Friday, November 1, 2019

November 1, 2019 Post #48

Quote for the day: "In 1889 Michigan was not only the greatest copper producing state in the United States, but it mined more copper than any foreign country." M. M. Quaife, Michigan: From Primitive Wilderness to Industrial Commonwealth. 1948.


The Women of the Copper Country
by Mary Doria Russell

This engrossing historical novel takes the reader back to Calumet, Michigan in 1913 when the copper miners at the Calumet & Hecla Mining Co. went on a months-long strike for better pay and better working conditions. What made the strike so extraordinary is that it was organized and led by a 25-year-old wife of a miner who opposed the strike. Annie Clements grew up in a Calumet mining family and was painfully aware of the miners' inherent dangers and the poor pay that barely kept food on the table. If a miner was injured and no longer able to work they were out of a job, received no recompense from the company and faced a complete absence of any state, federal, or local safety net that provided food or shelter to the miner and his family. 

To compete with the open-pit copper mining in the West the company began replacing the two-man drill with a drill operated by a single miner. The one-man drill was hard to control,  resulted in a flood of injuries, and sparked the strike. Annie Clement became a symbol of and a leader and organizer of the strike. She led daily marches through Calumet holding a huge American flag and won fame as the "Joan of Arc of America."  She was arrested, beaten, and jailed for her efforts. The book gives special and long overdue attention to the contributions of the Calumet women in the struggle for better pay, better working conditions, and a shorter workweek.

Although a novel, the book presents a powerful and honest portrait of Annie Clements and paints a colorful and authentic description of miners' lives in the company town of Calumet. Miners worked `12-hour shifts in dangerous, injury-plagued mile deep shafts that extended far out under Lake Superior. The miners and their families lived in company-owned houses and, could only shop in company-owned stores. The poor pay and company stores barely kept food on the table of a miner's family.  The work was dangerous and frequently fatal. This often forced a miner's young son to go in the mines so the family had food and a roof over their heads.

You will not find Annie Clements' name even mentioned in Michigan history textbooks and this compelling novel makes for a fine introduction to her life and courageous fight to better the lives of Michigan miners. Annie Clements, the company town of Calumet, and Michigan's copper mining era comes brilliantly alive under Russell's pen.  

Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell. Atria Books, 2019, $27.

Kingdom Forgotten: The Rise and Demise of a Mormon Island King
by Laurie Lounsbury

One of the strangest and most interesting chapters in Michigan's history is the story of James Jesse Strang who proclaimed the angels of the Lord anointed him the leader of the Mormon church after the death of Joseph Smith. Strang led his growing flock of believers to Beaver Island where he announced he was King of Beaver Island.  Strang preached that God gave Beaver Island to the Mormons and encouraged his flock to take what they needed from non-Mormons on the island. This thievery was called "consecrating." Strang took his second wife in secret and later told his first wife and his congregation the lord approved of multiple marriages. He took four "spiritual" wives who all gave birth to a child after his death.

Lounsbury's deeply researched, historically accurate, and utterly fascinating novel is a vivid and authentic depiction of life on the island for both recently converted Mormons and non-Mormon inhabitants who watched as several thousand Mormons flocked to the island. The non-Mormons found life difficult as arriving Mormons freely stole farming equipment and forced non-believers to pay an annual ten-percent tithe to Strang. 

The book is peopled by both fictional characters and real people. It realistically portrays the growing conflict between Mormons and Gentiles and paints a compelling portrait of James Jesse Strang and his lust for power and women. His authoritarian rule made enemies of both Gentiles and even among Strang's inner circle of followers. The novel is also noteworthy for its depiction of the women in his life, both Mormon and Gentiles, and how his multiple wives adjusted to polygamy. 

Strang's total control of his followers' lives even included what women should wear. And strangely enough, the issue of clothing played a part in his assassination. This is a well written and compelling novel that tells the fascinating story of the only man in America to declare himself king. That it happened in Michigan on Beaver Island makes it even more interesting.

Kingdom Forgotten: The Rise and Fall of a Mormon Island King by Laurie Lounsbury. Blue Foot Creative, 2019, $17.99.

The 16th Michigan Infantry in the Civil War
by Kim Crawford

The 16th Michigan Infantry Regiment arrived in the nation's capital and joined the Army of the Potomac after the First Battle of Bull Run. In the following four years, the regiment was engaged in every major battle fought by the Army of the Potomac and was on hand at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.  This revised and expanded edition is a sterling example of how well written and researched Civil War regimental histories capture the lives of Union soldiers and their day-to-day experiences in camp, on the march, and in battle.

The formation and organization of the regiment was entangled in controversy and their performance on Little Round Top at Gettysburg left a black mark on the unit's reputation. Colonel Thomas Stockton of Flint was a Mexican War officer and when the call went out for the states to send regiments to Washington Stockton was eager to raise and command a regiment.  Governor Blair, a staunch Republican, refused to accommodate Stockton, a Democrat. So Stockton raised his own regiment and had to petition the War Department to force Blair into equipping it, officially recognize the regiment's officers, and accept the unit as an official state regiment.

Of particular interest is the regiment's actions in the Battle of Gettysburg. The 16th was in the same battalion as the 20th Maine. The battalion was rushed to defend the Little Round Top from a flank attack by General Longstreet's division. The 20th Maine held the left flank of the Union forces on Little Round Top and the 16th Michigan held the rightwing of the Union line. Much has been written about the heroics of the 20th Maine including the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. During the same Rebel attack, several companies of the 16th Michigan were on the far right of the line and under great pressure from several Confederate units. Outflanked companies and broke and retreated. The timely arrival of another Union regiment halted the Confederates and sent them reeling. The men of the 16th were deeply embarrassed by the retreat. It was a black mark against the regiment and the 16th developed a code of silence around the retreat at Little Round Top and never talked or discussed the battle even long after the war.

Crawford maintains that the story of the 20th Maine's saving of the Army of the Potomac from defeat that day became a "mythic tale." The author supports his opinion with factual detail and keen analysis. He also maintains the retreat of 2 or 3 companies from the 16th (the smallest regiment in the battalion) was not an act of cowardness. On entering the battle the Michigan regiment was placed in the most exposed position, and simply overwhelmed by four Rebel regiments. Crawford breaks with many Civil War historians with the opinion that if Little Round Top had been lost to the Rebels it would not have automatically meant the Confederates would have won at Gettysburg.

The most important virtue of this book is to make the everyday lives of the men under arms in the 16th Michigan from Detroit, Saginaw, Hillsdale, Lansing, Adrian, Plymouth, Albion and far off Ontonogan a shared experience with the reader. As soldiers will, they complained about everything. It particularly irked the men that they had to support the regimental chaplain at $7 a day and felt they were not getting their money's worth from the man of God who did little more than pick up the mail daily and give a sermon on Sunday.  One soldier wrote, "It hain't preaching either; he gets up and yam[s] it a spell and sing[s] a patriotic song and dismiss[es] the men."

Crawford does justice to the men of the 16th Michigan who fought and died to save this country. High marks also go to the publisher for producing a beautiful book with high-quality paper, sewn not glued binding, great page layout, a wealth of photographs, and an attention-grabbing cover. Appendices include a complete regimental roster, footnotes, index, and an exhaustive bibliography.

Michigan Infantry in the Civil War, Revised and Updated by Kim Crawford. Michigan State University Press, 2019, $49.95.

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.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

October 1, 2019 Post # 47

Quote for the day: "In many ways the Michigan Upper Peninsula ... is a world unto itself, like the Old World of the nineteenth century." Clarence A. Andrews. Michigan in Literature. 1992.


Hunter's Moon: A Novel in Stories
by Philip Caputo

All but one of the seven short stories in this collection from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author are set in or around a fictional small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Each of the stories focuses on a character or two drawn from a pool of men who reappear in many of the stories and whose lives, expectations, personalities, and the manner in which they face adversity stitch the stories together into a thematic whole.

The stories are deeply felt and marvelously told tales of hunting and fishing in the UP and Alaska but the hunting and fishing serve as entry points for dealing or wrestling with private or interpersonal problems.  The reason for a father and son hunting trip to Alaska is a father's way of trying to reconnect with a wayward son. A veteran of the Gulf Wars hunts and fishes to help heal the emotional and mental wounds of too many tours of duty. An old man and his middle-aged son find solace from grief and loss in the Northwoods, and three high school buddies return to their small hometown every year to reconnect.

This reviewer is curious as to how long the author spent in the UP  before writing these stories because he has captured the essence, beauty, and lure of the peninsula's rugged landscape, primal forests, bountiful lakes and streams, abundant wildlife, and hardscrabble lifestyle of its inhabitants. 

As with any great writer the characters he creates and the problems they must deal with are not limited or unique to males living in Michigan's northern peninsula, they are common to every man. The result is a wise, enjoyable, collection of short stories showcasing the splendor of the UP and the importance of relationships and the coming to grips with the thorny questions of life everyone faces.

Hunter's Moon: A Novel in Stories by Philip Caputo. Henry Holt, 2019, $28

Where Monsters Hide: Sex, Murder. and Madness in the Midwest
M. William Phelps

This is a book you don't often see, a true-crime book set in the Upper Peninsula. It's the first of its kind I've come across and I should add I couldn't put it down. Chris Regan from Iron River, Michigan and his son, who lived downstate, decided they would pull up stakes and together move to North Carolina. Within days of when he and his son were to leave Chris Regan simply vanished.

When Laura Frizzo, the Iron River Police Chief began looking into the disappearance of Chris Regan the trail led to Jason and Kelly Cochran. Kelly and her husband immediately became the focal point of the investigation when Kelly admitted she had had an affair with Chris and her husband Jason knew about it.  Captain Frizzo brought the State Police into the investigation but their experienced investigators soon dismissed the Cochran's as having nothing to do with man's disappearance. 

Captain Frizzo was convinced  Kelly was a pathological liar and had played a major role in Chris Regan's disappearance. The book is a detailed and engrossing account of the Chief of Police's dogged pursuit of the truth. For two years the Police Chief checked leads, interviewed and re-interviewed Jason and Kelly and kept turning up inconsistencies in the couple's accounts of where they were and what they did on the night Chris Regan disappeared.  Just when Frizzo thought she had almost painted the couple into a prosecutorial corner Jason and Kelly fled to Indiana. Within days of returning to Hoosier Country Jason was rushed to a hospital where he died from what everyone thought was an overdose. Everyone except the coroner who reported Jason was murdered. Frizzo enlisted the help of a  crack local investigator to help her nail Kelly for multiple homicides.

The author constructs his narrative from pages of court testimony, interviews with law enforcement officers, transcribed dialogue from body cams, and personal interviews he conducted with Jason and Kelly. The result is a gripping story of evil and a chilling descent into the mind of a serial killer.
Where Monsters Hide: Sex, Murder, and Madness in the Midwest by M. William Phelps. Kensington Books, 2019, $15.95

Stories from the Wreckage: A Great Lakes Maritime History Inspired by Shipwrecks
by John Odin Jensen

This book offers readers a unique approach to the study of Great Lakes' maritime history. The author's starting point for the history of shipping on our great inland seas are some half-dozen historic shipwrecks located in Wisconsin waters that have been repeatedly dived and studied by scuba diving archaeologists. 

The study of each wreck and its place in the maritime history of the Great Lakes begins with the history of the ship's construction and if available a thorough analysis of its blueprints or plans. In many cases, there are no plans or blueprints and diving the wreck is the surest and only method of discovering or understanding the engineering advances and continual evolution in ship design imposed by the geographic factors of the lakes and or the vessel's intended cargo. The vessel's commercial life and voyages and anything unusual or interesting concerning the crew and officers are all covered in depth. Lastly, the how and why of the craft's last voyage is recounted in detail.

The author limits the book's scope to the golden age of wooden shipbuilding on the lakes which ran from roughly the 1820s to the early 1890s.  The wrecks covered in the book provide the author with a variety of vessels that plowed the waters of our inland seas. The wrecks included lumber schooners that carried the white pine used to build cities throughout the Midwest and the box-like Welland Canal schooner that couldn't exceed 150 foot in length and 26.5 feet in width. There is a fascinating section on the "palace steamers." The latter were the era's luxury, steam-powered passenger liners with plush state-rooms, beautiful salons, and great food. The author notes that in 1850 a "palace steamer" consumed 600 cords of hardwood in a round trip from Buffalo to Chicago. During the shipping season that kept 40 woodcutters working full time. Then there were the wooden bulk carriers that by 1890 were approaching 300 feet in length. There is an interesting discussion on how boat builders designed such long wooden ships that would remain rigid and not sag in the middle or droop at bow and stern. The author points out that the wooden bulk cargo carriers with the bridge way forward and the engine room in the aft section changed little in design when builders turned to iron. The boats just got longer.

Anyone interested in the history of the Great Lakes and especially its maritime history will lose themselves in this endlessly interesting book. It also should be mentioned that the book is a beautiful example of bookmaking and page layout. Underwater photographs, maps, charts, period illustrations, sketches, and old photographs adorn almost every other page of this one-of-a-kind history book.
Stories from the Wreckage: A Great Lakes Maritime History Inspired by Shipwrecks by John Odin Jensen. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2019, $29.95 pb.

Great Lakes Rocks: 4 Billion Years of Geologic History in the Great Lakes Region
by Stephen E. Kesler

Stephen E. Kesler, Emeritus Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan, has written an accessible and richly detailed geological history of the Great Lakes area. Starting with a survey of the present surface features including lakes, rivers, waterfalls, valleys and other present-day topographical features the author reveals and explains past geological eras like peeling an onion layer by layer until he is back to the formation of the earth.

The writing is clear, fairly free of geological scientific jargon, very readable and at times witty. The book is very thorough, and although it is formatted to look like a textbook it certainly doesn't read like one. Complementing the text are pie charts, graphs, diagrams, and illustrations, and a centerpiece of color photographs.

Of special interest to this reader are the grey-shaded, boxed asides scattered through the book that I found especially interesting. Like the boxed aside on the 'long and continuous environmental impact" of oil and gas production in the region. The starting gun for the race to pollute the region was fired in 1860 when a well drilled in Ontario became this continent's first uncontrolled gusher.  The run-a-way well vomited 1,000s of barrels of oil a day onto the surrounding area and eventually, the oil poured into Lake St. Clair.  Another boxed aside asks "What is sea level?"

This is a very informative, rock-solid read for anyone even faintly interested in geology or wonders how Michigan was blessed by two beautiful peninsulas that are embraced by four of the Great Lakes.
Great Lakes Rocks: 4 Billion Years of Geologic History in the Great Lakes Region by Stephen E. Kesler. University of Michigan Press, 2019, $29.95 pb.

The Cabin
by Landon Beach

This blog gave very positive reviews to Landon Beach's first two books, "The Sail" and "The Wreck." The books were the first two of a planned series of five thrillers in which each book will be set on a different one of the Great Lakes. This is the third book in the series and much of the story is set in a cabin on Lake Ontario. But because very little of the novel is set in Michigan and Lake Ontario is much less central to the story than lakes Michigan and Superior in the first two books, unfortunately, it was felt that "The Cabin" did not fit the criteria for reviewing in this blog.

As a service to our readers, the blog did want to inform those who had read and enjoyed Mr. Beach's first two books that the third book in the series has been published. Those interested will find plenty of positive reviews of the book on Amazon.

The Cabin by Landon Beach. Landon Beach Books, 2019, $13.99.

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

Sunday, September 1, 2019

September 1, 2019 Post # 46

Quote for the Day: "I expect nothing from Michigan, and heartily wish I had never heard of it." James Fenimore Cooper in a letter to his wife. The reference is probably due to a losing investment in Kalamazoo real estate.

In August of 2017 Michigan in Books' first issue or posting hit the Internet. In the past month  Michigan in Books surpassed 10,000 total page views. My heartfelt thanks go out to all the regular and occasional readers of the blog and my admiration continues to grow for Michigan's little known and often ignored self-published authors who write with such passion and eloquence about our state whether it is fiction or nonfiction. Please keep writing, your voices will be heard.  


Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis
by Benjamin J. Pauli

The author is an Assistant Professor of Social Science at Flint's Kettering University who arrived in Flint with his wife and three-year-old son in 2015. As a new Flint resident with a family, the author became a close observer of the unfolding story of how the city's water became lead-tainted, the cover-up that followed with local and state officials denying the water was toxic or a health risk, and finally how Flint residents rose up and demanded clean water. A social scientist literally found one of the great stories of social, environmental, and democratic injustice of the decade dropped in his lap.

The Flint Water Crisis is a familiar story to most of us in Michigan. But none of the previous accounts approaches or studies the city's water crisis from the perspective of a social scientist. The reader gets a thorough account of how the water crisis occurred when the source of Flint's water supply was switched to the Flint River. The book covers the struggle by Flint residents to convince local and state officials they were being poisoned even as the same officials repeatedly claimed the water was fine, lead levels were not dangerously high, and there were no adverse effects from drinking, washing, cooking, or bathing in Flint's new water supply.  It wasn't until Dr. Hanna-Attisha revealed the dangerous levels of lead found in Flint's children and charged, in the case of Flint, it was "poisoning by policy" that the full extent of the crisis was realized.

The book explores environmental justice and the lack of it when it comes to the poor or people of color. The author also weighs in on the political climate within the state that permitted this "catastrophic breakdown in trust" between those "poisoned by policy" and their elected officials and government-appointed bureaucrats' who failed to listen, investigate, or simply tried to ignore the problem. The book is especially critical of Michigan's policy of replacing elected officials with state-appointed emergency managers in financially strapped cities like Flint. The emergency managers answered to the state and not to the people who they had been appointed to govern.  

A social scientist's inquiry into the Flint water debacle presents an added dimension to the story. The author makes clear that when the people of Flint demanded clean, safe water they also called for the restitution of their democratic rights. This reviewer must add that in the introduction and occasionally in the narrative neither my education nor IQ prove anywhere near adequate to untangle or understand academic gobbledegook such as: "This kind of normative language, some have agreed, has proven to be highly co-optable into the post-political "consensus" of neoliberalism, with favorite activist ideas like the "human right to water" operationalized by elites in ways compatible with privatization and other neoliberal agendas." But don't let the occasional sentence like the one above stop you from reading this important and revelatory book.

Flint Fight Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis by Benjamin J. Pauli. MIT Press, 2019, $35 pb.

Deadly Restoration: A Douglas Lake Mystery
by Eric M. Howe

The University of Michigan Biological Station on Douglas Lake, north of Pellston, encompasses 10,000 acres of nearly untouched forest, wetlands, and 40% of the Douglas Lake shoreline. The land is like a time machine in which scientists can visit a Michigan ecosystem that existed 100 years ago. Every summer since 1909 scientists, graduate, and undergraduate students travel to the station to study the natural evolution of ecosystems, attend classes and conduct research. And this summer, among those who came to the station, was a killer.

The Maple River has recently become an object of local controversy in which the scientists at the Biological Station were asked to comment. The river has two main branches and has been dammed for decades just below the point where the two branches meet south of Pellston. It has become popular lately to remove old, outdated dams and make rivers free-lowing. A prominent group of locals is pushing for the removal of the dam on the Maple. Objecting to the removal are scientists who believe their research will be compromised and sportsmen who know the removal of the damn will permit sea lampreys to reach the upper portions of the river and wreak havoc among the upstream native trout. The author does a fine job of explaining the pros and cons of removing these dams and how passionate the argument can become. The Maple River damn argument becomes deadly when the leader of the pro removal group is found murdered.

Several of the Biological Station scientists are asked to share their expertise in helping to solve the murder. The result is one of the most original and surprising pieces of evidence leading to the killer in any mystery I've read. On the other hand, the murder doesn't occur until more than halfway through the book and at times takes second place to a richly detailed description of the Maple River area and the U of M Biological Station. 

The dam on the Maple River was recently removed and hopefully in the second book in the series, which will be reviewed in a later posting, readers will learn how the river has been effected. 
Deadly Restoration: A Douglas Lake Mystery by Eric M. Howe. Eric M. Howe Publisher, 2019, $7.99 pb.

Do No Harm
by Dawn Eastman

I'm not sure what sub-genre within the mystery field this author's two murder mysteries, featuring Dr. Katie LeClair, would comfortably fit. They are virtually violence-free murder mysteries, not a page in the book is graced with either an obscenity, swear word, or a sexual situation that makes it past 1st base. And it appears the local police of fictional Baxter, Michigan are incapable of solving murders and seemingly step aside and count on Dr. Katie to do their job. It is not the kind of mystery I usually turn to yet I found myself stuck like super glue to the book until the final page. 

Dr. Katie has a new patient who has just been released from prison for a murder he says he didn't commit. The young doctor is intrigued by her patient's story and looks into the facts and evidence from the old murder investigation. She learns that a college student doing a research project is also looking into the murder and has disappeared.  Then her patient disappears. Dr. LeClair is left with trying to figure out what happened years ago and if that has anything to do with the mystery of her vanished patient and the college student. Katie is also beginning to think her patient was wrongly accused.

Unlike the first in the series, this book does not provide the reader with as complete a portrait of a small-town doctor's practice.  What you do get is a doctor so committed to her patients' she will even try to prove one of them innocent of a decade-old murder. The plot keeps the reader guessing until the last page and in some ways, the construction and unfolding of the plot reminded me of an Agatha Christie mystery. Those looking for a throwback mystery absent of foul language, raw violence, and gratuitous sex will find this book to their liking. 
Do No Harm: A Dr. Katie LeClair Mystery by Dawn Eastman. Crooked Lane Books, 2018, $26.99 hardback.

The Life of the Lakes: A Guide to the Great Lakes Fishery Revised and Updated 4th Edition
by Brandin C. Schroeder, Dan M. O'Keefe, and Shari L. Dann

This 126-page report is jam-packed with charts, photographs, maps, graphs, and a surprising amount of information on the past, present, and future of commercial and sport fisheries on the Great Lakes that currently amounts to $1.5 billion dollars a year. This information-rich book gives a description of each lake and its watershed, fisheries, ecology, and its socioeconomic setting.

The authors cover the current management of the commercial fisheries and the tourism spawned in eight states and two countries by the fish of the Great Lakes.  The report leaves no doubt about the fragility of the fishery in a section devoted to the history of fishing in the Great Lakes and the near-collapse of the native fish population in the 1950s. It took state, federal and Canadian agencies years to bring back native fish, clean up polluted areas, and control invasive species. The book also looks to the future status of the fishery.

The book is full of surprising and eye-opening information such as the fact that 2.1 billion gallons of water a day is diverted via canals and water control structures in Chicago from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi River. Or, that the most popular sport fish anglers go after are perch and walleye. The book also tells of the resilience of the fishery and as evidence notes that Lake St. Clair is once again home to one of the world's largest populations of spawning lake sturgeons.

Anyone interested in the health of the Great Lakes and its fisheries will be hooked by this book. 

The Life of the Lakes: A Guide to the Great Lakes Fishery 4th ed. by Brandon C. Schroder, et al. Michigan Sea Grant College Program, the University of Michigan, 2019, $19.95 

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.


Thursday, August 1, 2019

August 1, 2019 Post # 45

Quote for the Day: "When the population along the river above Detroit becomes greatly increased the waters of the Detroit River will become unfit for domestic use."  Robert Kedzie, doctor and chemistry professor. 1898.


I'm Fine and Neither Are You
by Camille Pagan

Camille Pagan's thoughtful, witty, and perceptive novel is the story of a marriage under stress and what happens when the wife decides it's time to right the trajectory of her marriage before it crashes.
Penelope Ruiz-Kar is juggling a career, a family, and a marriage stuck in a rut. She finds married life not quite what she expected and her life, in general, is beginning to come apart at the seams. 

Her husband, Sanjay, is unemployed and isn't really interested in finding work because he wants to write a book. Which evidently doesn't leave time for him to be even a so-so house-husband as he neglects to clean or cook, parent the couple's daughters, and doesn't rise to the occasion when it comes to conjugal relations with his wife. Penelope's job, hunting down benefactors, donors, and bagging endowments for a high profile Michigan university, is full of pressure made worse by an overbearing boss.

The only positive thing in Penepole's life is her best friend Jenny, who from Penelope's viewpoint is living a perfect life. Jenny has a model husband, she lives in a beautiful house, and has a wonderful daughter with great manners. Jenny is always there for Penelope, is filled with good advice, and is constantly telling her friend to make changes in her life and marriage. Then Penelope finds Jenny alone and dead in her perfect house. Her best friend's tragic passing reveals a multitude of cracks in what Penelope thought was a perfect life.

The tragedy prompts Penelope to make her marriage better and insists she and Sanjay must be honest with each other if they are going to improve their relationship. They commit to writing down changes they would like to see in their spouses and discussing them honestly. The wisdom of the proposal comes into question with the first desired change each reveals to the other. And Penelope begins to have serious doubts as to whether honesty will really save their marriage.

This is a wise and compassionate examination of a modern marriage that is often as funny as it is thoughtful. The author is a natural-born storyteller with what seems like a natural instinct for creating believable characters and mirroring the universal desire to achieve a good and meaningful life. Memorable.

I'm Fine and Neither Are You by Camille Pagan. Lake Union Publishing, 2019, $24.95.

Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit's Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place For All
by John H. Hartig

This is a richly detailed history of Detroit's riverfront from its wild and beautiful pre-Colonial days, through its slow decline to the point where heavy industry and later abandoned buildings and vast parking lots cut Detroiters off from the river that had become an ecological disaster. In even greater detail the book chronicles the near-miraculous recovery of the river and the vision and work of many groups, organizations, and businesses to create a beautiful riverside walk that stretches from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle.

By the 1960s after two centuries of polluting one of the great wildlife habitats and avian flyways of North America with sewage, phosphorus, mercury, and oil it was a river of death. Between 1946 - 48  5.93 million tons of oil and petroleum waste was dumped into the Detroit River annually. A Canadian firm discharged 200,000 pounds of mercury into Lake St. Clair that closed fishing from Lake St. Clair to western Lake Erie. In 1948, 11,000 waterfowl died on the river from pollution. another great die-off occurred in1960, and in 1969 the Rouge River caught fire. There was no documented spawning of whitefish in the Detroit River from 1916- 2006. If the river was dead the sprawl of heavy industry and urban decay effectively walled off the river from the people of the city.

The author points out that a public accessible riverfront was promoted as early as 1889 but it wasn't until efforts to clean up the river began in the late 1960s that the call for the development of an extensive RiverWalk was heard. Hartig does a fine job of outlining the various political. cultural, businesses, and foundations that contributed money, ideas, and initiatives that slowly transformed the riverfront into a 5.5-mile long park. The book sometimes reads more like an academic report with numerous tables, charts, and lists throughout and each chapter closes with a stated conclusion. I hasten to add this doesn't make the book any less readable. 

Of special note is the description of the parks and attractions along the RiverWalk which includes Michigan's smallest and only urban state park, Michigan DNR's  Outdoor Adventure Center, the Hart Plaza, and Chene  Park with its outdoor amphitheater that was rated among the top one hundred concert venues in the world. The book is as helpful as any Detroit travel guide to the attractions found on the RiverWalk.

The book closes with a report on the economic benefits of the RiverWalk and the key lessons learned from the long term project. Hartig has made a unique contribution to the history of Detroit, the river that helps define it, and shines a light on one important aspect of the Auto City's rebirth. 
Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit's Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place For All by John H. Hartig. Michigan State University Press. 2019, $24.95

The Summer Cottage
 by Viola Shipman

Although I read and very much enjoyed this author's last novel, The Recipe Box, I didn't hold out much hope of making it to the last page of this book. First, this is clearly intended as women's fiction from page one. Secondly, the author is a man who writes under the name of his grandmother. Even the author concedes it, "sounds like a terrible (idea)."  But I had forgotten how easily the author engages readers and effortlessly pulls them into the story like hooked fish.

Adie Lou, who is at the center of this novel, has always loved her parent's cottage on Lake Michigan, in the village of Saugatuck. It is and was a place where life was good, love of family abounded, and cares could be forgotten.  In fact, the forgetting of cares was only one of a dozen rules strictly enforced at the cottage which also included Be Grateful for Each Day, Build a Sandcastle, and Go Jump in the Lake among others. As the book opens Adie Lou's life is near melt-down due to a broken marriage, the creep of middle-age, the on-set of the empty nest syndrome, and a job that pays well but sucks the life out of her. On her parent's death, she inherits the cottage and while her ex urges her to sell it for a small fortune, Adie Lou decides to make it the vehicle that will turn her life around. She quits her job, takes her savings, moves to Saugatuck and sets out to transform the cottage into a bed-and-breakfast inn.

The novel follows Adie Lou's transformation and remodeling of the cottage into a bed-and-breakfast and chronicles the host of problems and long hours of work that it entails. The book captures the charm and the importance of the cottage that was a beloved summer family retreat. The challenge is turning it into bed-and-breakfast that has its own unique, warm and welcoming ambiance.  The author has come close to weaving a complete how-to manual for creating a bed-and-breakfast within the story of Adie Lou's struggle to become an empowered and confident woman who runs her own business. Except for the fact that the book never mentions that Saugatuck is one of the most popular Gay and Lesban travel destinations in the country, Shipman does a fine job of describing the beauty, atmosphere, and charm of the village.

This is an involving, honest, well-told story of a woman who wants to honor her family while making a new life for herself. The Summer Cottage is a good choice for a women's book club and conveniently comes with a Reader's Guide and questions for group discussion.

The Summer Cottage by Viola Shipman. Graydon House, 2019, $16.99.

A Dangerous Identity: A Sheriff Matt Callahan Mystery
by Russell Fee

Many years ago my family vacationed two years in a row on Beaver Island. It left me with indelible memories of a beautiful, take-your-breath-away scenic world insulated from the hustle, bustle, work-a-day-world, and tourist-clogged northern Michigan by 35-miles of  Lake Michigan and a two-hour-plus ferry ride. Circumstance and missed opportunities have kept me away ever since. Thanks to Russell Fee I have revisited the Emerald Isle twice in the past two years by way of the author's very satisfying Sheriff Matt Callahan mystery novels.

Fee has used his literary license to reimagine Beaver Island as Michigan's smallest and most remote county and Matt Calahan, a former Chicago homicide detective, as Sheriff of Nicolet County. For those who haven't had the pleasure of reading the first in the series, Calahan suffered a horrible disfigurement when acid was thrown in his face in Chicago and like the Phantom of the Opera he wears a mask to hide the worst of the scars from the acid attack. Callahan took the job of sheriff in Nicolet County as a way to withdraw from the world and hide his disfigurement. But Beaver Island, sorry, Nicolet County is not as peaceful, quiet, and free from crime as I remember.

Callahan is called to the scene where the nude body of a young woman has washed ashore. The body is covered with deep circular cuts like a spiral-sliced ham and the woman has been decapitated, but her head lies nearby. The dead woman had no identification, no one on the island recognizes the deceased, and it is unclear to Sheriff  Callahan whether this was a murder victim or the result of a terrible accident. Little does Matt know that his investigation into identifying the body and what he has come to believe is a murder case will almost get him killed, threaten the lives of the woman and her young son Matt has fallen in love with. Political bribery, oil pollution, the infamous oil pipeline that runs under the Straits, exploratory drilling on the island, and a second murder are all central to the plot.

Russell Fee is an under-appreciated and sorely overlooked mystery writer. His two mysteries set on Beaver Island are well-plotted, rich in character, and Beaver Island ambiance. A check of MelCat, which lists the holdings of 400 Michigan libraries revealed that not one of them owned A Dangerous Remedy, the first book in the series, or A Dangerous Identity, and that is a downright shame. The book and its Beaver Island setting deserve consideration for inclusion in every mid-sized and larger library in Michigan. Readers who like a good mystery set in Michigan can either buy the book or ask their local library to add it to their collection.

A Dangerous Identity: A Sheriff  Matt Callahan Mystery by Russell Fee. Borias Books, 2019, $12.99

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.

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.

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November 1, 2019 Post #48

Quote for the day: "In 1889 Michigan was not only the greatest copper producing state in the United States, but it mined more copper th...