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Wiki says: A southern belle (derived from the French word belle, ‘beautiful’) is an archetype for a young woman of the AmericanOld South’s upper class.

RoadTrip Success!

Well maybe the definition of a Southern Belle is a little archaic and superficial, but I plan to become more intimately acquainted with those states who once made up a Confederacy.

For better or worse, Michigan has always been my home.  Although I often detested and felt limited by the small town I was raised in, heading back to MI from college, Chicago, and then NYC was always a trip that I looked forward to.  There’s a feeling of calm when you’re heading back to a world so recognizable – knowing every street, where the creaky floor board is, how to sneakily turn up the heat on the pool just enough that your dad won’t notice, and being able to walk to the bathroom in the dark without tripping and no fumbling for lightswitches, since hell, you’ve been in the same house you entire life (well, except for the first eight months but who’s counting).

Well as of last week, the life I knew has changed by… 692.77 miles and an 11 hour drive (Mapquest).

That’s right, folks, my parents, Northerner’s born and bred, have relocated to Tunica, Mississippi!  You may be familiar with the city (no judgments here) because it is the third most popular gambling destination in the United States, behind Vegas and Atlantic City!  My Dad is not a professional poker player and I doubt my mom will ever wear the costume of a cocktail waitress, but they will live a mere ten minutes from the lights of the casinos.

My mom and I road-tripped down to Tunica last week for the final move – the two of us, Skippy the dog, and a load of my mom’s favorite plants (the “greenhouse” had much more room than poor Skippy and I who had to share the front seat!).  Tunica is a very cute little town overflowing with nice, friendly southerners.  I got my hair done (note to self: always get hair done in South; much better pricing than NYC extravagance!) and in that two hours, was given a brief lesson in Southern etiquette and history.

Dad in front of the Tunica Times newspaper

But I need to know more.  The South truly is a different world. Not only do people have accents  (which is #1 on my Southern Belle list – I hope to pick mine up over the Christmas holidays) but a different history than what I grew up with.  So while I’m searching for all the light switches in our new house next time I visit (when I left after my stay, there were outdoor lights on that we had no idea how they came on, or how to turn off!), I plan to be educating myself on the life from my perch in NYC.

My Southern Book List:

Mom & Skippy in the MS living room pre-moving truck arrival

I wouldn’t even know where to begin to make this a Southern Belle Challenge, but I would love to hear if anyone wanted to dive in to the deep south with me!  Also, I’m sure I’m missing valuable southern literature so please y’all, feel free to make suggestions.

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Cover Blurb:  “Treat yourself to this book, please–I can’t recommend it highly enough.” -Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society BookSweet but never boring.  Intense but never overdone.  Inspiring but never preaching.  Loving but never raunchy.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a rare novel, one that comes into our life without a sound, but leaves having made an imprint on our soul.

Such an odd, cumbersome title, and one that may have never appealed to me personally except Random House professionals, Susan Kamil, SVP, Editor-in-Chief, and Jane Von Mehren, VP, Publisher, Trade Paperbacks, came to my NYU SPI class to share their experience and the road to success.  This title is globally recognized as this book has been on the New York Times Bestseller List since publication in 2008 (read the inside story of how it achieved such fame in my column on Beneath the Cover, “The Making of a Bestseller”).  Small in stature (the trade paperback a mere 274 pages), this book may initially be cast-off as a whimsical historical fiction novel until you try to put it down… I dare you to leave it untouched for a full 24-hours once you’ve begun.

The characters are lively, quirky, and lovable as they communicate via hand-written letters in 1946, as they rediscover themselves and their world post the trauma and impact of World War II.  You find yourself wanting novelist Juliet Ashton as your own pen pal and quiet Dawsey Adams as a neighbor.  Twists and turns are discrete and natural so that you almost don’t realize when a revelation occurs and the impact in the character’s life.

This novel celebrates people who love books and the written word.  Text, language and history are embraced within remarkable friendships.

Though the era has passed, issues of love, hope, and the kindness of the human spirit will always be timeless and this book (I wager) is destined to become a classic alongside the titles of the authors celebrated in the text, including the Brontes, Austen, Shakespeare, etc… This book  appeals to a wide audience, as it is told from multiple perspectives allowing a glimpse into different psyches.  I agree with Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote, above, to give yourself the gift of this book.

  • NovelWhore’s Grade: A
  • Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  • Publisher: Random House

I’ve led a pretty blessed life.  Lucky in family and friends, my only big unrequited “want” comes in the form of Mingo, the thousand pound horse I fell in love with when I was twelve.  Always an imaginative child, I also believed in the mythical counterpart of my beloved palomino – that of the Unicorn.

Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry - Paris

Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry - Paris

Being a fan of historical fiction, along with my admitted interest in unicorns, when I found Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn on sale at betterworldbooks.com (great site – cheap books, free shipping, and profits help fund literacy programs) I immediately added it to my overflowing digital shopping cart.  Being a fan of Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, I planned to enjoy this novel about my mythical unicorn even more.

I was disappointed.

While an interesting look at the almost-noble family of Jean Le Viste – his miserable and unappreciated wife and their three daughters (Le Viste blames his wife for not bearing a son), the story lacks character development and interaction.  Based on the real-life mystery surrounding the six Lady and the Unicorn tapestries that hang in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris (pictured above), this novel follows the imaginary artist Nicholas des Innocents in his seductions while his art is woven into tapestries.

The figure of the mythical unicorn is used as a tool in seduction, as des Innocents uses the supposed purifying powers of the horn to deflower and impregnate women.  His true love and passion for Claude, the eldest daughter of Le Viste, can only show through his artwork, as they belong to different classes which were nontransferable in the the 15th century.

While rich in details of life in the 1490’s, especially when following the family of the weaver, it is hard to get too attached to any character.  There are many minor players in the story, whose lives all manage to weave together (excuse the pun) throughout.

My biggest fault with this book is the lack of a satisfactory conclusion.  lady-and-the-unicorn-bookNicholas des Innocents is invited to a part at the Le Viste compound at which the tapestries will be unveiled.  At this event, he and Claude have a quick rendezvous under the table before her arranged marriage is announced.  The book comes to an end with a look at the unsatisfactory and unfulfilled lives of those we learned about throughout the story.  I guess realistic, as not everyone ends up happy all the time, but it seemed to be an incredibly melancholy ending for an imagined tale.

Mediocre at best, this book left me wanting much more from the 250 pages read.  Also, I wanted the unicorn to have a bigger impact, but that’s a personal complaint!

  • NovelWhore’s Grade: C
  • Title: The Lady and the Unicorn
  • Author: Tracy Chevalier
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult

The other night a group of 11 of us girls got together for a 25th birthday dinner for a friend.  Quartino’s, the fun Gold Coast spot we chose for shared small-plates and affordable wine was smart enough to seat our loud-chattering and wine-induced crowd into our own private, window enclosed room.  In which we could look through the glass at the other diners if we so chose, or had the option of pulling the shades, making out own secret room.  Romantic? Maybe with a different crowd.  Prestigious? Potentially, if we weren’t buying the cheapest liters of house wine from the menu.  Secretive?  Definitely.  My mind immediately went to the “Mob-like” activities that could have, and most likely did, occur in similar rooms throughout Chicago in the 1990s.

“Most cities have one overriding claim to fame.  Say Los Angeles and you think about the movies; say Paris, you think art; Detroit, cars.  But when people the world over, say Chicago, they think of something less marketable:  Organized Crime.” -Robert Cooley

Since I’ve been unemployed, I’ve had time to wander the city (please note my updated To Do: Chicago list) and really have begun to appreciate the history that’s apparent on every street.  To delve into the past, I’ve decided to embark on a trip down the darker side of Chicago, that of the Mob, and Robert Cooley, cited above, is the rabble-rousing teenager -> policeman -> lawyer -> crooked lawyer -> government informant who is the source to take us behind the scenes of the once all-powerful Chicago Outfit.

Certain aspects of mob life are rather appealing… The glitz and glamour, bottles of champagne (as opposed to the house wine!) at all the hottest bars and clubs, the notoriety and special attention, almost like a modern day celebrity with an underlying aspect of danger (Chris Brown, anyone?!)… But of course, that’s ignoring the drugs, violence, total un-loyalty and the all too common occurrence of being unaware you’re being treated to your last supper before being violently disposed of in a very inhumane way, most likely by a trusted confidant.

This is a memoir/autobiography told from one immersed in the mob, and character_cooleynot always on the right side of the law – When Corruption Was King: How I Helped the Mob Rule Chicago, Then Brought the Outfit Down.

Robert Cooley was the “Mechanic” for the Chicago Mafia – nothing to do with cars, he was the lawyer responsible for buying judges and guaranteeing a “Not Guilty” verdict for hitmen and gamblers alike.  In return for his services, Cooley enjoyed protected as well as a steady influx of cash to feed any vice in which he chose to indulge, and there were many.

I tend to be naive, but I believe that even for those jaded, cynical people, the depth of corruption was shocking – from the police force to government officials, the Mob had ties, and typically high-ranking officials, in every office.

Harry Aleman in 1977. He was the Outfit’s top Hit Man, "the killing machine."

The Outfit’s top Hit Man, "the killing machine."

In an inexplicable attack of conscience, Cooley strolled into the office of the FBI’s Organized Crime Strike Force and turned the tables on the mob, wearing a wire from 1986-1989, eventually becoming responsible for more than 30 convictions.

An intense book about a piece of Chicago’s history many would rather was forgotten, this is a nail-biting tale that manages to drag the reader in even though Cooley isn’t always likable.  I guess to put your life in danger with a notoriously violence group who will put a $1MM reward on your head takes a cocky man, and Cooley definitely fits the bill.

Read this if: You’re into gangster lore, crime stories, Chicago’s history, or are still upset The Sopranos went off-air.

Avoid this if: You believe justice is always served fair and equal, and want to remain believe so.

  • NovelWhore’s Grade: B+
  • Title: When Corruption Was King: How I Helped the Mob Rule Chicago, Then Brought the Outfit Down
  • Author: Robert Cooley with Hillel Levin
  • Publisher: Carroll & Graf Publishers, an imprint of Avalon

NovelWhore rambling: Much of this book takes place in my Gold Coast neighborhood, and I have to admit my over-active imagination has been taking me places with every well-dressed man I see walking down the street, especially those with an entourage and a bulge (imagined? possibly…) beneath a suit jacket that could very likely be a gun… Could a group so in-charge and infamous as recent as the 1990s be really be made obsolete?  I can’t help wondering what lucrative business deals the mob has a hold on now, though I like to believe they have refocused their sites on the less-popular prostitution and gambling rings and the courts are now clean… Thoughts?!

I love the Bean in Millennium Park!

I love the Bean in Millennium Park!

It has officially been 172 years since the city of Chicago has been incorporated! Still gorgeous, though having undergone a few bouts with plastic surgery (especially after that big fire in 1871), Chicago is still a mecca of culture, skyscrapers, nightlife and history.

Also of note, today is NATIONAL GRAMMAR DAY! Total nerd comment, but my English teacher roommate informed me and I think it should be celebrated by all.  Maybe brush up on some who vs. whom and the basic good vs. well.

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