Sunday, June 7, 2015

Detroit City Is the Place To Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis (Mark Binelli)

Detroit City Is the Place To Be wasn’t what I hoped. Going in, I wanted to read about Detroit’s greatness and, maybe, get an honest nod to its struggles. The reality was vice versa. Mark Binelli writes at length about Detroit’s woes and only briefly acknowledges some points of optimism. But I wasn’t disappointed. The book is a thorough, insightful, and engaging history and analysis of the city’s challenges from its settlement by French fur traders in the late 1600’s to publication in 2013.

Like me, Binelli was raised in the Detroit suburbs (in my case, Warren, and in his case, Saint Clair Shores). He left Michigan for his career, and then returned to live in the city proper, specifically the Eastern Market area in Southeast Detroit, to research and write this book. His location at the writing gives him sentimental and practical clout. Binelli clearly loves the city, as he speaks fondly of his neighborhood and neighbors and others who turn up in the pages, but he describes the entity of Detroit like a disappointed father telling a friend about a wayward child.

Detroit as viewed from Windsor, Ontario
The book is organized somewhat chronologically, but mainly categorically. Each chapter addresses a particular topic: history, arson, crime, politics, schools, blight, etc. Binelli reports facts, but he editorializes too. He takes investigative field trips and conducts interviews with experts on each issue. The format works. You’ll get a surprisingly in-depth education on the individual subjects, and when viewed in whole, the big picture makes sense … or nonsense, as it can feel. You’ll begin to realize the enormous scope of Detroit’s problems and the formidable task of its economic revival. But Binelli, like anyone with Detroit in their blood, also recognizes and feels the pervasive undercurrent of hope.

Binelli’s writing is fairly highbrow journalism. His wit is sharp and sometimes bleakly poetic. But while he uses some big words and long, complex sentences, he’s not ostentatious. He writes to the average bright reader. (If you’re reading this book, I consider you bright.) You should approach the book expecting an education but not an intellectual strain.

Mark Binelli (from
I routinely tell non-Detroiters that Detroit is a fabulous city that gets a lot of bad press, that “You have to know where to go and where to avoid, but aren’t most cities like that?” I tell them about the Riverwalk and the orchestra and Belle Isle and the ethnic food and the rich arts culture. Detroit City is the Place To Be is, maybe unfortunately, more bad press. But to address our weaknesses, we must be aware of them. I think Binelli means well, and maybe he’ll help goad the town to faster, fuller healing.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Night of the Hunter (Davis Grubb)

Inspired by the true story of Depression-era serial killer Harry Powers, The Night of the Hunter, first published in 1953, is an old-timey thriller featuring the dynamic, psychopathic, mercenary preacher, whose name is changed to Harry Powell for the novel. Powell, commonly known as Preacher, seeks out and marries a widow, Willa, whose late husband hid a large stash of money somewhere on their property. Willa doesn’t know where the money is, but her two young children, John and Pearl, do. Powell sets off on a psychological-turned-physical hunt to discover the children’s secret.  

Grubb uses his novel to criticize the questionless credence some people give to anyone who declares himself a “man of God” and who publicly (emphasis on publicly) behaves according to those expectations. The book also takes a delightful feminist tack in the character of Rachel, the primary heroine, who demonstrates a superior level of resourcefulness, intelligence, love, and strength, independent of any man, standing in commendable contrast with the foolish, meddlesome, and sheepish townswomen.

Mugshot of serial killer Harry Powers, 1920
Grubb’s narrative is eloquent and smart, and his crafting of the townsfolks' dialect enhances his portrayal of rural Americana, which isn’t especially complimentary. While he employs stereotypes of small-town ignorance, the characters are never corny, and Grubb differentiates between simplicity and stupidity. His smart characters aren’t fancy, but they’re strong and sharp.

Davis Grubb
(Photo from
The story’s plot is compelling. The author creates suspense and evokes strong and appropriate emotions about each character, good and bad. The stereotypes are recognizable, but they don’t create a predictability that detracts from the story. Instead, the roles support and strengthen the telling of this classic American thriller. Read it and enjoy the retro ride. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa (Neil Peart)

Neil Peart is famously the drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush, but his book The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa is almost entirely not about his career. Although his musicianship gets a couple of side mentions, his career is as relevant to this book as my cycling hobby is to my career as a technical writer, i.e., pretty much not at all. The book is essentially a polished journal of Peart’s 1988 cycling tour through the West African country of Cameroon. Neil is a great writer and a substantial thinker, and while his name certainly helped sell several copies, the book is excellent enough on its own. I didn’t know him, and I loved it.

The Masked Rider’s timeline is linear. It starts when the tour starts, and it ends when the tour ends. Peart tells stories of towns, people, sites, lodgings, food, wildlife, and so on. He doesn’t paint an idyllic picture, nor is it poverty porn. He recounts his travels matter-of-factly, with opinions, many of which are lovely, and many not. The portrayals seem fair. Per the author’s telling, the Cameroonian people are often friendly and welcoming, quick to smile and help when they can. On the other hand, some locals try to swindle Peart and his travel mates (and tourists in general). Peart also notes his frustration with the accommodations. Even the “good” hotels are dives by American standards  bugs, grime, polluted water, broken air conditioning, and “frozen” plumbing.

Map of Cameroon. 
The tour began in Duala and ended in N'djamena.
Throughout the book, an unexpected treat is Peart’s philosophical bent. He’s not the stereotypical dopehead rock star. This guy is obviously whip-smart and well-read. He opines insightfully on all aspects of the adventure and includes informed discussions on history and politics.

Peart sometimes comes off as a bit of a hot head. He doesn’t make great friends with any of the other cyclists, and he quickly develops a special disdain for one of them in particular. In his direct interactions with his travel mates, he seldom says or does anything outright abrasive. He’s sophisticated enough to exercise restraint in the moment. But his irritation simmers in the writing. 

Since I am the even-tempered, forgiving type, I’ll defend Peart by saying that this journey, with its excessive heat, roadblocks, irrational questioning, government run-around, horrible road and trail conditions, lack of sleep, foodborne illness, etc., would exhaust pretty much anyone’s patience.

Peart performing at the Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario,
on October 16, 2012.
"Neil Peart3" by Shipguy - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Maybe West Africa’s sociopolitical environment and infrastructure have improved since 1988. I haven’t done the research. But this book convinced me that I don’t want to take a similar tour, outside of a book, at least. It’s a fascinating trip via the pages of The Masked Rider, where you can experience just enough of Cameroon from your first-world cozy chair, without bug bites, intestinal distress, or threat of imprisonment. Maybe Peart will inspire you to fly your bike to Africa, but I’ll stick with the Tennessee hills for my real-life adventure rides.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Stieg Larsson)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the final book in Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo series, and it picks up right where The Girl Who Played with Fire leaves off the cliffhanger where Mikael discovers Lisbeth shot in the head and barely alive. Of course, the series can’t continue without its heroine, so Larsson starts Hornet’s Nest in the emergency room, where Lisbeth keeps fighting for her survival.

This book starts and finishes with some great action, including a hospital bed murder and a full-action battle between tiny Lisbeth and her gigantic brother. We also get some savvy courtroom drama toward the end. But the bulk of the book consists of strategy discussions. Police, journalists, detectives, and secret agents devise various plans, some with justice at heart, and others with evil intent. We learn the history and current operations of “the Section,” a special unit of the Swedish Secret Service with broad powers and practically no oversight, which was responsible for Lisbeth’s lifelong mistreatment.

Lisbeth making her magic happen (as played by
Noomi Rapace; photo from
Throughout the pages, a dizzying swarm of bad players is awakened to a frenzy of schemes to take down Lisbeth. Hence the title. Throughout most of the story, Lizbeth herself is confined to a hospital bed, but even in her restricted state, she takes her own brand of action on a smuggled hand-held computer.

For some small mid-story action, Erica Berger gets a little subplot involving a stalker at her new job, and Mikael hooks up with a smart and sexy new lady friend. But mostly, the middle pages are comprised of strategy meetings, and because of this, I found the book dull compared to its predecessors.

Larsson’s writing style is consistent with the first two books plain but effective. (The translator, Reg Keeland, is the same.) Like Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, there’s no profound symbolism or grand underlying meaning, but the author solidly stands on his anti-misogyny platform, bringing to light all sorts of abuses toward women, from subtle assumptions and downward glances to unspeakable violence. With the current popularity of Fifty-Shades junk fiction, Larsson’s feministic perspective is refreshing and socially important. His female characters are physically and emotionally strong and independent, but like all humans, not impervious to stress and upset.

Stieg Larsson (photo from
Despite the relatively lackluster plot of Hornet’s Nest, the book does conclude the series satisfactorily. The ending may feel too happily-ever-after for some readers, but I liked it. The bad guys lose, and the good guys and girls win. Lisbeth gets her revenge, but she gets a bit of her own comeuppance too. If you’ve already read the first two books, you’ll want to read Hornet’s Nest to wrap up the adventure. Get through the middle and pay decent attention. The end is worth the effort.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (David Sedaris)

When three different people saw me reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, they gave me three different comments. One said, “David Sedaris. I’ll bet you’re laughing your ass off.” Another said, “David Sedaris is a god.” The last said, “I hate David Sedaris. Whenever I read his stuff, I realize that I can’t write.”

And having read this book, I acknowledge the validity of all three responses. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim cracked me up, heightened my awe, and gave me some gloomy insight on my personal literary efforts. Depending on your perspective, Sedaris’s essays are less than, or much more than, pure journalism. By his own admission, they’re “true-ish,” but I predict that you’ll love the telling so much that you’ll gobble up all the shenanigans.

The Sedaris siblings, clockwise from top left: Gretchen,
Lisa, David, Tiffany, Paul, Amy (from
In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris tells tattley tales almost entirely about his family. They all come off as lovable loons, author included. Sedaris continually turns the pen against himself, and in the process, you’ll adore the guy even more. He nerdily mucks through childhood with his roguish siblings and classmates. He embarks on a fabulously awkward adolescence, seeking his niche in a homophobic world. He navigates his young adulthood through a druggy fog, and blunders through his eccentric maturity, eventually settling into imperfect financial and relational success.

Although the book features a few grim sketches (his dad kicks him out for being gay, his parents are victimized by criminal tenants, his sister lives deliberately in squalor), the book as a whole is undeniably definable as light reading. You’ll be mesmerized by its wonderful wackiness and seamless wordsmithing. Sedaris is one of those artists who’s so great, he makes it look easy. His storytelling is as genial on paper as it is on the radio air, where I and so many others were introduced to his genius. (If you haven’t heard him read his own work, find an audio recording online. Then you can “hear” his masterful tone and cadence in the print.)

David Sedaris at WBUR studios, June 2008
To a large extent, the essays are silly fun, but each one has a fable-like takeaway. With a spoonful of sugar, Sedaris tells the lessons he’s learned - lessons in social status and humility, blindness to and hyperawareness of one’s shortcomings, self preservation and selflessness, humanity and identity, overcoming disappointment, and preeminently, the importance of family. So while you’re smiling, pause and consider the implicit message. While you’re at it, consider also the masterpiece in your hands, and thank God for David Sedaris.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)

If you require a fast and fiery high-action thrill, A Farewell to Arms is not the Hemingway for you. The novel does have a few nail-bite moments, but they aren’t the primary feature. However, if you love a book for the art of it, if you crave the beauty of a succinct phrase, if you adore the pared-down simplicity of everyday discourse, if you relish an intense inner monologue, then read this book.

I’m not a Hemingway glutton. Of works about him, I’ve read The Paris Wife. Of his own works, I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea (about twenty years ago), one short story, and now A Farewell to Arms. But that’s it. I’m not sure this was the best book to pick up after so long. It’s a slow mover. I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t put it down. On the other hand, it would be a disservice to rush it. Hemingway’s style commands a close ear.

The story is of Henry, a young American in the Italian army in World War I. He is granted a few well-embraced respites from the fighting, and even during active duty, he finds some peaceful moments, some goodness, and some sweet camaraderie. But the good stuff is inevitably punctuated by great losses.

British nurse in World War I (from
In the course of events, Henry falls in love with a British nurse, Catherine. More than once, war separates the lovers, but Henry finally deserts the army and finds Catherine again. Although Henry’s escape is successful, it doesn’t ultimately preclude tragedy. Away from the war, the lovers’ hope is harder earned, and their tragedy is doubly painful.

Like many war stories, A Farewell to Arms illustrates the extremes of human nature ‒ profound good and evil. But Hemingway’s style, sparse and heavy with testosterone, is a perfect medium for describing the phenomenon. He just recounts events, no emotional editorializing necessary. As he writes, we see, and as we see, we feel. A beautiful, intimate moment turns suddenly horrific, and conversely, a nearly disastrous moment becomes suddenly hopeful. Outside the war setting, Hemingway’s style is equally effective in narrating the simple exchanges between Henry and Catherine. There’s precious little pining or effusing. We observe boy and girl in their mostly mundane environment, and we understand the ease and affection between the two.

Ernest Hemingway
I doubt that A Farewell to Arms is among the best of Hemingway’s novels. It didn’t strike me strongly enough. But it may be among the most accurate indicators of Hemingway’s own troubled psyche, since he clearly experienced extreme beauty and tragedy in his own world ‒ poverty and wealth, doomed and passionate relationships, adventure seeking and ardent working. But like Henry, Hemingway struggled and, at the end of his story, failed to find lasting peace.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (Lillian Hellman)

In Crazy Salad, Nora Ephron gives Lillian Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir a must-not-miss review. I love Nora. I trust Nora. But this is her second recommendation that has left me underwhelmed. Still, I can see why she related. Both ladies were feminist Jewish screenwriters. They both were upper-crust but also in touch, wide reaching and also reachable.

Lillian, however, did not begin life among the privileged. Her father was a shoe salesman, and during her childhood, she spent six months of every year in a New Orleans boarding house run by his sisters, and six months in New York with her mother’s family. She describes her early years just enough to illustrate the innate independence which characterized her life. Rebellious little Lillian was primarily unconcerned with pleasing anyone besides herself, and she respected practically no one but Sophronia, her black caretaker, whom she loved.

As she moves into her adulthood, Lillian drops lots of celebrity-circle names, most of which were unfamiliar to me. (Ernest Hemingway, I knew.) As she tells of their profuse alcohol consumption, I had to wonder how much more extraordinary - or, perhaps, ordinary - they might have been if they’d made any effort to stay sober for ten minutes at a time. Lillian writes a little about her marriage to Arthur Kober, none of which seems remarkable after the reading. He is not among the prominent players in her life story.

Featured prominently, however, are Lillian’s European travels during World War II. The intimate diary vignettes are my favorite feature of the book. In them, she describes the ravaged landscapes, the kindness of war-weary locals, and the rationing of her own canned foods (which she brought upon Hemingway’s advice). She details a harrowing flight to frigid winter-time Russia. On this journey, she suffers a disastrous medical mishap, and an unlikely character assumes tender responsibility for her care and recovery. She also tells heartwrenching war stories, such as her visit to a concentration camp just recently surrendered by the Germans, where smoke still puffed from the chimneys, and human bones still lay in trenches.

Dashiell Hammett
Lillian saves the last few chapters for her most important people, beginning with her friend, the poet and screenwriter Dorothy Parker. To me, Dorothy seems like a loopy, lushy woman, an opinion shared by Lillian’s partner, Dashiell, who flatly refuses to associate with her. But Lillian obviously adores Dorothy and pays her respectable homage with a nod to her nuttiness.

The second to last chapter is devoted to Helen, the black housekeeper of Lillian’s adulthood, with frequent references to her childhood nurse Sophronia as well. In these pages, Lillian attempts to demonstrate her liberal-mindedness, but the contemporary reader sees a first-hand relic of white liberal guilt. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the era’s black/white relations adds dimension to our understanding of the progress we have - and haven’t - made since then.

The final chapter is Lillian’s memorial to Dashiell Hammett, her friend and lover from her mid-twenties until his death. These are the most sentimental pages in the book. She does not glamorize Dashiell’s addictions and eccentricities, but instead she writes with sensitivity about his alcoholism, his reclusiveness, their disagreements, and later, his pathological hoarding and neglect. Some anecdotes indicate the old cultural standards, with the immovable, unemotional man, but Lillian clearly commands a fantastic degree of autonomy for her time.

Lillian Hellman
Throughout the book, Lillian says surprisingly little about her political leanings, which were famously communist, or the implications of her cultural heritage, which was Jewish. It might have been interesting to read more of that. Instead, she writes mainly about her formative relationships and her encounters with intriguing people of all social classes, which was good. But I wanted to like Lillian, and her book, more than I did. While her influence was broad and her stories are important, her voice constantly teeters on pompousness. I couldn’t warm up to her the way I did to Nora Ephron in I Remember Nothing or to J.R. Moehringer in The Tender Bar. If you know and love Lillian Hellman’s work, then you should enjoy An Unfinished Woman more than I did. I didn’t mind when it was finished.