Thursday, September 17, 2020

Chicago Soul on the page - a blog about Catherine Adel West, Natalie Moore, Gabriel Bump, Danny Gardner, Nancy Johnson

Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan, The Staple Singers, and Earth, Wind, and Fire all got their start in Chicago. Their families mostly came to the city in the Great Migration, searching for a better life. In the end, most of these music geniuses wound up leaving to get to the next stage of their careers. It is true for writers too. While Gwendolyn Brooks stayed, others like Lorraine Hansberry and Richard Wright moved on to New York, such that the Chicago Black Renaissance has often been overshadowed by Harlem’s.

Chicago’s literary scene still shines today, finding inspiration in Bronzeville and other neighborhoods with a strong history of Black culture that reflect the experience of the folks who grew up there. I think my recent entry into the world came with a nonfiction book, Natalie Y. Moore’s The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. It’s a look at how segregation and even redlining are not historical artifacts. Moore uses a combination of reporting and memoir to look at the housing boom of the 2000s and why properties in African American neighborhoods crashed faster and harder than others.

Like many books, I read Moore’s book because we were having an event, and we were having an event because either I, the publisher, or the author realized that Chicago is only two hours away and there’s an opportunity to reach another market without the cost of a plane trip and hotel. It was an excellent talk, and I continued to keep my eye out for Chicago writers who might be interested in taking the trip.

One book that caught my eye last fall was Gabriel Bump’s Everywhere You Don’t Belong. I read it, I sent in a rec (it was an Indie Next pick for February), I set up a public event, and because I thought it would cross over well, a daytime event at a local high school. Bump was scheduled for the first week where everything got cancelled. Don’t worry, my friend Michael at Algonquin said, we can schedule for when he comes back for Printers Row in June. Meanwhile, the school, in an act that would soon be commonplace, converted their program to virtual. Bump was a hit!

Eventually we figured out how to pivot to virtual events, and we hosted him with UWM ACCESS in July. I thought the conversation with Nasif Rogers and Shana Lucas was one of the best we’ve ever had. I’m sure Bump says this to all the bookstores, but he was particularly effusive in his praise. Watch the video here. And you can read my rec on Everywhere You Don't Belong on our website's item page.

Danny Gardner spent his formative years in Chicago, but now lives in California. When it comes to his writing, Gardner looks back to Chicago for inspiration. I should note that Bump also doesn’t live in Chicago, but in Buffalo. Larry Watson once told me he can’t write about a place until he leaves it, and I guess that might ring true for Gardner as well. Gardner visited Milwaukee for his first mystery featuring Elliot Caprice, A Negro and an Ofay as part of Murder and Mayhem, the mystery conference, now on hiatus, that brought together 30 or so writers from across the country to connect with fans and each other, run by Jon and Ruth Jordan, and helped by a team of dedicated volunteers too numerous to be named here! We wound up having a preview event with Gardner and Stephen Mack Jones, author of August Snow, Lives Laid Away, and I just noticed Dead of Winter coming out next May. But that's for a Detroit blog post.   

Gardner’s first novel sets up Elliot Caprice’s story. Caprice is a disgraced Chicago Police Officer who takes a job as a process server and winds up getting involved with unwinding the death of a north side captain of industry, caught between the police and the syndicate. Gardner’s new novel, Ace Boon Coon, plays on this theme. The heart of the story is inspired by the development of the Chicago campus of University of Illinois. The city is using eminent domain to clear the land around Maxwell Street and everybody wants in – the Irish, the Italians, the Greeks, the Black Muslims, Black church leaders. A local lawyer is representing some of the families whose property is being taken. He’s outed as the song of a Jewish crime boss that Caprice does work for. The fight escalates.

Meanwhile, the family farm is still struggling, most notably with a recent drought. On top of that, labor unrest is spreading to Southville. Elliot must juggle this, while trying to do his day job, and let’s just say, based on a simple trip to Rockford, that’s not easy. Caprice has to juggle a lot of fighting factions, and it's hard not to worry for his safety. It’s a violent time that even comes with a bombing (which is interesting, as I also just read The Fate of a Flapper from Susanna Calkins, which is set almost blocks from Ace Boon Coon’s center of action, only in the 1920s, when bombings were also not uncommon – they play a part in Calkins’s latest as well). Gardner weaves big personalities into a story seeped in historic Chicago, with a little family drama, some romance, and well, violence. Hey, it’s a thriller, what did you expect? One note - Ace Boon Coon has a lot of moving parts and you might need a notepad to keep track of them.

Danny Gardner is talking to Nick Petrie about his book on Friday, September 18, 7 pm. You can register here. And while you likely won’t have gotten to the book before our event, I think you’ll find Gardner a fascinating interview. He’s got a lot to say about historic times, contemporary times, publishing for a Black writer, and his interest in building an entrepreneurial business that celebrates Black culture. 

Watch Gardner on WTMJ4's Morning Blend here.    

In a way, these other books led me back to Catherine Adel West’s Saving Ruby King, which came out in June. I received a manuscript last fall I think. I can still see the letter attached, but not the signature. In any case, I am certainly not always able to read the manuscripts as they aren’t always as smooth as advance copies or even finished books. Little did I know I would one day be begging for them, as I have a particularly hard time getting through ebooks. In fact, I haven’t gotten through one at all. I’ve had to print several, after obtaining permission.

I read about 50 pages of Saving Ruby King and liked it, but something happened, probably a deadline to get through other books, and I wound up letting it go. Then came COVID, and it didn’t make sense to chase Chicago authors quite so much with everything virtual. But while working with UWM ACCESS, the grant program that is working on initiatives to diversify school curricula, I was trying to think of a book event that would make a nice thank you to the educators that had been working on the program. The way my brain works is that I imagine what book I would hand-sell to them. And I kept coming back to Saving Ruby King, but the way that happened was through another book that isn’t coming out until 2021. 

This connection starts with another writer, Christina Clancy, who wrote The Second Home, one of our big novels of 2020. It’s not set in Chicago, but Clancy has made friends with a lot of other writers, and one of them, Nancy Johnson, has a book coming out called The Kindest Lie, and Christi (I know her well enough to call her by her first name) thought we’d be a good match for an event. After writing back and forth, I’m super excited about this book and already have a great conversation partner lined up. 

Johnson and I chatted about books. Her novel is set, no surprise based on the theme of this blog, in Chicago. I chatted about other books I’ve read (from this blog and others) and we started talking about Saving Ruby King, which Johnson really liked. Intrigued, I asked the publisher if Catherine Adel West was still doing virtual events and she was. I pitched ACCESS and they were on board. And now to tell all of you why I liked Saving Ruby King so much.

The story starts with two friends, Ruby and Layla. Ruby’s mom Alice has just been murdered. Layla knows that Ruby’s dad Lebanon is abusive to her family and she’s suspicious that maybe he’s responsible for her death, only Layla’s dad Jackson, a church minister, wants her to have nothing to do with this. What Layla doesn’t know is that Jackson has a secret that binds him close to Lebanon and has led to some blackmail. And what just about any of the younger generation don’t know is that their grandmothers (Sara, Naomi, Violet) also have a secret, but with Naomi dead and Sara dying in a hospital, will they ever find out how this connects to the family legacies?

West expertly juggles several characters here and really gives you a rich portrait of Chicago’s South Side. I particularly was intrigued by her portrait of Beverly, which I didn’t know much about, much like Gabe Bump really brought the South Shore to life. With the generational aspect of the story, West noted the promise that Chicago offered to families coming up from the Great Migration, in this case Tennessee, and how Tennessee now called them back with the promise sort of broken. I was interested in how the younger generation interacted with White Chicagoans, where they felt comfortable, and where they noticed systemic racism. I wouldn’t call the book a mystery, but I thought Adel did well with the mystery elements, offering twists and double twists that changed my perceptions of the characters.

I really liked the way the church was such an important part of the story. Much the way Brit Bennett had the church ladies functioning as a Greek chorus in The Mothers (not set in Chicago, mind you, but when I do my San Diego post, it will absolutely be featured again), West has several chapters from the church’s perspective, reminding us that the church is only as holy as the people running it and worshiping in it. Saving Ruby King isn’t exactly Christian fiction, but it also isn’t anti-church, the way some literary novels can be. It’s more nuanced than that, and the church functions as a symbol of redemption in the story.

Catherine Adel West will be virtually talking to La Tasha Fields, the President of the Wisconsin State Reading Association – how great is that? – on Tuesday, September 29, 5:30 pm. This event is open to the public and you can register here. If you are part of ACCESS, don’t forget to register through your organization – you will get a nice thank-you. And look forward to details about our event with Nancy Johnson’s The Kindest Lie soon. I have a lot more Chicago to read, like that copy of The Warmth of Other Suns that is still sitting on my bookshelf.

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