Sunday, April 15, 2018

Post # 18

Quote of the Day; "Legend has it that when Monroe's favorite son, General Custer, left town on his way to the disaster at the Little Big Horn, he had admonished the citizens not to do anything until he got back. Some more dour residents today claim that these instructions have been followed to the letter." John G. Fuller. We Almost Lost Detroit. 1975.


by Cindy Hunter Morgan

Like the countless motor vessels and sailing ships that have floundered in Great Lakes storms over the past two centuries, I was blown away by this book of poetry. Except for a half-dozen poems that share the title "Deckhand," the departure points for rest of the poems in the book are historic Great Lakes shipwrecks or disasters. The name of the ship, the date of its demise, and the body of water in which the ship met its end make up the poem's title. From that point onward each of Morgan's poems amalgamates legend, history, the supposed, the unknown, and her boundless inventiveness to create a reimagining of the tragedy from stunningly unique perspectives.    

One poem recounts the floundering of a ship by listing its cargo as it descended to the lake bed.  Another tells how the flotsam that came ashore from a wreck was used by a woman who collected it and how: "Sometimes, she wondered why bales floated and men didn't, and what buoyancy meant for her own life, dry as it was." And then there's probably my favorite sentence in the entire book. It is the last sentence of a poem describing the 1871 destruction of the J. Barber by fire. The sloop carried a hold full of peaches. "Peaches sizzled and split as the ship burned, as fire consumed what was made of sugar and what was made of wood, as masts toppled like limbs pruned from fruit trees, as men rolled across the deck like windfalls, bruised and scraped, and everything was reduced to carbon and loss." It seems almost every page of this slim book contains striking visual images captured in words. An appendix at the back of the book gives the facts surrounding the demise of the ships that inspired the poems. Each account is a single paragraph in length. 

Don't check this book out from a library, buy it. Once read, you are going to be drawn back again and again to these poems because you will want to re-experience the magic of an alchemist of words who can meld fact, imagination, history, and language into pure gold.
Harborless by Cindy Hunter Morgan. Wayne State University Press, 2017, $16.99, pb.

Brotherhood of Iron
by Frank P. Slaughter

This is the second installment of a projected trilogy that when completed will be one family’s generational story set against an authentic and richly detailed history of Michigan from the Civil War to the present. The first novel followed Will Castor from the Battle of Chickamauga, where he was wounded in body and mind, to the white pine rich wilds of northern Michigan. In the north woods, he worked his way up from a lumber camp roustabout to a timber cruiser. In his wanderings, Will made a small fortune by investing in remote tracks of white pine then selling the timber when narrow gauge railroads came to northern Michigan. There he also met and married a widowed school teacher with a young son named Robert.

The second book in the trilogy finds Robert as the patriarch of a large, important family in the UP mining town of Ishpeming during World War I.  Robert is superintendent of several iron mines in the area. Bill, his oldest son, has had a mysterious falling out with someone in the family and is working as a deckhand on a Great Lake freighter and knows intimately every sleazy, port-of-call saloon on the Lakes. Sons, Matt and Jake joined the Marines and face uncertain futures as the Fifth Marines rise from their trenches and attack Belleau Woods. Neither will emerge from the battle whole in body and mind. Jacob, the second oldest of the boys, is an accountant for the mines. Rosemarie is a young woman who was taken in by the family as a child when her father was killed in a mine accident and she was abandoned by her alcoholic mother.  Ruling the family abode with a near-iron fist is Robert's wife Elizabeth who’s constantly at war with herself trying to balance an inbred snobbishness and her loving, giving and forgiving side. She is outraged when she learns Rosemarie and Jacob are in love and plan to marry. And then there’s the young woman one of the sons meets in France.

The author has great command of his subject whether creating a dynamic family drama or writing of the Michigan experience. The characters are both complex, finely drawn, convincingly real, and the reader grows to care for them very much. When it comes to describing the life of a deckhand on a Great Lakes ore carrier, the horror, madness, and death Marines met and conquered in Belleau Woods, descending into an Ishpeming iron mine, or life in the UP iron range just past the turn of the century, it is conveyed with a you-are-there accuracy and immediacy.

Frank P. Slaughter does not rank with Hemingway, Faulkner, or Steinbeck, but he is an undiscovered Michigan treasure. His deeply involving, vividly written novels that follow the Castor clan as they live Michigan history are sterling examples of  Michigan historical fiction at its best.
Brotherhood of Iron by Frank P. Slaughter. Mission Point Press, 2016, $18.95

The Great Water: A Documentary History of Michigan
by Matthew R. Thick, the editor

Unlike most historical document compilations, this book’s editor didn’t limit or confine inclusions to government documents, court decisions, and official papers.  You will not find Michigan’s constitution, in any of its forms, nor a copy of the Northwest Ordinance here. For that matter, you will not even find an index.

Rather, this is a documentary history of the state collected from a wide and diverse cross-section of its inhabitants, from the pre-colonial period to the Flint Water Crisis. And if there is no index, the documents are arranged by subject matter into chapters. The extensive table of contents reveals chapters on Unions & Unionization, The Depression, Lumbering, Mining, the Civil Rights Movement, the Pioneer era, and many other subjects.

What makes this book special is the everyday experiences the editor has collected on these pages by those who’ve lived Michigan’s history. Of equal interest are the writings and recollections of famous luminaries of the state, I for one, can’t ever remember having read before. The book contains transcripts of the notes made by Father Marquette on his preparation to search for the great river said to lie west of the Great Lakes. Then there’s the eloquence of Sojourner Truth on women’s rights when she spoke on the subject in 1851. She said: “I have heard the bible and learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if women upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.”

The range of people and subjects recorded in this book is remarkable. A grocer from Flint tells of delivering food to the UAW Sit-Down Strikers, a woman remembers life in a lumber camp as a cook, Henry Ford explains why he instituted the $5-a-day wage, and a there’s a description of a 1930s Civilian Conservation Camp near Petoskey. Other documents recount the moment on September 18, 1844, when iron was discovered in the U.P., a mine inspector reports in 1906 on the causes of five mine fatalities, and there’s Clarence Darrow’s memorable closing argument in defense of a Black Detroiter who bought a home in a white neighborhood, and killed a white man when a mob attacked the Black family's new home.

This book is like a giant, artistic, installation of colorful mosaic tiles. Up close, the individual tiles tell brief stories of lawyers, miners, suffragettes, lumberjacks, autoworkers, and the farmers who had to kill their dairy herds in 1975 when fire retardant was accidentally added to their cows’ feed. But take a few steps back. From a distance, the tiles coalesce into a striking and illuminating diorama, in words, of Michigan’s history.
Great water: A Documentary History of Michigan edited by Matthew R. Thick. MSU Press, 2018, $26.95, pb.

The Lake Michigan Cottage Cookbook
by Amelia Levin

I began writing this review while the 1st batch of Cherry Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies, from a recipe the author adapted from the Town Hall Bakery in Jacksonport, Wisconsin, was in the oven. Oddly enough, the recipe omitted when to add the oatmeal to the batter. I think I figured it out and will tell you how the cookies turned out at the end of this review.

The recipes compiled in this attractive book, filled with mouth-watering photographs, are taken or adapted from wineries, eateries, orchards, dairies, and bakeries from around Lake Michigan. The recipes lean heavily on regional food traditions and locally sourced ingredients. It’s no surprise the book contains an abundance of cherry recipes because both Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and the Traverse City area are major cherry producers. There’s Cherry Streusel Muffins, Creamy Cherry Chicken Salad, Door County Cherry Pie, Cherry Barbecue Sauce, Old Mission Peninsula Waldorf Salad, and Smoked Whitefish Pate with Tart Cherry Jam just to name a few.

And speaking of whitefish, one of the best meals I’ve ever had was a boiled whitefish dinner. Chunks of whitefish, onion, potatoes and sometimes corn are all dumped into huge pots of boiling water at precise intervals. This takes place outside, before spectators who are about to become diners, with the pots set on a wood fire. Just before serving, kerosene is thrown on the fire and the pot boils over, taking any fish oil and fat with it. The boiled dinners are popular attractions in both the Door and Leelanau peninsulas, and obviously not something you can replicate in your own kitchen, until now. The author has reworked the fish boil into a recipe you can do at home. 

There are also two versions of UP pasties, and instead of the ubiquitous Mackinac Island Fudge, there’s a near fool-proof recipe for Mackinac Island Peanut Brittle. The author also includes thumbnail sketches, with photos, of the various eateries, farms, wineries, etc. from which the recipes have been drawn.  

This book is for everyone who wants to take home a part of their Lake Michigan vacation or travel experience, whether it’s Up North in Wisconsin or Michigan, or one of the charming little towns lining the great lake’s southern shore. It’s even for those who want to experience Lake Michigan’s regional food traditions and unique eateries from their own kitchens without leaving home. And by the way, the two Cherry Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies I consumed during the writing of this review were delicious.
The Lake Michigan Cottage Cookbook by Amelia Levin. Storey Publications, 2018, $19.95

As always, if you would like to purchase one of the reviewed books or any book, clicking on the cover of an above book will take you to Amazon where you can purchase the book below list price.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Post # 17

Quote of the day: "Lake Huron...where 40% of all lake ships come to die." Jack Parker. Shipwrecks of Lake Huron. 1986.


A Good Killing
by Allison Leotta

Like the author, the character Anna Curtis is a federal prosecutor in Washington D.C., and as the book opens Anna’s life is going to undergo a 180-degree change. She returns the engagement ring to her fiancĂ© because Anna stumbles across evidence he’s cheating on her, and she gets a disturbing call from an old friend in Michigan. The longtime friend of her younger sister tells Anna the town’s legendary high school football coach was found dead, murder is suspected, and Anna’s sister Jody is being questioned by police.

Anna drops everything and flies home to act as her sister’s defense attorney. It seems federal prosecutors can do this if the trial occurs in a state in which the federal prosecutor is not posted and the boss gives his consent. Anna is hardly back home before near-constant friction between the sisters heats up old grievances, and Jody draws a line in which she demands her sister cannot cross in defending her. The stress heightens when the police arrive at Jody’s house with a search warrant allowing them to cut sections out the carpet, knock holes in walls, and even remove bathroom fixtures as possible evidence. For the first time, Anna sees the gathering of evidence, the role of the prosecutor, and the horrible disruption in the life of an accused, who is supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty, as both unfair and intimidating.

The only bright spot amid all the legal work and the growing evidence against Jody is the old high school friend the caller sent to Metro Airport to pick up Anna. Cooper Bolden is an Afghan vet who lost a leg in Afghanistan. Being blown up in a Humvee has left him with PTSD and a dread of riding in enclosed vehicles. He picks up Anna at the airport on a motorcycle. He also invites the sisters to stay at his house when the police and their search warrant make Jody’s house unlivable. A born farmer, Cooper has homesteaded an urban farm within sight of Detroit’s RenCen. The ever-resourceful Cooper is quite attracted to Anna and volunteers to act as her assistant investigator.

It’s not long before Anna realizes that Jody has lied to her and is never going to tell the truth about what happened the night of Coach Fowler’s death. It leaves Anna with no clear-cut defense strategy unless she can unseal old court records which could reveal some of the town’s dirty secrets.

This is an expertly paced mystery, which captures the atmosphere of small-town Michigan sitting just over the horizon from Detroit’s decaying neighborhoods and its affluent suburbs. The author also does a fine job of portraying the every changing dynamics between sisters and how the steadily increasing stress affects their relationship. And as one should expect from a federal prosecutor, the trial scenes are well drawn and riveting. 

A Good Killing is guilty of possessing an addictive narrative filled with surprises that keep the reader’s nose pinned to the book until the final page. The only way to get through withdrawal after THE END is to score another Leotta title.

A Good Killing by Allison Leotta. Touchstone, 2016 pb., $15.99

Winter Heart
B. G. Bradley

I don’t know why, but often before beginning a book I thumb through it, read the blurb, the back cover, see if chapters have titles, and glance at a few pages. I guess it’s like kicking the tires of a car before you buy it. Admittedly, it’s as pointless as judging a book by its cover, but this time after a quick look through Winter Heart my first thought was this will never work.  I was wrong, utterly wrong. The poetry intermingled throughout the novel is essential to its success, the paragraphs and whole pages in italics with words here and there in bold type work, and the strange way in which chapters are sometimes separated into small, often only a paragraph in length, Parts 1, 2, 3, etc. does not interrupt the flow of the book. So I am publicly eating crow and praising the author for his creative approach to writing and formatting this very satisfying novel.

The book revolves around 60-year-old Ben O’Brian a retired university professor, poet, widow, curmudgeon, dog lover, member of an entertainingly odd family, and resident of the Upper Peninsula.  As the book opens Ben is at his camp (Yooperese for backwoods cottage) with his two Labrador Retrievers, Tom, and Huck. And as he often does, Ben is ruminating about life including; growing old, religion, his family, nature, dogs, and memories of his wife gone some fifteen years from cancer and still grievously missed.

Scattered throughout the book are poems by Ben and instead of interrupting the story they serve as windows into the character and even soul of Ben. And I love Bradley’s audacity as an author. He writes Ben’s poems and then creates a new character who reads the poems and praises the poetry and its author. At the point at which this happens in the book, readers will be so wrapped up in the story it will take a minute to recognize the author’s literary sleight of hand. 

The story is told in the first person by several characters and this reader wishes so many of them didn’t slip into inner dialogues with themselves. That's because Ben carries the book. By far, he is the most interesting character in the novel, and Bradley’s dialogue enlivens the book. It snaps, grackles, and pops while often being humorous and always sharp as filleting knife. The author’s sentences can be arresting. Thinking of his wife, Ben describes her in this glowing sentence: “My moonlight my rain.” Of Christians, Ben says, “Just shut up and sing. I’d like to tell so many supposed Christians that. They sound so much smarter when they sing.” Lastly, it would be remiss to neglect the author’s skills in describing both the human and natural landscape of the UP.

Oh, and the plot. Ben’s sister badgers Ben into accompanying her by rail to the West Coast where their older brother is to be married. Somewhere in Iowa Ben encounters 20 minutes or so of what seems like a miracle. It is a chance meeting and the brief encounter will change his life.

This is the first in the author’s Hunter Lake series. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next.
Winter Heart by B.G. Bradley. Benegamah Press, 2017 pb., $9.95

Torn in Two: The Sinking of the Daniel J. Morrel and One Man's Survival on the Open Sea
by Michael Schumacher

The 600-foot ore carrier Daniel J. Morrell went down in Lake Huron, off the tip of the Thumb, on November 29, 1966, in one of the all too common ship-killing storms unleashed on the Great Lakes in November. The November storms have become forever entwined with Great Lakes history and legend and so have the ships and men who met their end in those storms. It's been over 50 years since the Daniel J. Morrell was literally torn asunder by a horrific storm. Yet, to state the obvious, here is yet another account of the ship's demise and the miraculous survival of a single crewmember which will have to share shelf space with earlier accounts of the tragedy and the inevitable books still to come. Writers will never tire of describing and recounting the Great Lakes yin and yang -- their soul-stirring beauty and their horrific storms of which Melville wrote: "...they know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew."

The Daniel J. Morrell was built in 1906, and the hard-working, 42-year-old ore carrier, like other massive Great Lake carriers of her era, left every port of call with a stowaway aboard -- a fatal flaw in her very DNA. Schumacker's absorbing account of the Morrell's destruction and crewman Dennis Hale's incredible tale of survival may be the shortest book yet published on the tragedy. But he doesn't waste a word in this engrossing and full account of the sinking, which also includes transcripts of the Coast Guard's hearings into the Morrell's loss.

The Daniel J. Morrell had supposedly completed her last voyage of the season when engine problems in another ore carrier necessitated the old workhorse make another round trip to Taconite Harbor, Minnesota. Dennis Hale, a 26-year-old watchman on the Morrell, arrived at the Buffalo, NY harbor only to watch his boat leaving without him. He caught up with the Morrell in Windsor where it stopped to take on coal. Meanwhile, a huge storm was bearing down on the Great Lakes. The Morrell's sister ship, the Edward Y. Townsend was also northbound and the two ore carriers entered Lake Huron on November 28, just hours apart.

By nightfall, both boats were taking a terrible pounding as the full force of the storm swept into lower Lake Huron. Twenty-five to thirty-foot high waves at intervals of 250- to 300-feet assaulted the Morrell and two of the huge waves would often pass under the freighter at the same time which put enormous stress on the hull. Rivets popped, anchors slammed against housings, wires screamed in the wind and at times wind and waves came at the ore boat from two directions at once. It was becoming ever more difficult for the Morrell to maintain her course. What the Morrell's crew didn't know was that the steel used in the construction of ore carriers prior to 1948 was susceptible to becoming weakened and brittle after long exposure to cold temperatures.

Schumacher does a masterful job of recounting from what would have been the crew's point of view in experiencing the ore carrier literally being torn in half by the violence of the storm. The bow section, where Hale's quarters were located, sank first. The watchman went into the icy waters of Lake Huron wearing underpants, a life jacket, and a pea coat. Hale and three other crew members crawled aboard a life raft and watched in probable disbelief as the aft section of the Morrell, still under power, motored away. It plunged to the bottom of Lake Huron about an hour later.

The Morrell wasn't reported missing until the next day. Schumacher describes in riveting detail the thirty-six hours Hale spent on the raft. He and his companions were at the mercy of icy waves that threatened to hurl them into the lake, and high winds that left them feeling as if they were being burned. Hale watched his three companions die, and his survival was nothing short of miraculous.  Hale was left with both long-lasting medical problems and deep psychological wounds from his ordeal.

The author fully recounts the search and rescue operations following the sinking. The remains of the Morrell wasn't discovered until a decade after she went down. The book also reveals how the fatal flaw in the old steel almost sent Morrell's sister ship to the bottom in the same storm. It was also the probable cause of the Carl D. Bradley's destruction a decade earlier when that boat went down in another November storm with the loss of all but two crewmen.

Whether you've read about the fate of the Daniel J. Morrell before, or come to this legendary story for the first time, Schumacher's book is all but impossible to put down from page one.

Torn in Two by Michael Schumacher. University of Minnesota Press, 2016, $25.95

If you decide to purchase one of the above books clicking the mouse on the cover of the book will take you to Amazon where you can often buy it for less than the listed price.

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...