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 Madrick explains why current measures of poverty are woefully out of date and inaccurate.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.

Review: White Bird

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Review for "White Bird" by R.J. Palacio (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“White Bird” is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about Julian’s grandmother’s experience during the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. If you are familiar with the ‘Wonder’ series, then you’ll remember Julian as the not-so-nice kid at Beecher Prep that gave the main character, Auggie, such a hard time fitting in with other students. For those that didn’t like Julian at the end of that story, this novel is his redemption, a chance for him to learn empathy from his beloved grandmother, Grandmere.

As Grandmere reflects on her past to Julian, we learn that she was once a young, middle class Jewish girl named Sara growing up during the days of Nazi-occupied France. In the beginning, she lives a sheltered existence at her home with her parents, even though public disdain and discrimination against Jews is everywhere. Eventually, the Nazis take over the region and begin to arrest Jews, killing them or rounding them up and transporting them to concentration camps. Sara hides in the home of a classmate, a kind boy with a walking disability named Julien who lives with his parents. Over the next several years, Julien and Sara form a close friendship. It is so close that after the war she names her son Julien, who in turn gives that name to the main character of this story.

I am skipping parts, of course, because I do not want to ruin this beautiful story. The pictures are a plus, exquisitely drawn in pastels and neutral colors. There are also loads of resources in the back of the book with information on the Holocaust, as well as organizations that educate and teach about this tragic historical event.

Be forewarned, however: this book is definitely a tearjerker. Go into this one with a warm blanket and lots of tissues. You’ll need them.

Five stars. Excellent book.

Review: Year of the Monkey

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Review for "Year of the Monkey" by Patti Smith (2019)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Ahh, first review for 2020. Happy New Year!

I hate to start the decade with a bad review, but you know I gotta be honest and say that nah, I didn’t like this one. I love Patti Smith and I loved her other memoir, “Just Kids,” about her and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s coming of age as artists in NYC in the 70’s and 80’s. This book, however, is different. “Year of the Monkey” really is a book about nothing much at all.

Lemme back up for a moment. It’s perfectly fine for a book to be about nothing at all. The one author off the top of my head who’s perfected this technique is Haruki Murakami–if you pick up any one of his books you’ll find pages and pages of character observations and thoughts that seemingly go nowhere, but it somehow manages to keep me reading. Smith is not Murakami, however. I wanted to like this book but it wasn’t what I imagined it would be. Here, Patti Smith recounts 2016 through a series of photographs, dreams, travels, meals in dingy diners, etc. There’s also a lot of really vague references to other writers, musicians, and history events I have no previous knowledge of which left me out in the lurch. The events of this book are more like a fever dream and it’s obvious that Smith is trying to weave together dreams and reality into a narrative but for me what was real and what wasn’t was just too confusing.

I am thankful that this book was short. Although I will read Patti Smith again, I would not read this book again.

Review: The Witches Are Coming

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Review for "The Witches Are Coming" by Lindy West (2019)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

First of all, lemme say that I like Lindy West. She’s one of the few women writers that seems to get “it”–and when I say “it,” I am talking about the interconnectedness of the systems of oppression that encapsulate gender, race, class, and body type. I thought her first book was alright, though at times her tone completely put me at a distance. Why did Shrill feel like I was reading a series of long, continuous blog posts by a bitchy teenager? There’s nothing wrong with humor with a fair dose of snark, but I found West’s constant attempts at a punchline really off-putting.

“The Witches Are Coming” is slightly better than “Shrill,” but not by much. It’s not so much the snark here (though there’s much less in this book), but the content itself. And while I did agree with what she’s saying, I just found a lot of the subject matter kinda boring. By that I mean that there were definitely some essays I liked more than others, like why Adam Sandler is so popular (his movies have never really been all that funny to me either). The Goop one is also quite hilarious because it’s so ridiculous (yoni eggs and aura baths–yay!).

But the boring ones were just not my style–at all. I skipped over the ones about the Fyre Festival (there’s been 2 documentaries on this already and we don’t care anymore), Joan Rivers (never been into her style of humor; don’t care), and Ted Bundy (there’s a Netflix series on this; who cares?). I also found myself skipping a few others because they weren’t very interesting. Overall, this book was very uneven and just ok for me.

3.5 stars. Blah.

Review: Dignity

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Review for "Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America" by Chris Arnade (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Several years ago, physicist and Wall Street trader Chris Arnade decides to leave his cushy life and visit the working class neighborhood of Hunts Point, deep in the NYC borough of the Bronx. He builds up a relationship with the residents there, listening to their stories and taking pictures of them living, working, doing and selling drugs, and engaging in sex work. Arnade eventually develops a relationship with the people of Hunts Point, and after documenting their stories, decided that he wanted to know more about similar communities across America and the people living in them, areas with no jobs and mostly forgotten by public policies.

“Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” is one man’s journey into poor, working class life in America. He visits large cities and smaller towns: Bakersfield, California; Portsmouth, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cairo, Illinois; Gary, Indiana. Arnade shares what he learns in photographs and in themed essays about topics such as racism, drugs, religion, coping.

On one hand I admire the author’s attempt at honest investigation, as well as his decision as a member of America’s “front row” to try to understand “back row” poor people. But on the other hand I’m not so sure about this book or its approach. For one, he seems to lack the knowledge to help him fully understand what he sees. While I appreciate that the author never judges or condemns the people he writes about (many of which use drugs, engage in sex work, and other criminal behaviors), this book worked best when he let the photos talk and he didn’t try to explain or analyze their lives.

This necessary ‘silence,’ of course, doesn’t happen here. All over this book are the author’s explanations and suggested reasonings for why and what he’s encountering in the lives of the people he meets. He offers no sociological or psychological support for his analyses or larger discussion into the the failure of ‘trickle-down’ economics, there’s no study or graphs to support any of his viewpoints. And while I’m not criticizing him for injecting his bias into a book such as this, I am criticizing the lack of evidence to back it up.

This isn’t a bad book, however. I definitely encourage people to read it, if for nothing else then to remind those in the “front row” of those who live completely parallel lives.