The Shining Girls

After a string of books that left me feeling exhausted both mentally and emotionally, it was time for a break. I wanted some literary equivalent of pop rocks: bright, snappy, and done in a flash. Enter, The Shining Girls.

Lauren Beukes’s 2013 novel was the poppy, page-turning summer read I was looking for. Set in Chicago, we meet time-traveling serial killer Harper Curtis and spunky victim-cum-survivor, Kirby Mazrachi. Harper’s power to flit in and out of time makes him seemingly impossible to catch, and the book leads us to wonder not just if Harper can be stopped, but how Kirby will ever figure out who attacked her and why she survived.

It was the conceit that completely drew me in. A man out of time who instead of learning about the worlds he finds himself in, learns everything he can about his next victims, his “shining girls.” Their habits. Their tics. Their likes and dislikes. Their daily routines. Everything he can until it’s time to strike, promising as always to come back for them on another day, in another time.

Beukes uses this idea to play with perspective. Alternating chapters between Harper and Kirby are expected and effective, but what I appreciated most was her decision to give each victim a chapter of her own, from her point of view, as well.

When you’re writing a book about murdered women, I think this step is crucial. Without it, the bodies stack up and mean nothing. They’re just gore and shock and horror and the death of a woman is used as set dressing and quite frankly, we live in a world that just doesn’t need any more reinforcement of the idea that the destruction of women’s bodies is “just for fun.”

Beukes humanizes these victims. Her writing is just strong enough to let the deaths pack a punch. When these victims die, it’s not horrific because it’s graphic (though it typically is graphic). It’s horrific because for just a moment, we learned something about their hopes and dreams—their innermost lives—before seeing them snuffed out forever. And because we’re floating through time, we see all manner of women throughout Chicago’s history, from the Great Depression to punk.

This is not to say that Beukes’s writing is without its missteps. In fact, many of the book’s most awkward moments come from the time-travel aspect. In an attempt to highlight what era we’re in, Beukes latches onto key historical moments, which works well with WWII. But when we get to a literal mention of Roe v. Wade, it starts feeling over the top. I don’t need to know the most pressing issues of the day to know what year it is. Thankfully, these moments are spread out.

My only other issue came with some of Beukes’s decisions regarding how several relationships were played out. Things essentially fell apart for me toward the end, leaving me scoffing or rolling my eyes during parts of the climax instead of cheering.

But I’d still put The Shining Girls ahead of Gone Girl, which I think was written about as well, but frustrated me far more. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s scary. In short? It’s everything a summer beach read should be.

The House on Mango Street

Even if you hadn’t already read it in freshman english. Even if you didn’t already know Sandra Cisneros’s poetry. Even if it hadn’t already been the pick for One Book, One Chicago. You’d know with a minute of picking up The House on Mango Street that it was pure poetry.

Another title where I’m not sure how it slipped by my literary education—I knew nothing about it until I picked it up for the first time this year.

It almost seems unfair to review it as a novel, considering how short it is (a mere 110 pages), but then that’s a limiting way to judge a book. Written in 1984 and set in my hometown, The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes told from the perspective of a young latina named Esperanza Cordero. In each chapter, she provides commentary on her neighborhood, her friends, her family, and the desire for a better life.

As short as each vignette is (some just a handful of sentences), together they create a rich picture of a specific time and place in Chicago’s history. Cisneros’s words breathe life into Esperanza’s world in a way that feels like you could almost reach out and touch it.

Mango Street fell short of a home run for me, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think it just didn’t fall within the realm of what I typically love (a meatier text, richer prose), but it was still easy to see how it made it into the canon.

Cisneros’s writing is absolutely beautiful and every now and then, one of the vignettes would drop this beautiful little jewel of truth that really hit home for me, as in the chapter, “A Smart Cookie:”

“Then out of nowhere:
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Beacuase I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.
Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

In the book, so many of Esperanza’s experiences with womanhood were the ones that resonated with me. Cisneros has a knack for distilling the experience of growing up as girl into these truly brilliant moments that transcend race and class (though the way she illuminates those nuances is equally brilliant). In those moments, I felt like we really understood each other.

Even though I can’t say this was a favorite or that I loved it, The House on Mango Street is such a rewarding, quick read that I have to recommend it as something everyone should pick up. When even the slowest reader could finish it in an afternoon, there’s really nothing standing in your way.

Boss

 

“‘He can’t quit. It’s almost a sickness. If he can, he’s going to hold onto it until he is dead. I’m sure he wants to die in office.’

And why not? He had worked all those years to get it, and it was his, the Machine, the city, and nobody could stare him down.”

 

Mayor Richard J. Daley at an election campaign rally Feb. 3, 1975. Photo by John Tweedle.

I’ve lived in Chicago for four years, and I grew up in the near West suburbs. I was born in 1987 and from 1989 until 2011, Daley was the mayor of Chicago. It was a big deal when he decided not to seek a seventh term, though I knew I was too young and too new to city life to truly comprehend what that meant. He was part of a legacy I understood even less. The Daley Dynasty. Our longest serving mayor, he served for 22 years, just barely surpassing the previous record holder—his father. Daley, Sr. ran the city from 1955 until his death in 1976. He’s the reason for Richard J. Daley Center, Daley Plaza, and that famous Picasso.

But none of that is what spurred me to pick up Mike Royko’s seminal 1971 biography, Boss.

Illinois politics (really, Chicago politics) have a reputation. Four out of our last seven governors went to prison. Chicago has never really shaken its association with crime from Capone’s heyday, and the number of city and federal officials charged with everything from bribery to extortion isn’t doing anything to change anyone’s minds. And to top it all off, violence in the city remains at an all-time high with at least 82 people shot and 16 killed over the Fourth of July weekend. With stats like that, you can’t help but wonder what the hell is going on.

As a resident of this place for the foreseeable future, I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions. Questions like, why is it like this? How did we get here?

I do my best to keep up with the news, but I wanted more. I wanted some history. I wanted to dig a little deeper.

Enter, Boss.

Royko’s tone throughout was absolutely pitch perfect for me. I tend to prefer memoir to biography because I find the language used in the former to be more engaging or even lyrical, depending on the book. But Boss was able to do just that while still getting straight to the facts. Its first pages set the scene.

A dark Bridgeport street. A quiet red-brick bungalow. A black limousine.

We’re introduced to the indomitable Richard J. Daley as we follow him through a typical day. We meet who he meets. We go where he goes. We see the world through his schedule rather than his eyes. This is how Royko sucks you in.

Once inside, it’s a barrage of names, dates, places, favors, and phone calls. Royko’s playful writing seems to find a kind of joy in unveiling Daley’s inner wheelings and dealings. Whether it’s recounting his infamous outbursts during meetings or the biblical page-long recounting of the nepotism running rampant in the city’s government. Who begat who becomes who hired who. In Royko’s words:

“A Chicago Rip Van Winkle could awaken to the political news columns and, reading the names, think that time had stood still.”

While focusing more strongly on Daley’s reign during the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s, Royko also does his best to describe the inner workings of what he refers to as “the Machine.” It was the democratic party’s vice-like grip on the city and even the state, and it was a force to be reckoned with—a force I certainly didn’t understand.

When reading, there were times where information was flying at me so fast it was hard to keep anything straight. Between the ward bosses and city officials, between all these terms and names I was hearing for the first time, I occasionally found myself feeling lost. I think non-Chicagoans might find themselves in the same boat, but I don’t think it’s a serious detriment. Royko’s language really does its best to carry you along. It’s as if you’re at a dinner party and he’s welcomed you to a seat at the table even though you don’t know anyone, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s got you by the arm and is introducing you. Before you know it, you find you know enough, even if you can’t remember anyone’s names.

The climax of the book comes in 1968 with the Democratic National Convention. All hell breaks loose and the scene bears uncomfortable similarities with what’s happening in Ferguson today.

Police and demonstrators clash in Chicago on August 28, 1968, during the Democratic National Convention. Photo: ©Les Sintay/Bettman/CORBIS

Police and demonstrators clashed and Daley’s infamous order to “shoot to kill” eventually led to his being forced to testify in court over the conflict.

At the end of the book, I still wished I knew more. It covers a considerable number of years, but I wanted it to keep going. I wanted a part two.

Chicago citizen or not, Boss makes for an entertaining and enlightening read. It’s certainly not the whole picture of Chicago politics, the Machine, or the ‘60s, but it’s an interesting, in-depth look at a man who—like it or not—helped shape both the city of Chicago and the country we live in today.