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Book Reviews

Saturday
Nov032018

Book Review: The Third Thaw

The Third Thaw. Karl J. Hanson. E.L. Marker, an imprint of WiDo Publishing, August 22, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 314 pages.

Reviewed by Kelly Fumiko Weiss. 

The Third Thaw, the new science fiction novel from Karl J. Hansen,  poses the question: what could the human race feasibly do if it was forced to populate another planet? Hanson takes the reader along for the ride as he intricately maps out how he thinks it could happen—what technologies would be needed, what engineering tools would be used, what infrastructure would be mandatory for human survival—and explains to the reader his thought process for each element. The main thrust of his design is the use of embryos that will be ‘thawed’ and grown on a new planet through the aid of machines and artificial intelligence. 

As Hanson focuses on the hard science behind the story, it’s the people he depicts that I found most compelling. But I wanted to know more. I wanted to know more about the character Horst and how his ability to see past his assigned field of study influenced those around him. I wanted to know more about how Adam’s connection to his virtual family drove decisions he may have made with his own. I wanted to know more about the emotional toil of the people back on Earth who planned this mission and what it was like for them to design a future 80,000 years out. These human questions kept me reading but were never fully answered. 

Unlike other books that dive into the emotional drama of each dangerous and/or life-altering situation and live in that space, the people in this book had to keep going, keep problem solving, and think about what was next. Therefore, the reader did, too. While Hanson’s compositional style was sometimes too expositional for me, I found his ability to jump forward in the story, sometimes years at a time, a refreshing take on story-building. A lot of what he left out may not actually matter. 

The events he chose to include were fascinating. Discovering a way around a waterfall saved a whole cohort of people. Figuring out how to fight off indigenous animals allowed them to complete their journey. Assessing the root purpose of a supercomputer allowed for the advancement of technology on their new home planet. The events he chose to depict were the ones that saved humanity from extinction and the technology-based solutions he used to carry them out were incredibly creative. 

The Third Thaw was clearly a labor of love for Hanson. He imbued the book with his own personal knowledge and interests. His love of human solutions to difficult problems shone through on every page. Ultimately, I liked this book because I could tell how much fun Hanson had writing it and it was constantly piquing my curiosity in unpredictable ways. There is no way a reader would be able to start this book and know how it ends. And that. in and of itself, is a great accomplishment. 

 

Thursday
Nov012018

Book Review: Zombie Gardening

Zombie Gardening. Adam Kessel. Chicago: Sunflower Trail Publishing, 2nd Edition, August 11, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 68 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

After the big one, where only cockroaches and plants that most Americans consider weeds survive, leftover zombie apocalyptic people will need to survive. If there’s not enough flesh to go around, forage for weeds! In a tongue-in-cheek picture guide with room for field notes, naturalist Adam Kessel shows the rest of us how to make the best of pest plants.

Using his own photographs, the author has created a visually appealing book with notes about common and less-common plants that are generally considered nuisances. I recognized a great number of the nuisance plants from my first attempt to grow a yard in my new country home. I have the raw material to try a few of Kessel’s suggested preparation techniques. I appreciated the author’s gentle reminder that these plants came across the ocean with the settlers who had “extraordinarily little room” for their allotted cargo, but felt the need to bring these plants from home for their survival. “Each plant in this book has a story,” writes Kessel, an experienced ethno-botanist. “Use this book to rebuild those lost relationships.”

For each identified plant, like the common dandelion, Kessel provides a photograph including the Latin name, a note such as “dried dandelion root is a sub-par substitute for coffee, but it’s better than nothing,” a “uses” note, such as “leaves and flowers are edible,” and a foraging guide for searching in places like parks, abandoned lots, or alleyways. 

Plants fall into categories such as “Harvest Away” (for non-native invasive plants), “Harvest Sparingly” (plants that are native but can take over an urban environment), “Survival Harvest” (native species that are rare and may be overwhelmed by too great use), and finally, “Harvest Only if a Zombie is Breathing Down Your Neck.”

I experienced a few issues with the electronic version that made it difficult to read, and the print version is laid out similarly. The design is quite pretty, but the background decoration on the pages and the small, tight, informal font can occasionally make the words hard to read. 

The electronic version wasn’t set up with individual pages for each plant with a definitive header for the next plant, and the run-ons often forced me go back to see when the change took place and where the new notes started about the next plant. Each plant page was slightly different, which I liked; nevertheless, it was sometimes hard to match directions or notes with the intended plants. Overall, my reading experience would have benefited from improved navigational aids and a more structured layout.

Zombie Gardeninghas a companion Zombie Teaching Guidewith multi-level lessons for finding, identifying, and potential uses of, the plants in the book. My environmental studies teacher husband reviewed the book with me, and we found it useful and fun. While the teaching guide is a great tool to introduce botony, it should be used in settings where, for example, kids aren’t running around looking for poison ivy to rub on one another.

Each plant was generally well defined and introduced by name and use, including a few caveats where necessary—such as, stinging nettles will irritate your skin with an intense burning, which it does, but that probably won’t stop the undead. The “uses” notes provide medicinal purposes which allude to the story of the plant. The book helped me appreciate the plants, even if I still grumble about them.

 

Wednesday
Oct312018

Book Review: The Real News!: The Never-Before-Told Stories of Donald Trump & Fake News!

The Real News!: The Never-Before-Told Stories of Donald Trump & Fake News! John Bernard Ruane. Post Hill Press, December 4, 2018, Trade Paperback, 224 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Sarna.

The Real News by John Bernard Ruane is subtitled, The Never-Before-Told Stories of Donald Trump & Fake News! That only begins to tell the story. These satirical observations extend beyond politics and politicians. While our current Commander-In-Chief plays a major role in many of these stories, he and his party are not the only targets. The author calls attention to corruption, greed, and just plain stupidity wherever it is found on all sides of the political spectrum, including celebrities and the news media that encourages and feeds off the carnage. 

Each chapter of the book is a separate story. The author begins each with a premise, often based on fact, then goes behind the scenes to show what might have precipitated the event. There were times I had to pause to consider where reality stopped and imagination took over. It’s no doubt a commentary of the times we live in that separating fact from fiction is becoming increasingly more difficult and thinking something is too crazy to be real is, well, crazy. 

What separates this book from so many of the articles written about this unbelievable time we live in is Ruane’s ability to look and poke fun at situations without being mean or callous. Whether you reside politically on the left, right, or in the middle, you will laugh, cringe, and probably nod your head at Ruane’s non-partisan take on how we arrived at this place in time.

One of the stories, “Hardball Grabs Congress by the Lug Nuts,” was so much fun I didn’t want it to end. When it did end, I was a little sad, mainly because it didn’t really happen. Another story, “And Now, the Award for ‘Most Outrageous News Commentator’,” was peppered with fake-froth, flying spittle, teensy hands, and Cheerios. The opening story, “Democrats Discover Donald Trump’s Greatest Weakness,” is so off-the-wall, yet obvious, I envision the White House dispatching teams of interns to buy up all the copies of the book as soon as they become available.

Each of the fifteen chapters read like a Saturday Night Live skit, which is not surprising considering the author studied at the famed Second City Improv. As is true with skit-based productions, some stories work better than others, but all manage to hit their targets. When they are on, they are dead on. The book is a quick, fun read, with each chapter/story self-contained. I would recommend this book to anyone tired of trying to make sense of the seemingly senseless world. Take a break from your anger, frustration, and worry; just relax and have a good laugh.

 

Wednesday
Oct242018

Book Review: Stories From The Tenth Floor Clinic

Stories From The Tenth Floor ClinicMarianna Crane. Berkeley, CA:She Writes Press, November 6, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 212 pages.

Reviewed by Deb Lecos.

Marianna Crane has written an important memoir detailing the complex needs of an aging population and how a humane society should shift its thinking about what is “conscious-care” when people reach a certain level of fragility. The reader journeys along with Marianna while her beliefs change as a nurse practitioner, running a senior clinic within a Chicago-based, subsidized-housing building. 

As a nurse practitioner specializing in gerontology at the Veteran’s Administration, Marianna is governed by strict parameters. When a job change takes her to a senior clinic within a CHA building, she faces an environment quite different from where she trained, and is forced to adapt so she can help those under her care. Many of her patients are alone, disconnected from family, and easy prey for those intent on stealing their meager incomes. Continuing to live independently can be difficult when a patient’s health moves swiftly downhill and there are no friends or relatives to assist in decision-making. Residents of the building have come to rely on the clinic and its support staff to ensure they have social interaction, food in the refrigerator, and a fan when the heat becomes dangerously high. 

After work, Marianna’s home life is fraught with similar issues, as a complicated relationship with her mother has reached an unsustainable level of dysfunction. Her mother has become increasingly combative, and her disinclination to engage therapeutically requires Marianna to devise a solution that is respectful to her husband and two teenage children, while ensuring her mother has a safe place to land. Utilizing the new approach that she’s been reluctantly taking with her patients affords Marianna necessary skills to handle this emotionally-challenging situation.

With chapters unfolding in story form, the reader glimpses the lives of vulnerable people. We learn what happens when the frail are shuttled into the corners of society without enough support. Filling that gap in care are Mattie and Mary, who work under the direction of Ms. Crane and are devoted to building humane over-sight relationships with the residents. Mattie and Mary compel Marianna to redefine her role in the clinic community by introducing her to Angelika, a woman choosing to die in her apartment instead of going to a hospital. Angelika has refused a diagnosis of the ailment ending her life. After losing the battle of Angelika’s resistance to leave her home, Marianna allows herself to adjust to the needs of those she is intent on helping. She comes to understand that sometimes care means respecting the wishes of a dying woman and not requiring her to take a final breath in the hospital, even if doing so breaks a dozen rules in the process.

The stories Ms. Crane starkly and, at times, graphically illustrates occurred in the 1980’s. Similar events are continuing to unfold today in subsidized housing and homes all across the country. Difficulties the aging and poor experience in navigating ill-health and death within a system built for the well-off and healthy have worsened in the time since the author encountered these experiences. The VA, health clinics, and senior care programs are still underfunded and mismanaged, exacerbating the condition of buildings and staffing needs.

There are no concrete solutions to the problems we face in determining how to care for a growing low-income, aging population. It is my fervent wish as a reader of this memoir that we do so with an ability to change our thinking, much as Marianna Crane convinced herself to do. Convenient, easily-enacted answers to the complex struggles of the elderly, many of whom are not connected to functional families, will not be successful. As Marianna came to her own epiphanies on how to be of assistance, so must our national community. This is a relational issue and it deserves a relationally-creative response, one that is centered on humane and caring treatment for all ill, infirmed, and end-stage-aged people.

 

Monday
Oct152018

Book Review: An Off-White Christmas

An Off-White Christmas. Donald G. Evans. Chicago: Eckhartz Press, October 19, 2018, Limited Edition Hardcover and Trade Paperback, 182 pages.

Reviewed by Dennis Hetzel.

The greatest pleasure of An Off-White Christmas might be that it’s a rewarding deception. 

As the title implies, the idea of “Christmas” is the thematic glue that holds these twelve stories by Chicago author Donald G. Evans together, but don’t expect a heartwarming, magical trip on Santa’s sleigh. It’s a deeper, darker, and more interesting ride than you might first expect. 

The cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover certainly applies here. Hannah Jennings’ beautiful illustrations and even the script font used for the cover title lead the reader into thinking that inoffensive, pleasant vignettes will unfold. You can almost smell the gingerbread and feel the prick of pine needles as you examine the cover and thumb through the first few pages. 

The opening story, the source of the book’s title, doesn’t provide clues to some of the characters you’ll meet later, but immediately suggests that you’re in the hands of a writer with skill for description, setting, and dialogue:

I could hear Willie’s moose-call “Maaaa” all the way upstairs. I stopped rummaging, stopped breathing. “Maaaa.” That was the year Pa died, and from my spot in the crawl space it wasn’t too hard to believe in ghosts. “Maaaa.”

At first glance, “An Off-White Christmas” is about getting the best possible deal on a great Christmas tree. But it’s more so a story about family relationships, particularly between the narrator, Peggy, and her brother, Willie. One of Peggy’s initial descriptions of Willie is vivid and memorable:

“Ma wiped her hand on her rooster’s apron and looked through Willie as if he were an endlessly circling gnat.”

Some stories, including this one, don’t have much in the way of traditional endings. Conflicts come into sharp focus but are barely resolved; often they are just nudged a bit by glimpses of wisdom that the narrator gains by the story’s end. Just like in real life, Evans’ characters struggle to move three steps forward for every two steps back. Depending on the story, the lack of resolution or a big-deal climax is either exactly right or a bit of a problem. Either way, Evans always gives you something to ponder.

As you move through the collection, the stories get edgier, and several are anything but G-rated. You don’t expect to find “Christmas stories” written in the voices of atheists, gamblers, and teen-age females working for online sex sites. “Christmas Releases,” is a story that doesn’t work as smoothly as others, but readers will still be fascinated by Dana, a teen who displays sass and wisdom beyond her years while maintaining her virginity. Will she find a trustworthy relationship away from her computer screen on Christmas Eve? You’ll have to read to find out.

Evans is at his best in two stories that precede “Christmas Releases.” 

“Whatever’s Left of Normal” takes us to Kosovo during the Balkans war and the characters are confronted with a terrifying choice: whether or not to defy orders and leave their secure base to respond to the screams of a civilian victim that could be a trap. It’s a Christmas morning these soldiers will never forget. 

“One Person’s Garbage” introduces us to a man named Jolly—yes, it’s a holiday reference—who always outbids a younger competitor at auctions, stirring considerable cynicism and resentment. Then they meet. See if you think this tale has a classic Christmas ending.

Through it all, Evans works as a quiet provocateur and a bit of a chameleon. In the voices of very different narrators, he explores how past baggage and internal conflicts can collide with the meaningful relationships everyone seeks with those who mean the most to us.  It’s a book filled with shades of gray. After all, the word “off-white” is part of the title.

This is Evans’ third book and first short-story collection. Several of the stories were previously published in literary journals and many Chicago-area authors know him as the founding executive editor of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.