Review: Stateway’s Garden

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Review for "Stateway's Garden: Stories" by Jasmon Drain (2020)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a collection of interconnected short stories about life inside of one of Chicago’s now-demolished South Side housing projects, Stateway Gardens. Mostly set in the 1980’s, the stories follow a set of brothers, Tracy and Jacob, and their relatives as they navigate poverty, racism, drugs, and violence of their home.

Neither Tracy or Jacob’s father is around, which leaves their mother as their primary caregiver. She works long hours and rarely has time for either of her sons. Most of the stories are narrated by the younger Tracy, such as “BB Sauce,” “Middle School,” and “Stateway Condo Gentrification.” He grows up to be a highly inquistive young man amidst the ugliness around him and the eventual demise of the projects. Tracy, his older brother, chooses a slightly different path, becoming a teenage father and drug dealer. He narrates “Stephanie Worthington” and the very last story.

For me, these stories were hard to get into. The first few stories are choppy and aren’t very compelling, there’s wasn’t much to draw me into them or their characters. The same continues through much of the middle of the book, and although most of the action seems to take place toward the end, it was anti-climatic and showed very little sense of cohesion throughout. Ultimately I had to really push myself to finish this, which is a shame, given the passion and the beauty behind its subject matter.

Three stars. I expected better.

Review: Invisible Americans

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Review for "Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Poverty" by Jeff Madrick (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Throughout this book, Jeff Madrick, an economist, proposes that the solution to the very complex problem of child poverty is to give children and their families cash. While I am not going to go into why I completely disagree that we cannot simply throw a monthly cash allowance at a problem that is very much rooted in the history of racism, discrimination, and just plain bad government policy, I will critique the book itself.

Many of the arguments presented in this book are very compelling. Madrick explains why current measures of poverty are woefully out of date and inaccurate. He discusses the flawed political underpinnings of the notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, as well as an extensive attack of the idea of the “culture of poverty” which often position Black and Latinx communities as hopeless victims instead of people who desire to lift their circumstances.

Despite all of these “right on target” themes, I must admit that this book is very dense and not very accessible to the masses. There are lots of statistics, heavy handed explanations, and acronyms that are intended more for policymakers than the typical curious reader who may stumble onto this book. While Madrick does present a compelling case for why child poverty is a moral failing and its devastating consequences, I would have liked to see this book’s language a lot more readable for the masses.

Review: Long Bright River

Back again, folks. This spring semester has me teaching several classes and fielding the job market and I admit that for a minute (just a minute, though) I neglected this lovely site. I’ve still been reading, got lots to share. On to the review…

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Review for "Long Bright River" by Liz Moore (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is not an easy read. The current opioid crisis is front and center, particularly in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. At the center of this novel are two sisters, Mickey and Kasey, both orphaned by their young mother’s early death and the subsequent disappearance of their father. The sisters are taken in by their grandmother, Gee, a cold, unloving woman who provides for the girls’ physical needs while working several jobs but not very long on personal attention.

Mickey and Kasey are close as girls, but things change dramatically when Kasey begins using drugs in high school. The sisters drift apart: Mickey becomes a police officer and a single mother to a young son, while Kasey spirals deeper and deeper into drug addiction. When Mickey can no longer track her sister and a serial killer begins targeting young women on the streets of Kensington, she becomes desperate to find her.

This is a very layered story. There’s elements of a murder mystery, tinged with the drama of a dysfunctional family torn apart by the pain of drug addiction. The book is well written, though it took a while for the story to really get going. For the first 100 pages or so you’re stuck with Mickey’s narration of her job and the ups and downs of her life and her voice is rather cold and distant. The ending is also a bit bizarre and a little too conveniently presented for my taste as well. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it challenged absolutely¬†none¬†of my predictions.

This is a very timely book that will resonate with a lot of people who are currently dealing with drug addiction, or a loved one who is. I wholeheartedly recommend this one.