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Book Reviews

Wednesday
Oct032018

Book Review: Face Your Fears

Face Your Fears Bill MathisRogue Phoenix Press, July 14, 2018Trade Paperback and E-book, 323 pages.

Reviewed by Renee James.

In Face Your Fears, author Bill Mathis tells the story of Nate McGuire and Jude Totsian, from each man's childhood, to his earliest rumblings of attraction to other males, to the adult life events and romances that eventually lead them to each other. It is a novel with significant flaws in craftsmanship and pace, but it has redeeming qualities that recommend it, especially its gentle and touching telling of how gay men experience life, love, and the search for happiness.

Nate and Jude alternate the narration of this story. Nate has Cerebral Palsy, which renders him a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. He is completely dependent on others for even the most basic life functions but compensates with a caustic wit, a loud voice, and a willingness to wield both qualities without fear or reservation in any situation. His suburban-Chicago family is supportive and well-heeled enough to make sure he has the services he needs.

Jude is ten years older than Nate and provides a sharp contrast: he's athletic, active, and fully integrated into his conservative Iowa farm community as a child. Yet he feels a growing distance from that community as he becomes aware of his sexual orientation and how his family and community would regard that.

The contrast between the two boys' journeys of self-discovery is profound and one of the elements that most recommend this book. Nate's life is a succession of physical challenges non-handicapped people might have never imagined—getting a meal, getting to the bathroom in time and needing someone to clean him up afterwards, and dealing with the stares and discomfort his presence causes when he ventures into new places and situations. He deals with these embarrassments by being loud and bold, sometimes in a funny way, sometimes like a brat.

Jude is Nate's opposite in many ways. He's physically gifted, relatively quiet, and obedient. He goes along to get along.

The contrasts continue as each boy reaches puberty and begins feeling a sexual attraction to other males. Outspoken Nate wastes little time telling his loving and supportive family that he's gay, while Jude begins a cycle of many years of a secret life by keeping his sexuality a secret.

The scenes depicting each boy's early experiences with attraction and love are deep and moving, making this book the kind of read that will linger in one's memory for many months and perhaps years to come.

As Nate and Jude evolve into their adult years, Face Your Fears becomes more of a romance novel, with frequent twists and turns, angst, and tears in each man's struggles for love and fulfillment.

While the portraits of Nate and Jude in their early years make this book special, the lapses in storytelling craft slow it to a crawl in places. Author Mathis tells his story in first-person, present tense, which is effective, but it often lapses into long passages filling in back story in past tense. Some transitions in time and place are unclear. And some of the dialogue would be better condensed into summary narration to keep the story moving.

Despite these shortcomings, Face Your Fears rewards readers with moments that are deeply engaging and can change one's understanding of the world in which we live—a quality not always found in today's most popular fiction.

 

Wednesday
Oct032018

Book Review: West Side Girl

West Side GirlAnita Solick Oswald. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 19, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 202 pages. 

Reviewed by Susan Gaspar.

West Side Girl is a book you didn’t know you needed. It’s warmly and generously written, and you are instantly transported back to a time when it was safe to play outside in the streets and alleyways and to imagine yourself a bold adventurer in your own neighborhood. The book harnesses a free-wheeling, childlike energy that most of us have long forgotten or pushed aside in favor of more sophisticated and worldly pursuits. 

The book is a loving memoir of a childhood spent in Chicago’s then-waning West Garfield Park neighborhood during the 1950s and early 1960s. Its pages are filled with fascinating and colorful characters who surround a young girl as she learns about the world via her family, friends, neighbors, and teachers. It is impossible to resist the warm embrace of the hardworking and lovable Solick family, evident from the first chapter.   

One memory at a time, we are immersed into the imaginative mind of Anita Solick, whose dreams and goals propel her through her youth at full speed. We come to know her parents, grandparents, and siblings, and to understand what life was like on the west side of Chicago at that time. If you are a Chicago native, you will revel at the detailed descriptions of locations lost to the ages, and at the first-hand account of the workings of a great American city in an era of powerful social change. 

I need to speak for a moment about Anita’s mother, Helen. My love for her grew with each turn of the page. She is a character worthy of her own book, I think, and her quirks and super-powers engaged me each time she was mentioned. The family dynamics here are raw and real and keep you securely buckled into the story until the very last pages.   

In addition to Anita’s family, you meet the constant stream of fast-made friends in her diverse and shifting neighborhood. Immigrant children from all over the globe pass through—families from Italy, Ireland, Greece, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Romania, and Poland, for starters—all searching for a better life. Apartment living has its own unique charms and nightmares, and we get a taste of both here. We learn to smartly navigate the streets and their occupants alongside Anita and her sister Barb, and we are better for it. 

There are gypsy children, demanding nuns, eccentric dance teachers, and assorted desperate souls in search of a haven in a changing world. We come to love them all, albeit some more than others. The chapter about a memorable and poignant Christmas Eve brought tears to my eyes, and I was deeply touched by the quick kindness and selfless sacrifices shown to a desperate mother and her child in a time of true need. And two chapters later I found myself laughing at the outlandishly goofy auditions for the school’s variety show.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that many of the chapters are centered on the neighborhood’s Catholic parish—the unspoken hub for everyone who called that neighborhood home. Church, school, social activities, and business connections all seemed to revolve around St. Mel’s. That said, there are descriptions of other neighborhood landmarks that paint a vivid picture of a different time. The Marbro Theater, a lavish old-world cinema house down the block, was a favorite. I could imagine the thrill of seeing a show there amid the grandeur of gold leaf and velvet. 

The childhood adventures and discoveries in these chapters have a loose, free-associative feel, and the book unravels like a developing sepia-toned photograph that reveals a bit more of the complete picture as you turn each page. According to the author’s note, the book was compiled of short stories, and the transitions between them range from a character’s arrival to a change of season to a new activity at school.       

As Anita grows older, she encounters some personal disappointments as well as racial integration at her school, and her first taste of racism is a harsh pill to swallow. Why won’t some of her classmates dance with the black kids? Why is it a big deal to some people? Childhood innocence is grappled with and fought for in these stories, which serves to ground the book in reality so that nostalgia doesn’t blur the truth. 

This book makes an impression that will last quite some time. It is honest, from the heart, and filled with details that engage the reader from the first few lines. It is impossible not to root for Anita and her family and friends, or to squelch the rage felt at injustices large and small. And, as an inspiring touch of social activism, the author donates any profits from book sales to charities that help at-risk children on Chicago’s West Side.

At its core, this book is a slice of Americana at a time when America was opening new doors and stretching its limbs. Light was seeping through societal cracks and reaching new places, and Americans responded in a wide variety of ways. The very definition of what it was to be an American was shifting. The country was coming of age, and Anita Solick was too. It is a pleasure to bear witness to her place in it all, to see events and places through her eyes, and to get to know this West Side girl.

 

Tuesday
Oct022018

Book Review: Four Months in Brighton Park

Four Months in Brighton Park. Larry Ehrhorn. Madison, Wisconsin: Madijean Press, September 14, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-Book. 247 pages.

Reviewed by G. F. Gallagher.

Larry Ehrhorn’s Four Months in Brighton Park is a fictionalized memoir of a high-school senior’s life-in-transition from insecure social misfit to college-bound adult. It is set equally in Chicago’s South Loop and southwest-side Brighton Park neighborhoods in the 1960s. It centers upon the adventures Kelly Elliott, a pimple-faced underdog at fictional Talbot High School. Ehrhorn tells his tale in a breezy, almost comedic style, firing off one-liners at a blistering pace, whether contained in Kelly’s nonstop mental musings or within occasional dialogue between an ensemble of characters.

At first blush, Four Months in Brighton Park presents more as a sequence of vignettes in chapter form than as a unitary story. There is cohesion between these vignettes though, owing to the fact that they illustrate an interrelated chain-reaction of otherwise disparate events, all flowing from the fateful day the protagonist, in an almost out-of-body moment, engages and challenges Joe Swedarsky, the school bully. In Kelly’s words, “During the next few months this one reaction perpetuated another, and I was hurled along, caught in the wave of affairs that carried me through adolescence. It was like the tumbling domino effect—nothing could deter the progression once it had begun.

The story thus told is that of a quiet and introspective boy meeting life’s challenges full-on, forced by circumstances and fueled by a surprising and previously undetected inner strength. The chapters are, essentially, stories-within-a-story, each serving to sketch out a new challenge and provide a context for Kelly to innovate his response, always with varying degrees of success.

Through the first ten chapters, Ehrhorn showcases a flair for humor and glib monologue, mostly via Kelly’s internalized observations. Told with the protagonist as narrator, there is an authenticity to Kelly’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings; he is, for the bulk of the book, a 17-year-old male, and true to form for most 17-year-old males regardless of time period, his thoughts and motivations are just about all sexually generated. Whether through his own internal voice or through relating accounts of the foibles of others—such as an infamous liaison between one of the coaches at Talbot High and the secretly-sensuous librarian, or the lust-driven frustrations of his best friend, Jerry Hogan—Kelly channels the author as master of the one-liner. Just about every other paragraph, if read aloud, would cry out for a rimshot at the end.

It’s toward the conclusion of the novel, however, that a tenderness shows through, as an arc—more like a rainbow—begins to form across the last three chapters, taking the book from an almost slapstick style to that of a true story, generous in emotion and rife with possibility. Throughout the book, the illustrations of the older women in Kelly’s life—in particular his mother, Doris, and a reluctant stripper named Mary Harker—take the reader to a deeper level of storytelling, one that is a welcome transition and that makes the reader wish for more of the same.

By the end, we learn that Kelly Elliott has made a quantum-leap in his maturation process, and is now bound for college. Curiously, it seems that a core group of characters—Laura LeDuc, the former femme fatale of the cheerleading squad; Joseph Swedarsky, Kelly’s tormentor and scourge of Talbot High; Linda Martinsen, Kelly’s girlfriend and emotional anchor; and even the now-reviled Jerry Hogan—are all bound for Northern State as well. Hmmm. Sequel in the works? Only the author can say. 

Four Months in Brighton Park is a fun and engaging read, one which shows a genuine affection for and understanding of both the time—the 1960s—and place in which it is set. Larry Ehrhorn is an author blessed with a boundless, and clearly irreverent, sense of humor, which is brought to bear in this entertaining book.

 

Monday
Sep242018

Book Review: Chuckerman Makes a Movie

Chuckerman Makes a Movie. Francie Arenson Dickman. She Writes Press, October 9, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 256 pages. 

Reviewed by Christine Cacciatore.

Nieces and nephews can sure come up with some funny ideas, but telling their uncle that he’s hit rock bottom is one of the funniest things ever, even after he’s given them each $5. After all, the only ones who tell the truth are drunks and children.

Chuckerman Makes a Movie grips you within the first few pages and doesn’t let up as it takes you on a magic ride. David Melman, the main character, decides to listen to his sister and takes a film-writing class. Once he’s in the class, he’s urged by Laurel, the woman teaching the class, to write about the Cadillac he inherited from his grandfather.

One thing I loved about this book is that it’s told through the class he’s taking. The descriptions of people and David’s experiences are spot-on and luxurious to read. Normally one to flip pages faster and faster as I read, I found myself slowing way down and even rereading passages so that I could absorb a little more of the author’s writing.

I’m a huge fan of a story within a story as well, and I found it something that Ms. Dickman did quite well. I was able to follow and enjoy both stories with no problem. 

Her character development is wonderful, and there are some scenes within this novel that will make you laugh out loud; it’s that funny. I also enjoyed how she paced her story, something that not too many authors seem to get exactly right, but Ms. Dickman has her finger on the pulse of what works and what does not. Her dialogue is spot-on as well. I could easily see this being made into a movie; I have a few ideas for the cast but I’ll keep that quiet and let the readers judge for themselves.

I enjoyed the part about the Yom Kippur dinner; it reminded me of one of the Seders I got to go to.

Women will enjoy this book for the love story and witty dialogue, and men for the same reasons, plus, there’s a Cadillac. 

I also really enjoyed reading the story of Slip and Estelle, David Melman’s grandparents. It brings realism to his story that I truly loved. 

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. This author needs to write faster, and I will be on the lookout for her next masterpiece.

 

Wednesday
Sep192018

Book Review: The Cards Don’t Lie

The Cards Don’t Lie. Sue Ingalls Finan. She Writes Press, October 9, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 368 pages.

Reviewed by Janet Cole. 

The Cards Don’t Lie is a tale of events and relationships occurring immediately before and during the War of 1812. A diverse array of characters of various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds find common ground and camaraderie as they struggle to survive the challenges presented when the British attempt to invade the city of New Orleans.

Unlikely alliances form and heartbreaking decisions are made. The young English lad, Peter, forced into conscription by the British navy and then captured by pirates, finds love in New Orleans with a young prostitute who heroically volunteers her time and risks her safety to deliver supplies to General Andrew Jackson’s army. She then returns with the wounded to the makeshift hospital in the Ursuline convent on the outskirts of the city. Catherine, a midwife of Creole and former slave heritage, makes a deathbed promise to her dying Creole son-in-law, wounded in battle, to take any measures necessary to have his newborn son brought up as a free man with all the advantages that would accompany that status. This promise propels Catherine to make a shocking decision that causes a break in her relationship with her daughter, Suzanne, and unites a child with his grandfather. 

The Cards Don’t Lie is fascinating account rich in historical detail. It contrasts cultures and lifestyles as the author, Sue Ingalls Finan, describes Creole society and Voodoo culture in relation to those who remained slaves and those who had been freed. It was, indeed, a complex and enthralling time.