Foreword Reviews

Book of the Day Roundup


Ghosts in the Schoolyard

Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side

Book Cover
Eve L. Ewing
University of Chicago Press
Hardcover $22.50 (240pp)
978-0-226-52602-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

Ghosts in the Schoolyard is a chilling must-read investigation of racism in Chicago’s education system.

One might think the days of black students fighting for their right to attend quality schools are long gone, but Ghosts in the Schoolyard reminds us that times haven’t changed so much at all. This book reveals just how badly majority-black schools are treated; author Eve L. Ewing explores how, why, and where to go next.

Each chapter details a poignant element of the fight against school closings in south Chicago. A harrowing hunger strike against a school closing leaves protesters hospitalized. Members of a community speak with fiery urgency and passion at a hearing defending their school. An entire town mourns the loss of a neighborhood school, one that had been in families for generations. The anecdotes, facts, figures, and testimony come together expertly to form a tragic tale of implicit racism.

In addition to its poignant content and touching cast of characters, this book is technically superb. Ewing’s crisp prose is succinct and inviting, never lacking in energy. This book never backs down from critiquing the housing, education, and legal systems that contribute to the plight of certain communities in Chicago. The history Ewing writes of school segregation, closing, and underfunding on the South Side connects and builds obviously to the distressing present moment, when students, parents, and teachers must again fight for one of the most basic rights in America: the right to a good education.

Eve L. Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard deftly details a microcosm of a larger picture where some people’s freedoms are much more complicated than others.

MYA ALEXICE (August 27, 2018)

Useful Phrases for Immigrants

Book Cover
May-lee Chai
Blair
Softcover $16.95 (166pp)
978-0-932112-76-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

Delving into fractured families, hoarded secrets, and the cultural and personal negotiations at the heart of the Asian American experience, May-lee Chai’s Useful Phrases for Immigrants is distinguished by writing as elegant and delicate as a snowflake.

As one would expect, Useful Phrases for Immigrants contains plenty about the immigrant experience. The title story centers on a Chinese couple struggling to succeed in an America awash in name-brand consumerism. But more generally, the book is about outsiders: illegal laborers, sons and daughters set adrift from expectations and responsibilities. Stories like “The Body” take place entirely in China; its ghost-story narrative proves that Chai is as adept at describing the ineffable as she is at capturing small human moments.

The heart of Useful Phrases for Immigrants lies in its stories about family squabbles, in which Chai plays with reader expectations. On the surface, “Ghost Festivals” is a light family comedy, but underneath is a heartfelt tale about intolerance and sexual freedom. “The Lucky Day” is a grim story about a mother with a terminal disease and her underachieving daughter; it concludes on a note of unexpected joy.

In “First Carvel in Beijing,” perhaps the collection’s most affecting entry, an innocuous fling with an ex-girlfriend gives way to a shattering childhood memory and a shot at forgiveness. The elderly father and daughter in “Shouting Means I Love You” may have a hard time communicating beyond yelling at each other, but the story’s title could serve as a summary of Chai’s themes: her characters are out of their comfort zones and uncertain how they fit together, let alone fit in, yet somehow their personal connections remain and persevere.

Throughout, Chai writes with an unsparing yet sympathetic eye for her characters, and with a knack for memorable turns of phrase and observations. There’s plenty of heartbreak in Useful Phrases for Immigrants, but Chai’s writing brings a ray of sunshine. Devastating and graceful in equal turns, this collection confirms Chai’s place among the best Asian American writers of today.

HO LIN (August 27, 2018)

American Intolerance

Our Dark History of Demonizing Immigrants

Book Cover
Robert E. Bartholomew
Anja E. Reumschüssel
Prometheus Books
Hardcover $24.00 (288pp)
978-1-63388-448-9
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

Despite the poignant poetry adorning the Statue of Liberty, aspiring citizens of various ethnicities and religions have not been warmly welcomed to the US, as documented in Robert E. Bartholomew and Anja E. Reumschüssel’s dispiriting history of racist, xenophobic, and nationalist policies in the United States.

The authors attribute such intolerance to a national predilection for social panics in times of economic hardship, war, and social unrest. Scapegoating immigrants and ethnic minorities has been a politically expedient strategy to explain away social problems and to justify land grabs, mob violence, and other shameful repressions. Some of the book’s information is familiar, like the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, but the book ferrets out many lesser-known instances of anti-Asian discrimination dating back to the turn of the century, when West coast immigrant populations boomed. Labor unions, politicians, and newspaper editors blamed the new arrivals, whom they likened to insect hordes, for everything from unemployment to outbreaks of the plague.

Vivid documentation runs throughout other chapters, detailing the American treatment of Catholic, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants, German Americans, Jewish refugees, Muslims, and Native Americans and Chicanos, whose ancestors predated white settlement within their lands. The authors tap a huge range of research material, including doctoral dissertations, speeches, interviews, and scholarly journals. Instances of specific violence against individuals, while difficult to read, reinforce the ugliness of these eras, like the 1830s anti-Catholic propaganda wars, twentieth-century eugenics-based immigration restrictions, and, sadly, contemporary stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists.

The authors contend that simplistic policies marginalizing immigrants and minorities endanger American economic and social progress. They call for honest reexamination of the darker corners of our national history and discuss ways to meaningfully address the complex problems we confront today. American Intolerance is timely reading for anyone concerned about recent changes in immigration policy and ramped-up white supremacy rhetoric and violence.

RACHEL JAGARESKI (October 23, 2018)

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Retablos

Stories from a Life Lived along the Border

Book Cover
Octavio Solis
City Lights Publishers
Softcover $15.95 (176pp)
978-0-87286-786-4
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

The stories that make up Octavio Solis’s Retablos are as taut, riveting, and immersive as the sunrise in a red rock desert. Be forewarned—they’re addictive.

Retablos are brightly painted scenes on flattened pieces of metal depicting personal crises whose positive outcomes were achieved through divine intervention. The fifty pieces of this collection are prose retablos—memories of growing up Mexican-American in the borderlands of El Paso, Texas. Although each scenario is complete within itself, they are arranged in roughly chronological order.

Most pieces revolve around single scenes or incidents, relying on spare but precisely chosen details and emotional grace notes to convey a larger, deeper story. Accompanying his mother on repeated drives to a middle-class neighborhood of small, neat houses with trimmed lawns, the narrator recognizes his mother’s unexpressed yearning for something better, and her guilt over wanting it—yearnings reflected in the narrator’s own “less brown” vision of himself in such a house.

A story about stealing pomegranates from a neighbor’s garden is about a child’s capacity for harsh self-punishment. Less intense scenarios include one about bandleader Herb Alpert being a “Mexican” role model despite his Ukrainian-Romanian descent.

Writing is original and laser-sharp, alive with adjectives that startle and images that linger. Encountering a river-soaked girl who’s just crossed the border, the narrator notes the “fugitive dullness” of her face, and the “animal lurch” of her body as she turns to flee from him. In all-Mexican neighborhoods, old women sport “long hair braided down their backs like steel cables.”

All this is delivered in a deftly crafted voice that’s distinctive yet utterly natural. As the narrator progresses from a boy to a young adult, the voice subtly matures, moving easily from one retablo to the next, pulling the reader along.

The slow accretion of incidents, voices, and details creates a coherent and understandable—if unfamiliar—world, like sharp shards of glass resolving into a mosaic that’s sometimes wrenching, sometimes humorous, and always compelling.

SUSAN WAGGONER (August 27, 2018)

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