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Sunday
May052019

Book Review: The Consequence of Stars

The Consequence of Stars: A Memoir of Home. David W. Berner. New York: Adelaide Books, March 28, 2019, Trade Paperback, 212 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

David W. Berner, author of Any Road Will Take You There and There’s a Hamster in my Dashboard, offers in his newest memoir a series of nineteen linked essays traversing his childhood in Pennsylvania through early adulthood to contemporary life. Berner tackles the idea of “home” through a series of defining moments. The opening chapter is a revelation of what home means, launching life from the safety and wonder of the front porch with sleepovers, board games, and plotting explorations of the neighborhood. “This is how one built a life in my hometown. It’s what people did. They grew up in unexceptional little neighborhoods, went to the same Sunday church services, attended the same elementary, middle, and high schools, got jobs at the mills or the local banks, bought homes near their parents, drank at the corner bar with their old high school friends on Friday nights, and raised kids who would grow up and do it all over again. For a time, I was moving straight down that path, doing what you’re supposed to do.” 

Berner’s first inkling of the meaning of home came at age seven when he decided to run away. “Leaving home was supposed to evoke sadness in the person being left behind”; a part his mother refused to play as she cheerily waved him onward. A short trek through the safety of his concerned neighborhood soon routed him back home.

Exploring home takes Berner back to study the lives of his parents, who never ventured far from their natal community. Wartime duty and a stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium may have been enough adventure for the couple who married and raised children near their extended family. 

The essays feature themes of growing up, the gradual realization that life is an ever-expanding bubble rapidly enveloping the mysteries of “outside”; “things we don’t talk about,” such as the effects of the Vietnam War to memories of the way we want to believe events unfolded instead of how they truly happened. A look backward shows Berner the truths of friends and family that no one can see in the moment.

“Life is a series of comings and goings,” Berner writes as he prepares to leave for (not very far away) college. He was the “oddball” thinker in a family of blue-collar workers, destined for higher education. By the time he was eighteen years old, he “understood that we must abandon our homes to find our new ones, and leave our hearts behind in hopes that our souls will be endlessly restored.”

Abandoning home eventually meant settling in the Chicago area, 500 miles away, where he lived in several places in the second reiteration of his life, that of a radio host. “I was the first in my family in nearly a hundred years to leave” Pittsburgh, Berner says, evoking the first tears he’d seen his father shed. Raising his family is a serial repeat of watching lessons Berner learned as a child play out in his children. Exotic travel and instilling the sense that no matter how temporary the space, Berner notes that a piece of self stays behind. “Leaving” is always undertaken with the sense of “returning.”

Through a lifetime of experiences calling different places home, from a writer’s retreat in Florida to visiting Europe to meeting a new life partner and molding out a space of his own, Berner concludes, “It is by leaving home we can heal best in order to return.”

“Home is what you carry with you. And, in that spirit, I have been transporting my home with me wherever I go.” 

Lyrically written with earthy language, Berner shares intimate details of a life seeking and understanding his place "to be"—a place of love and acceptance, a place to practice and grow and share himself. The Consequence of Stars is a call for all of us to revisit our lives and reach for the elusive elements of what we call home.

 

Monday
Apr222019

Book Review: Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After

Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After: The Hidden Messages in Fairy Tales. Anne E. Beall, Ph.D. Independently published, November 17, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 103 pages.

Reviewed by Marcie Hill.

Thought-provoking is the best term to describe Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After: The Hidden Messages in Fairy Tales by Anne E. Beall, Ph.D. 

As children, we read fairy tales for entertainment. We were led to believe that “happily ever after” was real because many stories ended that way. As adults, we hold on to these illusions of “happily ever after,” only to keep us optimistic while navigating adult life.

I would argue that very few of us think about what happened to Cinderella and Prince Charming after we closed the pages of that book. I didn't. And, I probably wouldn't have given it more thought until I read Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After.

After I read Beall’s book, I started wondering why Cinderella wouldn’t live happily ever after. Didn't her fairy godmother give her an enchanting evening filled with a beautiful gown, an amazing carriage, and fabulous glass slippers? Wasn't she selected for an intimate dance with the prince? Didn't the prince marry her after fitting the glass slipper on her foot? How many other women in her town married a prince?

Dr. Beall changed my entire outlook on fairy tales. Although she analyzed several famous fairy tales, Cinderella was the primary focus of the book. In addition to sharing the hidden messages found in these stories, Beall backed up many of her findings with statistics and research. She even breaks down the results by gender, physical features, age, social status, and by how much power each character held. Beall was incredibly insightful in analyzing these stories.

Some of my questions were answered in the second chapter: “My first concern is her lack of qualifications for the job she’s taking.” Dr. Beall was referring to Cinderella’s social status. Based on the story, Cinderella is possibly working-class or middle-class. The mistreatment by her evil stepmother and stepsisters indicates her low status in the household. Dr. Beall notes “that she seems to have some personality disorder that causes her to act like a doormat.” The possibility of Cinderella moving from her social status at the start of the story to a much higher status, in the emotional state she was in at the tale’s end, and without proper preparation, would surely doom her to unhappiness.

Other messages that were painfully obvious to me were that women in fairy tales, as they are in our present society, were treated differently because of their gender. For instance, for women to marry into a social class above their own, they have to be beautiful. This speaks to society’s obsession with standards of beauty, which typically applies to women and not men. 

Dr. Beall also noted that women in fairy tales “love and marry animals or highly unappealing partners, whereas men do not.” I think this also applies to real-life situations where you see men with stunningly beautiful women regardless of how attractive these men are. Beall also asserts that women tend to select mates for qualities other than their looks. 

There are other details documented in the book which reflect society at some level. Most of the characters in the fairy tales are powerful males. They were also typically good people. Women, on the other hand, were passive, less powerful, and were either good or evil. Also, men caused and received the most suffering; women caused the most suffering to other women; children suffered the most. 

This book is a good read, and it will definitely make you think differently about fairy tale characters. Thank you, Dr. Beall, for letting us know that Cinderella did not live happily ever after, despite what the fairy tale says.

 

Tuesday
Apr162019

Book Review: The Butcher

The ButcherAlan S. Kessler. Black Rose Writing, January 24, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 205 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

Allan S. Kessler’s The Butcher imagines a world where the worst people have grabbed power and only a miracle can change things. The novella is speculative fiction, and while it is a novella, it is broader and more ambitious than most books this length. The Butcher is an engaging read that isn’t just an escape into another world; it’s a reflection on our own.

Mikkel, the protagonist, is a boy approaching manhood who lives in a world with only two seasons, Spring and Summer, each three months long. This world contains two groups of people: those in the Party, and the Burners—a race of people Mikkel has been taught to despise. “He had been taught in school about Burners, this sly, parasitic race who, not content with their sheep and goats, wanted control over the pigs of the world. Elementary schoolbooks depicted Burners as fat, hog-shaped creatures eating mouthfuls of pig meat while blond, emaciated children looked on with pleading eyes. The captions under the drawings were all variations of the one idea: They Feast While We Starve.” The Burners are a reviled race, and Mikkel is on the verge of manhood and well positioned within the Party based on his father’s standing. 

Kessler creates a wonderful tension from the onset because we see that Mikkel, while positioned to succeed in the Party, lacks the bloodlust of his peers. We soon discover that there’s more to Mikkel’s past than just growing up in the Party. When he encounters a member of the Burners, who identifies him as the savior of the Burner people, he begins a journey that is far more challenging than merely conforming to the expectations of the life he was born into.

Kessler does a nice job making the life Mikkel could have enjoyed—if he continued to tow the Party’s line—thoroughly unappealing. The Party is a society built around ritual slaughter, the exploitation of Burner labor, and a patriarchal caste system that leaves even the elite beholden to a ruthless few. The flesh of slaughtered pigs is divided up among the elite, and every part of the pig, down to the dung, is used to such an extent that the ruling class of the society appears downright filthy. In particular, the Butcher, their founder and de facto leader, lives a strange, isolated existence, planning the Party’s next move, which we learn throughout the course of the novella is about to take a horrible turn for the worse.

The world Kessler has created—a world with only two seasons, where killing pigs and making full use of every bit of them while trodding on the miserable Burners—is oppressive, but Kessler crafts characters and effectively reveals information about how the world ended up in this terrible state. While the book opens in a rather grim setting, as we learn things weren’t always this bad and see hope is possible, a momentum builds, making this an exhilarating read. The novella is structured so that we are dropped in the middle of a story where the protagonist is living out the resolution of a struggle that started before he was born. Kessler isn’t just dreaming up some terrible world full of dead pigs; he has a point he wants to make, and I think most readers will find that, by the last few pages, he’s made it nicely. 

A recommended book for readers who enjoy speculative fiction, particularly with world building as a key component of the plot, Kessler's The Butcher is terrifying, fascinating, and surprisingly hopeful.


Tuesday
Apr022019

Book Review: The One Date Rule

The One Date Rule. TaKaylla L. Gordon. Hyde and Seek Press, July 15, 2018 Trade Paperback and E-book, 251 pages.

Reviewed by Kelly Fumiko Weiss.

The One Date Rule follows the relationship of Draylen, a near-forty-something freelance proofreader who goes back to school, and Quinn, her forty-something Creative Writing professor. They are equally gripped by each other as soon as they meet, igniting the central conflict of the book—should they pursue each other or not? The narrative seamlessly flows between Draylen and Quinn’s point of view, following along as they fall into a rapid cycle of dating and breaking up repeatedly, each trying to conquer the baggage they bring to the relationship. 

The strength of this book comes from the tropes it does not employ. This is a book about two strong women in a relationship, but neither is mean nor trite. This is a book about a lesbian relationship, but the classic “coming out” story is not used, nor is there any hint of angst from either character about her sexual identity. This is a book about minority women on the South Side of Chicago, but issues of race are not the crux of the drama. Treating these women as women first (and not debating the merits of who they are—which is a debate we should no longer be having in 2019) felt refreshing and allowed the reader to focus on what really matters—how these women are feeling, and how their passions, both past and present, translate into their relationships today. 

Gordon does a great job creating an incredibly sexy narrative, with the passionate scenes between Draylen and Quinn serving to fulfill the best arousing intents of a romance novel and the emotional needs of the characters. None of the sex scenes are for the sake of sex alone; each scene plays into the emotional state of the characters and has its own flavor—exploration, need, passion, manipulation, and at the end, love. 

What is lacking in this book is a strong antagonist. Draylen’s ex, Dava, serves in this role, but not enough. Draylen’s desire to be published and her reticence to let other people see her work is relatable but isn’t too much of a struggle. Sure, she works very hard on her writing, but aside from writing being hard work, there are no real roadblocks for her. Quinn has the “one date rule” that the book is titled after, but easily gives that up as soon as she meets Draylen and never really goes back to it. 

But those are small points compared to the overall triumph of the book, which is to showcase a lesson we all must learn—that we are often our own roadblocks to the things we want in life. Once Draylen and Quinn get out of their own ways, they can love each other openly and freely, and by the end, that outcome feels duly earned. You are rooting for them the whole way, as are most of their friends and family, and Gordon does a good job making the reader invest in their story and feel real happiness for them when they finally let their guards down and dive in. 

 

Tuesday
Apr022019

Book Review: A Reason to Be Here

A Reason to Be Here: Tales from the Writers Convention. Jay Rehak (Editor). Chicago: Windy City Publishers, June 15, 2019, Trade Paperback, 200 pages.

Reviewed by Dan Burns.

A Reason to Be Here is a collaborative novel, conceived and edited by Jay Rehak and shaped by the determined writing efforts and crafted stories from twenty-five members of the Off Campus Writers Workshop (OCCW), the oldest continuously running writing workshop in the country.

For years, the stories-as-a-novel writing approach has intrigued me. After reading the books Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, I realized that an author could successfully tie together individual stories into a cohesive, believable, over-arching storyline, but not without significant effort and challenges. I figured trying a similar feat with twenty-five authors would be impossible. Fortunately, with Rehak at the helm and based on his prior experience helping authors create original class-sourced, crowdsourced novels, I learned the OCCW was in good hands.

The first chapter, written by Rehak, establishes the storyline. One-hundred-year-old renowned author, Alice Bainbridge, attends the Midwest Writers Conference to receive a lifetime achievement award. After receiving her award, Alice speaks to the audience: “I’d much prefer to be remembered not as a Master Storyteller, but as a Master Story Listener . . . Because listening to good stories is pretty much what’s keeping me alive. So please, tell me a story.” Exhausted and weary, Alice agrees to stay afterward to listen to anyone who wishes to share a story, opening the door for the subsequent chapter-stories that build and develop the storyline to a satisfying conclusion.

A different author, who provided a unique and interesting approach to storytelling, wrote each of the following twenty-five stories. In many of the stories, the author created a character who shares with Alice a personal story. In others, the author created a character who shares a story about someone else in a more fictional and less-biographical manner, an approach I found more enlightening and engaging. Some chapters were better than others—which I expected—reflecting the different experience levels of the authors. Each chapter had the necessary beginnings and endings, the “glue,” to stitch the storyline together and propel the reader forward, which was no small feat. The authors effectively worked together to build a cohesive tale.

As a reader, I enjoyed the diverse writing approaches and styles. Although I wondered at times how Alice—at her age—could listen to one more story, the stories fueled her and provided a reason to live. The original storyline proved successful in establishing a solid foundational structure for the authors to build upon. With a weaker storyline, the novel’s foundation likely would have crumbled.

A Reason to Be Here is a beneficial resource and learning tool for writers, highlighting—and proving—the statement that there is more than one way to tell a story. Writers interested in different approaches to the short story, the novel, points of view and perspective, plotting, and writing style can find ideas, techniques, and inspiration for future writing projects.

I applaud all the OCCW writers who contributed stories for A Reason to Be Here. The book is a testament to their individual writing efforts and willingness to toil in harmony with others to support and develop the craft of writing.