Review: Make Me a City

“The nearer I get to the end, the more shame I have and the less shame I feel. Every year we pile it up, don’t we, all of us excepting the angels? Maybe that’s why we don’t all go lunatic. And why some of us do.”

Make Me a City (Jonathan Carr, published March 2019 by Henry Holt) is an intriguing tome—marketed as a fictional and “alternate history” to the building of Chicago, the novel is told by a narrator who is, in fact, presenting an alternate history to his peers. Following many disparate threads of remarkably different individuals over the course of one century, the work is exhaustive and, more than once, I wondered how much was rooted in truth (I mean, obviously, I know it’s fiction, but still). Beginning in 1800 “Echicagou” on the estate of Jean Baptiste Point de Sable—unrecognized and sadly victimized founder of the city—and later touching on the vivid lives of John Stephen Wright, Antje Hunter, Gus Swanson, and many others; the novel progresses through time, idling from one strand of the story to the next, offering readers an exhaustive collection of character portraits to feast upon. Each individual is distinctly crafted, each featuring his or her own fears and desires and fervent ambitions, all of which contribute to the city’s creation.

I enjoyed the novel’s odd collection of hosts and found the chapters about Antje, Gus, and Ms. Chappell the most engaging. Historical nuggets can be mined from the pages of the work—though fictional, there are many references to real players in our country’s history, and episodes portraying cultural nuances vividly.

More than once, though, I wondered . . . what is the point? The plot is very loosely constructed, and over the course of 450 pages, readers’ minds are apt to wander without a clear purpose driving the work forward. I know, I know: the point is to give an alternate, fictionalized history of Chicago. But I can’t help but feel that Carr was misled by his editor at times, where narratives could have been trimmed or eliminated altogether.

By and large, the breadth of the work was overwhelming. I had to turn back several times to recall key details from previous scenes—I think there are about 12 perspectives through the novel, with 5-6 major players—and was sometimes frustrated by this. However, when a work is interesting, I’ll overlook this annoyance; and I suppose that the fact I finished the novel speaks for itself. Once the pieces began to come together, I couldn’t finish fast enough.

Overall: 3-ish(?) stars. Recommended for historical fiction buffs, mindful readers (this is not an easy/light read, folks!), and fans of generation-spanning sagas.

Thanks to Henry Holt Books for my review copy. All opinions are my own.

Review: One Day in December

May I present to thee — An Unpopular Opinion About a Book Receiving Great Praise But To Which My Feelings Seem To Be Impervious?

One Day in December, by Josie Silver, is receiving all kinds of accolades on the bookstagram-osphere. It was selected as a Book of the Month pick (which, you know, has been more miss than hit this past year or so), and basically anybody who’s somebody has read the book, gushed about it, and scrambled to buy a giveaway copy.

The work is classic rom-com fodder: Girl meets — no, doesn’t meet; she makes eye contact with — boy at a crowded train station. Girl and boy fail to connect, but there was something there — she’s sure of it. Girl tells best friend about boy, and the two search for him. A year later: best friend introduces girl to her new boyfriend. He’s *the* boy. Train Station Boy. Girl unselfishly withholds this information, pines over boy from afar — or, really, actually quite close — and thus ensues a period of unfortunate missed-opportunities.

As a movie, this would’ve probably worked for me. I’d have been entertained, I might’ve shed a tear or two, and it may have become one of those love stories I watch when I need a reminder that romance lives on. And I won’t be surprised if it does become a movie.

Sadly, as a novel, the story didn’t work for me. Because the story reminded me so much of former books-turned-films One Day and Something Borrowed, the plot felt predictable and cliche. I knew what would ultimately happen before I even turned the page of the third chapter, and thus, there was little magic in this one, for me. And maybe that’s why I disliked the book so much — I was hoping for that magical Christmastime vibe, and One Day in December just didn’t have it, because predictability.

Perhaps even more off-putting than the predictability: the main characters. I know, I know — this is shaping up to be a weird review. Most of you have probably only seen gushing and heart-eyes emoji about the novel’s characters who are “refreshingly real.” Here’s my issue: Laurie starts off the novel in a foul mood (we’ve all had those, totally understand that). She’s on a crowded bus, irritated with the closeness of strangers, and her inner dialogue is horrendous. I think she actually hates the woman in front of her for having dandruff — and that, my friends, got me started on the wrong foot. It’s just . . . too spiteful for me, I think. Later, she comes across as a much kinder person, but at the back of my mind, I just kept thinking about her vitriol from page one and the lady with dandruff. I couldn’t shake the scene. (Isn’t it weird, what readers latch on to?) And then Jack: Jack is painted as this knight in shining armor, right from the start. He’s introduced as thoughtful, sweet, and charming. So later, when he starts making some choices and acting in a way that feels like a complete 180, that’s when it starts to get uncomfortable. He’s a jerk, point blank, and I didn’t find that a redeeming bit of “realism”. 

Perhaps most unsettling for me: the way the main characters continually trample the emotions of their “friends” to get what they want. Laurie and Jack do it to each other, to their significant others, and to their friends throughout the course of the book. All’s fair in love and war, it seems, quite literally.

Ultimately, I couldn’t get on board with this kind of sabotage, and though I was compelled enough to finish the novel, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. If you’re into romance and you’re more capable of suspending disbelief than I, this might be the read for you. But if you have a hard time justifying despicable behavior and self-serving attitudes, well, you might want to pass.

Overall: 2 stars.