Tag Archives: Detroit

Book Review: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss (4/5)

10 Apr

My library brings in an author each year and every few years, it’s a non-fiction writer and when that happens, the discussion usually focuses on Detroit and Michigan. David Maraniss’s ballad to the once-great (and now recovering) Detroit was this year’s selection. My book club discussion on it isn’t for a while, but I figured I’d get a head start on the audiobook so I didn’t have to rush it.

Cover image via Goodreads

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

Summary from Goodreads:

It’s 1963 and Detroit is on top of the world. The city’s leaders are among the most visionary in America: Grandson of the first Ford; Henry Ford II; influential labor leader Walter Reuther; Motown’s founder Berry Gordy; the Reverend C.L. Franklin and his daughter, the amazing Aretha; Governor George Romney, Mormon and Civil Rights advocate; super car salesman Lee Iacocca; Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a Kennedy acolyte; Police Commissioner George Edwards; Martin Luther King. It was the American auto makers’ best year; the revolution in music and politics was underway. Reuther’s UAW had helped lift the middle class.

The time was full of promise. The auto industry was selling more cars than ever before and inventing the Mustang. Motown was capturing the world with its amazing artists. The progressive labor movement was rooted in Detroit with the UAW. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech there two months before he made it famous in the Washington march.

Once in a Great City shows that the shadows of collapse were evident even then. Before the devastating riot. Before the decades of civic corruption and neglect, and white flight. Before people trotted out the grab bag of rust belt infirmities—from harsh weather to high labor costs—and competition from abroad to explain Detroit’s collapse.

I’ve lived in Metro Detroit my whole life. Growing up in the 90s and 2000s, we didn’t go into the city. It was dangerous and there was nothing worth doing there unless you were going to a Tigers game and even then, you went straight to the game and straight home. Now that I’m in my 20s and the city is rebounding, I go a lot more. It’s great to see the city rebounding and I can see how it strives to be the city it was in the 60s (less some obvious racial problems). Maraniss has an obvious love for the city and it’s portrayed in this book and touches on all aspects of city life ranging from Motown to politics to automotive. I listened to this book while driving and hearing about the Mustang concept car kept at World HQ while driving on the Southfield past the Glass Castle (local name for that building) gave me shivers. Going to Wayne State for an event while hearing about students from campus was awesome. I felt like I was walking through this book while I read it. I felt like Woodward Ave would be closed as I approached it for the Walk to Freedom despite it happening over 50 years ago. Maraniss brought the city to a life I hope it can see again soon.

I loved how Maraniss portrayed the figures in this book. Reuther was probably my favorite. My parents were GM engineers and I grew up thinking of the UAW as devils so seeing their infamous leader portrayed so positively made me think a lot. Hearing about George Romney, whose son Mitt would run for President in 2012, seemed like a strange precursor to that election. It was really cool to hear about these people via interviews Maraniss conducted and get a feel for how they lived and what they saw.


I could feel Maraniss’s pride for his city in this book. Wherever I travel, I say I’m from Detroit and I get looks like I’m going to whip a pistol out of my back pocket and shoot the person in the face. It’s not like that! Detroit has a rough reputation and it’s fought that for years. Maraniss notes how it was fighting that during the time period he selected, a great time period for the city. It got worse after that and is only now starting to get better.

David Maraniss
Image via Simon and Schuster

I’d never heard about the Walk to Freedom and I really enjoyed that part of the story. Hearing about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in Cobo Hall was really moving and hearing the positive things he said about the city gave me chills. I wish the city had been able to make more progress for racial equality without the violence that broke out a few years after the book ended. It seems the city was open to it, but also resisted the change that was really needed.

I wasn’t as interested in some of the plot lines, the Motown one for example. The Motown plotline didn’t seem to connect to the others the same way the rest of them intertwined and it made me lose interest in it very quickly. The civil rights one connected slightly, but it wasn’t strong enough to feel like it was all part of a cohesive story.

Having Maraniss narrated the story was great. He pronounced everything right! I’ve found that non-native narrators don’t always say local names correctly and as a Detroiter, this could have been very distracting. It was great to have a man who knew all the right names say them.

Detroit was a great city. It makes me sad to say that, but Maraniss is right. It was a great city that fell off the tracks and is trying to get back on. The years in this book were boom years for the Motor City and show what Detroit could be again. On a personal note, I heard a speech from the current mayor, Mike Duggan, on Friday and his hopes and dreams for Detroit reminded me of this book. I hope we will be there again soon.

Writer’s Takeaway: When choosing several plot lines, it’s important that they alight. The political landscape of Detroit and far-reaching connections of the auto executives helped most plot lines interact with similar characters and events but the Motown plot seemed forced. It’s a defining sound of Detroit and that era, but the Gordy’s weren’t political and the Jim Crow laws that touched the performers wasn’t touching them in Detroit. I think the book could have been stronger without it but it’s a good note for a writer.

I enjoyed this book and it made me optimistic about what my city can become again. Four out of Five stars.

This book fulfills the 1960-1979 time period in the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Post:
Review: Once in a Great City- A Detroit Story | Da Tech Guy Blog


Book Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

8 Nov

I finished this book yesterday and I had a serious book hangover for the next few hours. Wow. That word sums up my feelings on Middlesex better than any other. Wow. I’m so excited to write this review. This is a book club book so I’ll be doing a book club review next week.

Book Cover taken from Goodreads.com

Book Cover taken from Goodreads.com

Middlesex by Jeffry Eugenidies

Middlesex tells the story of inter-sexual Cal Stephanides as he traces his roots back to Greece and follows the genes that led to his condition. The story is fictional and told from a mix of first and third person points of view as Cal retells his story. The text bounces between Cal in his 40s living in Berlin and his story through the 20th century.

The plot begins in Turkey near the Greek border where Cal’s grandparents Desdemona and Lefty decide that they should get married. This is complicated because they are brother and sister. To escape the villagers who would criticize them, they escape and flee to Detroit to live with their cousin, Lina, the only person privy to their secrets. Desdemona and Lefty survive the 20s and 30s in Detroit and produce two children, Zoe and Milton. Milton goes on to marry his second cousin, Lina’s daughter Tessie. When Cal’s older brother (code named Chapter 11) is born, nothing is out of the ordinary. When Cal is born as Calliope, no one suspects that the seeming young girl will grow into a man. Calliope’s questions about her gender identity and seeming homosexuality become more confusing when she reaches puberty until she is finally referred to a specialist in New York. When the specialist recommends cosmetic surgery and hormone injection to retain her feminine identity, Calliope flees and becomes Cal.

This overview is a gross simplification of the plot. The nuances of Cal’s story make this book very rich and full of the wonderful details that sucked me into the story. I’ll add that I listened to the audiobook of Middlesex and the narrator was incredible and certainly added to my enjoyment of this story.

Maybe it was my relationship with the Detroit setting, but Cal’s journey struck a cord with me. As a girl, he never felt comfortable with his body. Though not due to hormones, I felt the same way until I was in college; I never felt like my body fit who I was. I think this story is a wonderful example of a story that is relatable even when the character’s journey is anything but ordinary. Cal is a person with unusual problems but he experiences them with the same emotions all humans have.

One of the opinions Eugenides shares at the very end of the book has to do with how Cal’s family perceived him after his gender switch. He said that they realized that gender didn’t matter much; Cal was still the same person he had been when they called him Calliope. I took this more generally to mean we should treat people as people, not as men or women. Each soul is a unique human being and we shouldn’t have preconceived notions about how that human will act or talk or be based on characteristics such as gender, race, sexual orientation, or age. These things don’t matter because each person is uniquely designed to be the person they are, no matter the exterior.

Eugenides was able to take a controversial issue like sexual identity and write a book that is widely accepted by everyone regardless of their familiarity with the subject. He has personalized the intersexual journey and given Cal such a voice that he stands above all preconceived notions as a singular, strong character. I wish I could meet him in person because I have so much respect for him.

Writer’s Takeaway: I don’t know if I can put my finger on what exactly I loved about this book. Possibly the subject Eugenides picked; I’ve never read anything like this before and I don’t know if I will ever again. As writers, we’re always looking for a subject that will stand out and Eugenides did a wonderful job.

After reading this book, I instantly added The Virgin Suicides to my list so I could read another book by Eugenides. I highly recommend it, a full 5 out of 5 stars.

Until next time, write on.

Book Club Reflection: Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

10 Sep

One of my ‘themed’ posts I want to do is a reflection of what information was covered in my bi-weekly (usually) book club meetings.  I’ll still post reviews of the books as I finish them, but I’ll also take notes during my meetings and summarize what the group thought of the book.  I hope to close with some things I learned about being an engaging writer from listening to everyone.

So for this month, there’s not the advantage of a book review to go back to before reading this reflection.  As I always will, I’ll direct you to Goodreads.

Grand River and Joy by Susan Messer

Short synopsis: Harry Levine lives in Detroit and owns a shoe wholesaler at the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Joy Road (hense the title).  He and his fellow Jewish neighbors are starting to think about leaving Messerthe city for the more comfortable suburbs.  Slowly, his neighborhood empties and the blacks start to move in.  Tensions are high and the setting is prime for the 1967 Detroit Race Riots.  Based on the history of the riots, Messer spins a tale of tested relationships and what it means to be a good friend.

To preface these discussions, please remember that I live in Detroit.  There were several members of the group who were alive during the riots and have vivid memories of what happened during those few tense days.  (For anyone unfamiliar with the Detroit Riots, Wikipedia is always good for a short summary.)

Messer uses one-word titles for her chapters with the exception of the chapter about the riots themselves.  She titled that one “Riot/Rebellion.”  We discussed why this one deserved two words.  (I cheated since I’d already read an interview with the author where she was asked this exact question.)  We got he answer ‘right’ in that Messer realized the Riots were not riots to everyone; many of the blacks living in Detroit saw the events as a rebellion against a police force that at many times was oppressive toward the black populace.  The majority of officers in Detroit were white while the whites were no longer a majority of the city.  The non-black population (mostly white Christians and Jews) felt that the blacks were rebelling against a force that in their opinion was keeping everyone safe and the city in good order.  Messer has two major characters, one white and one black, who would have viewed the events in two different ways and having the Riot/Rebellion title reflects that.

Harry Levine’s business is saved from ransacking by a message scrawled above his doorway.  (You’ll have to excuse me for not remembering the exact words, our club moderator took the copies back!)  To me, this was reminiscent of the plagues in Egypt and how those who had the message written above their doors were spared.  The other members of my group talked about instances they remembered from the riots when similar messages were scrawled across storefronts.  Those who would lend on credit or who cared about their neighborhood were spared; women would stand in front of stores to tell looters to pass them by.  The houses of policemen were marked not to avoid trouble, but to respect those who kept the peace (I’m not sure if this was during the riots or more of a modern-time-comment).

One of the most touching scenes in the book is when Harry sits down with his tenant and pseudo-employee Curtis in the basement of the store, waiting for the plumber to open so he can come fix their boiler.  It was right before the riots and showed how the two men, who physically appear so differently, are so alike.  They both complained about their children not listening to them, being cold, the state of the city, etc.  They were both uncomfortable talking to someone so different from themselves at first but with the help of alcohol and a long night, they realized they were saying the exact same thing, only in different ways.  My group reflected on how being comfortable around someone with a different background is something one learns early in life and if it’s not learned early, it’s hard to overcome.  A woman reflected on how a school group from only an hour outside of the city had come to Detroit for a field trip and felt like they were seeing animals in the zoo when a school group of black children passed them by.

Harry’s wife, Ruth, is the second narrator of the book.  Her main conflict centers around the community Woman’s Jewish group.  She has been asked to give a presentation on whether it is best to stay in the city or move to the suburbs.  She’s conflicted on what to say because the group will come up with an official recommendation and Ruth’s not sure what she thinks.  She likes living in the city but sees it slowly falling apart.  In the end, she really doesn’t say anything.  I posed the question as to who the recommendation was aimed toward.  Would it be a city wide proclamation?  A fellow reader pointed out that the woman’s group was looking for validation; is it okay to leave?  Is everyone else going to come, too?  If the club recommended leaving, they could all leave their guilt behind.  In the end, Ruth decided to leave because the riots destroyed all her hope of the city being regenerated and a good place to raise a family.

There was a minor character who really touched me.  I think he was an angel.  He appeared the first time in a flashback Harry had.  He remembered a black man who had found him playing hookey from work and taken him to the Detroit Institute of Art so he could see Diego Rivera paint the Detroit Industry murals.  I’m a huge fan of these murals and every time I see them, I’m completely moved.  (Side note, if you’re ever in Detroit, it’s my #1 recommendation.)  This man helps him see the beauty of life, race, and the city.  In one of the last scenes during the riots, a suspiciously similar character guides Harry to a synagog where he finds peace praying in a shul with other men.  I think the character was guiding Harry through his rough times and helping him find the peace and beauty of the city.

It’s ironic to note that Grand River and Joy is not in the best of neighborhoods now.  The setting Messer painted was quite clean, orderly, and high-class.  No longer.

Of the three people sitting around me, two recommend the book to others, one did not.  I give it four out of five stars.

As a writer, I listened closely to what others said about Messer’s writing style.  We were disappointed at times by a lack of description.  There were scenes that she built up to and then skipped over, leaving the reader wanting more than was there.  Her lack of description made some of the characters feel flat.  We connected well with the book, but wonder if much of that was because of the setting so close to home and (for some) personal memories of the events taking place.  I think I would be more likely to recommend this book to other Detroiters than to someone from outside the city.  It might read as more fiction to someone who isn’t familiar with Detroit’s past.
Writers takeaway: Make your characters relatable and detailed, don’t fall short of a scene you’ve built up to, make your setting tangible to those who are unfamiliar with it (especially a struggle in science fiction).  Techniques: repeating secondary characters who carry a consistent message across scenes, touching upon real history to make a personal connection with readers.