Book Reviews

Wednesday
Jul102019

Book Review: The Illuminating Occurrence of Maxine Porter

The Illuminating Occurrence of Maxine Porter. Glenn Seerup. Self-published, October 11, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 262 pages. 

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

Time is the essence of this new work from architect Glenn Seerup. A self-proclaimed aficionado of Holden Caulfield, readers are challenged and amused to discover bits of Catcher in the Rye allusions in Seerup’s stories.

One March day in Chicago, life begins to unfold for recent industrial design graduate Hayden Carlisle. Realizing his talents and prickly personality are more suited to a smaller operation, Hayden takes a job with a toy design firm. The Plush Porcupine is past its heyday of once-popular unique toys and entering a downward spiral of ennui. Hayden is more interested in using the staff for a personal pet project—writing a best-selling documentary on his first, and probably only, year at the firm that will jumpstart his literary career—and initially has little other appreciation for corporate or personal intrigue.

Characters rarely get what they wish. Hayden is not the only hire at the Porcupine this special week. A promising, indeterminately-aged but highly motivated and challenging woman named Maxine Porter also starts work there. The reader follows Hayden and the members and friends of the Plush Porcupine during the rest of the tumultuous year.

The book is divided into months, with epigraphs that hint at the events to come. Chapters within the months are divided by Hayden’s journal writing in the first person and other chapters in a wandering omniscient voice that focuses on the personnel: company founder and owner Walter, whom Hayden admires; the troubled Marty, Walter’s friend and confidant who’s a talented designer in her own right; Scott, another focused toy designer; Matthew, the religious advertising guy; the ever-perky Caryn, who’s a designer but prefers to run the office and make sure everyone is greeted with a smile; and Adam, Hayden’s roommate. The story progresses as the force that is Maxine, with all her mystery and energy, firmly shakes up the world of the Porcupine. The staff wonders alternately if she’s an angel, an alien, or Mary Poppins. Maxine plows on, taking Hayden under her wing as her special assistant on an equally mysterious project dealing with virtual reality.

Meanwhile, each character’s personal and professional life plays out with Maxine’s golden prophetic aid, firm hand, and subtle dare to rise above. As the year moves onward, it’s obvious Maxine has a personal goal, and I had fun turning pages and wondering about it right along with the well-fleshed and interwoven characters. Participating in the story as the pieces come together is a delight for readers who enjoy character-driven set pieces with a subtle twist of fantasy.

Chicago comes alive as the designers and their friends and family invest themselves in their work and lifestyle choices. The Illuminating Occurrence of Maxine Porter is a fresh, thoughtful, feel-good tale of imperfect people learning to grow, work, and communicate in a joint effort to make a better future.

 

Monday
Jul012019

Book Review: Glory Bishop

Glory Bishop. Deborah King. Red Adept Publishing, June 4, 2019, E-book, 302 pages.

Reviewed by Sierra Kay.

It’s 1983, but you wouldn’t know it from Glory Bishop’s life. Glory’s mother is raising her under strict rule and must have had “spare the rod, spoil the child” surgically etched in her brain. Glory goes to church, work, and home, and struggles to find any freedom as she progresses through her senior year in high school.

While most of her classmates prepare for college, Glory can only hope for the freedom that a man can provide. Her mother doesn’t believe in college. So, marriage would be her only way out. 

The man that chooses Glory happens to be the preacher’s son, Malcolm, who is Glory’s senior by ten years. Her mother is ecstatic. Glory is hesitant. Malcolm is persistent. 

Glory finds herself reveling in the new freedom she experiences while dating Malcolm. She’s eating at the best restaurants, getting rides to and from school, and receiving expensive gifts. Her mother can’t even say no to Malcolm. The problem is neither can Glory. Malcolm would do anything to protect and keep Glory. But what does Glory want? 

Glory Bishop is a well-developed story. Glory’s internal struggle trying to determine what she wants manifests itself in different ways throughout the novel, which keeps the reader engaged. 

Glory’s boss, Herschel, tries to guide Glory through her complex emotions and the world outside of the church. He offers practical advice, while also serving to highlight what was happening in the society at large during this time. 

Deborah King has written a compelling, thought-provoking novel that engages readers and made me wish the story would never end.

 

Monday
Jun102019

Book Review: Selling Americans on America: Journey into a Troubled Nation

Selling Americans on America: Journey into a Troubled Nation. Gerry and Janet Souter. Sartoris Literary Group, July 4, 2019, Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and E-book, 290 pages. 

Reviewed by Charles Kuner.

In Selling Americans on America: Journey into a Troubled Nation, Gerry and Janet Souter have collaborated on an interesting and entertaining account of the first American Freedom Train that traversed the country from 1947-1949. The book also speaks to our current situations both at home and abroad. It's a stark reminder of past lessons not learned or remembered.

The first Freedom Train was proposed in April 1946 by Attorney General Tom C. Clark, who believed that Americans had begun taking the principles of liberty for granted in the post-war years. The proposal was adopted—by a coalition which became known as the War Advertising Council—and implemented as a campaign to sell “America to Americans.” The primary purpose of the train was to heal the wounds of war and racism and remind us of American values and what America could be. 

Assorted events were planned to accompany the train, along with messages in radio programs, comic books, and films. In each city where the train stopped, they organized a “Rededication Week” for public celebrations of the United States. In February of 1947, the American Heritage Foundation was formed and named Thomas D’Arcy Brophy as its president.

Key documents were supplied to the Freedom Train by the National Archives. The focus was on crafting a shared ideology for Americans. As a result of the important role played by the War Advertising Council, the train exhibits defined American freedoms in terms of consumerism, American unity, and patriotism, and boasted of superior commodity production, whereas before the focus might have been cars, soap, and toothpaste.

An Alco PA diesel-electric locomotive pulled the train, which carried the original versions of the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Truman Doctrine, and the Bill of Rights on its tour of more than 300 cities in all 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii did not gain statehood until 1959).

Top marines were chosen to attend the train and its famous documents. The train even had an official song written by Irving Berlin and performed by the likes of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.

Licenses were given to some vendors to sell Freedom Train gear such as books and postcards. Also, the white press favored the train with mostly positive coverage. In the view of the Advertising Council, the Freedom Train succeeded, especially through the local rallies and all the important media messages which accompanied it. 

Philosopher George Santayana stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The idea resonates throughout most of this book, is a primer for the reader as to what needs to be done to put “our current house in order,” and speaks volumes if we only listen and absorb what had to be done after the end of World War II.  

Another objective of the first Freedom Train was to remind us of the importance of supporting our European allies while, at home, making efforts to dissolve racism. Currently, we are alienating and insulting our European allies while praising and supporting the positions of world dictators. Domestically, support and encouragement are being given to white nationalists and their organizations instead of creating alliances and relationships that would help make America a better place in the world. These are just some examples of the thought-provoking ideas implied in the Souter’s book. 

Another strong point of the book is the authors’ amazing amount of research. There is a balance and symmetry which helps move along the story. Five main parts make up the format of the book, and each part has a number of chapters. There is also a foreword, an introduction, an Appendix listing the Freedom Train documents, and an appendix listing all the Freedom Train stops from 1947-1949, and a bibliography. Furthermore, there is comprehensive coverage of all the states visited by the train. All the chapters cover regional geography, economics, politics, social dynamics, personal stories, history, media of that time, music, and lists of one sort or another. Everything is documented.

Most importantly, you don't have to be a historian to enjoy this book. There's very little jargon, and each section nicely flows into the next section. For those of us who live in Illinois, chapters 9 and 16 deal with the Freedom Train's visits to Bloomington and Chicago, respectively. 

The last point to be made is the role of minorities and women in the telling of this story. In the past, American history was often written from a white male point of view. Minorities and women were excluded from the history or placed in demeaning and stereotypical roles, as if they didn't exist as human beings. The Souters did not write that type of history. 

The 1940s Freedom Train display was integrated. Black and white viewers were allowed to mingle freely. When officials in Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, refused to let integrated groups see the exhibits at the same time, the Freedom Train skipped the planned visits, causing considerable controversy. In September of 1947, President Harry Truman announced a policy of desegregation for the train, which was scheduled to start its tour only two weeks later.

The Souters also mention Langston Hughes, “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race”, who wrote the poem “Freedom Train,” focusing on segregated America. The opening lines are: 

            Down South in Dixie the only trains I see’s

            Got a Jim Crow coaches set aside for me.

            I hope there ain’t no Jim Crow on the Freedom Train,

            No back-door entrance to the Freedom Train,

            No sign FOR COLORED on the Freedom Train,

            No WHITE FOLKS ONLY on the Freedom Train…

For decades, there was a dynamic, hard-working Japanese American population living on the West Coast, extending from Oregon to California. When the Freedom Train arrived on the West Coast with its patriotic documents and speeches, it revived painful memories from that segment of the population. Despite embracing American values and the importance of citizenship, 120,000 resident Issei (First-generation) and Nisei (Second-generation) Japanese were mistreated. “Herded onto trains with only what they could carry, these American citizens were sent to distant inland camps encircled with barbed wire and guarded by American soldiers."

This was happening while the volunteer Nisei 100th/44nd Regimental Combat Team was formed and “became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare.” 

There's also the story of 22-year-old PFC Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American. He, along with five other men, set up the United States flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima. The flag raising was made immortal by Joe Rosenthal's photograph and the sculpted Marine Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. After the war, Hayes suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which was never treated. The tragic result, in 1955, was his death from alcoholic poisoning. 

Other stories are told, such as the Southwest states being dependent on imported labor in 1947-1948. There were temporary workers from Mexico known as “Braceros,” which means “manual laborers.” Throughout the book, women leaders are mentioned as well in their support of this singular historical event of the first Freedom Train. 

Selling Americans on America is a very contemporary book, as it raises issues and concerns that are still being debated in an ever increasingly divided America. We are divided by political, social-cultural, and religious differences: the 99 percent against the 1 percent, climate deniers against climate changers, immigration issues, and the continuing problems of racism. Readers have a blueprint in this book as to what had to be done in postwar America to unite the country. Accordingly, the cover of the book visually displays an American flag split down the middle and, at the bottom, the Freedom Train representing unity over disunity.

The book deserves to be read by anyone who is interested in the historical evolution of our country since World War II and who desires to be an informed and active participant in making America live up to its founding ideals and values. To understand what's happening currently in America and why, the reader needs a context or perspective, which this book provides sufficiently and competently. 

The Souters tell the complete story, good and bad, of the role of minorities and women in the bringing together of the Freedom Train. It's not a history told by and for whites. Everything accomplished, won, and conquered were not by males or whites only. To quote the lyrics of a song that was featured in the Freedom Train:

            “The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street

            The grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet

            The children in the playground, the faces that I see

            All races and religions, that’s America to me…”

 

Monday
Jun032019

Book Review: A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck: From Occupational Therapist to Patient and Beyond. Janet R. Douglas. Archway Publishing, October 4, 2018, Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and E-book, 316 pages.

Reviewed by Julie S. Halpern.

Janet R. Douglas’s account of the challenges she faced after surviving a stroke is a beautifully written memoir with an ironic twist. Janet was a longtime occupational therapist with extensive knowledge of rehabilitation and the health care industry. A consummate medical professional with the soul of a poet, Janet reveals the immediacy of every experience in heartbreakingly vivid detail. Her unique, unexpected sense of humor—often inspired by literary works—inform even the most frightening situations with wit and empathy. 

When Janet suffers a stroke during a relative’s wedding in her native England, and is left with devastating physical and cognitive damage, she knows all too well how uncertain her prognosis could be. Upon returning to her Chicago home, she finds herself a patient in the facility where she once worked as a therapist. Dedicated staff members keep her focused on her recovery, despite her lack of cooperation. She candidly discusses the personality changes the stroke caused. Unable to walk, read, see clearly, or even dress herself, Janet’s recovery is difficult and not as complete as she had hoped. Coping with canes, leg braces, painful therapies, and countless other indignities add to her anger and frustration. She also suffers severe memory loss.

Janet’s love story figures prominently throughout. Her husband, Bruce, is a loving partner and advocate. After Janet is released from the hospital, her much older husband unexpectedly becomes her chief caregiver, bearing the brunt of her day-to-day frustrations and physical and cognitive limitations with exceptional kindness and strength. Their two daughters also take on many responsibilities to help keep life as normal as possible. When each daughter gets married, Janet defies all expectations by managing large, lavish weddings, complete with bad weather and large numbers of unexpected guests.

Janet and Bruce met while working for the World Health Organization(WHO) in Bangkok, and they continued their passion for world travel. Determined to travel again, Janet impulsively books a cruise to Tahiti. Neglecting to mention her needs when booking the trip, they encounter endless logistical issues, such as cramped airplanes and hard-to-navigate cruise ship cabins. Despite the challenges of her first post-stroke vacation, Janet finds herself able to finally begin piecing her memories together while sitting on the deck of the cruise ship.

Memories begin rushing back: the childhood trauma with her mentally unstable and abusive mother; the loss of family members to strokes, illness, and accidents; and the more recent loss of several dear friends in the 9/11 attacks. Therapy after her return home helps her realize that the years of trauma very likely contributed to the stroke. 

Janet also returned to the corporate job she held before the stroke, but she encountered a cold, unwelcoming environment. While a few colleagues gave her the extra help she needed, several colleagues she once considered friends showed themselves to be anything but. Realizing she was being pushed out, she eventually left on her terms.
As she continued her recovery, she found work that benefits others to be more fulfilling than the corporate world.

Janet’s determination to regain her mental facility, as well as write this impeccably researched memoir, is a triumph. While the book is sprinkled with daunting medical terminology, Janet presents these terms in a manner readily understandable to the general public. Each chapter contains useful bibliographies with extensive clinical and literary references. Despite the complex subject matter, Janet’s wit and humor make it a thoroughly enjoyable read.

 

Friday
May242019

Book Review: Chicago Treasure

Chicago Treasure. Larry Broutman, Rich Green, & John Rabias. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, March 1, 2019, Hardcover, 168 pages.

Reviewed by Susan Gaspar.

Upon first glance, Chicago Treasure is a beautiful coffee table book. Richly colored cover art, generous heft, and glossy pages make the book feel special. Its fill-your-lap proportion makes it feel like a doorway to another world in the same way that a lushly illustrated children’s book invites you inside to take a peek into a special place.

Upon closer examination, Chicago Treasure becomes much more than a beautiful book meant to dress a shelf or accessorize a table. There are things to explore, savor, and learn here, and nothing seems forced or rushed. The book’s secrets are ready to be discovered by children and adults alike. There is an irresistible surge of energy that envelopes you from the moment you open the cover. An air of unpredictability and pure playfulness permeates these pages.

The book opens with a well-written introduction by the author, Larry Broutman, that tells the backstory and inspiration behind the book’s creation. It’s uplifting to read of the serendipitous developments that led to the final publication. 

The book is divided into three sections: “Just Imagine!," "Now Showing!," and "Sightings!", and each section has a unique flavor that features photographs of Chicago children Photoshopped into various whimsical and fantastical environments and scenarios. 

In “Just Imagine!” we see the pages of a fictional newspaper, the Chicago Pretender, which retells classic fairy tales, famous children’s literature, and popular nursery rhymes with a modern twist. I laughed at the humorous headlines and “man-on-the-street” reporter perspective that dryly recounts beloved children's stories as though they were breaking the news with “still developing” details. The children are featured in many of the rhymes themselves, giving an immediacy and a contemporary perspective to the tales we all know. 

“Now Showing!” is touted as the “Museum Edition” where kids “step into the picture,” and its pictures are stunning. Familiar artworks feature children immersed in those environments, providing contrast and insight that ranges from comedic to moving. This section was probably my favorite because I have always enjoyed art books with their richly colored and detailed images reproduced to perfection on shiny, high-quality paper.

In “Sightings!” the author takes us to several famous Chicago landmarks. The text provided for each location, structure, or attraction provides history and interesting factoids. The photos focus on animals, and the juxtaposition of wild creatures in places like Millennium Park and Navy Pier provides a surprise. Koalas on the Chicago River Walk and penguins at the Chicago Theater? Yes, please.

The back of the book offers the authors' "Afterthoughts," which gives a joyful perspective on what has occurred since the book's creation. We see the children from the earlier pages, older now, thriving and happy. We also learn that all proceeds from Chicago Treasure are donated to Access Living and The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired—two Chicago nonprofit organizations that improve lives first-hand. 

Chicago Treasure is a terrific book to read in short stints to a child at bedtime, but it is also the perfect book to sit and read all at once, absorbing the classic stories that tell a modern-day tale of access, fun, and love. A treasure indeed.