical, carried out robberies and was involved in the killing of a policeman. She disappeared, only to turn herself in years later, while living a suburban life in Oregon. Although there’s no direct connection to my book, three things about the story grabbed me. First, we can’t get away from our pasts, no matter how hard we may try. Second, we never really know other people or even ourselves. Third, the person we show to the world is often quite different from the person we are inside, the person in our head, our interior self. Hence the title.
How has living abroad inspired you?
The rich history, architecture and geography of Paris provide endless inspiration and are used in my writing as more than just a backdrop. They are woven into plot and themes. Someone Else begins in the Arènes de Lutèce, a Roman amphitheater that had been covered up for centuries, like Elizabeth’s secret had been for years.
As for Berlin, I haven’t been here long enough to use it in my fiction but I write about it all the time in my blog. The city fascinates me for its complicated 20th century history, for its 21st century edge. It often reminds me of Chicago, which was heavily influenced by Germans. Not just the street names, but also the solid architecture. Maybe my interest in architecture began in Chicago, home of the skyscraper. It’s a city where modern architecture works. Something I would not say about Paris. Anyway, as a young person, I loved riding my bike as far south on the beach as I could get. It seemed magical, to be able to do that in a big city.
Describing herself as a Berliner by birth and parentage, and a longtime Chicagoan by choice, Brigitte’s passions, including archeology and ancient history, have taken her far afield. She has lived Barcelona, worked in Israel, and received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago following excavations in Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Spain. She is the founder and principal in Resources 2000, an international consultancy to the non-profit sector with projects around the world.
An avid biker who crisscrosses Chicago’s many streets and parks almost no matter what the weather, Brigitte will write about local biking this spring for Classic Chicago.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Triology is also a favorite of Brigitte’s:
She is a powerful Italian novelist who keeps her identity carefully hidden, and this intrigues me greatly. The first volume, My Brilliant Friend, is a mesmerizing take of enmeshed friends Lila and Elena from one of Naples’ edgy working class neighborhoods. You can’t put it down.
My three all-time favorite books are a strange international potpourri: Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, and Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli. Fontane was a brilliant German novelist of the mid-late 19th century and the story of Effi Briest holds its own against – if not excels – other famous women’s novels of that time. Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina have similar motifs, but Fontane’s is infinitely more tender and moving.
Levi’s is a story or portrait of an exceedingly poor hamlet and its denizens in Lucania, a remote area in southern Italy. Levi was banished there because of his uncompromising opposition to Fascism in the early 1930s. I have read it many times over.
Classic Chicago is very grateful to Brigitte for her response to our magazine, and with her permission I am reprinting a recollection of beloved Chicago memory with her late husband and lawyer Walter Treumann.
Reading some of the pieces brings “back” some great memories when my kids were little, babysitters inexpensive, and Walter and I heading out the door Friday night to look forward to the weekend, filled with dinner parties, glamorous benefits here and in the suburbs. Traffic was not as challenging, and we thought nothing of driving to Lake Forest or Lake Bluff for a dinner party, paddle tennis, or any other delightful events. My kids tell me that it was those weekends that made them independent, being left in the care of the charming McFarland girls while their parents were living it up at some glamorous entertainment or other. We smile about that often. But that was then and this is now; times and people have changed profoundly. But what’s so nice about Chicago is, and your magazine captures it beautifully, that the city has essentially remained itself over the decades – yes, glamour, parties, balls – but also expanding and overflowing into new and wonderful neighborhoods, unpretentious, basic, reliable with its perfections and its warts.
Half Moon Over Chicago
There is a half moon over Chicago,
And the first cool breeze of the season urges you on,
And flying hawks seem suddenly possible.
There is a half moon over Chicago,
And whispy clouds move across the sky,
Turning that half moon into a painting of silver and grey.
You feel the presence of every house, and of everyone walking along.
There is a half moon over Chicago,
And you feel: I don’t want to leave just now.
Brigitte Treumann, Fall 2006