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Tuesday
Apr052016

Book Review: A Better Me

A Better Me. Martina Common. Tate Publishing Company, September 1, 2015, Trade Paperback, 324 pages. 

Reviewed by Jose Nateras.

In a city like Chicago, where issues of race, economic disenfranchisement, violence, and gentrification have a real impact on the lives of its citizens, it is often easy to lose sight of the actual experiences of those citizens. In this town, things change quickly. Businesses open and close, housing projects are built up and torn down, rent increases, and communities are displaced. In Martina Common's A Better Me, the experiences of one such citizen are put front and center.

Common's memoir takes readers on her journey growing up in one of Chicago's most iconic and infamous housing projects: Cabrini Green. Walking past the iO Theatre, Starbucks, WholeFoods, and the fancy “New City” commercial development that populate the area now, it is hard to remember that the same area was once renowned for gang violence, crime, and neglect. But before the last buildings of the housing development were demolished in 2011 and the neighborhood became a prime example of gentrification, it was home for Martina Common.

At the heart of A Better Me is Common's desire to provide a glimpse beyond the headlines, buzzwords, and misconceptions of the environment in which she and many others grew up. Each portion of her book follows a young Martina as she faces the harsh realities of her environment but also finds joy and support in her community and family. Struggling with grief and loss, tragedy and hardship, Martina navigates the circumstances so many people in Chicago and across the country do; and in doing so finds herself and, just as important, her voice.

Common's voice is perhaps the most remarkable thing about A Better Me. Though there are many grammatical inconsistencies and shifts in tense, the overall effect is that readers find themselves all the closer to Martina and her story. There is veracity to the way Common writes that may lack the sheen of refinement but is real. Even though at times these inconsistencies can be frustrating or confusing, they are tied to her ability to write from a place of truth that makes it all worthwhile.

With this intimate story of the persistence and drive that underscore what some might unfairly dismiss as another tale of "urban struggle," Martina is able to follow through on her mission to prove that such dismissals and preconceived notions shortsightedly miss out on the virtues and values of the people whose experiences so often end up ignored. In telling her story, the author is able to tell the story of her mother, a woman who finds the strength to leave an abusive relationship and provide an example for her children; her Grandmother Rosie, a caring matriarch and the impact she had on Martina and her community; and a troubled romance cut short by violence, among many others. These are the stories left untold by broad headlines and the outside perspectives of reporters, and it is with these stories that Martina Common paints a larger, more honest portrayal of her experience. That experience—of a strong, driven, woman of color, whose journey has taken her from Cabrini Green to Columbia College, Chicago—is a story worth telling and worth hearing. As a published author, the fact that Common is able to give voice to it herself makes her a shining example of what can be accomplished when someone refuses to give up until she achieves her goals. 

 

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