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Book Review: Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair (Series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A Black teenage girl with a fro and a bright head band holds her hands around her mouth accentuating it. The title of the novel comes out of her mouth as a speech bubble.

Summary:
Set on Chicago’s Southside in the mid-to-late 60s, following Jean “Stevie” Stevenson, a young Black woman growing up through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Stevie longs to fit in with the cool crowd. Fighting her mother every step of the way, she begins to experiment with talkin’ trash, “kicking butt,” and boys. With the assassination of Dr. King she gains a new political awareness, which makes her decide to wear her hair in a ‘fro instead of straightened, to refuse to use skin bleach, and to confront prejudice. She also finds herself questioning her sexuality. As readers follow Stevie’s at times harrowing, at times hilarious story, they will learn what it was like to be Black before Black was beautiful.

Review:
After reading Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (review) and finding myself disappointed with how it handled race, I intentionally looked for older classics of LGBTQIA+ lit written by Black authors. (As a starting place. I intend to continue this searching with other BIPOC groups). In my search I found this book listed as an own voices depiction of a queer young Black woman in the South Side of Chicago. My library had a digital copy, so I was off.

First published in 1995, this is certainly an own voices book. The author grew up in Chicago in the same time period as Stevie, and that authenticity really shines through. The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 (spring 1965 to summer 1967), Part 2 (fall 1967 to fall 1968), and Part 3 (fall 1969 to spring 1970). Part 1 begins in Stevie’s last year of middle school. It establishes the systemic racism Stevie and her family live with that the Civil Rights movement that Stevie will later become involved in in high school. It also demonstrates Stevie’s difficult relationship with her mother. In Part 2, Stevie enters high school, Dr. King is assassinated, and Stevie starts to push back on racism and colorism. In Part 3, Stevie starts to question her sexuality and also the lack of interracial friendships and relationships she sees among her friends and family.

In some ways this was a tough book to read. It pulls no punches about what life was like for a young Black girl at this time. Although it always pains me to read about racism and colorism, there was an extra twinge in reading this because Stevie is just such an immediately likable little girl with a protective mother. The book opens with Stevie asking her mother what a virgin is (because a boy at school asked her if she was one), and her mother not wanting to tell her. This reminded me of all the conversations about Black girls being forced to grow up too fast and letting them stay the little girls they are. Although I advocate for frank talks about sexuality with questioning children, I also understood her mother’s impulse to keep Stevie little just a while longer.

Stevie’s sexuality is left open-ended in this book, in spite of my finding it on a list of lesbian fiction originally. Essentially the idea is posited that sometimes adolescents feel confused only to realize later they’re straight. I wondered if this is what happens with Stevie so peaked at the sequel. (spoiler warning!) Apparently in the sequel Stevie identifies as bisexual. This thrilled me, because there’s so little representation of bisexual folks in literature, but also because I felt a bit of a twinge of recognition when reading about Stevie’s confusion in the book. Part of why she’s so confused about if she’s straight or a lesbian is because the answer is neither. It was a great depiction.

I did feel the book ended kind of abruptly. It’s definitely a bit of a plot hanger that leaves you yearning for the sequel. Not in an uncomfortable way but more in a I want to see Stevie finish growing up way. Plus, it’s the start of the 1970s, and that’s such a fun time period to read about.

Overall, this own voices book gives a realistic yet fun depiction of growing up Black in the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. If you’re coming for the queer content, hang in there, it shows up in Part 3. A great way to diversify your reading.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Smokin’ Six Shooter by B.J. Daniels (Series, #4)

October 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: Smokin' Six Shooter by B.J. Daniels (Series, #4)Summary:
Dulcie Hughes comes to Montana from the big city of Chicago when she mysteriously inherits property.  She immediately runs into Russell Corbett, a local rancher who isn’t too keen on some city woman sniffing around the old Beaumont property.  Dulcie doesn’t want to be distracted from uncovering the years’ old mystery at the Beaumont property, but Russell just can’t let himself let her investigate on her own.

Review:
I may be an academic librarian, but I also have public librarian friends, and one of them gave this book to me as an extra she had from the publisher.  I kept it around because who isn’t in the mood for some light romance sometimes?  Plus, there are definitely Harlequins that strike my fancy.  This….wasn’t really one of them.

Here’s the main problem with the book.  The title and the cover are incredibly misleading for what you’re actually going to get, and that’s a pet peeve of mine.  As a friend of mine (who also read it) said to me, “There’s no six shooter in the book.”  It sure sounds like it’s a big plot point doesn’t it?  But….there’s no six shooter.  There are guns, yes. But not six shooters.  The cover and title make it sound like the hearthrob is some sort of sharpshooting cowboy, but he’s…neither.  He’s a modern day rancher. Who drives a combine. Oh and he and his father hire a rainmaker to try to make it rain because the ranchers need rain.  Sorry but none of that strikes my sexy bone the way that a sharpshooter would. WHICH IS WHAT I THOUGHT I WAS GETTING.

Let’s ignore for a moment that I would have self-selected out of this book if the title, cover, and the actual blurb (not the one I wrote above) had been accurate.  What about the actual book?  Well, the mystery is good…ish.  It had lots of twists and turns, and the final chapter just had one too many.  I read the last chapter out loud to my husband, and he said it felt like an episode of “All My Circuits” (the over-the-top robot soap opera on Futurama).  Which is true.  That said, I certainly didn’t figure out the mystery. Because it was so ridiculous.  But there’s an entertainment factor in that that I appreciate.  However, if over-the-top twists and turns are not your style, you’ll be disappointed by the last chapter of the book.

The romance and sex was sorely missing.  Our heroine gets one incredibly quick (and I don’t just mean quick to read, I mean a quickie) sex scene, and that’s it.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t pick up Harlequins for the story.  I do expect a lot out of the sex scenes though, and this one felt like a throwaway. A “oh do I really have to write one? Fine, but it will be ludicrous and quick.”  I kept reading thinking that surely this was just a teaser and there’d be a nice long steamy scene in here somewhere. But no.

So, Harlequin readers who don’t mind the love interest being a combine-driving modern day rancher who does not have a six shooter with most of the focus of the book being on its over-the-top mystery with just a touch of a romance scene will enjoy this book.  The quality of the writing is fine, so long as this is the type of story the reader is after, they won’t be disappointed.  Just don’t be misled by the title….or the cover….or the blurb.  And maybe grab some popcorn for the last chapter.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Previous Books in Series:
Shotgun Bride
Hunting Down The Horseman
Big Sky Dynasty

Friday Fun! (May: MLA Chicago and Boston Calling)

Hello my lovely readers!  You may have noticed the blog was a bit quieter than usual this month.  That’s because I had my annual conference for work, and I extended my Memorial Day three day weekend into a five day one.  The month was so incredibly full of both good and stressful busyness, I’m kind of amazed I managed to blog at all!

Image of a sunset over a lake. Buildings are right on the water's edge.

Lake Michigan at sunset.

Every year for work I attend the Medical Library Association’s annual conference.  This year the conference was in Chicago.  I’d never been to Chicago before, and I made sure to make the most of my limited free-time to see the city!  I walked through Millennium Park and got a selfie in the bean, went to American Girl Place on the Magnificent Mile (and bought a mini version of the Native American doll, Kaya), and went to Navy Pier.  I also checked out the Chicago History Museum and got to see items that were melted in the Chicago Fire, such as marbles.  I walked through Lincoln Park and went to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum where I got to hang out in a butterfly conservatory room.  None landed on me, but I got some great pictures! My partner’s sister and her husband live in Chicago, so I went and had dinner with them at a Chicago style hot dog restaurant that actually had vegetarian hot dogs.  Score!  They also took me to see Lake Michigan, and I was blown away by how soft the sand is and how the lake is so large it looks like the ocean.  I guess they don’t call them the Great Lakes for nothing!  I know that sounds like a lot to squeeze into the amount of time I wasn’t at the conference, but I am the queen of getting a lot of sightseeing done in a short amount of time.  I pre-plan, using Pinterest and its great maps feature, and plot out routes and timing so I can get everything in.  Plus, in museums, I only check out the exhibits of greatest interest to me.

Of course, the main reason I was in Chicago was for work.  I attended the conference, listening to many excellent plenary speakers, as well as presentations by various librarians and library students on their projects and papers, and networked with vendors at the opening event.  This year I was an official blogger for the poster sessions.  You can see my blog posts here.  Our library director also took us all out for Chicago style deep dish pizza.  While I enjoyed the deep dish pizza, it was a lot like lasagna without the pasta, I can’t imagine eating it more than a few times in my lifetime.  I still prefer the thin crust brick oven or thick crust New England styles!  When I got back to Boston, I taught a library skills class and presented a poster at an education event on my work’s campus.  After all of that work, I took my five day Memorial Day weekend!

A stage surrounded by blue signs with a dog in a suit and the words Boston Calling. A band is on the stage and a large crowd is in front of them.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros performing at Boston Calling.

The reason I took the long weekend was because my bf and I wanted very much to attend Boston Calling, Boston’s live music festival.  My favorite band, The Decemberists, and his favorite band, Built to Spill, were both playing, as was the band that sings our song, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.  The festival was Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday.  It’s held in the center of Boston, at Government Center, on two stages.  The architecture there is very brutalist, and the entry to the festival had signs up denoting male and female.  We figured out later the signs were just telling you if the person doing the wanding was a man or a woman, it wasn’t intended to split up the crowd along gender lines, but the whole thing felt quite dystopian when we arrived and lent the concert a pretty damn cool vibe.  I had such an incredibly wonderful time at the festival, I can barely put it into words.  Hearing Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros sing our song live was stellar.  I had seen The Decemberists once before, but not as up close as I got at this concert.  It was raining when they came out, which, if you know their music, gave the performance such a perfect atmosphere.  They sang both old and new songs, and it was just amazing.  I also really enjoyed watching my partner’s favorite band, Built to Spill.  They have amazing guitar skills, and their fans are of the cool head bob variety, so it was the perfectly chill performance for the sunny, relaxing day.  When we weren’t at the concert, we went a long motorcycle ride and grilled for the first time this season.  It was a great vacation!

Just because I’ve been busy doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading.  I finished seven books this month, three more than usual, but only managed to review two of them so far.  Definitely be prepared for an onslaught of reviews in the next couple of weeks!

I was also too busy for stitching most of the month.  I would have stitched on my trip to Chicago, but fellow cross-stitchers and embroiderers stated that, even though the rules don’t say you can’t have a sewing needle, a lot of the times they get confiscated.  I didn’t want to risk it.  Once my vacation was over, I picked it back up again.  I’m working on the second item for the Foraging New England line, and it is almost done!

Happy reading!

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

June 30, 2011 3 comments

Black and white smoke-stack.Summary:
In the early 1900s Jurgis and his soon-to-be family by marriage decide to immigrate to the US from Lithuania.  Having heard from an old friend that Chicago’s Packingtown is where a working man can easily make his way in the world, this is where they head.  Soon the family find themselves deep in the horror that is the regulated in name only meat packing plants.  Dominated by a society that circulates entirely around greed and wealth for the few at the expense of the many, the family and individuals within it slowly fall apart.  But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Review:
My high school English teacher strongly recommended to me that I read this book, claiming that I would love it, and I only just now got around to it.  I’m glad that her recommendation stuck in my head, though, because this book  is flat-out amazing.  It may be the best piece of social justice writing I have ever come across.

Of course that wouldn’t be the case if Sinclair’s abilities to craft a piece of fiction with enthralling characters were not up to par.  Fortunately, they are.  Jurgis and his family are well-rounded.  Scenes are set vividly, and time passes at just the right rate.  I would be amiss not to mention that Sinclair suffers from some of the racism rampant during his time-period.  African-Americans are presented in a very racist light, as are most Irish-Americans.  It surprises me that someone so passionate about social justice could simultaneously be racist, but I suppose we are all have our faults.  Fortunately the racism makes up a very small portion of the book that is relatively easy to skim over if that sort of thing in historical classics bothers you.

The primary issues Sinclair addresses in the book are: meat eating, the plight of the working class, greed, and socialism.

Although when it was first published The Jungle created an outcry for better regulation of meat production, in fact the book is strongly against the eating of animals at all.

And then again, it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean. (Locations 5353-5355)

This strongly vegetarian viewpoint is strengthened by a lengthy scene early in the book in which Jurgis and his family take a tour of a packing plant for the first time and witness the slaughter.  The family, and indeed everyone on the tour, are distraught and emotional witnessing the taking of so many lives and hearing the pigs squeal in pain and fear.  It is here that Sinclair makes a point about what impact slaughterhouses have on the humanity of the workers, for while the visitors are distraught at the scene, it is soon seen that for the workers

Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.(Locations 536-540)

Thus it can be seen that not only is meat eating cruel, inefficient, and unhealthy, but it also dehumanizes those who must participate in the process.

Of course a much more prevalent theme in the book is the plight of the working class of which Jurgis and his family are a part.  This can be a difficult book to read at times for it shows how solidly these people are trounced upon by society and greed, no matter how hard they try.  First Sinclair establishes how the constant worry over money and survival affects the working class:

Such were the cruel terms upon which their life was possible, that they might never have nor expect a single instant’s respite from worry, a single instant in which they were not haunted by the thought of money. (Locations 1585-1586)

Then Sinclair demonstrates how this rough and tumble, cog in the machine existence slowly wears away the humanity of those fated to suffer from it:

She was part of the machine she tended, and every faculty that was not needed for the machine was doomed to be crushed out of existence. (Page 79)

Society, with all its powers, had declared itself his foe. And every hour his soul grew blacker, every hour he dreamed new dreams of vengeance, of defiance, of raging, frenzied hate. (Page 94)

Sinclair then shows how these dehumanized people are essentially in a prison and are slaves to the greed of others:

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside. (Page 164)

I find that all the fair and noble impulses of humanity, the dreams of poets and the agonies of martyrs, are shackled and bound in the service of organized and predatory Greed! (Page 176)

Now that Sinclair has shown through one family how the current system enslaves and dehumanizes the workers, he has a solid stage to argue against the collection of wealth in the hands of the few, in other words, to argue for socialism.

The power of concentrated wealth could never be controlled, but could only be destroyed. (Page 186)

In America every one had laughed at the mere idea of Socialism then—in America all men were free. As if political liberty made wage slavery any the more tolerable! (Page 183)

By putting faces via the characters of Jurgis and family to the plight of the workers suffering at the hands of greed and the imbalance of wealth, Sinclair sets the stage for the most eloquent argument in favor of socialism I have ever read.

This book profoundly demonstrates how fiction can work for a cause and humanize, familiarize, and bring to home the faces and reality behind the issues of the day.  I highly recommend this powerful work to all.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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