Monthly Archives: June 2014

Stories to Sink Your Teeth Into

CBR_Logo2Quality Snacks:

by Andy Mozina

Author Andy Mozina’s latest collection of fifteen short stories, Quality Snacks, greets readers with a variety of well-written fare, a little something for every palate. These character-driven stories examine topics such as office power dynamics, irrational animal fears, elf genocide at the North Pole, Dorito and porn addiction, nonsexual affairs, and how to be a “woman of peace.” But this is just a sampling, a taste-testing stroll through the Costco warehouse of Mozina’s Quality Snacks.

As an author of the Made in Michigan Writer’s Series and an English Professor at Kalamazoo, Andy Mozina has developed a localized cult following that rivals that of Taco Doritos fans, but hasn’t quite reached Cool Ranch heights—yet. Recently during a book signing in Plainwell, Michigan, two fans came to quality snacks coverblows over a cardboard cutout of Mozina. The cardboard Mozina was ripped in half, and police escorted the men out of the used bookstore. This was just one stop along the book tour for Quality Snacks.

Questionable behavior is a recurring theme in the pages of Quality Snacks as well. In “The Bad Reader,” two middle-aged male cohorts meet at a Dairy Queen to discuss a recent public shooting at a bookstore. One man, an overbearing high school coach, believes his nephew to be the shooter. The young nephew struggles to understand a world he “cannot see,” while taking his cues on social behavior from fiction. “The Bad Reader” addresses gun control at a slant. The story also exemplifies how typical male leadership roles are changing, that a barrage of forceful words and deeds may no longer be appropriate for today’s adolescent male.

Mozina serves up more teenage angst in “Overpass,” a cautionary coming-of-age tale about two teenage boys in Boone’s Farm t-shirts, army jackets, and Dad’s boots. These boys must decide if the adult world is really somewhere to spend time. So far, their parent’s fractured world seems like a place to avoid at all costs. With little hope left for the future, Jack and his buddy, Stan the man, act as recklessly as the pubescent testosterone bubbles exploding rapidly inside T. C. Elliot’s “Greasy Lake.”

Violence escalates and Mozina describes a typical teenage rebellion, but “Overpass” almost touches something deeper. Like many of the stories in Quality Snacks, “Overpass” has a finger on the heartstrings of current economics and how the effects of a failing economy crosses class and age. But, also like others in Mozina’s collection, “Overpass” is but a quick snack when a well-rounded meal was in order. Fleshed out, “Overpass” could have achieved what Mozina’s later stories “A Talented Individual” and the title story, “Quality Snacks,” serve up: an emotional and intellectual fullness. In both of these full-bodied stories, Mozina allows enough time to pass that we begin to see a chain of cause and effects, a falling of the dominoes in the life of two men.

“Quality Snacks” follows a man named Reggie through the corporate world of Frito-Lay. An artistic baker, Reggie works for a company that values creativity. For years he has believed that his work in the science of chip development makes people happy, that a quality snack can get people through anything. Mozina doesn’t just place a finger on the heartstrings of readers in this selection, but plays a recognizable melody that we can hear in our own lives if we listen closely enough. Reggie has replaced human relationships with artificially flavored taco corn chips and nightly porn. He binges on Taco Doritos and ass-cams. It is Reggie’s realization and reflection on this, his dependency on the artificial, that rings true to modern-day readers.

Mozina’s acutely character-driven collection contains a multitude of selves. In “Pelvis,” a nearly untouched virgin waits in line to be had by a king, Elvis. She wants “a mouth made by king kisses” and hips that have been hinged open first by that famous gyrating pelvis. In beat-stirring language reminiscent of Clifton’s homage to her hips, this young girl recognizes the power of her body. Mozina laces this quasi-feminist act with tragedy, though; her king is just a man like the sloping-kissing boys back home in Milwaukee.

In “Self-Reliance,” we taste a slightly wicked tale of humiliation. Yet another talented individual must discount himself or be laid off while the towns and cities shut down around him. In this story and others, Mozina delves into the instability and mental disturbances of every day life. He shows us how others have done it, how they’ve pulled through life challenges or fallen off the wagon, and how they’ve managed to feed themselves along the way.

Andy Mozina is a talented individual. His newly minted collection of quality shorts leaves readers with plenty of food for thought—even if they might still be longing for some dessert after digesting the stories in Quality Snacks.

Three-Star Review

May 2014, Wayne State University Press
Short Fiction
$18.99, paperback, 216 pages
ISBN 978-0-8143-4015-8

—Reviewed by Mindy M. Jones

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‘Blues Is a Feeling, Baby’

CBR_Logo2Exploring Chicago Blues:
Inside the Scene, Past and Present
by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
foreword by Billy Branch

The 31st Annual Chicago Blues Fest kicks off today, June 13, and runs through June 15, bringing hundreds of thousands of music fans into the city to hear some of the best musicians play some of the best music around. According to the City of Chicago, Blues Fest is “the largest free blues festival in the world and remains the largest of Chicago’s Music Festivals. During three days on five stages, more than 500,000 blues fans prove that Chicago is the ‘Blues Capital of the World.’”

exploring chicago blues coverIt is exactly this that Rosalind Cummings-Yeates celebrates in her new book, Exploring Chicago Blues. Part history, part travel guide, this slim volume examines the people and places that have made the Chicago blues scene what it is today—and what it was yesterday. Indeed Cummings-Yeates seems somewhat blue herself when writing about the current state of the city’s blues scene, which is but a mere shadow of its more robust past.

Exploring Chicago Blues is presented in two parts. It begins with a history lesson, tracing the origins of Chicago’s blues scene to The Great Migration, which brought massive numbers of African Americans north between about 1915 and 1970. It was during these years, Cummings-Yeates notes, that the blues took root in Chicago, transforming from an acoustic, country-tinged sound to the more electric, urban tones we recognize today. The book then takes a look at the state of Chicago blues in modern times.


Author Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Readers will find in-depth information about the people, places, lyrics, and labels that shaped the blues in general and the Chicago blues scene in particular. Cummings-Yeates, an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia College–Chicago, employs a journalistic style of writing to tell the tale, quoting various sources and people to paint a picture of the music that has become part and parcel of Chicago. Her love of the city and its homegrown music is evident throughout the text—as is, perhaps, her nostalgia for what many might consider better days for blues during midcentury.

Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy are but a few of the blues greats profiled in these pages. Cummings-Yeates also highlights the women who shaped the blues in Chicago, among them Koko Taylor, Etta James, and Mama Yancey. Readers also will find descriptions of some of the best blues joints in the city—past and present—including Rosa’s Blues Lounge, Lee’s Unleaded Blues, and Linda’s Place. The book closes with a chapter built around two feature stories tracking the days-in-the-life aspects of two blues artists. And, in what seems something of a tangent, Cummings-Yeates also profiles some eateries related to the city’s blues scene, ostensibly because of their roots in African-American soul food.

Exploring Chicago Blues serves as part primer, part advanced reading: Some readers may not recognize some of the many names dropped in the book, but that shouldn’t dissuade them from reading what is educational and informative nonetheless. In addition to the entertaining text, which serves in many ways as a walk down memory lane of Chicago’s blues scene, the book is peppered with numerous photographs of the people and places that have made the blues here what it is. Unfortunately, the reproduction quality of the images isn’t as good as one might like; many of the photographs are dark and muddy, which is a little sad.

Perhaps that sad, dark tone is, though, in keeping with the transformation of Chicago’s blues scene. Once thriving and now less so, the Blues Capital of the World may, by some measure, have devolved into an almost Disney-like blues-lite version of what it once used to be. Nevertheless, as Cummings-Yeates writes, “blues history [is] steeped in the very sidewalks of the city, blues floats around everywhere in Chicago.”

That is true, indeed. Whether coming at the blues as a newbie, as someone with a mild interest, or as someone interested in the evolution of blues in Chicago, Exploring Chicago Blues is a quick, interesting read filled with colorful details about the city’s rich music history.

Three-Star Review

April 2014, The History Press
$16.99, paperback, 126 pages
ISBN: 978-1-62619-322-2

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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WWI and Women of Action

CBR_Logo2Women Heroes of World War I:
16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics
by Kathryn J. Atwood

It was nearly a century ago, in June 1914, when Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in an episode that would lead to the start of World War I. During the next four years, the Great War would see more than 37 million military and civilian casualties, including more than 8.5 million killed.

CRP Atwood 9781613746868Millions of those casualties were women. Some were victims of mass murder, some victims of malnourishment due to food shortages, some by accident. But a number of those victims were women who had served as resisters, medical personnel, spies, journalists, and even soldiers. It is these women that Kathryn Atwood profiles in her latest book, Women Heroes of World War I.

Written for a young adult audience, Women Heroes of World War I focuses on just sixteen of the millions of women who served—either officially or unofficially—during the war. Just as their male counterparts, these women were eager to serve, some out of fervent nationalism, some out of a lust for glory, some out of a sense of adventure. But each of the women profiled in this easy-to-read book was bold and in many ways ahead of her time.

In a day and age when women were expected to serve solely as housewives, taking care of children and home, the sixteen women Atwood focuses on helped shift views and expectations of female roles. Indeed, World War I in general served as a massive shift in the way women were perceived, in the duties and roles they were expected to play, and in the ways in which their capabilities were viewed. Women, who were once rarely seen working outside the home, suddenly rushed to fill positions vacated by men leaving for the front, taking up jobs in government, agriculture, munitions factories, and shipbuilding. A smaller number became nurses, medics, spies, and even soldiers.

Women Heroes of World War I looks at several women who embodied a progressive attitude during the war. The book sticks with women from Allied countries (no women from the Central Powers are featured), and readers will find stories of exemplary women from such countries as Australia, England, France, Russia, Serbia, and the United States. From teenagers who assisted soldiers as guides and nurses to adventurous peasant women who fought on the frontlines to journalists who risked life and limb to report from enemy nations, this accessible collection commemorates the largely forgotten contributions these women made during a war that is itself often overlooked despite the fact that it was the deadliest event of the twentieth century at the time.

Arranged in four parts, the book is a collection of sixteen features, each of which stands alone. Readers can easily digest the short features, quickly working through each part. Sidebars and pull quotes lend additional insight and information, often serving to illuminate broader issues about the war in general. Each chapter ends with a “learn more” box which points readers to various resources for additional information (although it should be noted that many of the materials listed are decades old and likely not easy to locate).


Author Kathryn Atwood

Many of the stories are told in a rather matter-of-fact style, although some notes of adventure, bravery, and derring-do pop through now and again. Although not necessarily designed to be read from beginning to end in one stretch, which might be a little tedious, taken together the features do combine to serve as an inspiration, particularly to younger girls. As such, Women Heroes of World War I has something of a “girl power!” attitude, a flavor that might well spark some readers to action in their own lives, whether on a local level or perhaps on a grander scale.

Indeed, it is toward the end of the book, when Atwood quotes attorney and journalist Madeleine Zabriskie Doty, that the essence of these features comes into full view. “The courage of the little band of women I had met,” Doty says, “was stupendous.”

This, then, is the key message of the book: that women, regardless of age or era, have much to contribute to the world, whether during wartime or peacetime. In sharing these stories, Atwood has done the women featured a great service—letting their lessons in courage live on a century later. She also has done her reader a great service—reminding them that nothing, and particularly not gender, need stand in the way of courage.

Three-Star Review

June 2014, Chicago Review Press
$19.95, hardcover, 246 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61374-686-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


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