Kudos for Kotlowitz – Award for ‘The Interrupters’ Acknowledges Another Important Work

The incredible efforts and social dedication of Alex Kotlowitz have once again been recognized. The Interrupters, a film by Steve James and Kotlowitz, won Best Documentary at the Film Independent Spirit Awards Saturday night.

The Interrupterstells the moving and surprising story of three ‘violence interrupters’ in Chicago who with bravado, humility and even humor try to protect their communities from the violence they once employed.”

In honor of Kotlowitz’s win, I’m posting a piece I did a few years ago pertaining to the heavy impact his book There Are No Children Here had upon me  while living in Chicago. To get a feel for the powerful, magnanimous art of Kotlowitz, take a look at the trailer for The Interrupters.

NLR – Kotlowitz Perseveres in Granta Piece

Years ago when I was living in Chicago, I read There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. Up to that point, Chicago had been my happy college home. The Chicago I had grown to love carried its own energetic pulse with its winking, open-windowed restaurants, beckoning beer gardens, star-lit nights at Wrigley, and the constant comforting rumble of the El. Navigating the Loop and northern neighborhoods both day and night, I believed Chicago to be the friendliest city in the world and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

But after my literary introduction to young Lafayette and Pharoah in There Are No Children Here, my view of the city took a different turn – not worse, just different. Realizing these young boys lived mere miles from my Lincoln Park playground left me unable to total the sum of my advantages. How had I been riding the El over the projects for years without truly thinking about the people occupying them?

It is to the credit of Kotlowitz that I began to think outside of my insular box. I began to tutor in Cabrini Green, and upon graduating from Loyola took a teaching job in a poor, tagged pocket on Chicago’s West side. As I slowly peeled back the layers of my privilege, I was quickly made aware of the violence inherent in these communities.

On my first day of teaching, my doe-eyed second grade students informed me that the closest neighboring school wouldn’t be starting until the following day. Why? Because a body had been found in the parking lot and the school needed to be taped off as a crime scene. I was stunned, but based on the kids’ reactions this event seemed a matter of course rather than surprise.

Regardless, I continued to love and live in Chicago for ten more years. Though I still had my fun it came with a deeper understanding of my dual surroundings, and the essence of Kotlowitz’s work filtered into my expanding view of privilege and poverty.

I now write this from my home in Michigan, which sits within the borders of my youth a mere twenty minutes from Detroit. However, while I’ve settled into a quieter appreciation of suburban life, Alex Kotlowitz is still hard at work. With the arrival of my most recent issue of Granta, I realize Mr. Kotlowitz continues his attempt to create some understanding of the incomprehensible.

His Granta contribution Khalid is a brief, heartbreaking work which looks at the people behind the violence that continues to puncture the heart of Chicago. It is a work that translates to any major American city, including Detroit, that suffers the pointless murder of its youth.

So, as my content life buzzes along with errands, carpools, work and quick trips to Target, it is with sheer admiration that I once again read the work of Mr. Kotlowitz – a man who has valiantly dedicated himself to recognizing the gross racial and social discrepancies of our time.

Other works by Alex Kotlowitz:

There Are No Children Here

The Other Side of the River

Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Natalie Taylor Brings ‘Signs of Life’ to Birmingham Biggby Coffee

Signs of Life: A MemoirWhat do you do if you’re 24 years old, five months pregnant, and your husband suddenly – tragically – dies? If you’re Natalie Taylor, you write one honestly good book. Yes, we all know that shelves sag with overdone memoirs of tainted childhoods, deeds done wrong, and ruined lives, but Taylor defies the dark and opts to soar instead with this tight uplifter, Signs of Life.

Natalie’s husband Josh Taylor died on Father’s Day of 2007. He was 27 years old, married to the woman he loved, and happily awaiting the birth of their first child. Who would have thought that a quick blow to the back of his head while Carveboarding would put an end to his own life just as the one he created was beginning to bloom?

Signs of Life is the narrative compilation of Natalie Taylor’s journal entries that span the year following her husband’s death, yet Taylor’s pragmatic approach toward handling her grief is precisely what lands Signs of Life in its own little camp of the genre. Though Taylor’s voice cuts with pure pain and candor, she unwittingly softens the blow with her straight-forward sincerity and unwavering humor.

“When I decide to do something, I want it done quickly. I do not dilly-dally. When Dr. G. told me that grief takes time, I wanted to say, ‘But what about for the smart kids?’ I took Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Let’s talk Advanced Placement Grief. But one of the first things I realize about this stupid emotion is that AP Grief does not exist. Time goes by, weeks pass, a month passes, my belly grows, my hair grows, but when I wake up in the morning it feels exactly the same. Grief goes at its own speed.”

As Taylor begins to piece together the brokenness of her life, the fog of her grief lifts just enough to reveal a bit more of both herself and the world around her. Through Josh’s death, Taylor is inadvertently exposed to life outside of the insulated bubble in which she grew up. Instead of self-absorption with her own sorrows, Taylor finds in herself an unexpected wellspring of compassion and understanding for all walks of life.

Taylor is a high school English teacher, and she structures Signs of Life around the books she teaches and those that pass through her hands the year after Josh’s death. Seeking solace through literature, Taylor looks to some heavy hitters for help. Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are but a few of the many authors who step up to hold Taylor’s grieving hand.

Also balanced by the support of some killer friends and family, Taylor puts you on a nickname basis with Ads, Matthews, Moo and more, but it’s never overdone. Taylor’s memoir is incredibly fresh and breathes life and hilarity into the not-so-funny-at-all realm of death, darkness and grief. While Signs of Life is based on Josh Taylor’s terribly sad and untimely death, one can’t miss the budding evolution of a determined woman, a beautiful baby boy, and the incredible ongoing power of life.

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– Post by Megan Shaffer

Essays and Credits and Recs, Oh My! Korelitz Spins Tale Around Secrets of ‘Admission’

AdmissionThe complex process of college admissions is a high-pressured business that few of us will ever see from the inside. With big money on the line and parents pushing their kids to the brink of insanity, applying to college has become a game of high emotional and monetary stakes. Suffice it to say, the days of easy-flow transition from high school to college are definitely a thing of the past.

There are some 37,000 secondary schools in the United States, yet those who attend  posh prep schools up the ante and level of admissions play by deploying an annual mass of glowing curricula vitae to America’s finest universities. Not only do these high caliber students put the squeeze on the competition, but they also turn up the heat for admission officers as they attempt to bring only the best and brightest to their respective campuses.

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz provides a glimpse into the chaotic, mystifying world of university admissions in her engaging novel Admission. Korelitz has firsthand experience with the process of Princeton University admissions where she was a part-time reader for their Office of Admission during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Intimate with student essays, credentials, and recommendations, Korelitz fuels her story with the angst and crush of desperate 18 year olds determined to make a difference.

Main character Portia Nathan, also an admissions officer for Princeton University, takes us inside the big machine of Ivy student acceptance and decline. Hand picking from thousands of applicants across the globe leaves Portia emotionally drained as the future lives of the finest students teeter on the brink of her decision. The “ordinarily qualified, the usually brilliant, and the expectedly talented” are all relative when moving through the towering stacks of mega potential.

The drama surrounding Portia’s personal life is a bit predictable and overdone, but the characters are vidid and certainly entertain. Admission exposes the shocking world of inflated ego, poor parent behavior, privilege, entitlement, and the lengths that people will go to access the ivory tower.

Not everyone was as entertained by Admission as I was, particularly this high school senior who reviewed Korelitz’s “silly novel” for The New York Times. Regardless, should you live in an area of privilege and affluence and think your child is a shoo-in for the ivy league, Admission is a must read and will definitely leave you thinking again.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Bruce Allen Kopytek Brings “Jake’s” Back to Birmingham – ‘Jacobson’s: I Miss It So!’

Jacobson's: I Miss It So!I clearly remember sunny strolls through the streets of Birmingham as a young girl. Hoping to hit my dad up for a new pair of Levi’s at Here and Now, popping into Machus for their famous savory salad, or ogling the infinite selection of Pappagallo purse covers  were often on my little shopping list of likes as we walked easy around 1980’s downtown Birmingham.

The one store that I never had to plead a visit to was Jacobson’s. If you lived in the Birmingham area, you’ll recall that Jacobson’s, in it’s day, was a fashionable destination that offered everything from wedding gowns to baby booties. Elegant sales men and women would efficiently assist as you browsed, quietly calculate your totals on small hand-written pads, and deftly tissue your purchases and send you on your way.

From it’s opening in 1950 until it’s closing in 2002, “Jake’s” was a mainstay of  Birmingham’s bustling retail district. The modest store that began in Reed City, Michigan in 1868 not only expanded across the state, but into the hearts and memories of its patrons as well.

Shelby Township author and architect Bruce Allen Kopytek has carved a unique literary niche for himself as a department store historian. Kopytek’s interest in department stores that either no longer exist or have changed beyond recognition are, in fact, the impetus behind his book Jacobson’s: I Miss It So! The Story of a Michigan Fashion Institution (The History Press).

Kopytek’s Jacobson’s: I Miss It So! takes a look at the much loved Michigan institution, the various buildings and personalities behind the upscale outfitter, and Nathan Rosenfeld, the retail genius behind it all. Kopytek’s nostalgic retail story and study Jacobson’s: I Miss It So! was also recently selected as a 2012 Michigan Notable Book.

Though Jacobson’s no longer  exists physically, Mr. Kopytek has managed to preserve it virtually. If you have the time, it is well worth a visit to Kopytek’s blog, the Department Store Museum. This online site  is a beauty designed to pay homage to “America’s great, late-lamented department stores.” Other stores featured include Gimbels, I. Magnin & Co., and Sage-Allen with fabulous pictures and intriguing information.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Ayad Akhtar’s ‘American Dervish’ – Muslim from the Midwest

American DervishAyad Akhtar’s anticipated debut novel, American Dervish, hit shelves this past Monday. Though I reviewed it for the upcoming issue at Bookbrowse.com, I will share that it is a solid, accessible work that both delights and disturbs.

Akhtar is an American-born, first-generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee. As such, there’s an authenticity to his work that offers readers an open, innocent approach to Islam, and allows an inside look at Muslim life in America prior to 9/11.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Dervish that Akhtar is a screenwriter. Entertaining yet provoking, Dervish is a page-flipper that will leave those in the movie industry fighting for film rights.

Ayad Akhtar on American Dervish

Review Links (Beware of possible spoilers)

NPR – Growing Up Muslim and Midwestern in ’Dervish’

New York Times – Stumbling Through an American Muslim Maze

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

2012 Michigan Notable Books Announced

The much anticipated 2012 Michigan Notable Books were announced today. The Library of Michigan annually decides on 20 of the most notable books that “are reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience” and feature “high-quality titles with wide public appeal.” (via)

This year’s list, which features fiction, nonfiction, picture and children’s books alike, were either penned by a Michigan resident or written about a subject related to the Great Lakes region.

“The list has been a year-end tradition since 1991 with selections made by a panel under the umbrella of the official state library, part of the Michigan Department of Education,” states the Detroit Free Press. “Authors don’t receive prize money for the award, but the prestige of appearing on what has become a high-profile list does invite greater visibility and a potential bump in sales.”

This year Night Light Revue weighs in on only three of the 20 titles, and all fiction at that. I must say that Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River is not only my favorite book of 2011, but now falls into my “best book of all time” list. Also, Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior is highly entertaining while Scott Sparling’s Wire to Wire is a dark and dirty little ride.

Sales aside, Michigan now holds some of the country’s hottest authors in its mittened hand. Regardless, our authors modestly accept their awards and graciously make themselves available to Michigan readers through library tours, appearances and literary engagements. In addition, our university presses get a big boost and a much deserved nod for their remarkable, prolific publications.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Author Alan Bradley Gives the Gift of Flavia this Christmas

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce Series #4) She’s baaacccckkkk!

If you have yet to meet cheeky wunderkind Flavia de Luce, author Alan Bradley is giving you another fabulous chance. I’m Half-Sick of Shadows is the fourth installment in Bradley’s shrewd series involving the saucy eleven-year-old super sleuth, Flavia de Luce.

No job’s too big for Flavia as long as it involves a dead body and a chance for the flourishing chemist to get her Bunson burners blazing. With her lab tucked into the far corner of the east wing of Buckshaw’s crumbling estate, the solitary Flavia puts her mind and passion for poisons to work in order to solve whatever mysteries might come her way.

One wouldn’t think the pastoral countryside of Bishop’s Lacey would offer much action for anyone, let alone a gifted little girl with ants in her pants. However, Alan Bradley has imagined the perfect setting for Flavia to toy with village authorities and tinker with the clues of Bishop Lacey’s latest homicide.

Flavia is a character to behold. Fresh and enthusiastic, she has made her way into the multi-aged hearts of her readers and settled in as one of literature’s finest female crime-solvers.

Wrapping up her first mystery in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (followed by The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag and A Red Herring Without Mustard), Flavia has blossomed right alongside Bishop Lacey’s body count. Now, Bradley gives  the gift of Flavia this Christmas as she returns for some Yuletide mystery in I’m Half-Sick of Shadows (trailer).

While Flavia enchants, Alan Bradley himself fascinates. He taught Script Writing and Television Production and was one of the founding members of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. Bradley, who is an electronic engineer, worked at numerous radio and television stations and was the Director of Television Engineering in the media center at the University of Saskatchewan before retiring to write.

Remarkably, Bradley became a first-time novelist at the age of 70 and continues to rake in honors and accolades for his Flavia de Luce series.

Whispers of movie rights are in the air, but let’s hope that Alan Bradley doesn’t relinquish control of his little lady any time soon. Characters this enjoyable are much better played in the mind than on the big screen.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer