Saturday, October 31, 2015

Book Reviews: Detroit: An American Autopsy, Finn Family Moomintroll

Detroit: An American Autopsy
by Charlie LeDuff
Charlie LeDuff is a local "Caucasian" (more on that in a minute because it is relevant) Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, gadfly, pain in the a$$ and media showman who, after journalistic stints in New York, Los Angeles and a few other places circled back to Detroit to become a reporter for the Detroit News, one of two major local daily newspapers. LeDuff grew up close to Detroit, in the local suburb of Westland or as he puts it, the only city that he knows of that was named after its shopping mall. LeDuff is an inveterate chronicler of the absurd. And there is, was and probably always will be a lot that is absurd in Detroit and the surrounding areas. This book, is both a love letter to Detroit (and the tri-county area) and also a rambling screed about all the crazy stuff that goes on in the metropolitan area. As I've mentioned before and LeDuff points out constantly, this area has always had a tremendous amount of racial hostility and segregation. That colors (pun intended) every bit of news and information about well, everything. So you could read this book and come away convinced that black political leadership is hopelessly incompetent and completely incapable of running a major city. Or you could read this book and be just as convinced that white racism and greed are fatal flaws in the American political arena that will wind up destroying the nation. LeDuff doesn't explicitly let you know where he stands. He's a reporter. He calls it like he sees it. LeDuff is currently raising a little hell by reporting on the fact that Detroit's new white mayor Mike Duggan, has overseen an extremely suspicious rise in the cost of home demolitions by companies that may or may not be connected to the mayor's friends. So LeDuff would likely state that he doesn't care what color you are, if you're not flying right he's going to call you out. Some people might disagree with that. LeDuff has tons of phone and email messages calling him a "n*****-lover" and just as many others making unpleasant references to his whiteness. You'd have to read the book for yourself and make up your own mind. Detroit: An American Autopsy, examines some of the more infamous events that took place around here from about 2004 to about 2012. These would include such things as the Kwame Kilpatrick text message and municipal corruption scandals, Councilwoman Monica Conyers' various public eruptions of anger and foolishness, the near meltdown of the Big Three auto companies, frozen corpses found in abandoned factories owned by scofflaw billionaires, the perpetual and near hopeless battles of teachers, police officers and especially firefighters to get the equipment they need to do their job safely, and many other failures of public and private leadership and probity that kept Detroit and some other localities in the news. 

As a reporter, LeDuff was around for a lot of these events. Sometimes he not only broke the story, but helped create the story, in a manner which irritated some movers and shakers as well as media critics. But the book artfully combines those macro events with the smaller challenges and tragedies that aren't necessarily news. LeDuff mines his own family for many of these stories. His sister was a streetwalker who died in an accident caused by one of her clients. His sister's daughter, his niece, was a junkie who passed away from a heroin overdose. LeDuff writes of his guilt at ignoring her and not reaching out to her earlier. I would guess that every family has some people who don't make people happy when they call. When a relative you aren't crazy about calls you, you might try to rush them off the phone or listen in a resentful silence as you wait for them to get the courage to beg the favor or cash which you don't have to give. That appears to have been LeDuff's relationship with his niece. His brothers struggle with lowered financial expectations. One, being unable to afford a dentist, removes his bad tooth with channel locks and whiskey. Another, having lost his job pimping subprime mortgages, views a degrading and boring $8.50/hr job as something approaching penance. Their stories and a few others echo those depicted in the film Sunlight Jr. The string that ties these vignettes together is LeDuff's argument that Detroit (and he means the city in particular and the tri-country area in general) no longer works for the people who made it possible in the first place. That is you can't really argue with a straight face that if you're willing to bust your butt and put in a hard day's work that you can have a decent middle-class lifestyle while your children could aspire to more. That dream is gone. LeDuff is very angry about that. He doesn't spare himself either. He alternately views himself as a crusading hero for the little guy or just another remora out to make a buck off of the travails of the city. LeDuff details a domestic violence incident between himself and his wife.

I mentioned that LeDuff is "Caucasian". That's important in the framework of this book both because some of his city sources who were eager to leak embarrassing information about the city brass may not have shared such information with someone who wasn't white and because Leduff has relatively recent African-American ancestry. (And Chippewa ancestry too for that matter). LeDuff thinks that Detroit is America's future if wide sweeping changes aren't made. But he doesn't detail what he thinks those changes should be. He's just telling a story. As he writes "It's about waking up one morning and being told you are obsolete and not wanting to believe it but knowing it's true. Go ahead and laugh at Detroit. Because you are laughing at yourself".

This is a good book to read. It's not quite the ruin porn I thought it would be though obviously there are some people who see it as that and/or enjoy it on that level. Detroit still has a busload of issues but it's not as horrible as it used to be. It's not as nice as it used to be either. No matter if you think LeDuff is a muckraker who is needed to keep people honest or a leech who makes money from heartbreak you will find your opinion validated by this book. Fun fact , LeDuff, whose personal and familial encounters with alcohol permeate this book, recently avoided charges of assault, public drunkenness and urination.

Finn Family Moomintroll
by Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson was a Finnish writer and artist of Swedish descent. She was one of my favorite authors as a child. Like many of the best children's authors she was able to capture whimsy and fancy while not writing down to children. Also although her initial works are probably best enjoyed by children they still have things to say to adults. Her later works, while theoretically children's books, were either written for incredibly mature children or more likely adults. There was a lot going on. Finn Family Moomintroll was one of her earlier works in her Moomin series. The Moomins are a family of friendly, artistic, chaotic, bohemian trolls (many characters were modeled after the author's friends, family and love interests) who look like hippos but walk on two legs. This was one of the first books translated into English though it's not the first in the series. There are some people who do not like starting series except at the very first book but Jansson's style here allows a reader to get up to speed very quickly. Moomintroll is the child of Moominmamma and Moominpappa. Moomintroll has some of his father's restlessness and somewhat less of his mother's good sense. With his parents, he also lives with his friends Sniff and Snufkin. As Jansson writes "Moomintroll's mother and father always welcomed all their friends in the same quiet way, just adding another bed and putting another leaf in the dining-room table. And so Moominhouse was rather full--a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow. Very often unexpected and disturbing things used to happen, but nobody ever had time to be bored, and that is always a good thing." In some respects you could argue that the Moomins and their friends are idealized incarnations of Rousseau's beliefs. Snufkin in particular is a wanderer and good person who doesn't like authority one bit. He doesn't believe in it, doesn't understand it and will rarely if ever allow someone to tell him what to do. Sniff is a nervous little creature. There is also the Hemulen, who enjoys collecting and labeling things, something Snufkin doesn't care for. And there is the Muskrat, a lazy philosopher who believes everything is useless but is rarely late for meals.  In this particular story the gang finds a magical hat belonging to the Hobgoblin. This hat transforms anything placed inside of it in often unpredictable ways.

This is a fun read that is amazingly silly at some points. It sends up the legal system, the concept of private property, young love, loneliness, friendship and many other ideas and themes dear to adults and children alike. For those of you who don't care for winter there is a monster who is the literal incarnation of winter sadness and depression. But on the other hand she may be horribly misunderstood. This book has a fair amount of slapstick. Very few of the characters take themselves very seriously and those who do are often gently (or not so gently) mocked. This is a wonderful book that brought back childhood memories. And for those of you who never read this author before, this book may briefly put you back in touch with your inner child. Jansson had a very vivid and oft surreal imagination. This book is less than 200 pages.
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