Saturday, February 1, 2020

February 1, 2020 Post #51

Quote for the Day: "(During the 1880s) the only toiletries north of Saginaw were mustache wax and alkali soap." Russell McKee. Audubon Magazine. March 1988.


Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises
by Jodie Adams Kirshner

I can't remember a book that made me as mad as this very readable and incisive examination of the profound effect Detroit's bankruptcy, engineered by one of Governor Snyder's appointed city managers, had on the common people of the Motor City. The author closely follows seven Detroiters over the course of the bankruptcy and details how it impacted their lives. The book left me angry and distressed as it recorded yet another shining example of how the poor are so often ignored while the wealthy get richer.

The author clearly demonstrates that the City of  Detroit was broke a few years ago, as in no money, and broke as in not working, busted, or wrecked. Or at least broke and inoperable if you were a poor resident of the city but not if you were rich, a predatory developer, or a millionaire businessman given millions in tax breaks and concessions.  The author follows one family living in a barely inhabitable house a developer bought then sold the near-derelict house to a family on a strange land contract which states if the family misses one payment they lose the house. And evidently, the land contract didn't go through a title company because it didn't show any leans on the property. So the owner was surprised to find a foreclosure notice on his front door that said if back taxes, from two years before he owned the house, weren't paid he would lose it. He was urged to borrow money to pay off the couple of thousand dollars in back taxes. In the strange world of Detroit, when a house is foreclosed the city sells it at an auction, often for as little as $500 which the city pockets. Why not pay off the back taxes? Because the interest on paying off back taxes is 19% -- the highest interest charged in the country. And oh! No one in the city, state, or federal government told the family that if they were living below the federal poverty level the taxes could be waved. The author argues that bankruptcy might have been good for the municipality of Detroit but not for its poorer residents.

While the family struggled to find a way to keep their home the Ilitches received nearly a billion dollars in Detroit tax money to build a new hockey arena. They promised to hire Detroiters for half of the expected 5,000 jobs the project would generate. It never happened. Quicken Loans pocketed $50 million in tax incentives for moving downtown. Better yet, a city refinery got a $175 million tax break for expanding their plant. The new construction created 15 new jobs. One can only wonder how long it will take those 15 new employees paying Detroit city taxes before they can match the $175 million tax break?

It seems every other page jolts the reader with surprising and disturbing information. Such as the fact that many wanted the governor's appointed city managers to possess the power to suspend local democracy, tear up union contracts, and run every aspect of governing a city. Or the fact that at one point Detroit did not have any qualified assessors. The city turned to fines and fees as a regular source of income which mostly fell on the poor, not the wealthy. And lastly, a piece of information that still disturbs me. In Detroit, the life expectancy fell below that of Russia and even North Korea. YES, NORTH KOREA. That must be a real point of pride for Michigan's governor and legislature.

This is a disturbing and important book that deserves wide readership by anyone concerned about the welfare of our state and the state of our democracy.

Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises by Jodie Adams Kirshner. St. Martin's Press, 2019, $28.99.

Stormy Outside: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Forester and His Dog
by Mark Stormzand

As long as he could remember, the author wanted to be outside and work outside. To reach this goal he got a degree in forestry from MSU and with wife and later children in tow he worked in forests from Idaho to New England before settling down with his family on a farm in northern Michigan.  

Stormzand has lived a busy, rewarding life as both a forester and a family man and this book of exceptionally well-written biographical essays records his many adventures in the woods, wilderness, and on the domestic front. The great majority of the essays are set in Michigan and contain plenty of humor, charm, close observations of the natural world, and wise commentary on life and living. Essays vary from the pleasure found in building a stone wall to the charm and drawbacks of heating with wood, why clear-cutting is sometimes good for both the forest and wildlife, why he likes the month of March, to a malady he calls "latitude sickness" in which symptoms include grumpiness, a hair-trigger temper, and fidgeting all of which appear when forced to travel below he 45th Parallel.

The author's thoughts and observations on aging hit pretty close to home for this 70+-year-old reviewer. He writes, "I (like many men) still think I am eighteen. I will probably still be thinking I'm eighteen while getting my Last Rights." He recalls that as a kid he and his brothers loved to watch WW II movies. "One of our favorites was "Up Periscope." But not anymore. The term has new meaning since I turned fifty. Who thought up that test?" At the end of the essay, he determines, "Not acting my age is a good thing."

These are wonderful essays even when he writes of his wife Gail's death from breast cancer. Readers will smile on nearly every page when he describes the antics of the long line of Golden Retrievers who were his constant companions both at home and in the field. And you may shed a tear when Stormzand describes how their Golden Retriever, Dusty, was always at his wife's bedside during her final weeks. And after her passing  Dusty instinctively knew when the author was at his lowest and, "would appear out of nowhere and nuzzle my hand with her nose. Absolutely amazing."

You will not find a more entertaining, deeply felt, and life re-affirming book of essays this year or next. It deserved to be counted among this year's Michigan Notable Book List.

Stormy Outside: the Adventures and Misadventures of a Forester and His Dog by Mark Stormzand. Mission Point Press, 2019, $16.95.

Heaven for Me: Selected Lyrics and Scores by Jay Stielstra
edited by Nada Rakic and Barbara Schmid

I can't read music or carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, and folk music never cracked the top ten of my favorite musical genres. Yet the editor of this book, in a great leap of faith, sent a review copy to me and I'm so glad he did.

I had never heard of Jay Stielstra and that is my loss as well as anyone else who never crossed paths with the man's music. Stielstra's lyrics are memorable, funny, provocative, plain-spoken, poetic and don't have to be set to music to be deeply appreciated or move the reader. Whether the subject is social justice, the passing of the years, the passing of a friend or loved one, the Great Lakes, or his love affair with northern Michigan they will strike a chord with the reader. 

But why should I try to convince you of Stielstra's often heartstopping lyrics when just a few examples of his magic with lyrics is much more effective. Here are a few stanzas from some of my favorite songs or poems found herein. 

from The Lake
"She's pretty as a woman and big as the sky
Angry as God in a churchgoer's eye
She'll float a boat 'til it's nearly home
Then let it sink like a granite stone"

from Heaven for Me
"So hand me down my fly rod and hand me down my gun
Dress me in my waders when my days on earth are done
Dump me in some corner in northern Michigan
Wrap my stiffened fingers 'round a Pabst Blue Ribbon can"

from Far Side of the Bed
"I'm not quite the man I was a while ago
The last two three years I been moving kinda slow
Then she slipped away, with no warning she was gone
Like the evening star with the coming of the dawn

And the far side of the bed is as cold as a stone
I just can't get used to sleeping alone" 

Stielstra wrote more than 150 songs and the editors and his wife have chosen 52 for inclusion in this book. The lyrics and score are complemented by photographs and the book contains a very short biography, several testimonials by other artists, and a discography. If you want more than the small appetizer of the above lyrics buy this book.

I can't pass up two stanzas from a song entitled "I'm Singing" which is one of my favorites in the book and I nominate for Michigan's state's anthem.  

"I love those April mornings when spring is finally here
And evenings late in June filled with mayflies and beer
How I love October with leaves of polished brass
And even January with the snow up to my ass

I'm singing, I'm singing 'bout this old State of mine
Closest thing to heaven that I will ever find
Her Great Lakes and her rivers are flowing sweet as wine
And an old empty beer can can buy a man a dime"

Heaven for Me: Selected Lyrics and Scores by Jay Sielstra edited by Nada Rakic and Barbara Schmid. Nada Rakic Publisher, 2019, $30

Any of the books reviewed in his 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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April 1, 2020 Post # 53

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