Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe (Fiction — Audio book)

Summer 1999 — the Robert Taylor Homes (aka the Projects) on State Street on the South Side of Chicago. 12-year old Felicia (Fefe) is happy jumping rope on the third floor porch with her three friends: Precious, the daughter of a pastor; Stacia, member of the notorious, gang-affiliated, Buchanan family; and newcomer Tanya, the ultra-timid, obviously neglected daughter of a crackhead on the 10th floor. Everything changes during this fateful summer: The Chicago Housing Authority is demolishing all of the Project buildings on State Street, and theirs is slated to go next; her brother, Meechee, is taken by the police in the middle of the night in a warrantless raid; random gunfire becomes more frequent; and Stacia begins to favor the family business over jumping rope.

Labeled a novel, the story reads like a memoir, and it would be easy to believe that much of the story comes from the author’s personal experience as she was raised in the Robert Taylor Homes in this time period. The writing is excellent (I have no quotes as I listened to it on audio), and the reader is absolutely excellent — perfect pacing, differentiated and consistent voices for the multiple characters, and beautifully timbre in her voice. Told in the first person from Fefe’s perspective, we follow her through that summer and then on through her life for the next twenty years, giving her an opportunity to revisit the turning point that summer was and to get closure on some of the events. It’s a gritty and truthful telling with added introspective commentary as Fefe comes of age in the midst of gangs, police crackdowns, drugs, single mothers on the one hand, and a strong community, loving family, and supportive clergy, teachers, and neighbors on the other. I love the advice she is given, the wide array of people from whom she gets it, and what she does with it. Fefe is a success story — she gets out of the Projects and finds her vocation in helping others — unlike some of the friends she had who do not have some of the same advantages offseting the meanness, cruelty, and unfairness of the environment.

This is a coming-of-age story, not a political treatise. Her conclusion near the very end is that “We are not the originator of our misfortunes — we are all the victims of it.” Her point: people do what they have to do to survive. I would have been a little happier with some ideas on what creates these misfortunes and how everyone — including those who live amidst it — could contribute to making it better.

Thank you to Harper Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 14th, 2022.

Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close (Fiction)


Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

Cousins Teddy, Gretchen, and Jane alternate perspectives on their not-quite-mid life crises in Chicago as Trump wins the election and the Cubs finally win the World Series just weeks after their biggest fan — famed restaurateur Bud Sullivan — passes away. His eponymous restaurant is the center of most of the action as Teddy struggles with an affair with his recently-ex, not engaged boyfriend, Gretchen is forced to leave her band, pondering her “failed experiment with adulthood,” and Jane uses a cheating husband to examine what she wants in life (hint: it turns out not to be him).

It’s a fun story with a decent amount of insight as characters figure out how to keep going in a world that seems to be falling apart. Great family dynamics and social commentary.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday and Custom House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 26th, 2021.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (Literary fiction / audio book)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

Russ Hildebrandt is the (unhappy, and frankly to me fairly unlikeable) associate pastor at a suburban Chicago church. Set in the early 70s, the story follows a year or two in the lives of Russ, his wife, and his three oldest children through their multiple perspectives — each in searing, fully introspective, sometimes cringeworthy but always honest detail. Each seeks to balance desires, morality, and a need to belong in the world into which they are born. Russ finds his marriage joyless and finds passion in thoughts of a young, divorced parishioner, his wife Marion has a terrible and secret history which fills her with shame, Clem struggles with the moral luxury of his Vietnam deferment, Becky finds God in the counter culture, and young Perry — an insufferable genius — tries to find ways to calm his brain.

It is a masterful undertaking with broad strokes painted through millions of tiny perceptions, struggles, self-doubts, and experiences. The culture of the time comes to life in this way as well — the interactions and expectations between men and women and the birth of Women’s Lib, the awakening of the counter culture which itself had many guises, Vietnam, and the approach to helping the “poor.” Very strong themes on faith, religion, and relationships with God, though I wouldn’t call this an overly religious book.

The writing was amazing. As I listened to this on audio, I was not able to capture any of the outstanding lines which frustrated me as there were many. On the other hand, listening to the book forced me to “read” it slowly so that I was able to savor the language in a way my normal reading speed does not allow. On the first hand, some of the sections inspired recoil. Sometimes it feels like its best to not know what really goes on inside a person’s head — especially a person prone to self-analysis and neuroses as these people all are. If I had been reading, rather than listening to, this book, I might have skimmed a little of this, though in truth I would have missed the experience of truly inhabiting a mind completely unlike my own — I’m sure that is good for me!

Apparently, this is the first of a multi-generational trilogy, which I did not know until after I finished it. This book provides closure on the story — no cliffhangers.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on October 5th, 2021.

Becoming by Michelle Obama (Memoir)

I loved this memoir — I expected the good writing, but I did not expect it to be so engaging (starting at page one and continuing throughout). I particularly liked the fact that it was a real memoir — very personal, often poignant, and focused on experiences and insight rather than a political agenda (which is what I was expecting).

Obama has a real talent for observation and introspection. She provides just enough detail and commentary to fully describe events without ever belaboring the point (or going off on unrelated tangents). She described race and gender issues from her own experiences without using them to tee up soapbox lectures. Instead, she focused on what she encountered, what impact things had on her, and what she personally tried to do (often successfully, sometimes not) to introduce more fairness in the world. She didn’t belabor the points, and I appreciated that she didn’t appear to stick to a straight party line. For example, she was part of a Gifted and Talented experiment at her elementary school — which was fantastic for her. She pointed out that people have claimed this is an undemocratic approach. With a few short sentences she managed to present both an opposition and an example of a positive personal impact without drawing conclusions or even stating an opinion on the issue.

It was fascinating to be able to share in her experiences: growing up on the South Side of Chicago, falling in love, having children, going through political campaigns, and of course being the First Lady. Never petty, never gossipy, the narrative always felt honest. Obviously, nobody writes a memoir to make themselves look bad, but I found some pretty honest analysis of why she made certain decisions, what she regretted, what she worried about.

For those who are hoping for another Obama presidency, it’s clear after reading this book that it is not to be! Michelle made it very clear that she has ideas and energy around the issues, but not around the politics in which they are embedded. I’m with her 100% on that one.

This book is inspiring and enlightening and intriguing. I’m sorry I put off reading it for so long.

Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 1st, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 2/5 Characters: 3/5

Cate is a single, forty-something, lesbian, set designer in Chicago whose friends and colleagues have largely moved on. It is 2016 — Cate’s ultra-paranoid, thrice divorced, ex-husband is shacking up in her extra room; she is struggling to end an ongoing affair with a married woman; and a new girlfriend she sees as her best shot at adult stability is exhibiting questionable ethical behavior. In this setting she simultaneously experiences the “worst event and biggest break”: she rescues a friend during a violent and traumatic home invasion and is offered the chance to work on an exciting off-broadway play.

The book is beautifully written and the characters (especially Cate) are portrayed with great depth. While being a lesbian is not the point of the book, Cate’s queerness (her selection of term) informs a great deal of her thoughts and actions. There is not a lot of action — the home invasion takes place about half way through the book and itself takes up few pages. Instead, it is a thorough portrayal of her life — thoughts, actions, interactions, and world events — during a few months late 2016 / early 2017. I appreciated the scenes about her theater work (I wish there had been more) and the writing is really excellent, but for me there was not enough insight or character change to warrant the book length (without any compensating action). Things moved on in a very slow-paced, realistic, and ultimately unsatisfying, way. I found Cate to be a weak character, still struggling with the same issues (all completely under her own control) at the end of the book as at the beginning.

This book does have great lines — here are a few:

“Living casually in the moment seemed so vibrant, but has left her looking over her shoulder at a pile of used-up hours and days, hearing the scratchy sound of frittering.”

“She has come to understand that room temperature in the demographic she aspires to is a more personally controlled business.”

“The other customers exist somewhere else on the dining matrix, all of them in parallel, convivial but hushed universes.”

“Now, though, the cat’s out of the bag. Now the cat is hopping all over the place, demanding attention.”

“A heavy, standing ashtray is surrounded by a population of emphysemic ghosts.”

“Something delicious about all the secrecy. Now everything’s so in the open, we’re free from fear and oppression, but we’ve traded up for being commonplace. Queer’s as boring as straight now.

“She understand she has arrived on another side of everything. No one is over here with her.”

“Everything about him is aimed at the greater good, but in matters of personal kindness, he often comes up short.

“Her thoughts these days are not her friends. Which doesn’t keep them from stopping by, particularly at night when she is too tired to fight them off.”