An Evening with the Kings

We're very lucky here in Chicagoland to have Anderson's Bookshop. It's an independent bookstore--really an independent chain with three different locations--and it's been in the same family for six generations. (As an aside: A member of the fifth generation is running for Congress in my district. She's one of seven candidates--six of whom are women--competing for the Democratic nomination for the seat. The six women are all strong candidates. Our Republican incumbent is going to have his hands full.)

Anyway, one of the great things about Anderson's is the plethora of author events that they host--not just at their bookstores, but at surrounding locations as well. There's a different author appearance almost every week. This past Friday night, they hosted Stephen King and Owen King at North Central College in Naperville and I was able to buy a ticket.

Stephen King (left) and Owen King (right). This was the best shot I could get from my seat in the back.

Stephen King (left) and Owen King (right). This was the best shot I could get from my seat in the back.

I've been reading Stephen King's books since I was a kid. He's one of my favorite authors. I was giddy about having the opportunity to hear him speak. He didn't disappoint. The event was held in the college gym, which left something to be desired as a venue. The acoustics, for one, were terrible. The echo made some things difficult to hear. In some places, the acoustics were so bad people got up and left early. Fortunately, I was able to hear fairly well from my seat in the bleachers at the back, but there were things--questions, answers, parts of sentences--that I missed. On the whole, though, it was a good experience. I laughed far more than I thought I would.

Keep your courage up. Be brave. Write what comes to your mind. . . . Stay brave.
— Stephen King, North Central College, September 29, 2017

Each King read an excerpt from the new book that they co-wrote, Sleeping Beauties. I missed chunks of those excerpts, but what I heard sounded good and colorful. (As part of the event, we each received a copy of the book. It's hefty tome--almost 600 pages hardcover.) From there, the conversation became informal and hilarious. Both Kings have a delightful sense of humor, with Owen's being a bit drier and more subtle than his father's. There was a lot of laughter in the audience as they quizzed each other and shared anecdotes about writing the book and Owen's life growing up as a King. My favorite part came at the end of their conversation, when Owen pulled out The Stephen King Quiz Book and tested his father on knowledge of his own work. He presented it as a test of his father's mental acuity, since his father is now 70 years old. Apparently, in their previous stop on this tour, Papa King had missed a question or two about The Shawshank Redemption. This time, he was presented with questions about his short story, "The Body"--which became the movie "Stand by Me." He earned a perfect score and raucous audience applause.

We’re taught to see reviewers and critics as teachers giving a grade. . . . Don’t take them as teachable moments.
— Stephen King, North Central College, September 29, 2017

The laughter continued as Becky Anderson (bookshop matriarch and Congressional candidate) asked pre-submitted audience questions. I missed most of the questions, but managed to infer what they were about based on the Kings' answers (what I could hear of them). Over the course of the conversation and Q&A, Stephen King also shared some wise words for those of us who are writers. (I've added a few pieces of his advice as pull-quotes.) 

If they [reviews] are all saying the same thing, that you f**cked up in the same way, you did. If all reviews say something different, they’re full of sh*t.
— Stephen King, North Central College, September 29, 2017

The entire evening reinforced my impression of Stephen King as one of the most down-to-earth authors we have. (And as one of the saltiest. The man does love his curse words.) With his success, he could be a real asshole, but he didn't come across that way at all. So many professional (and not-yet-professional) writers get so full of themselves and their process--their way is the only way and their advice is the best/only advice and writing is mysterious magic that requires specific sacrifices and rituals--but King is not like that at all. Even with his success, he still seems like the hack he started out as and, as a writer who's still trying to make her big break happen, I found that very comforting and encouraging.

The Best Book I Read This Month: A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

The best book I read in September was A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee. I started it during my lunch break on a Monday. By the end of my lunch hour, I wanted to call in sick for the rest of the day so that I could keep reading.


Set in Calcutta in 1919, A Rising Man centers around policeman Sam Wyndham, a World War I veteran newly arrived from London, as he acclimates to his new home and attempts to solve the murder of a high-ranking colonial official. He faces the dual tasks of deciphering the culture of colonial India and navigating competing powers within the British government. His partner in crime, so to speak, is a local,  "Surrender Not" Banerjee.

What struck me first--what enthralled me from the get-go--was Mukherjee's descriptions of Calcutta. I could not only see it, I could hear and feel it too.

Then I was drawn in to the two main characters, each challenged in his own way. Wyndham, for example, is an opiate addict--the result of injuries from his war years. He struggles to manage his cravings while simultaneously wishing for the oblivion of a high. Banerjee is caught between cultures--not entirely trusted by the British police because he is Indian and disowned by his family for working in/with the colonial government.

The solution to the mystery could have used a few more seeds planted throughout the story, but I will definitely be reading the next book in this new series, if only so I can spend more time with Wyndham and Banerjee.

The American Writers Museum

I spent part of the first day of fall at Chicago's newest museum, the American Writers Museum, which opened back in May. The museum is located on the second floor of an office building on Michigan Avenue, about a block from Millennium Park and the office building where I used to work. 

The museum is small. It took me only an hour or so to through the whole thing. I don't know if the size was by design or a result of finances. I hope the latter, because the museum seemed like a "starter museum," much like the starter house a young couple might buy. It could be so much more, and I'd like to see it grow.

One of the tools on display in the writer's craft section of the museum. Patrons are encouraged to sit and type their own stories. 

One of the tools on display in the writer's craft section of the museum. Patrons are encouraged to sit and type their own stories. 

The museum is divided into two halves: one about the history of American writing and one about the craft of writing. It's a nice balance. It also has space for two special exhibits--in this case, one about palm trees and one about Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The Kerouac one was my favorite. It includes the scroll on which Kerouac typed his first draft and, holy cow, is that impressive.

Of the two halves, I enjoyed the writing-craft section more than the history section. It was very interactive--with typewriters and laptops for visitors to try their hand at original writing, games to compare yourself to famous writers, and a challenge where visitors can pit their own word skills against the masters.

The history part of the museum was interesting but superficial. That's where the museum has the potential to be so much more. There's a small room that serves as an exhibit about the wonders of children literature, with images from Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Charlotte's Web. This, too, was interactive--inviting children to explore and experiment. With more space, I think the museum could explore children's literature in much more depth. I'd love to see something about the history and evolution of children's literature, for example.

The bulk of the history display is a wall-length timeline of important American writers. I was impressed by the diversity of the list. There were a few names that I'd never heard before. But again, I wanted to know more. With more space, the museum could devote a room or wall to each time period on the timeline and provide more information about each writer and display artifacts related to the time period and/or its writers.

With most museums, I leave with a need to go back and explore parts of it again. I didn't have that experience this time. I think I got out of the American Writers Museum everything there was to get out of it. Should it expand, however, I'd go back in a heartbeat.

REVIEW: Death of an Assassin by Ann Marie Ackermann

**Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for writing this review.**


Death of an Assassin is a short but fascinating work of history. It tells the story of a murderer from the German states who died at Robert E. Lee's side during the Mexican-American War. He made enough of an impression on Lee that Lee mentioned the man in a letter home. As much a history of crime-solving techniques as a biography of a little-known historical character, the story Ackermann tells is intriguing.

Ackermann's writing is clear, vivid, and engaging. Her choice of detail, spot-on, and the photographs included enhance the story, rather than distract from it. Sometimes it really does help to actually see what a place or an object looks like, instead of relying on a written description. History is best told from primary sources, and that's exactly what Ackermann did. Her narrative is based largely on primary sources, both German and American.

There were only a few small things that I wish Ackermann had done a little differently. The first part of the book is set almost entirely in Germany, with the exception of a chapter about Robert E. Lee and a chapter about Texan independence. Because those chapters were one-offs in a sense, they were a bit distracting. I would rather have stayed in Germany and then read those chapters when the narrative moved across the Atlantic.

My other quibble comes as a lover of mysteries. Ackermnan reveals the assassin's name about halfway through the book. Or rather, she reveals the name of the soldier and tells us he's the assassin. I'm glad we got to know the soldier's name when we did, but I would have preferred to make the connection to the assassination when the world did--after the soldier's death.

She also made a passing reference to Commodore Perry, and I very much want to know if that's the same Commodore Perry who forced Japan open to trade in the 1850s. That wasn't addressed in the Notes, and I wish it had been.

That said, these are all minor quibbles, and they did not interfere with my interest in or enjoyment of the book.