Saturday, June 1, 2019

July 1, 2019 Post # 44

Inexplicably my blog decided this is the June 1 posting and will not allow me to change the date on the posting. 

Quote for the day: "Professional seamen treated (the upper Great Lakes) with the respect a lion tamer pays an excitable cat." William Ratigan. Straits of Mackinac. 1957.


Before the Snow Flies
by John Wemlinger

John Wemlinger's latest engrossing book is a deeply felt and emotionally honest novel that chronicles the life-altering ramifications faced by a Michigan Afghan war veteran who loses both legs to a roadside bomb. It seemed inevitable Major David Keller would eventually wear a general's star until the day he became a double amputee with a severe case of PTSD. It changed everything, including his will to live. He decided he would rather commit suicide than live in a wheelchair, but he has to convince his army psychiatrists he isn't serious about suicide before they will let him go home. He hides the fact he went to a gun show and bought a pistol and goes home in late spring with plans to end his life before the snow flies.

Compounding his readjustment to civilian life and the loss of both legs is the fact Keller left his hometown of Onekema, Michigan for West Point under a cloud. He never returned home or communicated with his father or brother (now the county DA) from the day he left 16 years ago. Onekema welcomes home their hometown boy as a hero but David returns filled with doubt, remorse, and unexpected emotional stress. He argued bitterly with his father, a Vietnam Vet, about joining the army and discovers his dad now suffers from dementia and may not even know him.  His high school sweetheart who he cut all contact with on leaving has suffered emotional and physical abuse from an unbalanced and violent ex-husband.

It is a long difficult road to recovery and an equally painful re-entry into his family and hometown society. Keller wants to put everything right with his family and ex-girlfriend before winter but life becomes even more complicated when he has a run-in with the law.

The author is a native of Onekema and a retired army colonel. He is adept at capturing the ambiance and closeness of small Michigan towns, his characters are well drawn, and the plot is hugely involving and at times will leave readers breathless with anticipation. Wemlinger is especially effective at portraying with honesty and compassion the psychological damage of life-changing wounds and suffering from PTSD. He makes Keller's struggle to overcome his wounds profoundly and emotionally realistic. You can not read this book and be unmoved. It deserves to be on any number of lists of Best Books of 2019.
Before the Snow Flies by John Wemlinger. Mission Point Press. 2019. $16.99

All Manner of Things
by Susie Finkbeiner

Regular readers of this blog know that I don't publish negative reviews. If I can't recommend a book it doesn't get reviewed and in all likelihood, I'll put the book aside without finishing it. As Gene Mierzejewski, the book editor of the Flint Journal liked to say, "life is too short to read a book you don't like."

I didn't give this book much of a chance for a positive review because I knew it fell within the genre of Christian fiction and the publisher states in part its mission is to, "serve the diverse interests of evangelical readers." To put this as politely as possible, I don't turn to fiction for religious renewal,  guidance, or inspiration. But the novel is set in Michigan and therefore deserved consideration. I cracked the cover and the author had me from the fourth page with a very funny observation on Michigan weather and the Almighty's self-congratulation on his creation. By page fifty I had become so totally involved with the book's characters and the dynamics of the Jacobson family and their story I sometimes lost the sense of reading a book.  Now that is real magic and the mark of a great storyteller. 

The novel is set in 1967-68 and chronicles the trials, tribulations, hope, and despair faced by the Jacobson's, a devoutly religious family of Dutch descent living in western Michigan. The story is told by the family's oldest daughter, Annie, who just graduated high school and is stuck in a dead-end job in a local diner and can't afford college. She has two brothers, Joel, the youngest, hardly knows his father because the man walked out on the family twelve years ago. Her older brother, Mike, enlists in the army and is sent to Vietnam as a medic. Frank, the father, is a Korean War Vet who apparently suffers from undiagnosed PTSD. He surprises everyone by suddenly and periodically returning home for short visits. Frank has to face the wrath of a wife left to support and raise a family and a young son who longs for a father. The older children don't know what to make of their dad's reappearance and are further bewildered when their mother isn't sure she wants a divorce. The tension can be palatable as the family deals with a father who may want back in the lives, Mike's constant brushes with death, and a grandfather in the grip of Alzheimer's who's reached the stage where he can't be taken care of at home.

The author has drawn a believable and moving portrait of an ordinary family close to being overwhelmed by large and small events, family tragedies, and the consequences of life-changing decisions. Yes, they often pray for guidance but if there are few clear answers or no apparent divine revelations the family must find the strength to face life's vicissitudes and deal with what the future holds. The author writes with honesty, realism, and compassion about a family that struggles to meet life's daunting hardships with hope, perseverance, and faith in family.

All Manner of Things by Susie Finkbeiner. Revell, 2019, $15.99.

The Perp Walk
by Jim Ray Daniels

This book of connected short stories is a wildly inventive collection of coming of age stories, brief but vividly recalled impressions, and fragments of memory that almost pass for old Kodak snapshots of growing up on the Warren, or "White" side, of 8 Mile Road in the late 1960s or 70s. The pieces range from lengthy, twenty pages plus stories that take place in a Detroit that no longer exists to less than two-page-long recollections of a place or incident. The stories are rich in detail, capture the mindset of the time and place, are often funny, and are delivered in prose that is sharp enough to inflict paper cuts.  The author clearly loves to play with words and cliches such as, "Beating around the bush beats diving into the bush and getting scratched up."  

The author is a singularly unique prose stylist. His longer stories are presented in brief scenes in which many could fit on a 3x5" index card with some as short as a sentence or two. The quickly shifting scenes have a cumulative effect and make the stories powerfully compelling and vivid. They also have the effect of making the reader suspect the scenes may be fragments of a life that have been broken into pieces like a decorative ceramic tile dropped on the floor and the author is attempting to fit the bits and pieces back into what he thinks is a sensible narrative order. The storytelling is compelling and is equally engaging because of the manner in which the story unfolds.

What really caught my attention was the author's one- to two-page word pictures or ruminations on remembered moments from youth. The short pieces range from a freeze-frame still of a 1960s Warren neighborhood to the sounds heard on 8 Mile Road. They read like literary jazz riffs by Coleman Hawkins or Miles Davis. Here a short excerpt from the latter piece. "Lips kiss cigarettes outside AA meetings at old  Sr. Mike's. Chopper bray. House-door: slam. Car-door: slam, Bar-door: slam. Alarm. Accident. Alarm. Gunshot. Don't pretend or imagine a backfire. Not here. Not now. Siren. Siren call. Folded in night's dark envelope. Flattened by fear/suspicion." I read and reread these compressed literary gems and found I liked to read them while listening to jazz.

Memorable, resonant, funny, provocative, reflective, and filled with literary pyrotechnics. What more could you ask for? More.

The Prep Walk by Jim Ray Daniels. Michigan State University Press, 2019, $24.95 pb.

A History Lover's Guide to Detroit
by Karin Risko

The author, a native Detroiter and the owner and operator of City Tour of Detroit certainly has the credentials to write a guide to historic Detroit. The book serves as a literary, do it yourself, Grayline Tour of the main historical attractions from magnificent commercial buildings that are architectural works of art, to parks, stadiums, theatres, public buildings, and houses of worship within the Greater Downtown area. 

The book opens with a very brief history of the city and a briefer list of Detroit firsts which include the Lindell A.C. the country's first sports bar, and the nation's first mile of concrete highway.  Then it is on to the historic sites, beginning with the Renaissance Center/Millender Center People Mover Stations and ending with Elmwood Cemetery some 160 odd pages later. Each site receives from a long paragraph to a couple of pages packed with interesting, important, and odd historical facts and tidbits. I discovered the Mariner's Church was founded in 1842 and is an autonomous Anglican Church that is not connected to any diocese and is the only church in Michigan incorporated by an act of the state legislature. Even more surprising is the fact that Carhartt Clothing Company originated in Detroit in 1889. The factory is no longer standing and the making of its clothing has moved out of state but the corporate headquarters is in Dearborn.

The pages of the book are splashed with maps and historical photographs. In addition to the historical sites, the author sprinkles the book with lists of Detroit firsts, major industries in Detroit other than automobiles, and odd facts such as Detroiters eat several more pounds of potato chips per capita annually than any other city in the nation. The book is authoritative and fairly exhaustive when it comes to the coverage of Detroit's obvious historical treasures and institutions. Though I would have liked to have seen hours of operation and entrance fees, if any, for each site.

The only serious fault I find with the book is some glaringly obvious omissions. Neither Hudson's Department Store nor Stroh's Brewery makes it into the book and except for Baker's Keyboard Lounge, historic bars and eateries are completely omitted. History lovers would take delight in being introduced to Abick's Bar. It is the longest family operated bar in Detroit and was founded in 1907. Recent remodeling uncovered prohibition-era bottles and two huge whiskey barrels that predate 1920. And then there's Tommy's Detroit Bar and Grill that has been serving thirsty Detroiters since the 1840s. Wayne State University Archaeology department worked a summer carefully excavating the bar's basement and discovered an underground tunnel used to smuggle liquor from the Detroit River during Prohibition and it is believed the bar was used as a waystation on the Underground Railroad. During the 1920s it was a reputed hangout of the notorious Purple Gang.

That said the book serves as a very good introduction to and a self-guided tour of nearly all of Detroit's most significant historical sites in the Auto City's greater downtown area.

A History Lover's Guide to Detroit by Karin Risko. History Press, 2018, $21.99.

Any of the books reviewed in this blog may be purchased by clicking your mouse on the book's cover which will take you to Amazon where you can usually purchase the book at a discount. By using this blog as a portal to Amazon and purchasing any product helps support Michigan in Books.

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