Sunday, October 15, 2017

Post # 6

Quote of the day: "That [the Fox Theatre] was built for mere movies and not coronations, almost boggles the mind." Rick Sylvain. Michigan Living .February 1989.


The Marsh King's Daughter
by Karen Dionne

Reader beware, by the end of the first chapter of Karen Dionne's debut novel unsuspecting readers will be at the mercy of this northern Oakland County writer. Like Brer Rabbit you can pick up the book but, try as you might, you aren't putting it down until Dionne releases you on the last page. Dishes will go unwashed, leaves will not be raked, snow shoveled, the car washed, or things checked off the "To Do List" until this addictive book is finished.

Helena has two daughters, a loving husband, a successful small business, a comfortable double-wide prefab home in a remote corner of the U.P., and a terrible secret she hasn't even shared with her husband. Helena's mother was kidnapped at the age of 14 by a mentally ill loner and kept captive in his remote, rustic cabin surrounded by a huge trackless U. P. marsh. Two years after her capture the 16-year old gives birth to Helena.

For the first dozen years of her life Helena's world is limited to the cabin, swamp, her domineering and crazy father, and a quiet, withdrawn mother suffering from the Skockhom Snydrome. Helena learned to read from a stack of abandoned National Geographic magazines and didn't realize they were 50 years out of date. Her father both terrorized her and showered her with attention. If a miserable example of a human being, Helena's dad was an accomplished woodsman and an expert at living off the land. He taught Helena everything he knew about nature, tracking, and hunting. She killed her first deer at age five.

Helena finally learned the truth of her mother's kidnapping at the age of 12 and at nearly the same time she comes to understand her father has no regard for the safety or feelings for anyone but himself. When the opportunity presents itself Helena helps her mother escape. It takes two years before her father is captured and sentenced to life imprisonment in Marquette State Prison. Back in society the young girl sees counselors, changes her name, tries to live a life of obscurity with her husband and two daughters, and bury her past. 

A dozen years later Helena's mother has died and Helena and her family are living a near normal life when her dad kills two prison guards and escapes. Helena instinctively knows the man will be coming for her and her two daughters. The only way to insure her and her daughters safety is to hunt her father down and kill or capture him before the man comes for them.

Dionne masterfully controls her plot and builds suspense. Helena's pursuit of her father through the rugged U.P. wilderness is interrupted at the most crucial moments by flashbacks as Helena remembers significant chapters of her 12 years in the wilderness with a psychologically damaged mother and dangerously insane father.

The author has done a wonderful job of capturing life lived on the barest subsistence level, the beauty and wildness of the U.P. landscape, and how rugged outdoorsmen build an intimate relation with nature. The book also works as a gripping psychological thriller as Helena recalls her life with her teacher and tormentor and wrestles with what to do when and if she hunts him down.

This book is effortlessly readable and has narrative pace equivalent to an F-16  with the after-burners lit.

Dionne, Karen. The Marsh King's Daughter, G. P. Putnams, 2017, $26.

My Near-Death Adventures: 99% True
by Alison DeCamp

This may be a young adult book with a 4th - 6th grade reading level but odds are the entire family will thoroughly enjoy it. That's because fatherless, eleven-year-old Stan Slater who lives with his mom and cantankerous grandma in Manistique, Michigan during the U. P. lumbering boom of the 1890s is both very good company and very funny. 

In need of money mom, son, and grandma take kitchen and dining hall jobs in a lumber camp owned by Stan's uncle near Germfask. Stan is OK with the move because he thinks he might find his father in the camp, and if not, he can at least learn how to be a man and the head of the family. 

Ah, but there are a host of personal liabilities and short comings standing in his way. First, he's eleven. Secondly, well honestly the rest are in no particular rankings or order they're just hurdles that have to be cleared.  The boy thinks out load and it constantly lands him in hot water or a mouth washed out with soap. His mother has suitors, none of which Stan likes. He has too vivid an imagination and too high an opinion of himself. He thinks he has a taste for danger and is 95.7% certain he's invincible. According to Stan he's barely escaped death from an untouched axe, raw chickens, an older female cousin, and the soap grandma uses to washout his mouth. 

Stan is also a fount of misunderstanding and confusion. When granny tells him he has to acquire some manners and that learning the correct spoon to use can open doors, he wonders how you jimmy a door with a spoon without bending it. He thinks George Washington chopped down a log cabin and signed the Declaration of Dependence.  When told by his cousin he has tedium he wonders how long he has to live. The lumber camp only adds to Stan's confusion on  how to be a man. It shakes his belief that becoming a man means growing a beard, drinking coffee, and apparently understanding things only men can understand, and lastly, your mom allows you to take part in the dangerous spring log drive downriver to the mill. It doesn't help that his mother makes him wear an apron when serving food.

On the plus side he is a dispenser of useful information, such as "hogwash" has nothing to do with washing a hog. He sometimes stands up to bullies and has a quick tongue like the time he told the school bully, "He'd never be the man his mother is." And according to Stan he always tells the truth, even if he has to make it up.

The boy is so desperate for a father he makes up and writes letters to himself from his dad. He also keeps a scrapbook as living proof of  his adventures and courageous deeds, as well as whatever strikes his fancy to share with his father. Pieces from his scrapbook adorn every page of the book and it becomes very obvious Stan can't clip a face from a magazine or newspaper without drawing glasses and a moustache on every man and women. 

All kinds of surprises await Stan at the lumber camp including a lumberjack asking him to join the spring log drive. This is a rollicking good story of a youth dealing with life and a great portrait of a 1890s Michigan lumber camp. It's universal message is all boys everywhere in every era struggle to learn to be a man. Most of them are just not as laugh out loud funny as Stan. 

DeCamp, Alison. My Near-Death Adventures 99% True!, Crown Books. $16.99.

by Holling Clancy Holling

This is not a review but homage to a book that changed my world and permanently impressed upon me, at a very early age, the magic, wonder, and majesty of the Great Lakes. I was five or six when I read or, more likely, someone read this wonderful book to me. 

For those who have not had the good fortune to crack the cover of Paddle-to-the-Sea it tells, in words and colorfully detailed illustrations, the epic journey of a small, toy canoe carved by a Native American boy living on the north shore of Lake Superior. He whittles the one-foot canoe out of a piece of pine one winter, and on the bottom carves "Please put me back in the water, I am Paddle to the Sea." He then places the canoe in a snowbank beside a south flowing creek and waits for spring to melt the snow and send the canoe on its way. All that occurs in the first two pages.

The rest of the book follows Paddle to the Sea's extraordinary adventures through sawmills, to the iron ore docks of Duluth, along the coast of Lake Superior, through a terrible storm and shipwreck. The little canoe hitches a ride on an ore carrier, passes through the Soo Locks and after many more adventures makes it to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic Ocean.

The book is a marvelous geography lesson and an unforgettable introduction to the wonders of the Great Lakes. It's been almost 70 years and I still treasure the book and still hold it responsible for my enchantment with Michigan and the Great Lakes.

Holling, Holling Clancy. Paddle to the Sea, Houghton Mifflin, 1941, $11.95 pb

My Michigan Bucket List
by J. R. Roper

Among the plethora of bucket list books on Michigan and nearly every other state and geographical region on the Earth comes this book that offers dedicated bucket listers something a little different and useful. Although it does include one page of the author's selections of the state's top buck list destinations the rest of the book is arranged as a journal in which the bucket lister can record their impressions and details of their visits.

Each entry has space where the journal keeper records DESTINATION DETAILS, DATES, TRAVEL COMPANIONS, RECOMMENDED GUIDES, INSIDER TIPS, SURPRISE ENCOUNTERED, WHAT WAS UNFORGETTABLE, and REFLECTIONS. The journal is divided by the type of  destination including; Drinking, Accommodations, Shopping, or simply on the bucket list. There are also several lined pages in which the journalist can make their own bucket list.

If you want to capture the your memories of Michigan's special destinations with more than snapshots this may be the book your looking for.

Roper, J.R. My Michigan Bucket List, Hidden Cottage Press, 2017, $9.99

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Post # 5

Quote for the Day: "You want to go to Saginaw! you realize what you are undertaking? Do you know that Saginaw is the last inhabited place til the Pacific Ocean; that from here to Saginaw hardly anything but wilderness and pathless solitudes are to be found?"  A Pontiac innkeeper to Alexis de Tocqueville, on hearing that the French traveler was journeying to Saginaw. 1831.


The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek
by Howard Markel

Right about the turn of the 20th century, Henry Ford ushered in the next step of the Industrial Revolution with his production line that subsequently put the world on wheels. Meanwhile, out in western Michigan, two brothers were perfecting a new kind of prepared food that eventually changed how hundreds of millions of people across the globe eat breakfast.

Although products emblazoned with their name are in countless homes, few folks know much about John H. and Will K. Kellogg, whose efforts gave birth to a multi-billion-dollar business behemoth.
Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, does much to rectify this situation with The Kelloggs, a fascinating dual biography of the brothers.

John and Will's forebears arrived in America not long after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. About 200 years later, John Preston Kellogg, the men's father, had his fill of trying to farm the rocky soil of Massachusetts and set out with his family to the promised land of Michigan. They settled near Flint and hewed two farms out of the wilderness. John H. was born in Tyrone to his father's second wife in 1852.

A turning point in the family's history came a few years later when John Preston joined a new sect, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He and a few other members persuaded church leader Ellen Harmon White to move her operations to Battle Creek in 1855, and he traded his farm for a broom factory in the city a year later. Will was born there in 1860.

John H. became the family's golden child at an early age. Believing he was destined for greatness, they sacrificed to send him to medical school. Will, meanwhile, was considered a drudge. He started making brooms in the factory as a boy and went on to menial sales jobs in his teens.

John and White developed a close relationship, and the church helped support him in medical school. When he returned to Michigan, he took over a small hospital run by the Adventists, which he used as the cornerstone of his world-renowned Battle Creek Sanitarium. A devout church member, John thoroughly endorsed the Adventists' approach to diet, which avoided meat and focused on fruits, vegetables and grains. And that's the food he served to patients at his sanitarium.

Meanwhile, as the sanitarium became bigger and more complex, John took on Will as his factotum. An organizational genius, Will essentially wound up running the place -- not that his brother really noticed. John never deigned to give Will a job title and treated him miserably, paying him only $9 a week when he put in 120 hours or more on the job.

John was forever tinkering with recipes for his sanitarium, and breakfast posed a particular problem because he wanted to serve food that was nutritional but quick to prepare. While he didn't invent cold cereal, he (with Will's help) perfected it.

To some extent, C.W. Post helped create the Kellogg cereal empire. Post had come to the sanitarium as a patient and worked in the food operation to help pay for his treatment. He learned all of the brothers' cereal secrets, formed his own company and made a fortune marketing the Kelloggs' wheat flakes as Post Toasties and their granola as Grape-Nuts.

While John had always made small amounts of his cereals for sale in town and to former patients, he felt commercializing the products would hurt his reputation as a medical doctor. Will, however, was outraged. After years of fruitlessly arguing with John about going into the cereal business, Will finally paid off John for the right to produce and sell their cereal in mass quantities.

And so it was that, after decades of abuse at the hands of his brother, Will Kellogg became an overnight success in his mid-40s.

There is so much more in Markel's lengthy -- 506 pages -- but thoroughly engaging book. Some of it is depressing, especially the bitterness between the brothers that sometimes spilled into outright hatred over the years. Even sadder is Will's personal life. Perhaps because of his unhappy childhood and years of subservience to John, Will never seemed to enjoy the millions he made. His relations with his children were strained, and he had few close friends.

But Markel has done a great service in telling how The Best to You Each Morning came to be. And you'll never think of corn flakes as boring again.

Markel, Howard. The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battled Creek, New York: Pantheon Books, 2017. $35.00

The Graybar Hotel
By Curtis Dawkins

In deciding to review books written about the Michigan experience I never considered or imagined reviewing a novel or short story collection dealing with the everyday, stultified life of state prison inmates. After only a few pages in The Graybar Hotel there is little doubt in the reader’s mind the life behind bars described in these stories may be hauntingly similar to life in most U.S. prisons. But this book also offers a unique look at a seldom described Michigan experience – life behind bars at Jackson State Prison. An early short story in the book gives almost and an hour by hour account of an inmate’s first day at Jackson State Prison.

The author has a Master in Fine Arts in writing from Western Michigan University and is serving a life sentence, without parole, in the Michigan prison system for a drug-related homicide. Unfortunately Curtis Dawkins is both an accomplished master of his art and he has a lifetime to write about a subject he knows intimately. And although these stories are populated with a number of well draw charters the stories feel very autobiographical and very real.

Despair, loneliness, and longing are palpable. Watching a Tigers game on TV one inmate conjures entire life stories for people and families caught on camera in Comerica Park.  There is such longing for the outside world the inmate makes blind, collect telephone calls. When asked to accept the charges and the person called askes who’s calling the inmate always says, “It’s just me.” Because he’s persistent and has a trusting voice the gambit works often enough the inmate talks to someone on the outside every day or two. It’s just not talking that’s important. He listens for background sounds like the click of a grandfather clock, outside traffic, and on one call thought he could smell food cooking in the oven. For most inmates with long sentences there’s a painful longing for everyday life that’s so distant it may as well be on the far side of the moon.

Although Dawkins crafts well written stories with interesting characters the stories also work as fine descriptive essays of Michigan prison life. The author reveals prison tattoo machines are built from a motor taken from a Walkman, set in a plastic spork taken from the cafeteria, and a guitar string threaded through the barrel of a Bic pen.  Dawkins also acknowledges “Tattoing in prison is like trying to sew fine stitches with a knitting needle.”

The book is also leavened with humor like the short story in which an inmate has to be taught how to lie convincingly instead of making a fool out of himself by trying to convince fellow inmates, “He died twice and met God both times,” or “He used law-enforcement-grade-pepper-spray to spice up his pizzas.”

Dawkins is a fine writer and his descriptions of life in a Michigan state prison may be fiction but they ring true as a tuning fork. MLive reported on September 28th that Dawkins just signed a book deal with a major publisher.

Dawkins, Curtis. Graybar Hotel, New York: Scribner, 2017. $26

Thanks to our guest reviewer Gene Mierzejewski, Flint Journal's retired book review editor, for reviewing The Kelloggs.

New Books to be Published in October

Daniels, Ken. If These Walls Could Talk: Detroit Red Wings; Stories from Detroit Red Wings Ice, Locker Room, and Press Book, Triumph Books, October 15, 2017. $16.95


April 1, 2020 Post # 53

Quote for the day: "...[Lake Superior is] beautiful, empty, glittering, cold and brooding, gull-swept and impersonal; always there, alw...