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Book Reviews

Tuesday
Feb182014

Book Review: A Life Less Lived

A Life Less Lived. Eileen Ladin-Panzer. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, Trade Paperback, May 1, 2013, 354 pages. 

Reviewed by Gail Galvan.

In this evocative and often disturbing novel, the author tells a story about a family of Jewish emigrants escaping to the West Side of Chicago, Illinois, leaving the “ghettos of Europe” behind. The author sets the opening scene referring to the year 1945, on a hot summer day in Chicago. “Outside, on the steep porches of weathered buildings, women fanned their bodies with casual hand movements, hoping that their simple cotton housedresses would not get too sweaty, and watched neighborhood children at play.”

Like the relentless Midwestern summer humidity that must be endured, the characters in the book often fail to escape the “stuffiness that lived within the walls” of their homes and lives. Initially believing in the hope for a better life, the Borsky family soon discovers that Chicago is not “the land of milk and honey” they had dreamed about. On the contrary, life in the United States during a turbulent postwar era is fraught with unfulfillment, thus the title: A Life Less Lived

“Eager anticipation” and sincere efforts to adjust quickly transform into daily problems and routines. Passages related to ancestors arriving in New York and Chicago, historical events, and the Jewish culture are interesting and intertwined within the story throughout the book, such as: the end of World War II, the death of President F. D. Roosevelt, kosher foods, specialty dishes, holiday celebrations, and customary rituals. Even the tradition of taking the first letter of a Jewish person’s name and changing it to a more “American” one. Although the displaced immigrants are initially hopeful, a fiery, deep sense of unrest and joylessness begins to burn on—page after page.

Mortie Borsky, the eight-year-old boy, is shot in the arm by an adult neighbor with a BB gun and a court case ensues. Attempting to find accountability and resolution, all the Borskys run into is partiality to their influential neighbor, the shooter. Rebecca, Mortie’s mother, is plagued by mental illness. Abe, the “man” of the house is haunted by a brutal, unhappy past and is simply a wounded, pitifully mean alcoholic and gambler. He makes life hell for his family. 

Then, there is Evelyn, Evie, a young girl we follow from childhood, to her romance with Sean, into her years of adulthood. Life is again “less lived” in unhappiness rather than ultimately enjoying life or fulfilling any true dreams of her own. Yet, this is the character who captures our heart, the one the reader begins to cheer for.

The author explores strengths in characters, occasionally, but does not hold back with regard to portraying humans with all of their ugliness, prejudices, flaws, and weaknesses. Like another Chicago writer, Sarajevo-born, Aleksandar Hemon, Ladin-Panzar delves right into unfortunate realities and the dark side of humanity with a stark frankness. Prejudices, I might add, sometimes by Jewish people, too, which I found ironic and yet another sad, disturbing fact within the story, since they came to America to escape such horrific injustices due to their own ethnicity. Yet, it’s obvious; this fact was simply another harsh reality and sign of the times.

With all of the tough times and disturbing sad events, it’s a wonder if Evie can eventually symbolize a sign of hope for immigrants who left their devastated homeland, transported to Chicago, and tried to capture the American dream. Many immigrants do succeed. But does Evie? You’d have to read the book to find out.

On another note, I could truly picture the Chicago neighborhoods, downtown stores, and markets, as well as other places and people in the book, because many descriptions were very detailed. The beautiful cover helped, too. However, occasionally, long drawn out sentences, paragraphs, and one lengthy, philosophical discussion, I felt, affected the flow of the story. Also, dialogue, and as thoughts were conveyed, sometimes, did not read or sound as natural as possible. Yet, the interesting storyline kept me reading. And the author noted that this is her first book.

So there is nothing in the writing style that can’t be improved since storytellers, writers who create books, only get better with time. Therefore, the author’s “lifelong ambition to be a writer,” should not be discouraged. Like Evie, the main character in her story, I hope the author keeps aspiring to a more, not less, fulfilling ambition. After all, she’s on her way with her first book.

Finally, I’ll close with one of the revealing passages by Mr. Borsky (Abe) from the book:

                             “Christmas music! He flicked the dial off in disgust.

                              All they play from Thanksgiving until January is

                              Christmas music. Who needs it? As if God, or

                              anybody, is going to help. What a man needs is luck,

                              plenty of luck. Christmas music. A joke. A lousy joke,

                              played on fools.”

 

Wednesday
Jan292014

Book Review: Expressionista: How to Express Your True Self Through (and Despite) Fashion

Expressionista: How to Express Your True Self Through (and Despite) Fashion. Jackie Walker and Pamela Dittmer McKuen. New York: Aladdin (Imprint of Simon & Schuster), September 3, 2013, Trade Paperback, 224 pages.

Reviewed by Vicky Edwards.           

To write a fashion book for adolescent and teen girls at a time when we are aware of their need for reassurance and not criticism may seem at odds. After all, doesn’t the concept of giving girls advice about how to be fashionable correlate with telling them they don’t look quite right just the way they are?

Not necessarily. “Expressionista” manages to bridge the divide between helping girls to develop a sense of personal style and letting them know they are just fine regardless of how they look or what they wear. If they want to emulate Taylor Swift, have at it! If they’d prefer the drama of Lady Gaga, that’s just fine too.

Take, for example, the introduction to this recently published book by Jackie Walker and Pamela Dittmer McKuen. “This book doesn’t want to change you at all,” they write, “but it will change the way you think about yourself.” The authors successfully manage to maintain the philosophy that “You’re OK” throughout the book, and they also encourage readers to remember that “Others are OK too,” regardless of what outfits people wear or what accessories they choose.

“Expressionista” is replete with quizzes, quote boxes, illustrations, lists, and pop culture examples from Kim Kardashian to Miss Piggy. The affirmations of celebrities are sprinkled throughout the text to remind girls that, as Zooey Deschanel is quoted, “It’s all about finding your own beauty, not wishing you look like someone else.”

A series of quizzes help girls to determine their style: classic, natural, romantic, dramatic or trendy. Even though categories are determined, the authors remind the readers that creative expression means, “Nobody fits exactly into one type.”  

Once the fundamentals about style personas are established, the book offers advice on basic wardrobe needs, shopping strategies, and “closetology” to help them to organize and keep their clothing and accessories easy to find. “Closet math” tells them that a basic eight pieces of clothing mixed and matched can give them over three weeks of outfits. Additional options like scarves, jewelry and even keeping a jacket open vs. buttoned reinforce their advice that it is economically possible to look like a million bucks on far less than that amount of money.

“Expressionista” is subtitled “How to Express Your True Self Through (and Despite) Fashion,” and is a worthy addition to a girls’ bookshelf. For most pre-teens and teens, the clothing they wear is important; however, the book’s words and graphic boxes continually remind them that fashion is never as important as being nice. “Talk to the new kids” may be advice shared in the book that has absolutely nothing to do with fashion, but it has everything to do with reminding readers—who are at a vulnerable age—that those around them feel vulnerable too.

Jackie Walker is a fashion consultant and seminar leader. She co-authored the adult book “I Don’t Have a Thing to Wear.” Pamela Dittmer McKuen is a fashion and feature writer for magazines and newspapers. She is also an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia College in Chicago.

Monday
Jan132014

Book Review: Revenge of the Orgasm

Revenge of the Orgasm: (An Erotic Autobiography). The Greatest Poet Alive. GPA Media LLC, April 7, 2013, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 64 pages.

Reviewed by Sarah Sadik.

This book is filled with multiple autobiographical experiences of sexual encounters. The author relives each scenario down to its minute details, referring to skylines, taxicabs, and things simply laying around where his sexual escapades occurred. Each poem references aspects of life that we all have witnessed, whether through sex or our daily lives. He talks about retrieving power (and the importance of it), love, and agony. The poems resonate with feelings that pull at our heartstrings, yet they leave the reader feeling a little disappointed.

The author’s anonymity thanks to his pseudonym, Greatest Poet Alive, implies that the women in the poems are objects at his disposal, and he has immense power in every sexual situation that he encounters. Every character is left up to the reader’s imagination; however, the Greatest Poet Alive has the ability to snatch that opportunity from us.

In the foreword, the reader is confronted with a man who comes off as arrogant and narcissistic. It is unclear if his writing is sarcastic. It is clear, however, that sex is a main focal point in his poetry. The issues of power, lust, agony, and hatred arise. The arrogant man that is shown in the foreword has the ability to fade within the themes that are presented in his poetry.

The constant struggle for power between man and woman became infuriating halfway through the book. It seemed as if the author’s sex became empty and meaningless—the goal of sex was just power and nothing else. The joys of love dissolved like empty words on a page, and the arrogant man who thought he deserved praise had returned. I became distracted by the man’s behavior instead of focusing on the writing. Every sexual encounter in the book was written with such detail and perfection that the author seemed to contradict himself with the sloppiness of his wavering focus.

I felt the book was amusing, overall, however unsatisfying. The author’s narcissistic behavior set the tone for the book. Every sexual encounter was detailed well, but it was muddled under multiple themes. I applaud his attempt to capture the mystery and abruptness of a sexual encounter, though he was not triumphant. To improve the book, perhaps the Greatest Poet Alive could make a clearer distinction between sarcasm and narcissism.

 

Monday
Jan132014

Book Review: 52 Things Kids Need from a Dad: What Fathers Can Do to Make a Lifelong Difference

52 Things Kids Need from a Dad: What Fathers Can Do to Make a Lifelong Difference. Jay Payleitner. Harvest House Publishers, March 1, 2010, Trade Paperback, 192 pages.

Reviewed by Opal Freeman.

52 Things Kids Need from a Dad by Jay Payleitner is a carefully constructed book. Payleitner wrote this book with the intent of influencing the reader through elements of love, education, humor, inspiration, experience, and spirituality. The book provides positive as well as helpful insights into the world of parenthood from a father’s perspective. The author supports the value of the information provided with examples of life experiences, quotes, scriptures, and statistics.

As you read the book, there is a certain level of anticipation to learn the next tip as well as the recommended practical application that will be accomplished. As an advocate for fatherhood, the author is clear on defining his words and actions and as a result embraces the advice, support, and teachings from his wife, children, colleagues, and more importantly other fathers. He is consistent and passionate about encouraging other fathers about the joy, ups, downs, and mixed emotions that life brings while raising children. He also wants to advise and teach other fathers the joys of fatherhood with the same kind of passion delivered to him.  

“52 Things” is Jay’s specialty. After writing “52 Things” for wives, husbands, sons, and daughters, he created this book about what kids need from their fathers. He has taken the time to carefully select 52 fatherly tips in a step-by-step sequence. Reading this book will walk you through the first step, which is the fatherly tip with descriptive explanations. The next step is the takeaway that further defines the message or the description with an example. The last step is a quote of wisdom, which enforces the message and the takeaway.

Jay Payleitner has shown through the pages of 52 Things Kids Need from a Dad that his absolute priority is his children and his family. He is successful in influencing other fathers, mothers, and families across the United States about the importance of being the best father you can be. The book conveys how to love, share, laugh, learn and live not only for now, but also for the future. I enjoyed the book and was able to reflect on my childhood and the relationship built with my father and his fatherly influences. I really appreciated the wide variety of nuggets of knowledge included from all walks of life.

 

Monday
Jan132014

Book Review: Infinite Passage

Infinite Passage. U. A. Hall. Amazon Digital Services, November 24, 2013, Kindle Format, 227 pages.

Reviewed by Stephanie Wilson Medlock.

It’s hard to imagine a less likely choice for intergalactic warriors whose mission is to save the world than four high school freshman girls from the Chicago suburbs. But in the tradition of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight, awesome powers and equally awesome responsibilities are mysteriously bestowed on the unsuspecting teens.

Already uneasy about their transition to high school, Raya, Kiara, Willow, and Shari are further disconcerted when each of them begins to experience strange distortions in her perceptions and abilities, along with phone calls from unknown sources announcing that “the time has come.”

Soon they learn that the inter-realm council is reacting to a major threat—the evil inhabitants of Namug are escaping their own desiccated planet and passing through unguarded portals that allow them to land on Earth. Once here, the rogue visitors take over the bodies of individual Earthlings and destroy them. A total takeover is their ultimate goal.

Bypassing Earth’s governments, who are apparently too unreliable to be included among the universe’s governing bodies, the inter-realm council selects Raya and her friends to search out these trespassing monsters, extract them from their unwilling human hosts, and send them back to the distant planet from which they came. Each girl is given a special power to enable her in this fight. Shari can see visions of what is happening in other places, Willow can exercise superhuman strength, Raya can fly and freeze time, and Kiara can become invisible and lend that invisibility to her friends.

At first disbelieving and certainly unwilling, the four girls are drawn into their roles as the “chosen ones” and fearfully begin their mission to dispatch Namugians from the Earth.

The charm of this book, and it is very charming, is that the girls are always trying to balance the fantastical demands placed on them with their daily lives and responsibilities. Their parents constantly want to know where they are. They have to babysit and figure out their algebra homework. The have crushes on boys in class or need to attend athletic tryouts. They get into petty fights with each other and with their siblings. The relationship among the four is so well drawn that the fantasy element in this young adult novel is almost unnecessary. Each of the four girls has enough conflict in her own life to make each of their stories compelling.

But saving the world is the point of this book, so the next important question is how well the author sets up the magical and extraterrestrial world in which she places her characters. Every author who infuses a story with magic has conventions that must be followed consistently for the reader to suspend disbelief and enter into that world. U. A. Hall does a good job of making the impossible believable. She is particularly skillful when whisking her heroines around the globe. The snippets of different countries and the people they encounter are lively and often humorous. Her magical creations are not as inventive as are J. K. Rowling’s in her Harry Potter novels, and Hall’s inter-terrestrial threat does not have the sly power to reveal underlying teenage problems as does Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. But the threats to the girls feel real, and not everything works out in the end. U. A. Hall serves up loss and sorrow as well as the trippy happiness of four girls coming to grips with their burgeoning powers.

The writing in this novel is uneven. The author’s ability to get inside the mind of a teenage girl is excellent, and the dialogue between friends is faultless. But there are many times when the author stumbles over sentences that resolve themselves awkwardly. This may not be an issue for the intended audience but creates occasional cringing in the adult reader. A final edit from a seasoned manuscript editor could easily resolve these problems.

Overall, Infinite Passage offers an engrossing story about the power of friendship, as well as an entertaining fantasy of four teens ridding the world of monsters, one Namugian at a time.