Books: Homegrown (and expatriate) fiction and nonfiction, for holiday giving
You probably won’t be lucky enough to score a copy of “Made in Detroit” this holiday season as we did, and no, this isn’t the fine Paul Clemens novel of a few years ago, but rather, a 1957 book written by two “veteran Detroit newspapermen” from The Detroit News: Norman Beasley and George W. Stark.
This estate-sale find is the best kind of history, a narrative of Detroit during the first three decades of the 20th century, the years when the city grew by leaps and bounds, thanks to the explosion of the automotive industry. The title, Beasley wrote, was suggested by a retired News editor living in La Jolla, California, who thought it would be a mistake not to have Detroit in the title, “because Detroit is a magic name.”
Of course, it’s a magic name, and in this season of wonder, we readily invoke it, as well as “Michigan,” in suggesting several titles that would make great last-minute gifts — some authentic, homegrown books by authors who still live here, or as in the case of Jim Harrison or Patti Smith, departed the state but can never escape our grasp.
“Nappy-Headed Negro Syndrome” by Oneita Jackson (Dakota Avenue West). This tiny tome costs $25, but Oneita Jackson packs so much sharp wit into the 53-page book, you’re getting quality laughs for the dollar. The former Detroit Free Press columnist and copy editor says the title came to her out of the blue. “ I just looked up at the sky and said, ‘Thank you.’ ” After Jackson stopped writing her column in ’09 and then resigned from the paper in 2012, she took up driving a cab, which provided her with many situations ripe for her punchy humor. There’s the chapter about a guy from Berkley she’s driving home from the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
When the fact that her son attended U-D Jesuit comes up, the fare asks her how she paid for it. She replied “I wrote a check.” In the book she riffs for pages on the many ways she could have paid for it (but in most cases, didn’t), including “surveyed land,” “robbed bank,” “impersonated pastor,” on and on, to our favorites, “wooed gilbert” and “courted quicken.”
Jackson got a copy of her book to author Dave Eggers at an 826Michigan fundraiser, and he sent her an unsolicited blurb by email: “Damned funny, scalpel-sharp, and moves like a rocket.”
To buy: Go to Dakotavenuewest.com, from which you’ll receive it signed and personalized, or buy it in person at Flo Boutique, Savvy Chic, DittoDitto, John King Books or the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church bookstore.
“Better Made in Michigan: The Salty Story of Detroit’s Best Chip” by Karen Dybis (American Palate, $21.99). Although the cover design is a direct copy from a Better Made Potato Chip bag, this snappy book isn’t just about Better Made, launched by Peter Cipriano and Cross Moceri somewhere between 1926 and 1929. Indeed, former Detroit News reporter Dybis takes a deep dive into the history of potato chips in America in general, paying particular attention to the huge popularity of chips in early 20th century Detroit, where the thin, fried potatoes packaged in small bags was the perfect snack for a hard-working city.
Potato chips were marketed as a health snack in the early days; with Better Made and arch rival New Era touting their product as “starch-free” and “fat-free.” “A healthy food on the alkaline side,” New Era boasted in one ad, over the famous silhouette of the goddess-like woman.
The end result, of course, is that Better Made is still around, while its competitors all fell by the wayside. Some of their names: Wolverine (“The Pick of the Field”), Krun-Chee, Vita-Boy and Mello-Crisp. Dybis provides fascinating photographs, many from family collections, and lots of first-person accounts and detail about the minutiae of producing a world-class potato chip. There’s soap opera too, as the founders of Better Made didn’t agree on much.
To buy: Available at The Book Beat in Oak Park; Pages Bookshop, 19560 Grand River Ave., in Detroit; City Bird in Detroit; Pure Detroit and at barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.
“Yamasaki in Detroit: A Search for Serenity” by John Gallagher (Wayne State University Press, $39.99). New York’s World Trade Towers made Minoru Yamasaki famous, but few Americans ever realized he was a Detroit architect. John Gallagher corrects this oversight in an elegant, slender volume filled with images of Yamasaki’s work by photographic titan Balthazar Korab.
While Yamasaki grew up in Seattle, he moved to Detroit after World War II to become chief designer for Smith, Hinchman & Grylls (today’s Smith Group). Some of his most-famous local buildings include the Michigan Consolidated Gas Building across from Detroit’s Coleman A. Young Municipal Building (some call it a dress rehearsal for the Twin Towers), the McGregor Memorial Conference Center at Wayne State and the Reynolds Metals Regional Sales Office in Southfield.
Gallagher, gives us a polished, intriguing portrait of the son of Japanese immigrants who not only built some of Detroit’s most-significant buildings, but also built two of the most famous buildings in recent history.
Michael H. Hodges
“Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” by Bonnie Jo Campbell (W.W. Norton). Sometimes it’s hard to figure author Campbell. Her social media and real-life persona is jolly and hilarious, with her stories of goats and farm life. And yet Campbell’s books can be unremittingly bleak; haunting portraits of women, and a lot of bad men, living on the underside of life.
Her latest is a collection of short stories, still solidly planted in rural noir, and as always, wonderfully written, evocative portraits of girls and women
To buy: Available at Metro Detroit (and outstate) independent bookstores, as well as Barnes & Noble stores.
“Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit” by Ken Coleman. Berry Gordy Jr. was always meticulous about crediting black radio, specifically Detroit’s WCHB-AM, for playing Motown records from the beginning. He wasn’t alone in giving credit. Legendary CKLW music director Rosalie Trombley would listen intently to WCHB and WJLB before deciding what songs to add on her pop station. Coleman describes the vivid personalities who comprised black radio in Detroit, including “Frantic” Ernie Durham, Martha Jean the Queen and the Electrifyin’ Mojo — those three alone helped make Detroit music history.
“M Train” by Patti Smith. You get the sense that while Smith’s first memoir, “Just Kids” (about her early years in New York), won the National Book Award, this follow-up is perhaps closer to her heart, being a very personal, impressionistic work with many excursions into her thoughts and dreams. Throughout, there is a narrative thread about her fondness for (and eventual purchase of) a derelict ocean-side cottage that somehow withstands Hurricane Sandy.
“Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm” by Mardi Jo Link (Vintage). This memoir isn’t new, but it’s worth seeking out. Link writes humorously of her post-divorce life trying to make a go of it with three sons on a northern Michigan farm that’s much too close to her ex-husband’s residence.
“The Ancient Minstrel” by Jim Harrison (Grove Press). Sure, it won’t be out until March, but who can resist Harrison, who’s single-handedly revived the novella form. There’s an update on his northern Michigan detective, Sunderson, as well as an intriguing novella about an aging writer who happened to write “Legends of the Fall” and moved to Montana to fulfill his long-held dream of raising pigs. He tries to write a “big” novel and throw some spark into his long marriage. We’re hooked.
Local author events
Mitch Albom will appear at the Rochester Hills Barnes & Noble, 2800 S. Rochester, at noon Thursday to read from and sign his new book, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” His new book is a bit of a departure, with real-life musicians (including Marcus Belgrave) discussing Frankie, supposedly a guitarist of legendary gifts, as if he were well, real.
Also on Thursday, Ann Arbor’s R.J. Fox, author of “Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in The Ukraine” (Fish Out of Water Books), wrote about his quest for love in the Ukraine. He will appear at Pages Bookshop, 19560 Livernois, Detroit, at 6 p.m., to discuss the book.