Saturday, September 15, 2018

Post # 28

Quote for the Day: "If any person, or persons, shall exhibit any puppet show, wire dancing, or tumbling, juggling or sleight of hand, within this territory, and shall ask or receive any pay in money, or other property for exhibiting the same, such a person, or persons, shall for every offense pay a fine of not less than ten nor exceeding twenty dollars." Michigan Territorial law, enacted on April 13, 1827.


The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts
by John U. Bacon

The author has been writing about sports in Michigan for three decades and his stories have appeared in a wide variety of newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Ann Arbor News, as well as Time, Sports Illustrated, and National Public Radio. The 40 stories collected here range from 1992 to 2018. They are touching, always interesting, exclusively focused on sports in our state, and sometimes funny. The book is not about winning or losing on the scoreboard but how sports reveal the true character of coaches, players, fans, and the way in which it changes lives.

There is no better example of the above than in his report entitled "Hoops the Potawatomi Way." The story introduces us to the Northern Lights Conference that is made up of five very small schools; Mackinac Island H.S., Grand Marais H. S., Paradise High, and the Hannahville Potawatomi Reservation school located some dozen miles west of Escanaba. The Hannahville students never played basketball until 1990 when they joined the league. In spite of a long winless record, the students developed a passion for the game and developed a fan base among the adults who took pride in a team that played for the love of the game. As a result students grades went up and so did the school's graduation rate. Drug use and drinking among students and adults went down. 

The book contains great profiles of Joe Lewis, Gordy Howe, Tom Izzo, Jim Abbott, Magic Johnson, and other iconic Michigan athletes and coaches.  The opening section of the book discusses kids and sports and contains a wonderful piece on how children need to invent and play games without adult supervision. Bacon recalls how his friends came up with the baloney game. At a friend's home, the guys would take slices of baloney and throw them at the ceiling in hopes they would stick. The winner was the boy whose slice of Oscar Meyer stuck there the longest. But if the boy didn't catch the falling slice of lunch meat with his mouth he was disqualified. The game went on for quite a while until the boy's mother figured out how the grease marks got on the ceiling.

The hardest hitting pieces are toward the end of the book and are in a section called "Money and Madness." One essay argues that Eastern Michigan University should drop out of Division 1 football explaining how most schools devote less than 1% of their general fund to the athletic dept. where at EMU 80% of the athletic budget comes from the university's general fund. The essays on how TV is ruining college football for those who attend games and how college sports has been overtaken by sheer greed are dire warnings about the fate of college sports.

Anyone opening this book will find great essays, great human interest stories, and an appreciation for the positive impact sports can have on individuals and the greater community.

The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts by John U. Bacon. University of Michigan Press, 2018, $24.95

Summer Rounds
by B. G. Bradley

It is always a pleasure to enter B. G. Bradley's literary world. It is peopled with unique and interesting characters facing pivotal moments in their lives. And if I can't, on the spur of the moment, head across Big Mac and soak up the UP's ambiance, limitless beauty, and enjoy its laid-back lifestyle I can pick up one of the author's books and let him take me there.

Summer Rounds, the second novel in a series about the folks of Hunter, Michigan chronicles an eventful and critical week in the life of Dale Sylvanus as told by himself. Dale is the town's handy-man, tow truck driver, alcoholic, and an ex-marine who can't erase the vivid memories of his tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a victim of his low self-esteem. Dale appeared briefly in Bradley's first novel and as the author explains in the forward, the ex-marine just refused to quietly go away after appearing in a few scenes. Dale became a near-constant presence in Bradley's mind, always wanting to talk and tell his story. So the author turned over control of his second novel to a fictional character who would not leave him alone.

Dale knows he has got to get his life together before it completely unravels. He just doesn't know if he's man enough to do it. Carrie, his wife has thrown him out of the house because he spends too much time with his drinking buddies. He's lost the respect of his teenage daughter and it breaks his heart that his youngest son aches to spend more time with him. Carrie and Dale's oldest son, born before the couple wed when they were sixteen-year-olds, left home years ago.  Dale suspects the boy hates him and they haven't spoken in years. He is surprised, delighted, and very nervous when he learns his oldest son is on his way home with a wife.

Readers will quickly understand how the author simply couldn't stop listening to Dale because neither can they, and Dale will stay in their minds long after they turn the book's last page. Dale is a likable guy. He's a better and a stronger person than he thinks and he has people who will do everything in their power to help him right his course through life. Even though she threw him out of their house Carrie lets Dale know she believes in him. So does the local Catholic priest who has been through hell and back and is there to set him on the not always straight and difficult path to sobriety and a renewed faith in himself. 

It is a very stressful week for Dale and he is constantly being tested and tempted. This reviewer is not going to reveal the challenges Dale must face and overcome in seven short days because I don't want to be a spoiler for future readers and I couldn't tell it as well as Dale does. By the end of the book, readers know Dale Slyvanus as well as they know their next-door neighbor and good friend of twenty years. They will also wish there was a real Hunter, Michigan to visit. The inhabitants have become good friends who will be missed until the next book in the series makes its way to publication. I look forward to having my ear bent by another character in Hunter who wants to tell their story, so get the lead out of your pencil Bradley and onto paper.

Summer Rounds by B. G. Bradley. Benegamah Press, 2018, $9.95

Ira's Farm: Growing Up On a Self-Sustaining Farm in the 1930's and 1940's
by Virginia Johnson

In 1929, just a 100 days before the stock market crashed and the Great Depression brought the country to its economic knees Virginia Johnson's father bought a 60-acre farm in Harlan, Michigan. Harlan has since fallen off the map making Mesick, some seven miles away, the next nearest town to the farm on which the author grew up. Virginia was born on the farm and in a simple and straightforward memoir takes the reader into a world few remember and even fewer can even imagine -- that of life on a self-sustaining Michigan farm in the Depression. 

In the first few years, the little income from the farm came from the sale of eggs and milk from five cows. The family worked the farm with a team of horses, a tractor wasn't purchased until after WW II. The house had no electricity or an indoor toilet until 1943, and it was heated by a "monstrous" iron, wood burning, potbellied stove that also served as a water heater, baking oven, cook stove, and a drier of mittens, dish towels, and anything else that might get wet in winter. Kerosene lamps lit the house and chamber pots resided under every bed so the family didn't have to walk to the outhouse in the middle of a northern Michigan winter night. The author's only comment on the outhouse was, "Using catalogs for bathroom tissue took the art of recycling way beyond necessary."

During the course of the year, the family ate what they raised. Potatoes were stored in a Michigan basement as were countless Mason jars filled with canned vegetables from the garden and fruit from their orchard, or what could be gathered from the wild. Butter and milk came from five milk cows, pigs were raised for meat.  It was ceaseless work from spring through fall and when Virginia's older brother went off to war in 1941 she became the number one farm hand.  If it was endless work, and there was more than a little worry as to whether they could make payments on the farm for the first few years, Virginia remembers the life as rewarding and filled with a high level of contentment.

This short and evocative memoir of life on a small Michigan farm between the wars is a valuable addition to a little known or written about era in Michigan history. I found it not only pleasant reading but filled with surprises. For instance, it wasn't until 1939 that the first piece of plastic found it's way into Virginia's home and it was in the form of a toothbrush. Or, that milkweed became important to the war effort when it was discovered milkweed pods could be used in floatation vests. Children across Michigan would take empty sacks into the fields, collect the pods, and get paid for the amount they bagged.

This is Michigan history as lived by its everyday citizens. It deserves consideration as a Michigan Notable Book, should be required reading in Michigan history classes and is even suitable for reading to upper elementary students who might wonder if life was even liveable without smartphones, the Internet, TV, and the social network, let alone indoor plumbing and electricity.
Ira's Farm: Growing up in a Self-Sustaining Farm in the 1930's and 1940's, by Virginia Johnson. Harlin village Press, 2018, $15.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Post # 27

Quote for the day. "(Detroit), where they stand in line for a glass of beer, ...where more dames wear slacks than in Hollywood,... and where everybody has two sawbucks to rub against each other. Detroit, the hottest town in America." Daily Variety. October 1943.

This post marks Michigan in Books second year in operation. In its first half-dozen posts, the blog might have gotten 50 page views a month. In the past quarter, page views have averaged over 600 a month. Thank you, readers.


Rosie: A Detroit Herstory
by Bailey Sisoy Isgro, Illustrated by Nicole Lapointe

This well-told story introduces young readers to one of the most remarkable and major social, cultural, and economic changes in American and women's history. The agent for change was World War II. When American men went to war in December of 1941 and the United States, by necessity, became the arsenal of democracy women flooded the workforce taking jobs previously considered not fit for, or simply undoable by women.

No where in America was the ground-shaking societal change more evident than in Detroit. The city's factories that put America on wheels turned from making cars to making weapons of war.  With the men from the factory filling the ranks of the military, women filled the vacant jobs on the assembly line. But instead of cars, the women were making Sherman Tanks, machine guns, ammunition, and airplanes. At the Willow Run Plant, the largest factory in the world, women assembly line workers built B-24 bombers. In the course of the war 8,600 bombers rolled out of the plant and in the last months of the war, a bomber was coming off the assembly line every minute. 

The author tells the story of Detroit's WWII female defense workers in a narrative verse accompanied by colorful illustrations that are full of energy, strong women, and the flavor of the times. The author explains how the hundreds of thousands of women workers got the nickname "Rosie the Riveter," their deep patriotism, and immense pride they took in doing a job once thought only men could do. The thousands of Rosie the Riveters made a huge contribution to the war effort and the book, written for 8- to 12-year-olds, is a fine overview of how women flooded the workplace during WW II, helped win the war, and changed American society. 

At the end of the war, most of the women lost their jobs to men returning from the war. Many women were glad to become homemakers once again but they returned home filled with a new confidence in themselves and their new found independence. As the author shows, some women didn't want to give up their jobs and decided on careers outside the home. That women, in significant numbers, are working today in factories and on assembly lines is traceable directly back to Rosie the Riveter.  

This book offers children valuable insights into a significant and often overlooked aspect of American history and how World War II changed forever women's place in society. The book also contains a glossary of terms from the era and a timeline of the war.

 Rosie: A Detroit Herstory by Bailey Sisoy Isgro, Illustrated by Nicole Lapoint. Wayne State University Press, 2018, $16.99.

The Russian Five: A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage.
by Keith Gave

Hockey fans will enjoy this fascinating book. Detroit Redwing fans will love it. The book will salve the wounds of Detroit's hockey fans suffering through the often painful rebuilding of a team that won three Stanley Cup's from 1997 to 2002 and two seasons ago ended a 25-year streak of making the playoffs.  

Keith Gave covered hockey for the Detroit Free Press for fifteen years and his insider's book tells the story of how Detroit made history by drafting Russian players and within a few years revolutionized North American hockey by putting five former Russian players on the ice as a unit and letting them play the game as they learned it in their homeland. In what reads like a good spy novel the author even played a part in the Wings acquisition of their first two Russian players. It is a book filled with both never-before-told stories and a vivid retelling of the familiar with new information added to the mix. 

In June of 1989 NHL draft, Detroit picked Russian Red Army hockey players Sergi Federov in the 4th round and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th. Within a few days of the draft, Jim Lites called Gave and set up a meeting. Lites knew that Gave had spent six years working as a Russian linguist for the National Security Agency and spoke fluent Russian. He asked Gave to fly to Finland where the Russian Red Army team was playing an exhibition game with the Finnish National Team. Lites wanted Gave to speak to Federov and Konstantinov, let them know they'd been drafted by the Wings, talk to them about Detroit, NHL salaries and signing bonuses, and a promise that the Wings stood ready to help them escape Russa. After some thought Gave agreed to go to Finland but decided to neither accept pay nor travel expenses from the Redwings. His price was exclusive first rights to the story.

Within a year Federov walked out of a hotel in western Canada, jumped into a car driven by Mr. Lites for a short ride to Mr. Ilitch's private jet which flew them to Detriot. Konstantinov was a captain of the Red Army team and an officer in the army. If he defected he could be charged with desertion and face the death penalty. A paid Russian agent for the Wings bribed six doctors to diagnose Konstantinov with inoperable brain cancer. He was allowed to resign his commission and permitted, with his family, to travel to America for advanced cancer treatment. Just stepping off a plane in Detroit miraculously cured his cancer and within days was skating with the Wings. The next year the Wings drafted Slava Koslov. Shortly after the draft, he was involved in a terrible automobile accident. Russian doctors were paid to declare he would never play hockey again. And he didn't -- until he arrived in Detroit.

When the Wings hired Scotty Bowman to coach the Wings he arranged trades for defenseman Slava Fetisov and center Igor Larionov. Bowman made the trade with the idea he would put the Russian five together as a unit. When he told the Russians they would play as a unit he also told them to play the game their way and they would receive no coaching from the staff.

The author does a great job of describing the Russian style of play and how the rest of the Wings held them in awe. Brendon Shanahan remembers players on the bench laughing in pure delight at the way the five played the game. The Russian Wings influenced the rest of the Wings to play a possession game instead of the dump and chase style of play. Eventually, they even helped change the way the league played the game.  

The author provides personal, up-close portraits of the five distinctly different personalities of the five Russians and makes clear their huge contribution to winning the Stanley Cup. The book is also a very good recapitulation of the run-up to the 1997 Stanley Cup, the horrendous injuries to Konstantinov and the team's Russian masseuse in an auto accident within a week of the cup victory. The tragedy made the team determined to win another cup for their injured teammates. And when they did win Lord Stanley's cup the following year, in Washington D.C., Capt. Steve Yzerman took the cup from the NHL commissioner, skated the length of the ice and placed it in the lap of wheelchair-bound Vladimir Konstantinov who had been wheeled onto the ice by Fetisov. Gave writes, "With Fetisov and Larionov on either side of the wheelchair and Yzerman skating shotgun, holding the Cup steady, the entire team skated a victory lap that had nothing to do with a sporting event and everything to do with the triumph of the human spirit." There wasn't a dry eye on the ice or among the thousands of Washington Capitol fans. Chris Draper said, "he experienced no finer moment in his career."

If you're a Redwings fan this is a must read. It's a literary hat-trick.
The Russian Five: A Story of Espionage, Defection, Bribery and Courage by Keith Gave. Goldstar Publishing, 2018, $24.99.

Death Lease
by Peter Marabel

As penance, I will not wipe the egg off my face until I've written this review. In this blog's last post I admitted to having a serious craving for mysteries set in Michigan and said something about how I actively search them out. Yet here is the fourth in a series of mysteries featuring a private detective who works out of Petoskey that I've never previously run across. Peeking around the humiliation of not having found this author years ago is the keen sense of anticipation in having the first three Michael Russo mysteries to enjoy.

Russo, a former downstate lawyer, operates a private detective business in Petoskey's Gaslight District. He isn't cut from the same cloth as the world-weary and often cynical private-eyes found in Estleman's, Chandler's, or Hammett's works, but that attitude would be pretty hard to maintain living in Petoskey with a view of Little Traverse Bay and having a beautiful and understanding woman deeply in love with you. What Russo does have in equal amounts to the above authors' famed hard-boiled detectives is doggedness in searching for the truth, loyalty to his client, and a loyalty to justice, even if it comes to administering their own kind of justice. 

I particularly liked this book because the plot hangs on a singular arrangement by which most cottage owners live on Mackinac Island and which I was unaware.  Most of Mackinac Island is state land and years ago wealthy families built and spent most of the summer on the island in their huge Victorian style cottages. But they did not and do not own the land their building sits on, They must rent that land from the state park and leases are renewed every thirty years. Obviously, many of the cottages and leases have stayed in the same families for generations.  

The Sanderson family built their cottage on the island's East Bluff in 1922. The latest leaseholder is Camille Sanderson. The cottage and the lease stayed in her name even after she married Conrad North who turned out to be a cruel and morally despicable husband. When Conrad filed for divorce from Camille she was shocked to learn her name had vanished from the lease and had been replaced by Conrad North's.  Camille's divorce lawyer sent her to Michael Russo in hopes he could discover how her client's name disappeared on the lease and was replaced by her estranged husband's. Camille is, of course, baffled, outraged, and fearful of losing the family summer home. 

Russo can't find a clue as to how the switch was made but apparently, his snooping is not welcome and a killer is soon stalking him. As Russo digs into the case and investigates how the state park handles and records a lease he hits one dead end after another. One of the dead ends is a murder in Mackinaw City that leaves Russo without a client. The author builds his plot slowly and realistically to a satisfying if not fully resolved conclusion with hints of a sequel. The author also brings Petoskey and the Straits area to life in all its flavor, sights, and sounds. The book could almost serve as a walking tour of Petoskey and Mackinac Island's commercial and tourist area surrounding the island's harbor. And if you are not familiar with some of the better restaurants in Petoskey you will be before the books final page.

The only fault I can find with the book is that Russo never made it to Jesperson's Restuarant in Petoskey and had a piece of their world-class Coconut cream pie. 

Death Lease by Peter Marabel. Kendall Sheepman Co., 2018, $15.95

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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...