Book Reviews

Monday
Dec052016

Book Review: Men as Virgins

Men as Virgins. A. Delaney Walker writing as Zola Lawrence. Argo & Cole Publishers, May 30, 2016, Trade Paperback, 482 pages.

Reviewed by Gerry Souter.

When I first thumbed through this book, I asked myself, “Why me?” Female readers appeared to have written all the review clips. The subject, “Men as Virgins,” seemed to refer to a hushed society that might limit the readership in this era of pre-teen sex exploration. No academic alphabet soup followed the author’s name so a “Masters and Johnson” spinoff appeared doubtful.

Then I realized that the author had gone spelunking into the messy world of the late 1960s through the 1980s—war-torn, politically volatile, and constantly perched on the edge of one revolution or another. Those were the times when I cut the ties that bound me to my Chicago roots and I ventured forth, brimming with art school insouciance, merchant seaman savvy, a degree in my pocket, and a camera in my hand. The author and I might have been fellow travelers, standing at the rail of the English Channel ferry. My curiosity kept me reading.

I was brought up short once again by Lawrence’s use of the second person. For all her assignations, narrative meanderings, and dialogue duets, she used “I said…you said.” This is an uncommon device. The book becomes one long, internal dialogue, unsparing in self-incrimination in which each of her lovers is shaped by her point of view and the reader assumes the identity of her hedonist focus.

And yet, I find her rich prose and insistent flow riveting. She is an animal of her era—those days of parsing the chaos to find some personal grab irons to cling to. With her own virginity in tatters following “true love” disappointments, she dives in and out of the turbulent currents of life in the 1970s and 80s like a dolphin, first to a career, then to college, then to selling encyclopedias door to door, and then back to school. Her cycles of lovers, with nine abstracted at periodic anchor points, are like punctuating ink crosses on a roadmap sketching geographic and emotional boundaries. Fascinated, I kept on reading.

After a while, with occasional lunges back to previous lovers, her story becomes a mantra of discovery, joy, clinging, disappointment, and recrimination only to plunge ahead in a sea of random couplings that defined an age. Finally, near the end of her saga, seated on a park bench in Paris, her mementoes—baubles, photos, letters of past victories and inevitable defeats—are “drowned in the River Seine.” She writes:

“I am a mad juggler, tossing lovers into the air, catching one with a thought, another with a heart string, keeping them all afloat until the movements become grotesque and my hands lose their quickness and my body its sanity, and I hold the fragments in my palms.”

Lawrence’s story sputters out quietly in the epilogue written 47 years after beginning her unwitting exploration of “Men as Virgins;” the energy of her writing in the insistent voice she chose is clear. During twenty years of world travel, I met some of the personality-types in her story, but from the opposite side of the chromosome fence and minus the surfeit of orgasmic interludes. She is a survivor and an author well worth reading, her book especially relevant for today’s millennials who can appreciate her dogged stamina and readers like me with “blue eyes flecked with brown and green” who can trace her path with their own memories. Her readers and I are richer for the experience.

 

Monday
Dec052016

Book Review: Different Ways of Being

Different Ways of Being. Alan Balter. Linkville Press, November 19, 2015, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 372 pages.

Reviewed by Christine Collins Cacciatore.

I recently spent many enjoyable hours reading Different Ways of Being, by Alan Balter, and I would recommend the book. It would be of particular interest to people who are deaf or have someone in their lives who is deaf, or someone who would find it thought provoking to learn about deafness.

The book is divided into several different sections. The first section introduces Willa and Robert, who have a storybook romance and before long, they are married and have a deaf son, Seth. The story concentrates mostly on Seth and his struggles and victories throughout life. Without giving away too much, Seth must confront and attempt to overcome significant physical limitations. The story becomes very dark and uncomfortable to read in parts, but only because Seth fantasizes about what kind of revenge he would like to exact on his attacker.

What is interesting is the detail the author provides when he is describing American Sign Language. I learned more about sign language than I ever thought I would, and it’s easy to imagine this author as an educator, which he is. Although educational, it was as if I was getting a lesson in American Sign Language as opposed to being able to immerse myself in the actual story. I would like to have seen a little more showing than telling in the section.

It’s easy to forget that some of the characters in Mr. Balter’s book are deaf, as he does an excellent job at first introducing the characters as either hearing or deaf, but then he skillfully weaves their hearing or lack thereof into the storyline. More than once I had to go back and reread something to find out if a hearing or deaf character was speaking.

The second part of the book introduces the characters Rachel and Angelo. Their lives are rough, to put it mildly, and they have a son, Mario. Unfortunately, once, when the new mother is getting some rest, Angelo shakes the baby to get him to quiet down. I was left wondering if this awful incident is what caused their child to be a poor student, to make poor life choices, in that as he gets older, he joins a gang. He has a vital piece of his soul missing, according to his mother, and that comes through in his words and actions. Violence amuses him and he is a frightening character who is easy to dislike.

Mario and Seth meet due to a case of mistaken identity. Mario thinks Seth is flashing gang signs and had been given, as a gang initiation, the instruction to shoot any rival gang member. Mario does not realize that what he mistakes for gang signs is actually sign language Seth uses as he walks down the street and talks to his best friend, Jacob. Mario’s mistake sends Seth spiraling down into a deep depression, and quite honestly, I wondered if he was going to pull out of it.

Sam and Mariam are the third set of characters introduced. They have a son, Anthony, who becomes Seth’s doctor and friend, and a daughter, Sarah, who also plays a significant role in Seth’s life. She is a little bit of a wild child but seems to be exactly what Seth needs.

The story then goes back to gang member and resident bad guy Mario, who gets a comeuppance of his own. Like Seth, he is forced to learn how to live life all over again after a life-altering accident. The author’s extraordinary storytelling skill made me feel sorry for a character I initially disliked.

A couple things caught my attention while reading and pulled me out of the story. First was the use of quote marks around things that did not need them. For example, “in a family way”. If a woman is in a family way, it is perfectly acceptable to just say that. Unfortunately, once you see quotes used that way a couple of times, it catches your eye and pulls you out of the story as you begin looking for the next occurrence.

Also, at times I had difficulty following the timeline. The author tends to skip back and forth in time when writing about a character and his or her life. Sometimes I had to go back a few pages for clarification, which was a little disorienting. I found it interesting, too, that sometimes it was difficult to tell that the book was about deaf culture, when it seemed to focus on how a main character dealt with life in a wheelchair and exacting revenge on the person who caused it.

What I did like about this book is that it caught me off guard several times, with either unexpected humor or an exciting turn of events. A reader always loves to be surprised and I’m no exception. As stated earlier, I also learned more about American Sign Language and the culture of deaf people than expected, along with ways in which a disabled man could have sex and children . . . probably more than I wanted to know. To his credit, however, the author describes much of what a young man in a wheelchair would have to learn to survive.

I found it fascinating to read about the remarkable ways in which the lives of the two main characters intersect. I had to suspend disbelief a couple of times at some of the choices that Seth and Mario made, but ultimately the story had a genuinely satisfying conclusion.

Great job, Mr. Balter. I enjoyed the experience and learning about a culture I knew little about. I would read other books by this author and would definitely recommend this book for readers to learn about these two fascinating main characters and the unbelievable way their lives are changed forever.

 

Monday
Nov212016

Book Review: The Art of Being a Baseball Fan

The Art of Being a Baseball Fan. Brian R. Johnston. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, February 1, 2016, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 218 pages.

Reviewed by Dennis Hetzel.

The back cover of Brian Johnston’s The Art of Being a Baseball Fan has this sentence: “I’m just an average guy who enjoys watching the game. And I wrote this with all you fans in mind.”

You can think of the book this way: You enter a bar. You find Johnston sitting on the next stool. It only takes a few minutes of conversation before you realize you have something in common. Like you, he’s a diehard Chicago Cubs fan who also has done a lot of thinking about both his passion and the state of major league baseball today. You quickly realize he knows even more about the Cubs than you do. It’s a pleasant conversation, mainly about the Cubs with bits and pieces about the rest of your lives. After an hour or two, it’s time to bid farewell, and you get on with life.

The Art of Being a Baseball Fan is the printed-word equivalent of a pleasant bar conversation with a knowledgeable, thoughtful guy you might meet in the neighborhood pub or perhaps on the sidelines at your kid’s soccer game.

That is both the strength and limitation of this book, which chronicles the ups and downs of being a Cubs fan. It includes flashbacks to decades past and a lengthy, week-by-week recap of the 2015 season as the author experienced it. Most will recall that in 2015 the Cubs made fast progress to the greatness that would come their way very soon, but they fell short in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. 

If you are someone who loves baseball and can’t get enough of the Cubs – and there are plenty of those in our midst these days – this book offers rewards, particularly if you are new to rooting for the Cubs or a younger fan. Johnston also writes with clarity and smoothness. He has done his research and checked his facts. It’s an easy read.

However, the book lacks original reporting and is thin on deeper insights. A comment such as “I was sad that Ron Santo passed away” doesn’t add much to our understanding of either the author or the meaning of Santo’s life. Scenes could be more vivid; emotions could be described and shown instead of stated. As an extended monologue, the book also lacks the stuff of the best nonfiction: revealing interviews with primary sources or research that brings topics and people to life with insights we haven’t read or heard before. And those subjects are interesting to fans. Johnston touches on subjects such as the motives of baseball’s leaders, the impact of technology on the game, the joy of spring training and how money and free agency have changed baseball.

That might not be the point. Ultimately, Johnston’s book is about him, and how being a fan has become such a key part of his personality and life. We observe his life in its routines, such as what innings of a game he watched on television versus which ones he followed on his phone. The rest of his life as a husband and father with other responsibilities we see in brief glimpses and snapshots.

The author also has the misfortune of having completed the book before the just-ended championship season. It’s no fault of his, but it feels like a letdown for the book to end in 2015. It might be worth the time to add an epilogue for the 2016 season.

As a lifelong Cubs fan myself – and one who is several decades older – I enjoyed revisiting names of forgotten Cubs and recalling some of my own memories of seasons past, particularly the 1969 team that collapsed in the fall of my senior year in high school. Johnston helps new fans understand the passion, loyalty, and frustration of the generation or two ahead of them.  

Any Cub fan will find similar, memorable nuggets in this book. For an “average guy,” Johnston has made a good start toward a bigger, better book about the ongoing journey for those of us who let the Chicago Cubs into our lives.

 

Wednesday
Nov092016

Book Review: The Reason

The Reason. Sandra M. Colbert. Chicago: Windy City Publishers, October 4, 2016, Trade Paperback, 142 pages. 

Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport.

The Reason by Sandra M. Colbert is a compelling page-turner about a heinous murder. From the beginning, there is little doubt who committed the crime. The suspense that drives the book is not whodunit but why they done it. As such, although the book is built on some of the elements of the detective novel, The Reason is not a conventional mystery. It reads more like a true crime narrative even though the crime is fictional. The psychology of the murderer is fascinating, and the crime is sufficiently vile that it is difficult to imagine a motive. Building on these elements deftly, Colbert drives the reader onward in fascination.

While putting in a new fence in their garden, private investigator Kate Harrison and her police officer husband Paul discover a human skeleton. Pursuing the available clues, Kate and the police quickly identify the body and notify the next of kin. It is apparent from the beginning that this relative is involved in the crime. Yet, the circumstances of the crime are initially vague and as the clues emerge, they are increasingly hateful. Colbert eventually leads us to an explanation of what occurred and why, with the requisite twists and turns that a reader expects in this kind of novel.

Sandra M. Colbert writes crime fiction well. Her prose is lean but effective, her characters are engaging, and the situations she creates are always interesting. Perhaps the revelation at the end is a bit too long, and it is difficult to understand why this particular villain is forthcoming with a confession at the end but had not been earlier. Also, the devoted mystery reader may hope that in future Kate Harrison books, the author reverts to a more traditional mystery structure: multiple plausible suspects and a knock-out surprise at the end when the murderer is revealed.

These are minor concerns in the midst of a compelling read. Sandra M. Colbert keeps the reader fascinated—essential in this genre. I recommend this book to those who enjoy mystery novels and look forward to reading future Kate Harrison mysteries.

 

Thursday
Nov032016

Book Review: The Education of Doctor Montefiore

The Education of Doctor Montefiore. Emmet Hirsch, MD. Published by Emmet Hirsch, October 17, 2016, Trade Paperback and Kindle editions, 282 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Sarna.

The Education of Doctor Montefiore, the debut novel of Emmet Hirsch, MD, is a poignant and humorous book about the path to becoming a doctor, and it draws back the curtain on the darker aspects of that road traveled. We get a glimpse into the fear and heartbreak, life and death situations, and constant sacrifices inherent in the medical profession. The story takes place during the four-year residency of Robert Montefiore, an affable, sincere, and hardworking medical student persevering through the overwhelming task of ob-gyn residency. Robert, though overflowing with positive traits, is as clueless in romantic relationships as an adolescent on his first date.

Doctor Hirsch is a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois, and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. His background gives credibility to the story so that even in the most outlandish situations, there is every reason to believe this happened exactly as written.

The book is separated into four sections, one for each year of residency. While navigating the inhumane workload and the gross inequalities of the system, Robert forges friendships, makes enemies, and falls in love. The scenes of his attempts at romance were simultaneously cringe-inducing and made me laugh out loud. I’ll never again look at a bagel shop in quite the same way.

The characters populating this story, from the lovable to the despicable, are sharply drawn. While some border on stock characters straight out of central casting, they are so endearing you happily go along for the ride. And quite a ride it is. Betty, for example, is the Chairman’s overly competent secretary who not only has her fingers on the pulse of the hospital, but also is able to use those same fingers to yank the tenuous strings of the high and mighty doctors who mistakenly believe they are in control.

Robert is at times exasperating, at other times, endearing, but always true to his character. Early on, he questions not only his own abilities, but also his right to even be in medical school. As is often the case in life, just as he starts feeling in control, he is knocked to the ground. His ability to keep going despite hard times is a testament to his character and speaks to every doctor’s invaluable hard work and perseverance.

The dialogue is crisp and witty, as when Robert’s friend Larry states, “Women! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t be a gynecologist without ‘em.’” The humor, while maybe not quite as dark as Catch-22 or M*A*S*H, occupies the same space. There’s even a touch of Cyrano de Bergerac thrown into the mix. I enthusiastically recommend The Education of Doctor Montefiore to anyone looking for a smart read, a good laugh, or insights into the minds of those who spend their lives caring for us.