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Book Reviews -- 12/19/07
There are five book reviews on this page in chronological order.
Review of: Fighting Words: Don't Live On Your Knees: Stories of My Life -- 09/03/04
I knew Robert M. Katzman during the years 1958 - 1964 when we attended Caldwell Elementary School in Chicago, IL. We were school friends, but not close friends. Only recently have we been back in touch with each other via email and one telephone conversation.
Bob, as he prefers to be addressed nowadays writes in a naked, "tell-it-like-it-is" and past tense form of that style throughout the book. He is an entrepreneur for the past thirty-nine years in the newspaper, book, and magazine distribution business in Chicago neighborhoods. He learned "the ropes" as he traveled through his rites of passage, his way, by standing up for his faith and the belief of his father's words and insights.
The South Side of Chicago is a tough place; tough to live and grow up in, tougher to start and run a business. Many people would have quit after even one of Bob's experiences. How many of us could endure years of physical and psychological abuse as a child by the mother and not become a mean, despondent person? If you want to know what horrific experiences a person goes through and struggles to overcome and understand, read Bob's book.
From an early age, perhaps too early an age, Bob knew enough not to live on his knees. Through his stories he walks the reader boldly through his personal history, a unique perspective from his own eyes, told in ways that will touch your heart.
Bob reveals short segments of his life, sometimes as short as a few moments that are punctuated with as much intensity as he can express with words. Longer periods of time are written with climaxes, revelations, and surprises along the way.
The surprises come in terms of realizations he had as he moved from childhood to young adult, to becoming a man with the help of people integral to his development. Bob writes about fights with people at elementary school. He tried to avoid conflict as any child of abuse does, but he didn't shy away from defending himself when confronted. Not everyone who is smaller than average at any age is defenseless.
As was typical of the Chicago public school system when we were in school together, Bob was often misunderstood and punished for being an individualist and expressing his own thoughts. For unmentioned reasons, I can fit into his shoes real easy--too easily.
The book covers events in Bob's life where climaxes of every interpretation of that word occurred. Coming to terms with elderly employees, thieves, bullies, business contacts, and more shows he understood the Chicago System very well. His late father was a tremendous help during the three decades they worked together. During those thirty years, the father bestowing the son with strategies and wisdom that can only be imparted in connection with the genetic chain of life.
Women that intersected Bob's path are spoken of in respective tones. Broken hearts, broken promises, broken dreams, the tears of many feelings make their way into the text. He searches his soul for explanations of why he acted one way in reality instead of another, somehow expecting that different outcome to be more beneficial of the way things turned out to be. He knows what it's like to be close to magic moments in life only to see them disappear forever before his eyes and now wonders, "what if?"
Revelations of the human spirit are sprinkled about the book, interwoven with the other parts of the stories. I felt as if I was standing at his newsstand, in that cold winter Chicago wind, listening in on the advice being transferred between those in the inner-sanctum. The lives of his first employees as he reveals them tells a lot about the philosophy and life values Bob discovered along the way as a teenager became the man.
Bob says he had to relive many of the experiences to write about them accurately. I know firsthand all about that kind of analysis of the past. I could feel his pain of internal exposure as he struggled to put them down in any form, let alone in print. Bob does not write fiction, his life is revealed in the various chapters. Yet more remains to be told.
I want Bob to continue writing and living the life he has as long as he can. There are lessons in his words for those that have lived even a small similar part of what he lived. You may think of him as a victim. I don't. I think of him as a person who takes the experiences of life and makes positives out of the bad times. He's still standing and no matter what hits him in the future, I say he'll get right back up. That is the guy I remember from my youth and I'm happy to say that personality trait evolved into the writer, the storyteller, the person he is now.
Written in memory of Ira Rubin (1950-1964), President, Caldwell Class 1964
Review of: Review of: Fighting Words: Escaping and Embracing the Cops of Chicago -- 09/26/05
I knew Robert M. Katzman during the years 1958 - 1964 when we attended Caldwell Elementary School in Chicago, IL. We were school friends, but not close friends--then.
In September 2005, I met with Bob in Chicago at his business. We hadn't seen each other in the 41 years since we graduated elementary school in 1964. Bob and I are much closer in Spirit--now.
He autographed a copy of his second book for me. Here are my thoughts about what he wrote...
In this second book, Bob continues to write directly about his life experiences. His stories are a raw exposure of the conflicts and pleasures in his life.
His various struggles with the Chicago police are contrasted by the compassion some of the Chicago police offered him when he needed them. He writes in one story of being beaten up by undercover detectives who mistakenly thought he was another boy wanted by the police. Later he writes of the police giving him advice and assistance in times of need.
He writes about his situation during the 1968 riots during the Chicago Democratic Convention. I also lived in Chicago at that time. I can easily understand his view of how Mayor Richard J. Dailey mishandled the situation. Some of Bob's conclusions about that time are not the same as my own. He writes about the same things I saw, except from his interpretation at street level, where he worked.
1968 was a difficult time for many of we young draft-age men. Bob writes of his decisions about the draft, military service, and the responsibilities of a young American. Were it not for his cancer surgery at age 18, he would have served in wartime. We learn more about Bob's health throughout the book. He almost seems like the real-life version of the "Bionic Man", except he is without the bionics and has only scar tissue instead. A few of those scars are emotional, as I will cover next.
At the time I knew Bob at Caldwell, I was unaware that his mother was regularly beating him severely. I didn't know he had been thrown out of his house a couple weeks before we graduated. Even though he clearly writes about those horrors, it is hard for me to grasp what his home life must have been like. Our society tolerated child abuse in the 1950's and 1960's. What happened to Bob by the hands of his own mother should not have ever happened to any person. I'm afraid Bob was one of the millions that did.
A few of his chapters in the book cover his many friendships and a family trip to North Dakota with a weather nightmare that became all too real for the Katzman family during the return trip.
I admire the straight way Bob writes his life stories. However, there is one story I think he should have replaced with a better one. It is the story of how an older woman he knew asks him to have sex with a young female relative of hers. While I do not usually comment about what consenting adults do behind closed doors, in this case I make an exception. I'll explain next.
If the young woman involved was so insecure in her sexual satisfactions that she needed a fix by another male before her wedding day, I think Bob should have passed on being the solution to her problem. In my mind, his story sets the wrong tone in portraying his personal convictions. I think that story might harm his reputation as a man of principles. I'm not judging Bob or the woman in question. I'm just reacting to the way I think the people who will read it perceive that particular story. Perhaps he will reconsider its inclusion in subsequent printings.
At the end of this book, there is a series of poems. Those poems offer another side of the complex man, Bob Katzman. I hope he writes more poetry in the coming volumes.
Bob Katzman is an evolving author. His style of writing is improving because of the feedback he receives by the people that read his books. I wish him much success and hope his dreams of becoming a traveling author come true.
I am happy Bob and I are friends.
Review of: Review of: Fighting Words: Saul Bellow, Kosher Pickles and the Aluminum Fortress -- 02/26/07
I knew Robert M. Katzman during the years 1958 - 1964 when we attended Caldwell Elementary School in Chicago, IL. We have become close friends these last few years. I last saw him in-person in early December 2006 in the Chicago area. I offer a podcast of an interview [ Link since removed ] [ Link since removed ] I did with him on my Digital Passages Podcasts site.
This is the third book in the series from Bob Katzman. In this edition, Bob reveals much more of his progression from his newsstand days starting in 1965 to his present-day situation.
Bob is certainly an unabashed entrepreneur. He believes in himself as a common-person and treats others with respect. He looks for the good in people. Bob doesn't always find the good in people. Hence, his stories are powerful examples of persevering against the odds, against the violence, against the stupidity he encountered in his life.
Bob gives credit where credit is due. In his various chapters in this book he sprinkles commentary about the affection and love he has for family members. The love of his father permeates many of the chapters and the relationship between them is vividly painted on the many pages of this book.
He is the descendant in the line of Jewish people that came to the United States in the end of the 19th century. As a youngster he inquired and listened to those still alive at that time, to their real-life stories of persecution and discrimination. In one of his chapters he tells us he was asked by his Rabbi to speak in front of his synagog's membership and tell them his family's story of the Holocaust. The history he knows from his deceased relatives haunts him and causes him pain and anguish. He chooses to re-experience that pain and suffering in his stories so that we can understand them through him. In that revelation, we come to know Bob better too.
He's been financially broke in his life. He's had periods where the money flowed better, but he knows what it takes to survive in many business and personal conditions that would have killed others. Bob Katzman is a survivor. He writes about survival.
The book is not a collection of bitter experiences. There is a thread of Bob's humor and how he turns bad situations into positive lessons. This book is for people who have led safer lives than Bob, but need to know that even in the worst of times and situations, a person can fight back with dignity.
Knowing Bob on a personal basis makes it easier for me to read his books and absorb his perspectives. He causes me to think a lot about who he is. His books do that to me.
I enjoyed this third book the best of the bunch. Partly because he opens up his heart a lot more in this book. His first two books were more about fighting back. This book is about loving back.
If you want to know how it is possible for a person who was regularly and frequently physically beaten for many years by his mother from an early age and then thrown out of the house by her at age 14, never to return, can love--then read this book. Of course, you should read his previous two books first about those beatings and other bad experiences he's lived. Only then can you begin to understand, really understand, the loving side of Bob in this edition.
Bob Katzman has faults, just like every one of us do. He has strengths, some of which some of us, don't have. He reminds me of Samson, but unlike the strength emanating from his hair, it emanates from Bob's soul and seeks out justice through his thoughts and feelings expressed into words. Those words fight for all of us.
Review of: Lions of Medina -- 12/07/07
This was the first book about the Vietnam War I've read.
I was asked to read this book by my friend, Mark Anderson, who was interviewed for this book and is mentioned several places in the book.
The author wrote this story from the real life experiences of the survivors of the battle. In the beginning of the book, he tells about the participants, who they were before they came to the war. They had different attitudes about the war and the reasons they supported their role in the war are explained to give the reader adequate background about their participation.
Like so many of our young men that were exposed to the Vietnam War, they came to see what was really important to them when they found themselves there 10,000 miles from home.
I felt at times that I was walking the trails with them. I was there when they stepped on those mines. I was there when grenades fell in around them. I was there, in the dark, waiting for the dawn as death made its presence known all too closely around them.
In every paragraph the violence is as real as a bullet passing right next to my head. The anxiety and the fear is present too. But the Marines hang tough together to not let the conditions overtake them.
I was struck by the singing during the night, in the midst of battle. That Marine Hymn helped bind the men together during the battle. It is an unexpected way to rally your own spirit and all those who could sing, added to the song. That was a pure sign of solidarity and it was touching.
Here it is forty years later and I was made to see this story as if I were there. The book reveals those inner feelings that still dwell within me about the Vietnam War. A good book will do that to me, This one did.
Review of: Miracle on 51st Street -- 12/19/07
I knew Robert M. Katzman during the years 1958 - 1964 when we attended Caldwell Elementary School in Chicago, IL. We have become close friends these last few years. I offer a podcast of an interview I did with him on my Digital Passages Podcasts site.
This book is a departure in style from the other books by Robert M. Katzman. The book is one story from one holiday period in December 1977.
The author details the plot and explains the predicament he arrives at without a negative viewpoint. Every challenge has an outcome. That outcome may not be anticipated or expected. This story anticipates a disaster and yet perseverance towards the best possible outcome is revealed.
There is a very human side to the story. Sometimes chance or fate intervenes, but not in this story. This is a story of the unmasking of the inherent goodness of people when a person least expects it, when the facts said it couldn't happen, when it was darkest before the dawn.
Such are the makings of miracles. This miracle was manifested within human hearts coming together on one important day and delivered in the true spirit of the winter holiday season.
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