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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.



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.



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.



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.



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.