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.

Post # 43

Quote for the day:  "Michigan has put the world on automobile wheels, (but) Michigan novelists are still jogging along in one-hoss shays." Arnold Mulder. Saturday Review of Literature. March 4, 1939."

A brief rebuttal. Jim Harrison, John Smolins, Robert Traver, Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, Bruce Catton, Edmund Love, Iola Fuller, and Ernest Hemingway. Those are the authors this 70-some-year-old with a failing memory could think of within a couple minutes. Most, but certainly not all of the aforementioned admittedly blossomed into writers after 1939.


Empty Promises: A Seamus McCree Novel
by James M. Jackson

Seamus McCree is in serious trouble again and that is always good news and good reading. Seamus is a financial analyst who specializes in busting big time crooks by untangling their financial records. Invariably in a Seamus McRee mystery, of which this is the sixth, things never go as planned and the man finds himself up to his receding hairline in mortally serious trouble.

In this latest outing, Seamus has talked his girlfriend, a professional bodyguard, into letting him guard a witness by taking the man to his remote cabin in the UP's Iron County until he is due in court. That should be simple enough but the first time Sheamus goes to town and leaves his charge behind in the cabin he returns to an empty cabin. Outraged at his unprofessionalism, his girlfriend dumps him. It appears an assassin is on the trail of the man he was guarding and may decide to take out Seamus as well. Then there's the murdered body Seamus finds in the woods while searching for the witness he is supposed to be guarding, and the old human bone his Golden Retriever granddog proudly finds not far from the site where Seamus stumbles across the body. If that isn't enough trouble, Seamus is also withholding evidence from the sheriff of Iron County.

Seamus knows if he can't find his witness and unravel the mystery of two murders, that apparently occurred twenty-years apart, he'll land either in jail or six feet under. The pace is furious, the narrative is relentless, and contains more hairpin twists and turns than the Brockway Mountain Drive in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Seamus is a well-drawn main character but the author is equally adept at creating believable, always interesting, and singularly original UP  characters. Jackson captures the enchantment and rugged wilderness of the western UP and makes this reader and probably many others wish they could simply finish the book and head for Big Mac. 

As always, another thoroughly enjoyable mystery from a very dependable writer, and that's no empty promise.

Empty Promises by James M. Jackson. Wolf's Echo Press, 2018, $14.95 pb.

Welcome to Republica Dodge
by Natalie Ruth Joynton

This wise, fresh, and honest memoir asks if a young woman, from Houston, Texas who likes big cities, was raised a Methodist and converted to the Jewish faith, can find happiness and fulfillment living in a wood-heated old farmhouse some fifteen miles from Ludington, outside internet service range, a hundred miles from the nearest synagogue, and married to an atheist. To top off the author's northern Michigan other-world experience the house's previous owner built a replica of 1880s Dodge City when it was a lawless cowtown in the farm house's front yard. She also mistook deer blinds for outhouses and wondered why residents built them so far from the house.

The author felt totally out of place and "at odds with the Michigan countryside," and found the slowness of rural life hard to get used to. The reason for the move to the Ludington area was that both the author and her fiance landed teaching jobs with the local community college. They bought the house before they were married and her husband-to-be was fine with being married by a rabbi but the author finds it nearly impossible to locate a rabbi from Michigan or the surrounding states willing to marry them. It seems many rabbi's refuse to marry interfaith couples.

This intelligent and engaging memoir is a meditation on home, religion, family, and being culturally adrift. The author explores her doubts about Christianity, which began in childhood, her eventual conversion to the Jewish faith, and how hard it is to practice her faith without a synagogue or even meeting a fellow Jew in Ludington. It's interesting to view Michigan, especially rural Michigan, through the eyes of a young, life-long, urban Southerner. She slowly comes to terms with Michigan winters and beginnings to look at rural Ludington as home, for at least the near future. And she finds a rabbi that will marry them in their barn. The local, small German religious sect loans the couple their tables for the wedding and in return asked to be invited to the wedding because they have never seen a Jewish marriage ceremony.

From the first page to last the book is enjoyable, informative, and a view of rural Michigan from a new and definitely different perspective. In five years I would like to read where life has taken Natalie Ruth Joynton. Does she still live in Michigan and has she continued to adapt to the state? How difficult is it to raise Jewish children in an area that has no Jewish community, and if she's moved out of state how does she reflect on her Michigan experience? The book is well worth your time and may well have you reflecting on your journey through life.

Welcome to Replica Dodge, A Memoir by Natalie Ruth Joynton. Wayne State University Press, 2019, $18.99.

Michigan's Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of  Mrs. Mary McKnight
by Tobin T. Buhk

Death followed Mary McNight around like a rabid puppy. She was eventually convicted of killing her brother, sister-in-law, and their baby with Strychnine poison and is believed to have killed at least eleven others via poisoning including her two husbands. This succinct, readable, and absorbing book detailing the case of one of the earliest, if not first, Michigan serial killer is notable because the killer was a woman, the crimes took place in northern Michigan, and the earmarks of death by Strychnine  are so singular and horrendous it's hard to believe doctors kept filling out the death certificates of Mrs. McNights' victims miss-identifying the cause of death.

A victim of Strychnine poisoning has violent convulsions, foams at the mouth, their body twitches spasmodically, clenched fists turn white from the force of the grip, and the hands are suddenly snapped up toward the chest. Most significantly the back begins to arch and reaches the point where only the victim's heels and top of their head touch the bed. The grotesquely arched spine remains bowed even after death. When a Kalkaska doctor and the county D.A. became suspicious over McNight's brother's death they exhumed the body, removed the stomach, and send it downstate for analysis the corpse was still strung like a bow. When huge amounts of poison were found in her brother's stomach the corpses of his wife a baby were exhumed with similar results.

The murders and resulting trial made national news and were covered by nearly every paper in Michigan. The author gives a detailed account of the trial which was moved to Cadillac. The cost of the trial doubled Kalkaska County residents taxes. The only real mystery not settled in the book was Mary McNight's motive for taking so many lives. The author devotes the last chapter of the book to examine seven possible motives for McNights' murders and can't arrive at a conclusion. Mary McNight was found guilty of killing her brother. She served 18 years in the Detroit House of Correction and was paroled in June 1920.

The author has done a fine job of illuminating and recounting a little known but extraordinary chapter of Michigan history. A thorough bibliography, extensive photos, illustrations, and detailed footnotes compliment the narrative. 
Michigan's Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary McNight by Tobin T. Buhk. History Press, 2014, $19.99

All 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.



Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Post # 42

Quote for the day: "The U.P. is small-town America, everywhere. It's the speed we move at -- slow. It's circa 1950 up here. It's like you pass through an invisible barrier when you get over the bridge."
Jim Declaire, a resident of Ishpeming. Detroit Free Press. July 25, 1993.


by John Smolens

A new novel by John Smolens, the director of Northern Michigan University's Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, is always welcome news. On opening Out, I was surprised to find it a sequel to the novel Cold which was published in 2001. I had not cracked the spine of the earlier book and had no idea if a prospective reader would get more pleasure out of Out or simply plug themselves into the new novel faster after a Cold read.  To find the answer I first read the book that sparked the sequel and I'm very glad I did. 

Each book stands alone although both have somewhat similar plot lines, are compulsively readable, and perfectly capture the experience of being caught in a life-threatening Upper Peninsula blizzard. And after reading Cold it seems pretty obvious why Smolens was drawn to writing a sequel -- he simply had to revisit the compelling, and singular character that dominates both books, Del Maki, the sheriff of Yellow Dog Township.

In Cold, an inmate walks away from a state prison work gang during a heavy snowstorm and stumbles across the remote farmhouse of a widow who, with a gun in hand, gives the escapee shelter from the storm. When she tries to march him to the nearest working phone he escapes. Norman, the escapee, heads toward home to a brother who helped send him to prison, the woman he loved and betrayed him, and a dysfunctional, twisted family that holds secrets that may set him free or kill him. On his trail is Sheriff Del Maki who ends up snowbound in a UP camp with Norman, his dangerous and dysfunctional family including his lover turned betrayer and the brother who engineered his downfall. A lethal blizzard howls outside, and inside the situation comes to the boiling point as Maki tries to figure out who is guilty of what, if anyone can be trusted, and how to get out of the camp alive.

Out reconnects with Del Maki almost 20 years after the events described in Cold. The book opens with Del at his isolated, almost off the grid home recovering from hip surgery and still grieving over the death of his wife. A blizzard is threatening to envelop the UP but that doesn't stop an imminently expectant mother-to-be physical therapist driving out to his isolated home for his regularly scheduled post-surgery session. The therapist's two lovers have already spilled blood over who is the father of the coming baby follow her to Maki's house to settle the issue. They are joined by a stranded motorist seeking shelter from the life-threatening storm. It quickly becomes apparent that the situation in the house could be more dangerous than the storm and Del quickly realizes it's likely not everybody is going to make it out of his house alive.

Both books should come with a warning printed in bold letters across their covers, Warning: Crack this book, read the first page and your life will not be your own until you've reached The End. Smolen's books are relentlessly readable. He is a master at creating believable plots with menacing but full rounded characters and he expertly calibrates tension and suspense in small increments until readers find themselves as helpless as a fly caught in a spider web. If I haven't talked you into reading either book as yet, Del Maki is a memorable character who will stay with the reader long after the two books are finished and no one is better at capturing the rugged, beautiful, and often dangerous essence of the land and people found north of Big Mac. Lastly a disclaimer. When it comes to John Smolens I'm no longer a critic or book reviewer, I'm a fan. Pick up one of these books and he will knock you Out Cold.

Out by John Smolens. Michigan State University Press, 2019, $26.95
Cold by John Smolens. Three Rivers Press, 2001, $12 pb

Michigan POW Camps in World War II
by Gregory D. Sumner

While riding in a taxi twenty some years ago in Germany the cabbie turned to me and said in near perfect English that one of the best days of his life was when he became a POW shortly after D-Day. He was shipped to the United States and spend the rest of the war working on a farm in upstate New York.  He held the United States and Americans in the highest regard because of the fairness and kindness with which he was treated. That brief exchange in a Mercedes on a German autobahn came immediately to mind when I picked up Sumner's book. It is a short but very informative history of WW II POW's in Michigan and I'm pleased to report that most of the 6,000 plus German and Italian prisoners of war held in Michigan echoed the sentiments of the German cabbie.

By 1943 with the collapse of the German army in North Africa and the invasion of Sicily the Allies had to deal with hundreds of thousands of prisoners. The Geneva Conventions allowed prisoners to work as long as it didn't contribute to the war effort and on the homefront, the U.S. workforce faced critical shortages. By war's end, more than 400,000 POWs were shipped to the States and put to work. In Michigan the POWs picked fruit on the west side of the state, harvested sugar beets and navy beans in the Thumb, turned lumberjacks in the Upper Peninsula, picked celery near Kalamazoo, and at one time more than 500 worked for Gerber Baby Foods.

Fort Custer was the largest permanent POW camp and many temporary camps were set up on county fairgrounds, and former Civilian Conservation Corp camps where the prisoners lived while harvesting various local crops. The Owosso Motor Speedway was converted into a POW camp and was featured in a Time Magazine article. Prisoners housed in Detroit's Fort Wayne maintained the city's public parks and open spaces. Hardcore Nazi's and troublemakers were often isolated in special POW camps out of state.

Before POW workers arrived in an area the public was warned not to fraternize with the prisoners but that proved impossible to enforce.  It was often the case that a dozen or more POWs were assigned to work on large family farms and for a few days a guard or two would accompany the prisoners to the farm then after a week or so the guards just disappeared. The prisoners came to respect their employers and often ate with the families when the woman of the house saw the poor quality of the lunches supplied to the POWs by the camp cooks. Many prisoners on returning home after the war wrote letters to the families they worked for thanking them for their many kindnesses. One woman remembering her childhood thought of the POWs on her farm as her brothers.

The book is filled with surprising details and lots anecdotal material and stories that bring this all but forgotten aspect of WW II on the homefront back to life. The book is filled with photographs that enhance the narrative and a bibliography provides avenues for further reading on the subject. My only quibble with the book is that the author on several occasions uses John Smolens' novel Wolf's Mouth as a source for describing life in a UP POW camp. Sumners even uses quotes from a fictional character in the fictional camp as an example of work and living conditions in a typical POW camp. That aside, this book is a very readable, informative, and even an entertaining look at the surprising importance of POWs to Michigan's labor force during WW II and why prisoners of war returned to their homes in Germany and Italy with such positive feelings for America and her people.

Michigan POW Camps in World War II by Gregory D. Sumner. History Press, 2018, $21.99.

U.P. Reader: Bringing Upper Michigan Literature to the World -- Issue  #2
U.P. Reader: Bringing Upper Michigan Literature to the World -- Issue #3
Mikel B. Classen, editor.

When I started this blog 18 months ago I would only have needed one hand to count the U.P. authors whose books I'd read or was even vaguely aware of. Today I would need all my fingers and toes to do the same. The richness of talent and the wide variety of literary styles and offerings from U.P. authors has been one of my greatest rewards for creating Michigan in Books. If you are looking for a sampling of what Upper Peninsula authors have to offer, for three years the annual U.P. Reader has served up a very appealing smorgasbord of short stories, memoirs, history, travel, poetry, humor, and adventure.

Especially appealing to this reader are the travel guides to and the histories of a variety of UP attractions and places, and the irrepressible humor that flows from so many essays and stories. Maybe the best example is an essay entitled "The Yooper Loop" that describes "a monstrosity of tangled highway" where US 41 and M-26 meet at the Portage Canal Lift Bridge in Houghton, Michigan. The author claims, "Police have been known to request a mental health leave of absence after trying to conduct an accident scene investigation at the Yooper Loop." But before detailing a traffic intersection, "that defies logic" the author guides the reader through the contentious and often funny arguments among Yoopers as to what makes a Yooper a Yooper.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Larry Buege offers two stories about the UP's little known seldom seen, and most certainly an apocryphal creature, the Amorous Spotted Slug often referred to as the A.S.S. The author claims the slug never made it on Noah's Ark and migrated to the UP from the Amazon forest via floating coconut shells. The group "Slug Lovers In Michigan Empowered," S.L.I.M.E. for short, are working to make it the state slug and have formed Slug Nonbelievers Outreach Teams (S.N.O.T.) to canvas the state promoting the A.S.S.

Funny, wise, or speculative, the essays, memoirs, and poems found in the pages of these profusely illustrated annuals are windows to the history, soul, and spirit of both the exceptional land and people found in Michigan's remarkable U.P. Two of the pieces found in the first issue were nominated for Pushcart's "Best of the Small Press" award and the second issue was or is under consideration for inclusion in the Michigan Notable Books. The state motto when translated into English reads, "If you seek a beautiful peninsula look around you." I would add, "If you seek some great writing about the northernmost of the state's two peninsulas look around for copies of the U.P. Reader.

U. P. Reader issue #2 edited by Mikel B. Classen. Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association (UPPAA), 2018, $15.95 pb.
U.P. Reader issue #3 edited by Mikel B. Classen. UPPAA, 2019, $14.95 pb.

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.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Post # 41

Quote for the Day: "Water, the first element of life, shapes us all; in Michigan it is so ever-present that Michiganians forget its significance. Michiganians seem to have an almost mystical feeling about water and the north woods -- that dark, mysterious, wonderful land that lies north of Clare."  Martha Bigelow. "Michigan: A State in the Vanguard," in Heartland by James Madison. 1988.

Dear Readers,

Eighteen months ago I would not have believed a blog that was posted every two weeks could or would slowly come to dominate this blogger's life. In order to reclaim some independence from Michigan in Books, allow me to read a few books by my favorite non-Michigan authors, and pursue an entirely unexpected interest in and a modicum of talent for creating what passes for art, this blog will be posted once a month starting with this post. Thank you to all the readers of this blog which has grown to over 600 a month. I deeply appreciate your continued and growing support and sincerely hope that publishing Michigan in Books once a month does not discourage your readership or interest.

Tom Powers


The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers 
by Bridgett M. Davis

If this well over-the-hill, retired, white (except for the age spots), old suburbanite had the slightest idea where one could put down a buck with a Numbers runner I'd play 308.  That is the number of pages in this remarkable, eye-opening, and thoroughly engaging story of the author's mother who raised five children, managed the household, and for 34 years ran a Numbers operation out of her home. She was one of only two women to ever operate a Numbers business in Detroit.

Fannie Davis and her husband moved from Nashville to Detroit in the 1950s with the hopes the author's father could get a good paying job on the assembly line. But like many African Americans who moved North in hopes of fair and gainful employment, he got the worst paying job in the plant and spent more time laid off than working. So Fannie decided she must join the workforce and help support the family. Proud and independent she refused to be a cleaning maid for white folks or get a job on the lowest rung of the assembly line. She wanted to run her own business and serve a Black clientele. So she borrowed $100 from a relative and started her own Numbers running operation.

The author is Fannie Davis' youngest child and this unique book succeeds on three levels. It is a moving tribute to her mother, presents an intimate and fascinating account of how the Numbers game operates and has become a veritable institution within Black urban culture, and lastly, what it was like to grow up in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s. Mrs. Davis comes across as outspoken, sharp-tongued, a very astute businesswoman, very generous, and a great mother who always put her family first. She was a keen observer of society. When vacationing in Florida and watching people of my complexion slather on the tanning oil and becoming human rotisseries in the broiling sun she commented, "They want everything we got but the burden."

The business of running a Numbers operation is especially interesting. From age five the author knew, without being told, she could never talk about her mother's business outside of the family. The career was highly stressful not only for Fannie but the entire family. There was always the threat of arrest, being robbed, and of most concern having too many customers pick the same winning number. When a $5 bet can return $5,000 in winnings it doesn't take but half-a-dozen $5 winners to oblige Mrs. Davis to pay out $30,000 and potentially wipe her out. Miss one pay off and a Number operator is out of business. How she ran her business, made enough to buy a new home, drive the best cars, put her children through college, shop at the best stores, and always maintain an edge against a huge payout makes for fascinating reading. The author's mother even figured out how to make the newly introduced state daily lottery an asset for her business.

This book is obviously a loving tribute to her mother even as it details and reveals an endlessly interesting subculture of Black urban America.  And on a deep down personal level, although we come from worlds that are separated geographically by roughly seventy miles but are culturally light years apart I would have been delighted and honored to have met and known Mrs. Fannie Davis. What a woman, what a story.

The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridgett M. Davis. Little, Brown and Company, 2019, $28.

The 22nd Michigan Infantry and the Road to Chickamauga
byJohn Cohassey

On Horseshoe Ridge's Hill #3 in the Chickamauga Battlefield stands a monument to men of the 22nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment who marched into their initial baptism of battle on September 20, 1863, and sacrificed themselves to help save the Union Army. Five hundred eighty-four officers and men of the 22nd from Oakland, Livingston, Macomb, St. Clair, Lapeer, and Sanilac counties entered the battle. A day later 70 men and a few commissioned officers were present for duty. 

The history of the regiment from formation and training in Pontiac to its near destruction on the field of battle in protecting a flank of the Union Army from envelopment is recounted in this well researched but altogether too brief account.  But if a reader or Civil War buff wants to learn of the incredible bravery and sacrifice of this little known and lamentably unheralded regiment, as well as a generally ignored chapter of Michigan in the Civil War there is nowhere else to turn but this book.

There was apparently no regimental history written of the 22nd Michigan by a Civil War veteran or member of the 22nd Michigan and the only history of the regiment, if it can be called that, was written more than a decade ago and went out of print so fast I suspect it was privately printed. It was only 19 pages long and is apparently owned by only two libraries in the state. A check of rare and used book sales sites show one copy available for purchase at $40.25 plus shipping. So by default, John Cohassey has written the most comprehensive and authoritative history of the regiment to date.

At 160 pages of narrative, the book is unusually brief for a regimental history. At the same time, those interested in Michigan's contribution to the Union cause and the exceptional history of the 22nd Michigan will be thankful for this book. The short work is packed with arresting details and memorable stories. Readers learn the regiment went into battle with 80 rounds of ammunition per man and after countless charges and counter-charges, the men reported they were out of ammunition with the battle still hanging in the balance. They were ordered to fix bayonets and charge the Rebels with their empty muskets. They drove the enemy from the field but in doing so the 22nd was surrounded and ordered to surrender. Many members of the regiment managed to escape in the growing darkness and chaos of battle but 190 enlisted men and 14 officers were captured. Some prisoners eventually found themselves struggling to survive in the notorious Andersonville prisoner of war stockade.

The book makes excellent use of photographs and has an impressive bibliography that will lead readers to a multitude of other interesting works. A map of the area within the Chickamauga Battlefield in which the 22nd fought would have been a great addition to the book. Like any good author, John Cohassey leaves the reader wanting more.
The 22nd Michigan Infantry and the Road to Chickamauga by John Cohassey. MacFarland and Company, 2019, $35.  

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.


Friday, March 15, 2019

Post # 40

Quote for the Day: "Anybody who lives in Detroit lives blues sometimes, if not all the time."
                                  Pat Halley, reporter for the Fifth Estate. 1973


We Hope for Better Things
by Erin Bartels

There is a sentence in the Author's Note at the back of this debut novel that goes to the heart of what Bartels wanted to accomplish in this richly portrayed, deeply felt generational novel. As she wrote: "It was an attempt to reckon with something that could not be reconciled." And still can't. But that does not make the book a failure. Instead, it is a brave, noble, heart-lifting, soul-grabbing portrait of the deep and enduring pain racism has inflicted on individuals, marriages, families, and society.

Newspaper reporter Elizabeth Balsam's world is never the same after she agrees to meet a man at the Lafayette Coney Island. The gentleman turns out to to be Black and he presents Elizabeth with a 1960s vintage professional photographer's camera and a stack of photographs he would like Elizabeth to return to a Nora Balsam who lives on a remote farm in Lapeer County. Elizabeth is not interested until she discovers the photos were taken during the '67 Detroit riots and Nora Balsam is a distant great aunt Elizabeth never met or knew about. Furthermore, the photographer was an African American and Nora's husband, which means there was an interracial marriage in the family no one ever spoke about.

Returning to the newsroom after the meeting Elizabeth is shocked to discover she has been fired. With no immediate job options and a need to get away and reassess her life, she reaches out to her great aunt who invites her up to the farm.  A getaway that was meant to be for a week or two turns into months. Nora is reticent to talk about her life, marriage, long absent husband, or even look at the photographs.  As Nora and Elizabeth slowly grow closer together the story of Nora's marriage emerges as does the story of Mary Balsam who managed the Lapeer farm during her husband's long absence during the Civil War. Mary's husband sent his wife a runaway slave named George to help work the farm. George turns out to be everything Nora's husband isn't -- faithful, hard-working, considerate, resourceful, and a man of character.

The novel progresses in three alternating time periods: the Civil War, the 1960s, and the present day. Each stream of the narrative makes for compelling reading and the author captures and illuminates the corrosive and painful racism of each period that bends the storyline like a malevolent force. The book is filled with unexpected plot twists and surprises. At the core of the novel are three women who had the courage to follow their hearts regardless of the racial biases of the times. Nora and Mary will stay with the reader long after the last page of the book is turned.  

One of the singularly impressive and important Michigan novels to be published this year.
We Hope for Better Things by Erin Bartels. Revell, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019, $10.99pb, $29.99hb.

A Place for Murder
by Dave Vizard

Nick Steele, a reporter at the Bay City Blade, is facing the prospect of writing an article on a Pinconning farmer who claims to have grown a potato that looks just like former President George W. Bush when a phone call from a friend on Mackinac Island sends him a lot further north than Pinconning. Suzie Alverez, a worker at the Grand Hotel who Steele got to know while working another story has been found brutally murdered. Her body was discovered in the bed of a pickup abandoned on the highway halfway between Mackinaw City and Traverse City. The police are stumped and only identified the body by tracing her breast implant serial numbers to a downstate plastic surgeon. Steele wonders where an illegal alien got the money for breast implants and why. He smells a good story and follows his nose north.

What becomes clear to the Steele and the state police early on is that Ms. Alverez, like many illegal immigrants, was virtually owned by a network of human traffickers in Michigan. Steele traces the dead woman's trail back to the Michigan Thumb where hundreds of aliens are smuggled from farm to farm where they are kept in near enslavement working off the debt owed to the smugglers who brought them to this country. It looks like Ms. Alverez was unwillingly assigned to work at a Traverse City bordello when she was killed.

Dave Vizard has written a tight and involving mystery that realistically portrays the terrible cost in human suffering illegal aliens will endure to improve their lives and the human predators who make their living off the suffering of those migrants who live outside the law. The author is a former newspaper reporter and he clearly hasn't lost his reporting skills as he clearly and professionally weaves the plight of illegal aliens within the narrative, yet leaves the impression with at least this reader that many farmers in the Thumb would have trouble operating their large farms without migrant help.

This is a very satisfying mystery featuring interesting and likable characters.  The mystery touches on very topical and locally tender societal and legal issues, and although the death of Ms. Alverez is solved the greater issue of what to do about illegal aliens and their treatment both in and outside the law is obviously left unanswered.  And like all good fiction, the reader is left confronting an issue that defies simple, morally correct solutions, and refuses to go away.

A Place for Murder by Dave Vizard. Independently published, 2018, $14.95.

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.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Post # 39

Quote of the day: "... [Lake Superior].. beautiful, empty, glittering, cold and brooding, gull-swept and impersonal: always there, always the same -- there for the grateful and ungrateful, there for the bastards and angels."  John Voelker, author and Michigan Supreme Court Justice, in his classic novel Anatomy of a Murder. 1958.


The Sail
by Landon Beach

It wouldn't be a surprise if Landon Beach ran across the above quote from Voelker's classic Michigan novel and adapted it as his recipe for writing compelling and atmospheric thrillers set on and under the Great Lakes. "Sail" is the second book in the author's Great Lakes Series in which the author whips up ravenously readable books by combining Great Lakes maritime history and lore, vivid descriptions of both the beauty and inherent dangers of sailing and diving the lakes, and lastly folds in a handful of what Voelker calls, "bastards and angels." Beach then kneads and works the ingredients into a compelling, fast-paced plot.  

The core of this addictively readable book is a convincing and emotionally honest father/son relationship that has drifted into troubled waters. Robin Norris is a male nurse in a northern Michigan community on Lake Huron. He is in his mid-thirties, has worked hard at repairing his marriage, fears that he and his 16-year-old son are growing apart, and Robin is dying from pancreatic cancer and hasn't told his son Tristian.

In hopes that it will bring them closer together and help him find a way to tell Tristian of his death sentence, Robin and Tristian buy a junked wooden sailboat. Robin is betting that in rebuilding the boat and then the father/son crew of two sailing it on Lake Superior and diving to some of the lake's famous wrecks will bring them closer.  Lake Superior and its ever-changing moods come alive on the page and Robin and Tristian's relationship strengthens as they live their great adventure.

If "beautiful" and "glittering," Lake Superior is also remote, dangerous, and in some places so far removed from society one must rely on their own grit and skill to avoid or overcome natural and man-made dangers. Robin and his son unwittingly find themselves caught in the web of remorseless killers on the remote north shore of the lake. The last sixty relentless, action-packed pages will nail readers to their chairs. 

This is the author's second novel and it shows remarkable growth as a writer. There is more depth to the characters, the plot unspools effortlessly, the metaphors and similes are much more clever and arresting, and the action is sharp, gritty, detailed, violent, and powerful. The first book in the series, "The Wreck," was good. This deeply satisfying family drama and breathless thriller is an impressive achievement. 
The Sail by Landon Beach. Landon Beach Books, 2019, $12.99

Gus Dorais: Gridiron Innovator, All-American and Hall of Fame Coach
by Joe Niece with Bob Dorais

Gus Dorais is credited, wrongly, with being the first quarterback to throw a forward pass. The forward pass was approved by the then ruling body of college football in 1906, several years before Dorais played for Notre Dame. But if he didn't invent the pass he and his college roommate Knute Rockne perfected it.  The full story of how Gus Dorais became football's first great passer, Notre Dame's first consensus All-American, a pre-NFL professional football star, a Hall of Fame coach who spent more than two decades living and coaching in Detroit, and one of the great innovators in football is recalled in this well written and authoritative biography.

Gus was a freshman at Notre Dame in 1910 and the coach didn't like the way in which the 150-pound kid threw the football. At the time there were acceptable ways to throw a pass including gripping the ball with one hand over an end of the ball and tossing it underhanded so it traveled downfield end over end. Some quarterbacks laid the ball in one hand and again threw it underhanded which resulted in the ball spiraling toward the receiver. Gus told the Notre Dame coach he gripped the football like a baseball and threw it overhanded from behind his ear. The coach ridiculed Gus' style until he threw the football an astonishing distance and into the hands of Knute Rockne. The coach hesitated to throw the freshman with the unorthodox throwing arm into the game but when Gus finally started at quarterback, a few games into the 1910 season, he started every game for the rest of his college career. He lost one game in his freshman year and went undefeated for the rest of his college career. 

Dorais believes he was the first quarterback to pass overhanded. His way of passing proved to be such a devastating offensive weapon it became the norm. After college, he played two dozen games of pro ball and went into coaching, first high school and then college. In 1925 he was hired as head football coach and athletic director of the University of Detroit. He spent years 18 years at U of D and turned it into a minor football power with a career record of 153 wins, 70 losses, and a dozen ties. He then coached the Detroit Lions for five unproductive years. It seems even in the 1940s the Lions mauled their coaches instead of other teams.

The book leaves no doubt that Dorais was an innovative coach in designing plays and offensive formations. Dorais himself called his offensive game plans "unorthodox" and said of his offensive system, "It's built on the surprise attack, the method of calling plays the opposition isn't expecting." His offensive sets and plays were widely copied by many high school coaches in Michigan and college coaches all over the country. He was a quiet-spoken coach who made no inspirational speeches. Instead, he believed in teaching the techniques and fundamentals of the game, mentally preparing players for the game, and out thinking the opposition coach. 

The authors have done a splendid job of describing an era in football when it was undergoing significant change and following the life of a player and later a coach who was responsible for many of those changes.

Gus Dorais: Gridiron Innovator, All-American and Hall of Fame Coach by Joe Niece with Bob Dorais. McFarland & Company, 2018, $25.

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.



Friday, February 15, 2019

Post # 38

Quote for the day: "Our roads are built of corduroy,
                                And if you travel far
                                You sweat and swear and curse and
                                That's how you travel in Michigan."

 From the song "Don't Come to Michigan," which was popular during the latter half of the 19th century. Seems little has changed over the last 100 years or so.


Bleak Harbor
by Bryan Gruley

When Danny Peters, an autistic teenager and the youngest member of Bleak Harbor's founding family, is kidnaped and held for ransom it rips the scabs off painful family secrets, a marriage plagued by self-inflicted wounds, and the dark history of a Michigan tourist town on southern Lake Michigan.

Danny's mother and his step-father Peter both have committed acts that might have been the catalyst for their son's kidnapping, or it could be that Danny's birth father has just been released from prison. Then there is the FBI and other government agents nibbling at the edges of the kidnapping but seem to have their own separate agendas. Finally, there is a nameless, faceless mastermind that keeps everybody running in circles by way of misleading emails, and texting. Although he keeps increasing the ransom demands for freeing Danny the reader begins to think even the kidnapper may have some goal beyond just collecting a huge ransom. 

The kidnapping and the pursuit of the kidnapper all occur during Bleak Harbor's Dragonfly Festival that brings much-needed tourist dollars to town but the crowds, traffic jams, and chaos makes the life for many of the village's inhabitants nearly intolerable. The author does a great job of vividly capturing the mood, ambiance, and annoyances of living in a town dependent on tourism.  He has also packed the novel with a bevy of fascinatingly, duplicitous characters who all seem to slowly become unglued as their various plans go awry.

Bryan Gruley has proven to be a master of crafting absorbing mystery and suspense novels. His Starvation Lake trilogy earned him a wide audience and a Mystery Writers of America nomination for Best First Mystery. Bleak Harbor is a departure in narrative style and mood from the Starvation Lake series although there are a few similarities. Both the new book and the old trilogy relentlessly demand readers' full attention, the characters and the Michigan setting come fully alive, and Gruley seems to have a penchant for picking unattractive names for small Michigan towns. Following Starvation Lake and Bleak Harbor, Purgatory Bay is slated for publication in 2020. And then what: Point Decapitation, Remorse Valley, Scab Lake? Frankly, I find some pleasure in his off-putting Michigan place names. They serve as a kind of antidote to the warm and almost hugable Michigan place names found in cozy mysteries set in Michigan. I look forward to reading any mystery Gruley writes and will happily let him be my Baedeker to any and all regretfully named places on Michigan's fictional map. 
Bleak Harbor by Bryan Gruley. Thomas & Mercer, 2018, $24.95.

The Page Fence Giants: A History of Black Baseball's Pioneering Champions
by Mitch Lutzke

Even avid baseball fans who are the students of the game and its history will find this an improbable story and an eye-opening book. No student of the game myself, I was amazed to learn how widely popular baseball was in the 1890s and that literally every little town had a baseball team that was a member of an amateur or a semi-pro league. The teams regularly traveled with a retinue of fans to other small towns in Michigan on weekends for games on which large amounts of money were often wagered. Teams brought in paid ringers to enhance their chances of winning and the home team often paid the ump to throw the game. Arguments got so heated and ugly one Michigan umpire packed a gun while calling games. It was baseball at it wildest and wooliest.  

In Michigan, the City of Adrian was a hotbed of baseball fanatics. Their amateur team traveled widely to play games, and teams from all over Michigan and Ohio arrived in Adrian on weekends to slug it out on the town's home field. Surprisingly, many of the teams, like Adrian's, were integrated in spite of a so-called "Gentleman's Agreement" that teams would not include Black ballplayers. 

Bud Fowler was a vagabond Black player who had managed and played baseball all over the country in the 1880s and early 90s. When he arrived in Adrian in the summer of 1894 with the Finlay, Ohio team for a weekend series he was impressed with the fanaticism and support for baseball in Adrian. Especially when 800 paying customers came to watch the game. Sometime after the game, Fowler announced he would come to Adrian the next season and build a professional all Black baseball team if the town would agree to three conditions.  Fowler wanted the town to guarantee him $500, improve the ballfield, and provide the team with a private railroad car in which they could sleep and eat when traveling or arriving in a town that would not allow African Americans in hotels or restaurants. Adrian's baseball promoters raised the $500, purchased a rail car, and most importantly brought in John Wallace Page to support the team. 

Page had invented a woven iron fence with no barbs. His Adrian company employed hundreds and the town became known as the fence capital of the world. Page agreed to support the team if it was named the Page Fence Giants, and the company was allowed to exhibit the Page Fence at every away game with local salesmen on hand to make sales. When these stipulations were agreed to Mr. Page permitted the team to keep all away game gate receipts. Beginning in 1895 the team traveled all over the Midwest playing both amateur and professional teams. When they arrived at the depot the team would parade through town in uniform on Monarch bicycles to the ballfield. In 1896 the Page Fence Giants played the Cuban X Giants, generally considered the best professional African American ballclub in America, in a 19 game series played in a dozen or more different midwest towns.

The author has done an impressive amount of research and written a fascinating story of a little-known chapter in the history of baseball.  The book tells the story of a team that was equal to and a forerunner of the Harlem Globe Trotters and brings baseball as it was played, organized, and reflected American society in the 1890s colorfully alive.  

The author will be at the Flint Public Library from 12:30 - 1:30 pm on February 27th to talk about the research and writing of the book.  
The Page Fence Giants: A History of Balck Baseball's Pioneering Champions by Mitch Lutzke. McFarland & Company, 2018, $39.95.

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.

July 1, 2019 Post # 44

Inex plicably 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: &qu...