A post in the Local in Ann Arbor blog reflects on the importance of historic buildings in creating a city’s sense of place. It includes a review of “Historic Ann Arbor,” a new book by local authors Susan Wineberg and Patrick McCauley: ”This book should be on the bookshelf of everyone who lives in Ann Arbor and values any sense of our history and architectural diversity. As Grace Shackman says in her introduction to the book, ‘Susan and Patrick’s love of Ann Arbor shines through every page.’” [Source]
Natalie Jacobs was 35 when she died, suddenly, in January 2008.
She left behind a novel. And her parents, Stan and Judith Jacobs of Ann Arbor, have published it, in ebook form, as a memorial to her.
“When Your Song Breaks the Silence” is an elegantly imagined life of Austrian composer Franz Schubert, distinguished by an articulate sensitivity and meticulous research. The completed novel’s existence was a surprise to her parents – its subject was not.
When her daughter was 11 years old, Judith Jacobs writes on the website she created for the book, “she wrote a story about the composer as a young child trying myopically – Natalie was also very near-sighted – to interact with his family and surroundings.” A graduate of Community High School, Natalie majored in English literature at the University of Michigan and was still working with the Schubert theme in the mid-1990s; when Stan and Judith traveled to Vienna in 1995 they made a point to visit the house where he died (in 1828, at age 31).
“A lilac bush was in full bloom in front of the building,” Jacobs says. They took a photograph.
Laurence Thomas isn’t the world’s best salesman. Really – trying to get this guy to talk about Third Wednesday, the literary journal he edits, was like pulling teeth. You’d think he was a poet or something.
As it turns out, all you need to know about this well-kept secret can be found in its pages.
Thomas – who is a poet, as well as an essayist and a writer of fiction – was born in Ypsilanti 85 years ago. A Hopwood Award winner for essay and poetry at the University of Michigan in the early 1950s, he had a teaching career that took him as far as Uganda, Saudi Arabia and Costa Rica before he returned to his hometown, where he lives today. Third Wednesday was an outgrowth of a monthly poetry group and of his friendship with the late Dearborn Heights attorney and magistrate Michael J. Barney, who was also a published poet and founder of Gravity Presses (lest we all float away) Inc.
Barney, “a regular attendant” of the group, Thomas says, had begun publishing through Gravity Presses a local literary magazine called Now Here Nowhere. Only a handful of issues came out of the project before Barney became ill (he died of cancer in 2006). Third Wednesday picked up where Now Here Nowhere left off, Thomas says, and is in great part an homage to Barney’s memory.
From his home office, Thomas corrals the input of associate editors both local and far-flung (one of them lives in Tajikistan!) who review submissions of poetry, fiction and visual art to produce a quarterly collection. Third Wednesday casts a wider net than did its predecessor and draws submissions – “two or three a day,” Thomas says – from around the country as well as Michigan. The current issue – Winter 2012 – publishes poets from Ann Arbor to Sofia, Bulgaria.
The upcoming trifecta of other-worldly holidays – Halloween, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day – are the perfect frame to showcase a pair of new literary treats from local authors. (A neat trick, no?)
“The Sin-Eater: A Breviary,” Thomas Lynch’s latest collection of poems from Paraclete Press, presents this world and the next according to Argyle, an insurance policy incarnate for unabsolved offenses and, Lynch writes, “the mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings.”
“Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them,” part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series from Wayne State University Press, serves up a dozen ghost stories – some fiction, some true in their own way – from some of the state’s finest writers, many of them from the Ann Arbor area. Laura Kasischke (“Space, In Chains” and “The Raising”) and Keith Taylor, whose next poetry collection, “Marginalia for a Natural History,” comes out next month, are the editors as well as contributors.
Taylor, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, and “Ghost Writers” contributor Elizabeth Kostova (“The Historian,” “The Swan Thieves”) will read from the collection at Zingerman’s Roadhouse on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the sixth annual Vampires’ Ball, a benefit for Food Gatherers. (Hunger. In Washtenaw County. In America. Sin? Horror story? This theme is definitely hanging together here.)
A chief function of the book review “industry” is to give new books a sales push – the “latest” is the point. But today, let’s hear it for the backlist – otherwise known as those books you took note of months (or years) ago and intended to read, or brought home, placed on the shelf and have noted with good intentions ever since.
Two works of fiction by University of Michigan creative writing teacher Peter Ho Davies spent way too much time on my “gotta get to” list. And “The Welsh Girl” (2007) and “The Ugliest House in the World” (1997) were fine company when I finally claimed for them a couple of snowy weeks in February.
“The Ugliest House in the World” (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin) is a collection of deftly composed short stories that are tragic, comic and often a dead-on blend of the two. They take us from colonial southern Africa to anti-colonial Kuala Lumpur, from Wales to – hilariously – Welsh-speaking Patagonia. (“Butch should have known it would come to this when the Kid started shooting ostriches again.”) And while we know things won’t end well for the British in Natal, the officers’ dining-table tales of heroism in the face of Zulu savagery are a ripping good time.
Where’s a medieval village when you need one?
You know – that place where everyone knows where everyone else lives and everybody knows everybody else’s business and, no matter how insipid or irrelevant, has an idiotic opinion on it all, one generally borne of grinding frustration, depthless boredom and a general, yawning poverty of the spirit …
No. I do not need to get on Facebook.
But maybe somebody out there who is plugged into this dynamic global engine of online communal solidarity-ishness can take a break from investigating what your fifth-grade gym teacher had for breakfast and help us out here.
The mystery opens a few days after Christmas, when my husband and brother-in-law drop me at the Borders in Peoria, Ill., on the way to relive their childhood at a matinee screening of “Tron: Legacy.” Browsing the history section, I come across a paperback edition of “Life in a Medieval Village,” by Frances and Joseph Gies, and settle into an armchair.
And there I learn, from the back cover, that the Gieses “live on a lake near Ann Arbor, Michigan.” And there’s this dear photo of an elderly pair who appear to be Grandma and Grandpa circa 1948, but they’re also two scholars who’ve spent their lives together researching and writing almost two dozen books about life in the Middle Ages. How cool is that?
My book group reconstituted itself a few months ago after a hiatus prompted by serious illness, family problems, the acute burdens of employment and unemployment and a number of other upheavals among us. When we reunited it was with some new members, and our first meeting was largely spent getting to know one another and catching up. Essential to that, of course, was what each of us had been reading lately.
“Olive Kitteridge,” Anne mentioned. “It was just wonderful.” Eilisha’s eyes lit up: “Oh, yes!” Linda had adored it, too. And they were off – celebrating a shared delight at Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of connected short stories and at the gratifications of shared delight, newly discovered.
One of the purposes of this column, which is approaching its first anniversary, is to re-create some of that pleasure – with the emphasis on sharing. NPR has a feature called “You Must Read This,” which these days has sounded a bit too pushy to my neurotic ear: No, I mustn’t. And get off my case. Lately I’ve tended to get a little uptight even when the most dear and trusted friend insists on lending me a book she’s just finished because she just knows I’ll just love it. Chances are I will. But I’m already in the middle of two other books and that’s yet another one joining the mountain of reading I don’t have time to get to and you wouldn’t believe all the crap I have to do today let alone this week and this month and for how many years can I keep this unread book before you start to hate me?
So, no pressure! But I’d like to share some of the reading that kept The Chronicle’s Book Fare columnist sane and fundamentally optimistic during a tough stretch.
When a member of my book group recommended Margaret Fuchs Singer’s recently published “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning,” I assumed the longtime Ann Arbor resident’s contribution to the literature of America’s red-diaper babies would be another account of growing up with a parent who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, became disillusioned but still refused to inform on former comrades – and suffered for it.
I got it wrong.
Singer’s father, Herbert Fuchs, cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He informed. He named names. He told the whole truth – about a profound commitment and a profound mistake – and suffered for it.
His family, of course, suffered for it, too.
Start with some quick history: Josef Stalin’s campaign in the late 1930s to consolidate his control of the Communist Party spun into a terror that counted both old Bolsheviks and a new generation of party faithful among its victims. The leadership of the Red Army was decimated. Intellectuals were seized and interrogated and, like so many others under torture, falsely denounced others.
Inevitably, the masses caught on to the madness; pointing the finger at a neighbor could suddenly open up that three-room apartment next door. By the time the rampage was reined in, some 1.5 million people had been arrested and imprisoned; half again as many were executed or perished in the gulag.
Fast forward to the present: You’re a 29-year-old with an MFA, in Moscow to do research for your first novel. Lev Mendelevich Gurvich, himself caught up in the purges, has welcomed you into his apartment and has agreed to tell you his story. Gurvich, in his 90s but still with a sharp mind, had in the 1930s been editor of the literary magazine of the Komsomol, the Communist youth movement of the U.S.S.R. He was arrested, interrogated, sent to a labor camp.
You tell him about your novel, the story of a disgraced teacher of literature who now works as an “archivist” at Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison. Pavel Dubrov’s guilt and sorrow threaten to deaden him into numbness until a brief, official encounter with the prisoner Isaac Babel stirs him to rescue the condemned writer’s last manuscript from the prison’s furnace. Pavel smuggles it out of Lubyanka under his coat.
I met Babel, this survivor of the gulag tells you. I was at Stalin’s rallies; yes, I heard Stalin speak. But at one point the old man stops to ask, pointedly if not unkindly: Who are you to write this book?
“I wasn’t insulted,” Travis Holland says. “It was a question I asked myself.”
A more than fair question. But Holland’s answer, “The Archivist’s Story,” proved that his audacity was matched by his gifts.
Once upon a time there lived a pretty lady named Jiselle who was always a bridesmaid and never a bride. But one night she is swept off her feet by a handsome pilot with green eyes and a tragic past. He proposes! She says yes!
But the “happily ever after” part snags on a few complications. Her new husband spends way more time in flight than he does at home. He has three motherless kids, one of them a middle-schooler with the mother of all attitudes. Jiselle’s own mother has an attitude of her own, marked by a particular contempt for unreliable charmers and her own daughter’s pathetic naïveté.
Oh – and a deadly plague is sweeping the land.
“In A Perfect World” is a dystopian fairy tale by Chelsea novelist and poet Laura Kasischke, set in an America whose citizens have become global pariahs – shunned, quarantined and loathed as potential carriers of the gruesomely fatal Phoenix flu. A distant war drags on vaguely. The power grid fails for hours and then days, and then for good. The mysterious plague kills the rich and famous along with everybody else.
“Shanghaied” by Eric Stone (Bleak House Books: hardcover $24.95; paperback $14.95)
“I love Chinese food. But sometimes China doesn’t do much for my appetite.” – Ray Sharp
Though this novel might at the beginning be categorized along with books by writers like Barry Eisler, Brent Ghelfi and maybe even Lee Child, halfway through Eric Stone turns his action story on its ear in an entirely unexpected way.
This is the fourth book in a series featuring detective Ray Sharp, a Hong Kong-based investigator who does “due diligence” investigations with his partner, the Chinese-Mexican dwarf Wen Lei Yue. As the story opens Ray and Lei are looking into a missing monk. What they can’t decide is if the monk is just having a little illicit fun or if the monk is the money man for his well-endowed monastery, in which case his disappearance is more worrisome.
“The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu” by Michael Stanley (Harper, $24.99)
As everyone knows, there is a very famous series of books set in Botswana, by Alexander McCall-Smith. McCall-Smith’s delicate prose is matched by the charm of his main character, Precious Ramotswe. Now there is a new series set in Botswana, with a slightly darker take, though the main character, Detective Kubu, would surely be friendly with Precious were they to meet.
Detective Kubu (the Botswana word for “Hippo”) is hugely fat and hugely smart. If Precious is the African Miss Marple, then Kubu is the African Nero Wolfe. Kubu and Wolfe both share a deep appreciation for the pleasures of the table, and both of them have brains that work best with their eyes closed.
“The Last Child” by John Hart (Minotaur Books, $24.95)
Recently one of the VPs at St. Martin’s, Matthew Baldacci, asked if he could swing by the store with author John Hart. I had enjoyed Hart’s first book, “King of Lies,” and enthusiastically agreed – just as enthusiastically, Mathew offered to FedEx me copies of Hart’s new book, “The Last Child.” The book arrived on a Wednesday afternoon for a Thursday visit – I trundled into the store to pick it up, hoping I might get at last halfway through before Hart stopped in – and I couldn’t put it down. I was finished with the book Thursday morning, eager to have a chance to discuss it with the author.
“Liars Anonymous” by Louise Ure (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $25.95)
“When had I crossed that weathered threshold that divided the world between citizens and survivors? Between what could be and what we are in our darkest hours.”
I know I’ve really enjoyed an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of a novel when I look back and see how many pages I’ve dog-eared, for one reason or another. In the case of Louise Ure, it’s for her use of language, which is both precise and original. Sentences like “I missed my friend Catherine like she was a country I could no longer visit,” and “Her teeth had click-clacked with nervous energy while she filled out the paperwork, like a sleeping rabbit dreaming of carrots” are so evocative, and so vivid, they stay with you. It’s not often this kind of clarity is found in a hard-boiled mystery novel, but here it is. Maybe the beauty of the language is meant to carry the reader through the story of Jessie Dancing, which is one of the darker books I’ve read in a long while.
“Next of Kin,” by John Boyne (Thomas Dunne Books, $15.95)
Every good book has a secret somewhere in the story – in a mystery, the secret of course is usually the identity of the killer. In John Boyne’s historical mystery, the secret is not the killer’s identity, but the killer’s very personality, his motives, and the extent of his moral depravity. This stand-alone novel is set in 1936 Britain, where one of the central issues of the day is the relationship between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Of course, we know how that turns out, but Boyne offers a possible behind-the-scenes scenario that’s very interesting.
Don’ t avoid the obvious: there is a half-naked woman on the cover of Steve Amick’s new book – wearing “nothing but a smile,” which appropriately is the title of the book (wink-wink). She made quite the impression on you when you walked into Nicola’s Books, where Amick was doing a book signing Tuesday night.
How she got there is quite an innocent story. The book, “Wearing Nothing But a Smile,” deftly balances the innocence of WWII pin-up girls with the harsh realities of the war back home.
Amick admits to stumbling on the idea of a book with the pin-up industry central to the plot.
[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest, along with eight other book lovers. Versions of these book reviews first appeared in her store's newsletter.]
“A Rule Against Murder,” by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books, $24.95)
This may be the most traditional of Canadian writer Louise Penny’s now four novels, though she has been labeled from the beginning as a “traditional” mystery writer. And indeed, she does write in the same tradition that Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and Agatha Christie were following (and helped create), but she has managed to make this old form her own. She has an exceptional gift with prose, and the character development she brings to her writing is very modern. In each book, Penny has manages to slightly change up her formula to make each story feel fresh, and this one is no exception.