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February 09 - March 09 Book Reviews

The First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosimo and the Ladies of the Levee, Happy At Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy and Tomato Girl


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The First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosimo and the Ladies of the Levee by Arthur J. Bilek. (Cumberland House, $24.95). Professor Arthur J. Bilek begins this biography at the end of Big Jim Colosimo’s life with a colorful description of the vice lord’s Chicago funeral in 1920. While a band is playing Chopin’s Funeral March, thousands of mourners thronged the streets to pay their final respects. Among the honorary pallbearers were dozens of  important and powerful  political figures. The book’s 37 chapters are brief, each containing vital information about  famous Chicago vice lord Colosimo,  murdered at 43. Colosimo was an Italian-born immigrant, arriving in Chicago at 13. He had been sent to America by his father with the thought of making money to send back home. His older brother accompanied him and then left the young boy behind to stay with an Italian family. At the time of his arrival,  prostitution was illegal and political corruption rampant. Crime flourished. To earn money, young Jim sold newspapers, shined shoes and ran errands for gamblers and hoodlums. He was a water boy, a railroad worker and soon became a small-time pimp. In 1896, he became a U.S. citizen. The amount of corruption in a special Chicago area called the Levee is mind-boggling. Near the Levee, the Everleigh sisters ran a “genteel” brothel, which was famous not only in Chicago but also in Europe. Many attempts at reformation were unavailing. White slavery, as well as prostitution, was rampant. Do-gooders, church leaders, reformers, missionaries and crusaders failed again and again in their efforts to clean up the corruption. As automobiles became popular, houses of gambling and prostitution moved to the suburbs; the Levee activity began to fade. Big Jim and his assistant successfully ran the suburban houses. It is startling to read about the dishonorable politicians and police. Big Jim opened a fancy hotel, and his clientele included the cream of society, opera singers and famous actors. Meanwhile, much was happening: World War I, bootlegging, prohibition and race riots. We learn in graphic detail about Colosimo’s illegal activities. The details of his murder are uncomplicated. He was lured in the daytime to his restaurant by someone he knew and was shot by an unknown assailant. The murder has never been solved. As chief of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police and a member of the Chicago Crime Commission, Bilek can speak authoritatively about this period of Chicago history. His book could well serve as required reading for those entering law enforcement—or politics.—Emily McCormack

Happy At Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy by Richard O’Connor, M.S.W., Ph.D. (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95). Good things come in threes. Richard O’Connor has just published his latest book, a practical read with proven prescriptions to help readers feel more positive emotions, feel fewer negative emotions and ultimately feel greater satisfaction with life. The author includes more than a dozen exercises, numerous resources for further study and his list of nearly 50 suggestions for staying happy. All of this is assembled for easy reading, and he backs up his promise with scientific proof that if you follow his advice, you will indeed rewire your brain. Here are three of my favorite parts of this book: practice willpower like a juggler and you can spend just three months learning a new skill or habit with focus and practice; bless the past—by using a combination of forgiveness, gratitude and determination, we can enjoy life to the fullest now; make a list every day, and at the end of each day, keep track of positive small or big things that happened during the day and record them.—Kathleen Welton

Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek. (Algonquin Books, $23.95). In a voice as sure as that of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, 11-year-old narrator Ellie Sanders delivers a heartbreaking account of her attempts to hide her mothers’ increasingly irrational behavior, a symptom of the mental illness that has troubled the family for years, from the prying eyes of friends and neighbors. Meanwhile, her father is increasingly drawn to the Tomato Girl, a young woman who sells her homegrown tomatoes to the local store he operates. When he ultimately brings the Tomato Girl into their home to care for Ellie’s mother following an accident, the stage is set for the sort of preordained conclusion that can only end badly. Replete with Southern Gothic elements such as an African-American woman adept at magic and spells who provides some much-needed love to Ellie, a mother who keeps her miscarried fetus with her in a jar, and allegations of incest, this debut novel from Jayne Pupek packs both humor and a devastating loss of innocence in its 298 pages. Ellie is a victim who has seen too much too soon. This is a child who mourns the mother whose illness is destroying her family, while Ellie can only whisper, “I didn’t know the magic words to bring her back.”—Susan Zinner

Published: February 08, 2009
Issue: February 2009 Design Issue