Tag Archives: non-fiction

Waiting on Wednesday: Life Itself

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking The Spine.

My wishlist is usually insanely long. I’m like a kid in a candy store when it comes to books. But I’m going to select a book that’s due out next month that I saw mentioned a couple of times yesterday, Life Itself: A Memoir, by Roger Ebert.

Now, I’m not the biggest Roger Ebert fan, that title belongs to my friend Mary, but how his has carried on in the face of his illness has been inspirational. I follow him on twitter and he manages to find some of the most interesting content. And it’s not just limited to movies which is why I am looking forward to reading his memoir next month.  (Look at that gorgeous cover!)  Continue reading


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Review: Oldest Chicago

I’ve been a fan of Lake Claremont Press for years. They publish a lot of fantastic books on Chicago history.

The latest book, Oldest Chicago, by David Anthony Witter is a great addition to their catalog. Part history, part guidebook, the book includes information on a wide range of institutions, businesses, restaurants, and theaters. The usual suspects are included (Wrigley Field, Water Tower, Palmer House) but it includes things like Oldest Statue (Standing Lincoln), Oldest Bowling Alley (Southport Lanes), and Oldest Funeral Home – Northside (Jaeger Funeral Home). The book makes references to the City’s tendency tear down it’s landmarks yet it celebrates how each of these institutions was able to survive the years through efforts from an individual family, a neighborhood, or a group of customers. It is an eclectic mix but it helps paint a picture to what makes Chicago so unique and why so many people are drawn to the city.

As a life-long Chicagoan, I was surprised by some of the entries and intrigued by the stories. The book makes me want to go exploring in my home town. I just wish I had this book before. It would have made it planning trips around the city with friends from out of town easier.

If you are from Chicago or planning a trip soon, I would recommend picking up a copy of this book and exploring the city.


Disclaimer: I received my copy as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.

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Review: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

When I stumbled across a review on Daniel Okrent’s book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, this past summer I knew I had to read it. A book featuring the 1920s, politics, speakeasies, and gangsters? It hit upon several of my interest points.

This book is an incredible narrative of the history of the 18th Amendment. This book is dense and reads like a text book. Its full of rich details. But it was missing something. Maybe its because I’ve been reading biographies lately that I wished that the author had chosen to focus on a couple characters and told the story through their perspectives. I found it difficult at times to keep everyone straight which I probably why I finally finished reading this only after several false starts during the past six months.

No book about prohibition could be written without mentioning the usual suspects, Al Capone and Joe Kennedy. They were included but I was surprised to find that Okrent believes that Joe Kennedy wasn’t a bootlegger. He believes that particular image/rumor started in the 1960s. While it was true that he made some of his vast fortune because of the alcohol trade, it wasn’t due to illegal activity. His argument is compelling, but I’m not quite sure I can give up that image just yet.

One final thought Okrent passes along is that while Prohibition is considered to be a huge failure it did achieve one thing: it caused Americans to drink less. The trend which continued for decades until the 1970s.

Okrent’s book is to be featured in an upcoming Ken Burns documentary on PBS. I look forward to that production. With all the details Okrent culled and Burn’s gift for storytelling, that proves to be a must see production.



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Review: American Rose

I didn’t realize Karen Abbott had a new book out until late last month. Abbott is the best selling author of one of my favorite books from a couple years back, Sin in the Second City so I was excited when I discovered she wrote American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee.

I confess when I started reading the book I knew very little about Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy, the most famous striptease artist, was born Ellen June Hovick in 1911 in Seattle. She was later renamed Rose Louise when her younger sister was born and given the name Ellen June because it was a prettier name and June was a beautiful baby. Yes, her mother actually took her name away and gave it to her younger sister.

Louise’s mother Rose Hovick was the original stage mother. She divorced the girls’ father (boy did he ever dodge a bullet) and supported her family by taking the girls on the vaudeville circuit. Louise was cast as a supporting player to “Baby June” and later “Dainty” June’s act. (What kind of mother forces her toddler to dance on her toes?) Continue reading


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Review: Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage

Hazel Rowley’s latest book, Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage provides a unique perspective of the marriage of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The book paints a vivid picture of the life of the first couple and those that made up their inner circle. There aren’t many surprises. FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s dalliances with women, Sara Roosevelt’s controlling manner are all included.  But it the way in which Rowley recounts the stories that makes this such an enjoyable book. Continue reading

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The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust and the Beautiful Killers Who Insprired Chicago

"The Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago"Douglas Perry’s book, The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, is a fascinating look at Murderess’ Row in the Cook County Jail in the early 1920s.

The story focuses on Maurine Watkins, a minister’s daughter from Indiana. If ever there was a woman least likely to become a crime reporter in the 1920s, it was Watkins. But this churchgoing young woman found herself in the den of inequity, Chicago, and hired by the Chicago Tribune. Women who worked for newspapers in the 20s worked mostly in the classified area and as secretaries. Maurine managed to talk herself into a job as a reporter and found herself at Cook County Jail covering the two of the most scandalous stories of the day. “Stylish” Belva Gaertner and “Beautiful” Beulah Annan had both murdered their lovers in strange circumstances.

Beulah Annan killed her lover and then claimed he was trying to rape her. She later claimed that she was pregnant. Needless to say she wasn’t pregnant and instead was getting comfy on her sofa drinking cheap booze as her husband was slaving away at work. Beulah was a good actress. The number of times her story changed was incredible.

Belva or ‘Belle’ Gaertner,  was a woman with an important ex-husband. She shot her married lover in her car when he attempted to break up with her. She later claimed she couldn’t remember anything about the night because she had been drinking. Her poor ex-husband, who loved her despite the fact that she had slept with many men while they were married, supported her through out the trial.

The book also includes details on the other women on Murderess Row including Sabella Nitti, an immigrant woman who convicted to hang by a jury (probably only because she didn’t speak good English and was ugly). Her attorney Helen Cirese water later able to appeal the case and Nitti went free. Wanda Stopa didn’t end up in jail because she killed herself before the police were able to catch up with her. Stopa, a brilliant law student, had a bit of a drug problem and fell in love with a married man. One evening she went to his house to convince his wife to divorce him. When his wife refused, Stopa killed their handyman and the wife fled. Stopa then got back in her waiting taxi and drove back downtown. Kitty Malm, the “Wolf Woman” who was convicted after a security guard was killed in a robbery she committed with her husband.

Perry does a good job describing the setting. It was a much simpler time and it’s easy to look at this cases with modern eyes and wonder why these woman went free. But it was a different time and men didn’t believe than women were capable of murder. There were excuses, like they were under the influence of alcohol. I’d also like to think that if women were  allowed to serve as jurors at the time, more of the women would have been convicted.

You don’t need to be familiar with the musical or movie Chicago to enjoy this book. Perry does an excellent job of bringing the cast of characters and era to life.

4.5/5 stars

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