Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Windy City Blues: A Book Review

The Rolling Stones have recently returned to their blues roots and that means the legend of Chess Records gets a fresh airing. Timely indeed for author Renee Rosen, whose latest novel revolves around the rise of the storied business.

WINDY CITY BLUES wraps fiction with fact. A lot of fact. Dry as toast fact. It's a habit of the author, to use every scrap of research, to the point that you just want to tell her you don't need detailed directions that include every street the character must cross to get from her home to the Chess Records headquarters.

The novel is set against a backdrop of Jim Crow prejudice in Chicago after the Second World War, featuring fictional characters Leeba (white, Jewish) and Red (black, Christian). She's working with old pals Leonard and Phil Chess, helping build up their record business behind the scenes, and falls in love with an up and coming bluesman from the Deep South.

But there is so much more going on, what with the opening salvo of the civil rights movement sprouting and the Chess brothers producing what were called 'race' records to fill a niche in the black entertainment sector, making money and discovering talent and shifting as the industry turned to rhythm and blues.

It is a complex tale with many threads, to say nothing of the name dropping that fits in with the assortment of dry facts mentioned above. It often feels quite contrived, requiring a reader to do some serious suspension of disbelief.

The characters are relatively one-dimensional, the story-telling a bit wooden. The spark of life is dim in this novel, as if Ms. Rosen is relating a story like a news reporter rather than a novelist. Such is her style, however, and it may work for some readers.

Loose ends are tied up at the end in a way that falls flat because it feels too artificial, the author driving the narrative rather than the characters. The ending is a happy one for most of the participants, Leeba rubs elbows with both the Rolling Stones and Dr. Martin Luther King, she saves an orphan black child, and her husband finds his purpose at radio station WVON. Which was founded by the Chess Brothers when they began to burn out from the stress of running Chess Records.

Well-researched, with a tendency to plod along as the timeline marches on, WINDY CITY BLUES is a bit of a slog, but with some interesting elements for those interested in Chicago history. I often struggled to keep my eyes open while reading, but I wasn't sorry that I stuck with the book and finished it to the end.

Friday, December 09, 2016

The Realities Of Real Estate

Here and there, neighborhoods are gentrifying. That's a convoluted way of saying that the poor are being pushed out by the wealthier who want to reside in that same area.

It's a straightforward process, with a few artistic types acting the role of pioneer. They find cheap space for their workshops, create art, and attract those with the means to pay for said art. Then someone yearning to open up a restaurant featuring their own style of culinary wizardry realizes that those tourists could use a spot to have cocktails and perhaps a light supper, and the next thing you know a few unique eating establishments open up.
In lovely Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Young people looking for affordable housing but with the amenities they crave, like boutique-type eateries, start moving in. Those who owned property see an opportunity to cash in on their hovel, and the whole thing spirals. Soon, real estate values are soaring and owners see the answer to their retirement dreams. They finally have a cash cow to be milked, and all because they bought in at the right time and just happened to be in the right place when the neighborhood changed.

Parts of Brooklyn are becoming quite trendy for the younger set that cannot hope to afford Manhattan prices but want to have a place nearby to call home. For Henry Zook and Mary Gannett, the ongoing gentrification has turned into their windfall.

They own BookCourt, a popular indie book shop, and they own the shop itself. When they launched their establishment thirty-five years ago, the price of Brooklyn real estate was manageable for the couple, who earned their living from selling books. Not the most lucrative of professions, is it?

Bookselling has changed over the years, as any reader can tell you. The big box stores came in and sucked up much of the clientele, offering lower prices that the indies could not meet. Then along came Amazon, with its ease of shopping as long as you didn't care about thumbing through an actual book and reading whatever page you wanted, rather than the first few that Amazon allowed digitally.

Zook and Gannett navigated through the turmoil and their shop became a popular spot as attitudes towards Amazon changed, along with the residential make-up of the area. BookCourt managed to hang on and sell books.

Back in the long-ago days, when the neighborhood was a bit blighted, the couple lived upstairs and had an easy commute to work. Over the years, however, the marriage fell apart and they left that apartment, making the trek to the office longer. At the same time, they grew older and saw retirement ahead, the golden days when they would not have to crawl out of bed, joints creaking, and spend another day hoping to make a few sales while dealing with the general public.

Along came Eastern Capital, with plenty of capital to throw around. The book shop is in a prime location for redevelopment, be it a tower of condominiums or a mixed use space with shiny new retail at the ground floor and expensive, luxury apartments above. Where BookCourt sits, young millenials and aging hipsters want to live.

Sure, the indie bookshop was one of the amenities that attracted gentrifiers to begin with, but as with any wave of urban renewal, those who were there first are also the first to go if the price is right. For Mr. Zook and Ms. Gannett, in their sixties and looking to lay their burden down, the price offered by Eastern Capital was the reward for taking a chance on a chancy neighborhood, investing in a shop selling books, and slaving away for thirty-five years in the hope that they could save up enough to not have to work until they dropped.

It's the circle of real estate life. The shop will be missed by those who liked having an independent book vendor down the street, whether they bought their books there or not. But other entrepreneurs will step in to fill the niche, some other book lover who wants to share their passion with those who have the disposable income to cover the price of a book.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Patriots: A Book Review

Before anyone knew how wretched life would become under communism, several naive American idealists thought that the Marxist philosophy represented a paradise on earth. Author Sana Krasikov takes off from that point and creates a riveting novel in the process.

THE PATRIOTS interweaves the narratives of Florence, a progressive Jewish girl from New York, and that of her adult son after her death. Florence becomes involved in a pro-Russian group during her time at university in the height of the Great Depression, falling so in love with all she thinks it will be that she emigrates. The reader knows ahead of time that all did not run according to plan, due to a well-placed prologue that piques the interest. A knowledge of history would give you a clue as well, but you do not need to be up on the subject to enjoy the novel.

Florence's son Julian has business in Russia, during Putin's first term, and while he deals with his family's past and the emotional scars inflicted, he is also trying to convince his own son to leave Russia and find a future in a country that is not a massive criminal enterprise.

The reader follows Florence's journey into what will become hell as Stalin wrests power and gradually turns on the Jews who thought the pogroms were relics from the Tsarist era. Her tale is one of survival that comes at a high cost, a slow descent that proves captivating to a reader's interest.

At the same time, Julian wrestles with his own ghosts as a child tossed into an orphanage after his parents were caught up in Stalin's paranoia. His involvement in a petroleum industry deal begins to mirror some of his mother's choices, and he will face his own dilemma on whether or not to cooperate with powers beyond his control.

The author on occasion becomes the omniscient narrator but the overall style of the book is one of pure storytelling. As a work of historical fiction, THE PATRIOTS brings you into a foreign place that is made less foreign with Julian's modern-era narrative, thus tying the past and present together. What makes the book particularly compelling is Florence's determination to live when the world around her grows increasingly bizarre and contradictory, when a positive action taken at one point becomes an act of treason when viewed several years later.

I would highly recommend this book.

And thanks to Penguin Random House for sharing the review copy with me.