Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chicago Author Month: Melanie Benjamin as a Celebrity Bookseller

As part of our month long celebration of Chicago area authors, we extended a unique invitation to one of our favorite local authors, Melanie Benjamin. We thought it would be fun if she came to The Bookstore as a Celebrity Bookseller, in order to recommend some of her favorite books to our customers. Melanie gracefully accepted our invitation, even if she is deep into the proofing process of her next book (The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, due to be released in July 2011).

As many of our customers and local book clubs know, Melanie has always been a big reader. At book club visits, she is often asked to share her favorite reads, and has even thought about putting together a list of book recommendations to hand out. In the meantime, here is the list of books we gathered for Melanie's own Celebrity Bookseller Picks:

March by E. L. Doctorow (Melanie's favorite historical fiction)
Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Howards End by E. M. Forster (turn of the century British literature)
Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (Melanie: "so creative")
Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh (fiction: the three wives of Mr. Kimball)
Later, at the Bar by Rebecca Barry (similar to Olive Kitteridge)

On Melanie's recommendation alone, I brought home a copy of Later, at the Bar. I love it when I get an enthusiastic recommendation for a book that's completely new to me. Customers enjoyed talking to Melanie, and quite a few even picked up a copy of Melanie's current book, Alice I Have Been.

We even had a fun moment of bookstore serendipity when a customer identified herself as Brigid Pasulka's mother-in-law, and I was thrilled to be able to tell her, "I love Brigid's book - I just blogged about it as a part of Chicago Writers Month!" (A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True, October 13, 2010 post)

Bookstores are like that. They bring good people and good books together. A special thanks to Melanie for sparing some of her time as a busy writer to come hang out with us at The Bookstore!

Pictured above is the paperback cover of Alice I Have Been, which will be released on December 21st. Although I loved the cover in hardcover, I love the new paperback cover in a whole different way. The Bookstore is hosting a reception for Melanie after the holidays on Thursday, January 27th at 7pm. Mark your 2011 calendars now!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chicago Author Month: Kevin Guilfoile's The Thousand

Chicagoan Kevin Guilfoile's new thriller The Thousand has already received huge accolades, and has been compared to The DaVinci Code and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I can see why. The book features a creepy Pythagorean cult, and a tough, young female detective who would make a good match for Lisbeth Salander.

For Chicago area readers, this book is even more thrilling. It's set in Chicago, which is perfect, because this town has the same tough, gritty unrelenting energy as the story and its characters. There is a gruff Chicago cop, all accent and attitude, a flashy criminal defense attorney with dangerous secrets, and a fearless but tiny young heroine named Canada Gold. And plenty of powerful bad guys.

Chicagoans will enjoy the settings throughout the city, whether it's Chinatown, a posh Lincoln Park home, a gritty Lakeview bar or Mr. Beef. During an enormous power blackout in the middle of a hot steamy summer, refugees from the heat and the dark camp out in Lincoln Park and along North Avenue Beach. All trails lead to the Gothic north side mansion formerly owned by the Archdiocese of Chicago. It's a city well suited for a thriller, and Guilfoile plays it up just right. (I'm already picturing the film crews.)

The story begins as the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is on trial for the murder of his young mistress. Although the jury finds him not guilty, we know he did it. Within 24 hours of the verdict, the conductor is murdered and the prime suspect, the father of the murdered mistress, commits suicide. The murder weapon is never found but the investigation is closed. All exciting stuff (are you with me so far?) but this is just the beginning.

Fast forward ten years, when the same murder weapon is used to kill a Chicago doctor with suspicious ties to the long-dead conductor. The conductor's daughter, Canada "Nada" Gold, is now all grown up, but struggles with a mysterious brain implant her father insisted that she have as a young girl. The implant gives her superpowers of observation, which she has been putting to good use as a card counter and a private investigator in Las Vegas. Nada Gold heads back to Chicago, where she and a cool Chicago cop head straight into a dangerous conspiracy.

Different factions of The Thousand, a cult-like group of men and women who have descended from the disciples of Pythagoras, are engaged in a life-and-death battle for control of their mathematical secrets. Depending which faction you follow, these secrets could either destroy the world or lead to universal harmony. Tough little Nada Gold and her bizarre brain implant are caught right in the middle.

If you are thinking that this kind of creepy and suspenseful plot would only come from a writer who is a little weird and unglued, with poor hygiene and a head full of conspiracy theories, you would be wrong. Kevin Guilfoile is no Unibomber; he is a funny, smart Notre Dame alumnus who lives with his family in LaGrange. In fact, it was a sweet, older Notre Dame philosophy professor who gave him the idea to pursue the Pythagoras angle. Guilfoile has been a writer for McSweeney's and The Morning News, and has written a previous medical thriller called Cast of Shadows that some have compared to Michael Crichton. Sue and I got to know him through The Morning News Tournament of Books, where he leads a team of judges through a strange but wonderful March Madness bracket of book match-ups. Guilfoile's approach to book awards is hilarious, irreverent and just plain fun. He is the kind of guy you'd love to meet for a chat over a beer.

That's why we are especially excited to welcome Kevin Guilfoile to Chicago Author Night at The Bookstore on Thursday, October 28th at 7pm for a book discussion and book signing. We are also pleased to be welcoming debut author Joelle Charbonneau, whose debut comedic mystery, Skating Around the Law is a bookstore favorite as well. (For a great review of Charbonneau's book, go to

Please come meet these two incredibly nice, incredibly smart Chicago Area writers, and share a beer or a glass of wine. To register, please call The Bookstore at (630) 469-2891 or e-mail

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Chicago Author Month: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

Chicagoan Audrey Niffenegger is best known for her popular novels, The Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, but has now created The Night Bookmobile, a graphic novel that combines all of her talents.

Niffenegger is not only a talented writer, she is also a visual artist. She trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received her MFA from Northwestern University. She has been an exhibiting artist and a book arts professor at Columbia College in Chicago for many years.

Niffenegger first conceived of The Time Traveler's Wife as a graphic novel, but the time traveling images were too difficult to draw, so she turned it into a regular novel. As many of our customers know by now, The Time Traveler's Wife was set in Chicago, with scenes that ranged from cultural institutions like the Art Institute and the Newberry Library to unique Chicago restaurants like Ann Sather and the Berghoff. (Check out this cool Time Traveler's Wife Chicago Landmark map.)

Like The Time Traveler's Wife, The Night Bookmobile is set in Chicago. The haunted bookmobile makes surprise appearances in front of Story Studio, a writing arts center in the Ravenswood neighborhood, Wrigley Field, and in an alley near The Empty Bottle on Western Avenue.

The Night Bookmobile is the perfect vehicle for Niffenegger's gifts. As Neil Gaiman says on the back cover, it is "a love letter, both elegiac and heartbreaking, to the things we have read, and to the readers that we are."

The haunting story and pictures will appeal to anyone who has ever described a reading experience as "pure heaven." Imagine a bookmobile filled with everything you have ever read: not just Judy Blume, Nancy Drew and The Fountainhead, but also college textbooks, cereal boxes and your own diary. (Go ahead, imagine your library now. Fun, isn't it?) I enjoyed pouring over the lovely pictures of the Night Bookmobile's shelves, counting how many of those books would be in my Night Bookmobile too. But as pleasing as the possibility of your own private library in eternity would be, this chilling tale makes you realize . . . be careful what you wish for. It comes at a very high price.

We highly recommend The Night Bookmobile to our customers who might enjoy a haunting tale about books. It would make a great Halloween or holiday gift for the adult reader in your life.

Looks like we've made another great Chicago Author Month discovery. Come check out our Chicago Author Shelf at The Bookstore, which includes this and Niffenegger's other books. (The Night Bookmobile, Abrams ComicArts $19.95)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chicago Author Month: A Long, Long Time Ago And Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

I have no idea how A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True escaped my attention for so long. Somehow it made it onto The Bookstore shelves, both in hardcover and paperback, without finding a champion among our booksellers. Only recently did I learn that the author was from Chicago, an English Teacher at Whitney Young Magnet School, and the winner of last year's PEN/Hemingway Award.

What a perfect book to add to my list for Chicago Author Month. Especially because this book is set in Poland and is written by a descendant of Polish immigrants -- and Chicago just happens to have the largest population of Polish-speaking people living outside of Poland.

I am now utterly devoted to this book. I've already been raving about it to my friends and customers, and I've tucked one of our blue staff recommendation cards between its pages. I feel like I've just found a new go-to recommendation in paperback. I'm just sorry I'm so late to the game.

For our customers who haven't yet discovered this book's charms, it's a two-part story: one told like an enchanted fairytale, beginning with a love story in a small Polish village on the eve of World War II, and the other told 50 years later, as the lovers' granddaughter comes of age in modern Krakow, searching for her past and her future at the same time. The elders' experiences during the German occupation, such as hiding in the forest with the Polish resistance, brought to mind some of the things I enjoyed about the movie Defiance. The granddaughter's quest reminded me a little of Jonathon Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated.

In a video interview on her own website, Brigid Pasulka explained that Long, Long Time Ago was based on a combination of "essentially true" stories that she gathered from her own experiences while on post-college visits to Krakow. She tells how she used to sit down and ask older Poles to tell her stories, and they did. In that way, Brigid bears some resemblance to the granddaughter in the book, who realizes that the often heartbreaking stories of her grandparents' generation should be preserved and savored.

There were times when the modern story, which features a "lost generation" of young people in post-Communist Poland of the 1990's, didn't seem able to hold its own weight against the intensity, romance and magic of the older tale. However, the book eventually wove the two stories together, giving the granddaughter a sense of purpose, identity and history. What a nice ending. Highly recommended, with a special thumbs up for our book clubs.

Please stop in and check out Brigid Pasulka's book on our Chicago Author Shelf next time you're in downtown Glen Ellyn. In the meantime, you might enjoy exploring her website.

A Long, Long Time Ago & Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $13.95)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Chicago Author Month: John McNally Appearing October 14th

Ghosts of Chicago by native Chicagoan John McNally has been released in paperback just in time for Halloween.

I know what you're thinking: creepy noises in the middle of the night, a cold white mist? Actually, not that kind of ghost. The ghosts in this book are different, and so much better. They're lost souls, dead or alive, searching for someone to listen to their lovely, haunting stories.

This short story collection includes a series of stories written in the imagined voices of lost Chicago legends, including John Belushi, Gene Siskel, Walter Payton, Richard J. Daley, George Pullman and Nelson Algren. This is really creative stuff: imagine Walter Payton and Refrigerator Perry on a road trip after the '85 Superbowl, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in a snowball fight, or John Belushi remembering the acres of pot fields near Champaign, Illinois. For native Chicagoans, there is even a story about WGN's Creature Features and the silent goose. (The same goose my husband's side of the family always brings up when they're "in their cups" and reminiscing about their Chicago area childhood.)

One of the things I love about short story collections, especially for book clubs, is the way you can pick out your favorite stories and compare your list with others. My favorites in this book included The Immortals and the strange and funny so-called Contributor's Notes at the end. At first you wonder why anyone's Notes would be so long (26 pages), but you give McNally the benefit of the doubt. An introductory paragraph is the funniest and most honest author biography I've ever read, but you'll be left puzzling for days, how much is fiction? Check it out:

"After attending a famous writers' workshop in the Midwest, he worked as a short-order cook, bouncer, grave digger, lumberjack, carnival barker, florist, disc jockey, and busboy. Most recently, he was employed as a groundskeeper. He has no permanent place of residence. He owns a 1976 Ford LTD, inside of which he could, if necessary, store all his worldly possessions, This is his first published story."

For fans of McNally's novel After the Workshop, Contributor's Notes offers more sharp wit and McNally's smart, satirical take on the pretensions and idiocy of the publishing world and the creative writing programs that feed it.

Perfect, then, that McNally has also written The Creative Writer's Survival Guide: Advice From an Unrepentant Novelist, a "subjective and idiosyncratic take on the writing life." It's an honest guidebook for aspiring writers who want the truth, and not just the "you can do it!" reassurance of family, friends and many magazines and writing conferences.

Whether you're an aspiring writer or merely a reader who appreciates good, smart fiction, please join us for an evening of cocktails, cheese and crackers with John McNally on Thursday, October 14th from 7:00-8:30pm. We will mingle and chat from 7-7:30, and then we'll hear John talk about his books. (I for one am dying to know about John's supposed jobs as a lumberjack and carnival barker.) Book signing to follow. Please call The Bookstore at (630) 469-2891 or e-mail us to let us know you're coming. We'd hate to run out of cheese.

Ghosts of Chicago was another great discovery for Chicago Area Author Month. You can find this and McNally's other books on our new Chicago Area Author Shelf at The Bookstore. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chicago Author Month: Long Way Home by Laura Caldwell

Long Way Home by Laura Caldwell (Free Press Books)

When Jen at Devourer of Books told me about her plan to dedicate the month of October to Chicago area authors, I said I would be happy to join her. She had gathered a list of Chicago authors with upcoming books, and there was a new one by Laura Caldwell that caught my eye.

Long Way Home is the remarkable story of Laura Caldwell's pro bono work on behalf of Jovan Mosley, a young Chicago man who gave a false confession to the Chicago police, and then sat in prison for nearly six years awaiting trial for first-degree murder.

Caldwell was a civil litigation attorney in Chicago before she quit to be a full-time writer. She calls herself a "lapsed lawyer" although she is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the University of Loyola School of Law. I knew she wrote a detective series with a high-heeled heroine, but I'd never read any of her books before.

I picked up Long Way Home expecting an interesting journalistic piece, but I was wrong. It was so much more. While the book does provide all of the details of a tragic murder on Chicago's South Side and exposes the shocking flaws in the criminal justice system at 26th and California, this is no dry tale. This book has the pace and suspense of a well plotted courtroom drama, with the heart and soul of the best memoirs. I was in tears by the time the verdict was announced.

I had expected to be a harsh critic. Before I read this book I was skeptical about the notion of false confessions, at least in the absence of outright fraud or torture. Isn't a "false confession" just a confession that the accused later regrets? Back in my law school days, I worked both sides of the fence, first as an intern in a public defender's office and then in a D.A.'s office. Call it bias, cynicism or just plain reality, most of the defendants I met had the opposite problem: false claims of innocence. The jury in Caldwell's story had to struggle with these same doubts.

Jovan Mosley's story changed my mind. There were overzealous cops, missing police reports, delayed Miranda warnings and false promises of leniency. Add to that the problem of Chicago's outrageously overburdened criminal court system, and a nice, innocent kid, and you have a six year nightmare that never should have happened.

But Laura Caldwell's book isn't necessarily about blame and tragedy. It's an old-fashioned, big-hearted story about truth and justice and the courage to believe that good things can happen to good people in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. There's laughter and humor along the way, as Caldwell and Mosley's lead attorney Catharine O'Daniel work to keep Mosley's spirits up through the ordeal. Long hours of trial preparation turn the trial partners into punch-drunk girlfriends. Caldwell does a great job of capturing the surprising collegiality among the judges, cops and attorneys who work in the courtrooms at 26th and California. I would have to agree that the practice of criminal law seems way more "civil" than civil law in Chicago. And best of all, the courtroom scenes and jury deliberations are as well drafted and dramatic as those in a Scott Turow novel.

Long Way Home was a wonderful discovery for Chicago Author Month. I've already put Caldwell's detective novels on my reading list, especially the Rome Affair. As Caldwell explains, it was the research for The Rome Affair that led her to Jovan Mosley. And it's Jovan Mosley's story that will lead me to Caldwell's other fiction.