Reader Comments & Reviews

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Vicki Johnson writes, “I really enjoyed The Rooming House Diaries and look forward to reading more of Josh and Andres story (in The Rooming House Gallery). Your characters are so fully developed that I feel I know them. I like your description of non-DNA family and count myself lucky to have a couple of them in my life.”

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The Rooming House Diaries

Mathis (Face Your Fears, 2018) offers a prequel novel that offers a striking account of life in 20th-century Chicago. 

In 2009, Andres Rodriquez and his longtime romantic partner Josh Sawicki inherit a disused Chicago rooming house. They find, in the building’s ledgers, several diaries containing the history of the house’s inhabitants from its construction in 1887 to the present. Four of the entries belong to members of the Sawicki family. In the late 1800s, Josef Sawicki was a Polish immigrant on his own in America at the age of 17; his wife, Walentina, was a sex worker in a bathhouse with a secretive past. Together, they erected and maintained the multistory apartment building. Their son, Hank, and his wife, Mae, then took over and raised 10 children together. Two other entries belong to the Sawickis’ unofficial family—a young woman named Katerina Koslowski, who came to the boardinghouse as a pregnant teenager, and Manny Rodriguez, a gay Mexican man with a disabled arm. Also included are letters and comments from other family members, such as Katerina’s daughter, Krystina; Hank’s illegitimate son, Arnaud; and Hank’s youngest, most troubled child, Tommy. Together, the diaries comprise an extensive family history that ably captures the changing culture of the United States over the course of the 20th century, including events such as women’s suffrage, both world wars, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS crisis. Particular attention is paid to the transformation of social attitudes toward minority groups. Over the course of the novel, Mathis doesn’t avoid disturbing elements, from visceral accounts of childbirth to characters casually delivering racial slurs to chilling descriptions of childhood sexual assault. The way that he portrays family dynamics is insightful and raw; the characters’ flaws and virtues are complex and make the cast compellingly realistic. The prose also has a wry touch of humor that offsets the turbulent and often tragic events. It’s a lengthy story but well worth the time and effort. 

A story of secrecy, suffering, fortitude, and compassion that demonstrates an exceptional understanding of the human psyche.

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Reviews by Amos Lassen

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The Coffee Pot Book Club Review

 
 

The Rooming House Diaries – Life, Love & Secrets

 By Bill Mathis

 
Six diaries and some correspondence are found in an old Chicago rooming house. The diaries span the 20th century. Written by the immigrants who built the place in 1887, their children and several roomers, they tell the stories of everyday people struggling, surviving and succeeding at life amidst the historical backdrop of World Wars I & II, the Great Depression, prejudice, demographic changes in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood, and epidemics, including AIDS. It’s rich, deep, at times raw, yet shows the humanity, spirit and love of family, both blood related and non-DNA.

It’s a novel of changing times and attitudes; family secrets covered up for over one hundred years; religious, ethnic and gender prejudice; the changes in Chicago, a neighborhood and our nation; the joys of diversity and the richness of our society, warts and all
 
 
 

“So, now we got us an eighteen-year-old Mexican from Tiawano and an albino banker from Roseland living on the third floor…”

 

Josef Sawicki knows that his time on earth is coming to an end. But before he dies, he wants to pen his memoirs so that his story will not be forgotten. What the old man did not realise was that he had started a tradition that would go on for three generations. This is the story of the Sawicki family and the Rooming House that was their business and their home.

The Rooming House Diaries – Life, Love & Secrets by Bill Mathis is an emotionally charged story of a seemingly inconsequential rooming house and the people that lived there.

With a sweeping, yet intimate narrative — composed of a memoir, diary entries and letters — and a crystalline understanding of what makes reading entertaining, Mathis has presented his readers with a book that is as mesmerising as it is powerful. This novel spans three generations and over one hundred years of history — it begins in a small village in Olsztyn, Poland (East Prussia) and ends with the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s. In the pages of this remarkable book, Mathis has penned a story that is as lucid in the telling as it is rich in the historical detail. Mathis takes his readers on a poignant journey of discovery and has written an unputdownable tale.

 
Six fabulous protagonists tell the story of The Rooming House, but I am just going to focus on two of them as well as one of the secondary characters. The first protagonist I want to talk about is a wonderful lady called Mae Sawicki. Mae married Hank, the son of the original owner of the Rooming House. Mae was like a fresh of breath air on a hot summer’s day. She was immensely likeable, full of good humour and a character that was an absolute pleasure to read about. Mae does face several trials and tribulations throughout this book, but her sense of joy and her love for her family is never diminished. The one thing I really liked about Mae was how she saw the world. She becomes very liberal in her views, especially when she is a very old woman, and in the end, she doesn’t seem to care where you are from, and what your story is, all she is interested in is who you are now. With this approach to life, it is very easy to understand how she becomes a motherlike figure to several lodgers, for she is filled with tenderness and compassion. Sometimes she takes a little while to like and trust, but when she does, then there is nothing she would not do. She is the truest of friends. Mae is an incredible heroine.
 
My absolute favourite character in this book is a young Mexican called Manny Rodriguea. Manny’s back story is incredibly moving — it is one of poverty, physical abuse and prostitution. Manny, however, is one of the most complex, and the most caring character in this book. He is this wonderful young man who is desperately trying to escape his past and start again. Being a Mexican in Chicago in the 1960s is a challenge — being gay makes it twice as hard. I adored everything about this character. He is the most caring and compassionate man who anyone would be proud to call a son, but whose own father fails to see the gem that Manny is. Despite a very dubious background, Manny is a very reserved young man, which more than likely saves his life. He ends up helping those who have AIDs die with dignity and respect. Manny is a character that will stay with me for a very long time.
 
Tommy is a source of violence and danger in this book, and although he is not one of the main characters, I feel I have to spend a little time scrutinising his depiction. Even from a toddler, Tommy is a threatening menace. He is uncontrollably violent, and his parents have no idea how to handle him — and it is not because they are bad parents, or that they are doing something wrong. In today’s society, Tommy would have been under a paediatrician for his mental health — he shows signs of extreme Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). Back in the late 1940s, children’s mental health and disorders such as autism were only just being recognised, and it wasn’t really understood. To write about a child who has an extremely violent mental health condition such as this, but then to express it so vividly and in a historical setting would, I think, be a challenge for many very experienced authors. Mathis’ depiction of Tommy was staggeringly realistic.
 
Tommy is a character that will not attract sympathy from a reader, and I don’t think Mathis wanted to make his readers sympathise with him. Tommy has very few redeemable qualities. He is excessively violent. He is narcissistic — he takes no responsibilities for his actions and blames his parents, particularly his father, for everything. He also becomes a violent sexual predator at a very young age. There are scenes in this book where Tommy is sexually abusing a younger child which was incredibly difficult in the reading, and it did make me feel physically sick. But what I was fascinated in was how, when discovered, this sexual abuse was dealt with. There were no therapists for either child and instead, Tommy is sent away to a boy’s home because his parents do not know how to deal with him. The guilt that Tommy’s parents feel and the grief that they have to go through to come to terms with the fact that Tommy isn’t, nor will he ever be, the person whom they had imagined he would become is very sensitively approached and drawn. I thought Tommy’s portrayal was incredibly convincing and the emotional rollercoaster that his parents go through is very real in the telling. They certainly had my sympathy.
 
The historical detailing of this book has to be commended. Over a hundred years of history is crammed into this book. I can only imagine how many hours Mathis spent researching all the different eras. However long the research took it was most definitely worth it. This book is a monumental work of scholarship. But it is not just the historical detail in this book that has to be commended. It is the hours researching the historical sociocultural anthropology / sociology as well. L. P. Hartley once wrote that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” They also thought differently as well, and so, therefore, there are incidents of blatant racism and homophobia throughout most of this book because that is what society was like back then. But Mathis balances this awful prejudice by giving his readers Manny — who is both a Mexican and gay — which I thought was really well thought through.
 
Mathis gives us a glimpse into the lives of some very ordinary people. We become privy to their most cherished aspirations. We lament in their defeat and celebrate their success. This is a book that demands every conceivable emotion from its readers. I laughed out loud. I cried. I felt moments of anger and disgust. But I also felt a sense of hope, a sense of life, for that is what this book is about, it is about life in all its honest, ugly, beautiful detail. 
 
At times The Rooming House Diaries – Life, Love & Secrets by Bill Mathis does make for some emotionally challenging reading, but it is also immensely successful. This is the kind of book that deserves to be read again and again and again, and it is one you want all your friends to read as well so you can all chat about it over coffee. It is undoubtedly worthy of a place on your bookshelf.
 
I Highly Recommend.
 
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.

Windy City Reviews

Book Review: The Rooming House Diaries

Wednesday, August 7, 2019 at 12:08PM


The Rooming House Diaries: Life, Love & SecretsBill MathisRogue Phoenix PressJune 17, 2019Trade Paperback and E-book479 pages.

Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport.

The Rooming House Diaries is an absorbing novel far superior to what one might expect from its title. The novel, Bill Mathis’ second, is a saga about a boarding house. Mathis describes the book as follows:

Six diaries and correspondence are discovered in an old rooming house in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood of Chicago. The diaries span the 20th century and are written by the original owners, their children, and several roomers amidst the historic events, the demographic changes in Chicago and the nation.

Mathis’ narrative is a delight to read, and his mastery of character is impressive. Although the novel is episodic and driven by character rather than plot, the story-telling rarely lags and the large and diverse group of characters, mostly ordinary people, is artfully handled. 

The novel is nostalgic, sentimental, and mostly cheerful but doesn’t avoid visceral realities. In some sections, the book veers towards being a kinder and gentler Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby’s harsh masterpiece set in mid-century New York City. Mathis is so accomplished at what he does well—writing a page-turner about daily life in 20th century Chicago—that one cannot help but wonder about the novel’s one limitation: the lack of a strong point of view.

The characters are uniformly intriguing, and some are memorable, such as two former sex workers: Walentina, a Polish immigrant born into prostitution, and Manny, a gay Hispanic man who is disabled from childhood abuse. Yet, a writer of Mathis’ talent seems capable of delivering an even richer novel. Readers have taken many literary treks through this period of history. To fully “lift the soufflé,” we need the author’s unique take on the times—the subjective resonance authors like Selby or Theodore Dreiser or Armistead Maupin would bring to this type of story. A bedrock cheerfulness and a background focus on social inequities, while useful, are not enough to fully frame Mathis’ perspective.

Still, only a superior writer would be subject to such criticism.The Rooming House Diaries is a gripping and compelling read from an accomplished writer.

 

Authors Reading.com

Bill Mathis delivers the perfect fix for all those voyeurs at heart who’d love to discover a private diary containing intimate, lascivious and salacious entries that make you feel just a little guilty as you read the secrets of another’s life. He doesn’t give you only one diary either. These diaries consist of family history, and a graphic glimpse of the unfolding of early U.S. history that is powerfully portrayed in The Rooming House Diaries: Life, Love & Secrets by Bill Mathis. The prologue, set in 2009, tantalizes the reader to delve into one hundred and twenty years of family stories, mysteries, surprises, and secrets.

            The generational diaries begin with a Polish immigrant’s notes found in an old ledger. Josef Sawicki died in Chicago in 1936. His diary was translated into English by his daughter-in-law, Mae. The ledger and others containing subsequent diaries were found in a Chicago rooming house which is a catalyst for the plot.

            The first few diaries are sequential; however, the latter are a retelling or reminiscing of the family’s story from different points of view. Deceit and tangled webs of disgrace, love, and redemption are encompassed by the extended family. The diaries expose the lives of multiple individuals sparing nothing – they talk of their quirks, allegiances, betrayals, love, sex, partners, friends, roommates, sadness, deaths and numerous satirical events.

             The author’s characters are distinctive as “real” people.  The reader can visualize characters such as the Catholic Sister who is over six feet tall and thin and is rumored to wear thick-soled shoes that made her look even taller.  She looked down on you, over large round glasses sliding down her nose and had green eyes that bore into you. The kids feared her.

            Dialog and dialect are masterfully used to flesh out the characters as when Clancy is asked where he is from.  He replies, “Me?  I got an accent?  I ain’t got no accent.  You da one talks funny. Me?  Dad says we hines fifty-seven mixed wit a lot of milkman… We American, man. We shicaago true and true.  Been here since dirt. You gotta learn to talk good English, man. I ain’t got no accent.”

            The physical setting of a rooming house is a perfect background for the “hines fifty-seven” personalities who reside there.  Built-in the late 1880s, the twenty-by-eighty foot three-storied building held a four-bedroom owners apartment on the first floor and a small back apartment. The second floor contained fifteen eight-by-nine foot rooms for single men.  The third floor had thirteen rooms for women and a matron’s efficiency apartment.  Two out-houses served the building until much later when plumbing was installed.

            The interwoven plot is as varied as the extended family and tenants that live in the rooming house. The reader will empathize with the trauma and powerful love that hold the family together. Compassion throughout the generations and the theme, “love in families can be difficult”, is continued in the author’s sequels, The Rooming House Gallery, and Face Your Fears.


Reviewed by: carol W

 

Review by author David W. Berner – 5 Stars on Amazon & Goodreads:

Bill Mathis shapes a poignant story of family through the diary entries of the dead, entries discovered in an old rooming house in Chicago. The story shines a light on the dynamics of relationships with all its flaws and carries the reader through the changing times of the 20th century—both World Wars, The Depression, even the AIDS crisis. There’s both tragedy and humor, and great insight into the human condition. The Rooming House Diaries is a sweeping evolutionary tale of family and America.


Review by Robert Wood:

Those of you who haven’t yet read books by Bill Mathis, should make it your mission to do so. His book, The Rooming House Diaries, is a must read. Mathis crafts a story that gently guides the reader through lives that ultimately reveal the loves, biases, prejudices, understandings, and misunderstandings which we all encounter every day in our own lives. You will find his story captivating and very interesting. You will eagerly await the very next page! 

Humanity and love roll off the pages like bubbles roll off a fine Champagne. From simple characters of differing times, nationalities, religions, sexes, and sexual orientations…the notion that beneath it all…we are just fellow human beings, emerges. While this story is highly entertaining, it is also thought provoking. 

I cannot recommend The Rooming House Diaries higher. I believe most everyone will enjoy it, and be happy that they read it! 


Maureen Bauer gave it 5 stars on Goodreads:

I found this novel to be extremely compelling! If you are familiar with Chicago’s neighborhoods, and the waves of immigration into the city, it would be an interesting read for anyone local. The rooming house was built in the late 1890’s by a Polish Immigrant who had to leave the old country for a variety of reasons. Through the reading of the diaries written by several occupants and boarders in the house, including the family members of the original owner/builder of the rooming house. Each person’s story is one of redemption, acceptance and learning to love others as family, even if they are not family. We are moved through the years; through wars, troubles, marriages, racial discrimination as the neighborhood on South Justine becomes Mexican, then Black. We see the treatment of a young woman who is pregnant but not married in the early fifties, and the treatment of a tenant who is gay. I could not put this one down.

From the Chill With A Book Readers…

A wonderful story of love and life of families living in the rooming house…  Well written and great characters. Such an enjoyable read… An absorbing read. Set in a believable historical context. I became invested in the characters’ stories…  Thoroughly enjoyable read, novel and interesting way of depicting the history of America and Chicago.In The Rooming House Diaries author Bill Mathis offers a story as large and compelling as Giant by Edna Ferber.
As if ripped from the headlines of today the Rooming House Diaries offer the stories of immigrants founding the America we know.

A Gripping Immigration Saga

Vibrant characters are written with compassion and care, spanning most of the last century this book is a wonderful blend of history filled with a brilliant cross section of race, religion and sexual orientations.

Highly recommended reading, this book should be on college reading lists! Amazon 5 Stars by James Brock

Gifted Storyteller

From the very first page, I realized I was in the hands of a gifted storyteller. What a cast of colorful characters who tugged at my heart while also frustrating me. The vivid details of Chicago really brought the story to life. The prose felt authentic to the characters and the pacing kept me glued to the story. Nicely done. Highly recommend. Amazon 5 Stars by Author Greg Renz

Emotional Stories

The author provided a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I’m very glad I read this book; it’s a lovely story with many interesting characters. I love multiple timeline historical fiction and The Diaries gave me that. So many stories from the same family made it easy to get to know them and become emotionally involved. I enjoyed reading each story and learning more from each writer. I really don’t have too many criticisms except for two, and those are just based on personal preference. Mainly, it’s about ratios. I don’t have any problem with gay people, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that there were that many gay people all in one circle of people like that. Plus, back through this many decades, I really don’t believe that this many people, even in the same family, were that progressive in their thinking. It just got a little unbelievable, especially at the end. Other than that, the stories were engaging and I didn’t want to put the book down. Each writer added a little bit more info and a lot of their individual personalities. I’d like to believe that if modern society had this kind of connected family unit, we’d have fewer problems in the world. I really liked this book and would recommend it to those who enjoy historical fiction, centered around people, as opposed to plot.  Amazon 4 Stars by Ivan Friant


Check back for forthcoming comments and reviews as they come in after the launch of The Rooming House Diaries.

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