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Book Reviews

Monday
Oct302017

Book Review: Housing Projects, Mansions & Schools: An Educator's Odyssey

Housing Projects, Mansions & Schools: An Educator's Odyssey. Roger Prosise. Indianapolis, Indiana: Chatter House Press, June 3, 2017, Trade Paperback, 156 pages.

Reviewed by Charles Kuner.

About 10 years ago, there was a popular aspirational slogan Sí, se puede ("yes you can ") that highlighted the message that one can make the impossible possible through hard work and support. Roger Prosise's memoir is a classic example of Sí, se puede.

Prosise grew up as a biracial kid in Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing project. Cabrini-Green had the reputation of being the worst public housing project in the country and one of the poorest. Not surprisingly, Prosise went through what can be described as a crucible of fire. He suffered with racial harassment, poverty, and a dysfunctional father who beat him with a board and was incapable of participating in the lives of his children in any way that counted.

However, Prosise was fortunate in that he had a strong, positive mother who would navigate him past the temptations and negativities that existed in Cabrini-Green. Without her love and support, who knows what would have happened to him? It's not without reason that Prosise dedicates the book to Lucille Kojima Prosise.

Prosise's mother had spent her teenage years in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. She became the family breadwinner, working hard to care for her ten children and ungrateful, alcoholic husband. She taught Prosise the value of hard work, family, and education. Lucille Kojima Prosise was a heroine, a real Wonder Woman.

Also consider that Roger Prosise went from one of the poorest communities in the country to become superintendent of Bannockburn School in one of America’s wealthiest communities. The value of education that his mother passed to him made him feel alive. It enabled Prosise to embody the concept that as long as you have a dream, you will get there.

Prosise’s story is so engaging story that I read it in one sitting. He told his story with such honesty that I sometimes cringed as I read it. Referring back to his father, he relates that as a high school student, he was physically as big as his father. The days of physical punishment with a board were over. Prosise could defend himself.

I like the book's format. The memoir is divided into three parts: “Cabrini-Green,” “Lake View,” and “Mansions and Schools.” There is a balance to the story. In addition to being a very personal story and a quick read, there is a flow and rhythm that moves the story along. I did notice some minor typographical errors, which were not problematic and can be corrected in a future edition.

Prosise gives context for the events, people, and places he's writing about. In Chapter Four he gives historical context about the internment camps during World War II, especially the Manzanar camp where his mother, as a young woman, was sent. Early in Chapter Two, Prosise gives a historical, economic, and social context of the Cabrini-Green community. This helps to inform and enrich the story for the reader.

The two major themes of the story are resiliency and the importance of friendships. In the “Backbone” chapter, Prosise writes about his mother’s hard life that never kept her down and exemplified the biggest lesson he learned from her. “Life will knock you down – it’s not a matter of if but when. And when it does, what are you going to do?” For his mother, she always got up and started again. Then there is the focus on friendships. There was Phillip, who protected Prosise from the gangbangers when they both attended Jenner Elementary, and Lorenzo, who saved Prosise from getting jumped by some of the high school students at Cooley.

Prosise’s memoir is a feel-good story that we need in these turbulent times. His story shows the power of friendships to annul racial divisions, and the role of education in helping children transcend poverty. It’s also about resiliency – the classic Horatio Alger story of one humane, caring, and tolerant human being who rose from rags to riches. I frankly admit that there were parts of this story that moved me and in some cases caused me to tear up. I’m proud to belong to an educational fraternity that includes Roger Prosise as a member.


Wednesday
Oct112017

Book Review: Super Jack Eats His Broccoli

Super Jack Eats His Broccoli. Michele Hilgart. Mascot Books: November 7, 2017, Hardcover and E-book, 38 pages.

Reviewed by Barb Belford.

Michele Hilgart sets out to help parents (and teachers) of picky eaters with Super Jack Eats His Broccoli, a picture book for toddlers, preschoolers, and early primary students. “Super” Jack Murphy is a pirate-enemy, baby-sister-saver, who is quite skeptical about eating vegetables—particularly green vegetables. When he finds out from his soccer coach that superfoods like broccoli and carrots make heroes strong and healthy, Jack decides to give them a try.

Hilgart uses simple kid-language to tell an appealing story about a little boy who doesn’t want to eat his vegetables. Parents will relate to Jack and his superhero persona. Hilgart shows sensitivity to family mealtime by showing Jack’s mom as the only adult eating with the children at the dinner table. It’s never explained whether Jack’s mom is a single mom, or whether work schedules prevent both parents eating with the children at mealtime, and the thoughtfulness that went into the author’s decision about this is appreciated.

Hilgart’s illustrations spread the important message of healthy eating. While they’re not as rich and realistic as some picture books, they will engage children’s imaginations. The speech-balloons create the opportunity for discussions about making predictions and inferences while reading. There’s plenty of white space on each page, and the font is the right size for parents who are teaching early reading skills, like one-to-one matching, and are able to point to words while reading them out loud. As an added bonus the book has a short glossary of ten superfoods, each with a large illustration and a fantastic explanation.

Michele Hilgart lives in the Chicago suburbs, and is a working mom, lifestyle coach, and blogger. Her goal is helping other moms put in place healthy fitness and nutrition habits for their families. Super Jack Eats His Broccoli assists nicely in achieving that goal.

I really enjoyed the clever way Jack became empowered to make good choices for healthy eating. I recommend this book to moms and teachers. I even know of a couple of grandchildren who will soon be reading this book—for fun and for superfood empowerment.

 

Wednesday
Sep272017

Book Review: Lovely Faze

Lovely Faze. Owen Patterson. Chicago: BREVIS Publishing, August 1, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 98 pages.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Melvin.

A deceptively thin collection in an azure cover of flowers-in-motion came across my desk, and the next thing I know, little drops of distortion and disturbances came to me from Owen Patterson’s book, Lovely Faze. As the title would suggest, this poetry collection challenges the reader’s perception by embracing image. The poetry is simple and direct. In a recognizable Midwestern dialect, moments of grief, love, and joy roll across the page. The lasting image of each poem really resonates beyond the initial reading.

Owen Patterson was raised and educated here in the Second City. His background as a tutor, special education paraprofessional, and behavioral health counselor no doubt contribute to his baffling presentation of the human condition. Lovely Faze is his debut work and introduces us to a thoughtful wordsmith of resonating depth.

When I read this work, the faze—the disconcertion—hit me first. I found the imagery in works like ‘There Serene Drama’ and ‘What Remains’ easy to see and follow, yet, like drops of water in a pond, it took a while for the meaning to ripple out and become clear. The work is alluring in that it allows the images to gently evoke the stories and emotions of the poems. The brevity and clarity of the language allows it to be revisited, for that moment to be isolated, until it resonates beyond the words.

The collection is split into three parts. Part One is Lovely, which includes poems about nature and love. There is a resonating heat in these poems supported by beautiful imagery. ‘Ease and Repose’ is a seven-line poem hinged on a single image of “the star in my sky,” and you can feel your entire being exhale as you read these simple direct lines.

My favorite is ‘Missed Inspiration’ from Part Two—Faze. This poem, like others in this section of the book, is full of images that should not make sense and yet are completely correct in spirit.  It speaks of opening and of rain: “I opened my mind/ a wellspring flowed.” The concept of losing that idea in the moment is expressed with this saturated poem. Patterson’s work is often more felt than visualized.

The final section of the book is entitled Memes, where Patterson breaks from poetic construct and instead isolates excerpts of social media. Taking social media commentary or shared moments out of the context of the Internet is powerful; removing the visual cues, the other posts that typically surround an update, leaves the black and white text on an unadorned page. It’s much like speaking to a crowded room that has been silenced. It allows the full weight of the words to ring out on their own to express humor, anger, and sarcasm so that instead of being buried with little ‘likes’ or emojis, the reader is left alone with the words themselves. This robs the reader of the interaction that we so often have with social media, which is to craft our response as we read. By taking these phrases off of social media, readers are encouraged to listen and leave their own ideas at rest for a moment. Instead of adding our two cents, we are invited to just experience the voice of another.

It was after this third section of the book that I went back to revisit the poems and read with a quiet mind. This is a collection of work that can be read and reread, each time finding more in the concise and lovely poems. I would recommend this collection to anyone who wants to set their own voice aside for just a moment to hear, to allow this voice to resonate, to find the story behind the simple ‘sleeping sun’ and ‘waters slipping through my fingers,’ and to enjoy the strength of the written word. 

 

Tuesday
Sep262017

Book Review: Trial and Commitment

Trial and Commitment. J. Gasparich. AuthorHouse, March 8, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 286 pages.

Reviewed by Paige Doepke.

In Trial and Commitment, author J. Gasparich explores the near-misses in life that completely shift the path on which a person was originally headed. He uses two characters, Michael and Mark, both young men about the same age, to tell a somewhat heavy story about moral obligation versus obligation to family.

Michael, a medical student in Chicago, is dealing with the transition from medical school into the fire academy. His decision puts a strain on his relationship with his father, a surgeon, and ends a long-term relationship with his girlfriend. However, he believes in himself and feels a strong obligation to the people of Chicago to become a firefighter.

Mark, a good-hearted immigrant from Chechnya with a checkered past, is presented with the opportunity to help his family who is in a dire situation back home. Unfortunately, it would force him to become a major player in a catastrophic terrorist attack. Like Michael, Mark must turn away from family obligations to do what is morally right.

Both characters face a major life event, one most people face in young adulthood—the opportunity to choose yourself and your future over your family’s idea of your future. I think the way Gasparich presents the concept of choosing ones’ destiny, through characters who are so different, is fascinating.

Michael and Mark are living parallel lives, though very different versions. While Michael is learning to protect the city, Mark is involved in a plot to ruin it. In the midst of it all, both characters are given the opportunity for love, and both have to fight for that love.

To me, the most suspenseful part of this story is finding out which direction Mark chooses to go in his life—good or bad. 

What I really loved about this novel was Gasparich’s ability to make the reader root for Mark in hopes that he makes the right decision. It would have been really easy for Gasparich to villainize Mark, but I love that he made him human, and his ability to do so says a lot about his skills as a writer.

I recommend Trial and Commitment to everyone, especially readers interested in politics, coming-of-age novels, medicine, and law enforcement. 

 

Wednesday
Sep132017

Book Review: Let’s Get To Work: Episode Two of The Prodigy Series

Let’s Get To Work: Episode Two of The Prodigy Series. John F. Thomas. Los Angeles: Thomas Heri Visions, July 2, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 96 pages.

Reviewed by Jose Nateras.

In author John F. Thomas’ second installment of The Prodigy Series, readers find themselves thrust right into the action. Picking up where the first book left off, Let’s Get to Work continues the story of young John Prodigy as he trains in preparation for the impending Affinity Trials. As with many sequels, Let’s Get to Work avoids excess exposition or world building, instead relying on the given circumstances established in the series’ first installment, Humble Beginnings. In that way, Let’s Get to Work feels almost like the second episode of a television show or comic book, rather than a complete work in and of itself. Given the short length of the chapters and book as whole, there is something almost episodic about it. Overall, this works, allowing the story to function as a smaller part of a larger series; this makes it a fun, quick read that leaves the reader excited for the next installment.

As an author, Thomas definitely wears his influences on his sleeve. With hints of The Karate Kid, The Hunger Games, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Maze Runner, and even Naruto, Thomas creates a fun world, complete with a fantastic map that manages to be simultaneously familiar and new. Action happens as quickly as the plot develops and a clear sense of the author’s enthusiasm for the material imbues the book with a youthful sense of adventure. Choosing to write in the present tense adds to the sense that John Prodigy’s struggles are happening in a moment-to-moment way that, while sometimes disorienting, allows readers to strongly associate with the young protagonist’s state of mind. As a narrative overall, Let’s Get to Work definitely succeeds in its goal to create a new piece of genre fiction along the lines of the author’s previously mentioned influences. Is it relatively derivative? Sure, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. Thomas achieves something extremely refreshing in the use of familiar genre conventions to put a main character of color in the center of a fairly established narrative form—especially since the book doesn’t try to be anything more than it is. Thomas’ commitment to the genre allows readers to enjoy his work as genre material, and by doing so, he creates an original character that resembles some we’ve seen before.  

Fans of young adult fiction, in particular of the action or fantasy variety, will definitely find Let’s Get to Work an entertaining jaunt through the world that Thomas has lovingly crafted. As with any original fantasy world, the intricacies and structures at play within Thomas’ fictive society do take some parsing out, and as such, it would behoove readers to consider reading the first installment in the series beforehand. Jumping into Let’s Get to Work without the context provided in Humble Beginnings definitely risks leaving newcomers to the series at a bit of a loss.