Friday, April 26, 2013

"Hands of Grace" Now Live on Hobart

Well, I'm very excited and humbled today. Aaron Burch and the editors of Hobart published my first short story this morning. It's a feature for their April-long baseball feature, and it's called "Hands of Grace." The story went through multiple drafts and even started as something completely different from the finished piece. It's a story about an unhappy marriage and a man's obsession/crush with former Chicago Cubs first baseman Mark Grace. I'm also thrilled that it's accompanied by the terrific illustration above, by New York-based artist Katie Gross. She's a Phillies fan, but I won't hold that against her. Yet. But seriously, thank you, Katie!

Back in 2008, I remember making this ridiculous declaration to a friend of mine, claiming I'd have my first story published by the end of that year. Well, here we are, five years later. I've gone through a lot of changes since then, yet I kept focused, understood the rejections, and now I can say I've had a story published. There will be many more rejections to come, but also more publications. This is a great way to lead into my MFA Candidacy this fall.

Okay, I'll stop rambling now. Here's the story:

September 13, 1998

Murphy's was packed beyond any regard to occupancy regulations, and this made Evan both grateful and concerned. (Okay, that was just a teaser. To read my whole story, click here. And click HERE for a roundup of Hobart's superior baseball pieces that have been published this month.)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

places, peoples, ghosts: Joshua Young's "To the Chapel Of Light"

Some months ago, I attended a release party for The Diegesis, a poetry collaboration between Joshua Young and Chas Hoppe. After a late-night marathon of great readings at the party (by Young and a group of poets from Chicago's Columbia College), I ended up buying a copy of the book with the intention of reviewing it here. As is normally the case, I got sidetracked with other projects, and then I realized April is National Poetry Month. What was supposed to be a series of several poetry reviews has turned into just this single one, but I'm pleased that it's going in the opposite direction from the one I intended. I found The Diegesis to be a terrific, challenging project, but as much as I admit my shortcomings in poetry, I felt any review I'd do wouldn't serve the collection well. And, as much as the poets I know stress the universality of their work (that is, even challenging works can and should be enjoyed by people not necessarily inclined toward poetry), my limitations in being able to truly analyze the forms would show. Also, I found myself unsure where Young's work ended and Hoppe's began, and vice versa, and I would have wanted to give both writers equal footing in my own writings. In addition to The Diegesis, I also bought To the Chapel Of Light, one of Young's chapbooks. This tiny volume, picked up on a whim, ended up hooking me greatly. I've now read it three times, and for someone like myself who feels the need to stress a lack of knowledge about poetry, I was amazed at what Young packed into less than 80 pages. The book takes the form of a screenplay with a sort of road narrative, with the poems evoking prose, settings, and sometimes fictional intentions. Like any terrific work in any genre, I found myself discovering something new in my subsequent readings. Also, my last reading was bittersweet: as I started to draft this essay, I discovered that Mud Luscious Press, the publishing company that put out To the Chapel Of Light under its Nephew label, is closing shop. More on that later.

To the Chapel Of Light opens with a cast of characters, some of whom appear readily within the text, some of whom don't. The following scene is a fantastic, surreal description, drawing the reader into what appears to be a strange fantasy world. Scenes like these appear elsewhere in the text, but for the most part, Young focuses on smaller, more atmospheric details. The opening is a serious attention-grabber before more "regular" happenings ensue.


a poet comes to my door with snakes wrapped around his arms and says he's gonna pull a fiddle from the throat of a sparrow. no one believes him. his friend--another poet--makes everything worse, keeps saying, 'I like it when a camera stops outside the door like this & just waits a moment, listens.' and then he tries to pull an organ from the speakers of the stereo.

rubbing the snakes wrapped around his arms, the poet says, 'that's not what we came here for.' and so, the friend of the poet closes his eyes and opens his mouth to speak, but the words sound like mud sliding off of a roof.

he clears his throat and waits a moment.

and then, he starts talking about the camera.

FADE TO BLACK: (Young 2)"

After this, the travel begins: the journey is set to the chapel of light. This journey could be read literally or metaphorically. The beauty of Young's writing is that, for a book rife with potential metaphors and imagery, nothing is meant to hit the reader over the head. Some of the potential meanings are explored carefully while other meanings are casually mentioned. In one of my favorite passages/stanzas, Young explores the way a reader could potentially read the book. There are clues, but they shouldn't always be taken at face value. There's no true map, but the destinations aren't meant to be obvious.

"dear brothers,

no, we did not get a map, but we nodded as if what they said were lines and x's drawn on paper, something that could guide us. before they left, the poet said, 'the road is not your friend. no matter what you see or hear, it is simply a guide, or maybe you can look at it as the tracks hunters follow to the watering hole. so, follow it, but do not trust it. it might leave breadcrumbs to keep you lost, but only follow its sound and movement, not ever what it has left behind.'

so, here we are chasing...what?

places, peoples, ghosts. halves of stories (Young 5)."

The screenplay format (interiors, exteriors, fades to black, etc.) could potentially be distracting if handled differently, but Young (a filmmaker as well as a poet), aside from the cinematic cues, isn't making this strictly a poetic imagining of a film. At times, it feels like an interpretation of what most of us have done on a boring day, namely imagining our lives as moments in a movie. Young's screenplay notations are really just a guide to the final pages. The poems, and the scenes/people therein, appear and recede. A striking, unexpected twist comes through Young's imaginings of Americana. The journey is a play on every road trip or movie set during one. Young's details are sometimes easy to miss (again, some of them didn't appear to me until my second or third reading), but he's skewering the American landscape, honoring it, and slightly lampooning its pedestal status all at once. There are even religious hints as well.


out before the horizon spreads, an old man keeps preaching about the new floods and the bursting and building of damns. but he doesn't remember that if you reach the ocean by sun up, and turn to face the land, a camera might be there to move in and hold. catch all that western dying light, the last hope for that one southern American dream that keeps tugging at the shirt sleeve of your jacket. but now, there's nothing to stop the fall, just a curtain slowly drooping into darkness. you'll still remember the light, 'cause the sun left spots in everyone's eyes.

CUT TO: (Young 21)"

Young's poetry is striking and can stand alone out of context to the rest of the book. The passage below is an excellent example of this, even with the explicit mention of the chapel of light. I found myself rereading passages like these and being amazed at their tangible and intangible meanings.

"to the chapel of light

if you start at the road leading up to the armory, you can hear the followers off in the trees, around a fire, dressed in dirty white, singing about god's wrath and love, and how it all coincides with the washing of sins. if you look east at dark you can see the flicker of their fire like a candle in the belly of a whale.

they keep pulling at the wire leading to the shoreline as if it is attached to the toes of god, or at least some kind of monster waiting to sink its teeth, but the wire is nothing more than a guideline for failure, or a path to salt, or even a string to sand where strangers dance on the roofs of rusted cars like they just saw the pale horse descend into the fields across town (Young 36-37)."

I tend to shy away from reviews that describe a piece of fiction as "poetic," and I honestly don't know if poets feel the same way (i.e. "your poems read like a novel"). However, Young's prose gave me that feeling. It's not that I was reading his work as fiction, but instead, it made me tune in to how my own fiction can use such vivid imagery without pointing obvious signs at it (as in "hey, look at these landscapes and tiny details"). Right now, I'm reading Laird Hunt's 2003 novel Indiana, Indiana, and I'm noticing some similarities between that particular fiction and Young's poetry. Both use evocations of American landscapes in sometimes surreal patterns, and both are are careful combination of the literal and the fantastical. I'm grateful that I ended up grabbing a copy of To the Chapel Of Light, and I'm still amazed at how such a small chapbook can do so much.

And now for a sad closing. A few days ago, Mud Luscious Press announced its closing. Founded by J.A. Tyler (an amazing writer in his own right), Mud Luscious published some stellar work, including Young's chapbook and Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby, one of the best books of 2012. There's really nothing I can say that hasn't been said already, but I'll close on this plea: if you support a literary magazine or publisher, don't disregard any of their calls for donations or mentions of financial struggle. The end of Mud Luscious Press has been mentioned by a lot of writers as if it were a death in the family. They did some marvelous work, and it's awful to realize they won't be publishing more amazing work. Kudos to everyone involved in that organization. You were an asset to literature.

Work Cited:
Young, Joshua. To the Chapel Of Light.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

God Is In the Details: Jamie Quatro's "I Want To Show You More"

I'm going to open this piece with a terrible pun on the book title. After reading and loving Jamie Quatro's "The Anointing" (published last fall in Guernica), I wanted to see more of her fiction. That story, which happens to be included in I Want To Show You More, was a stunning, uneasy exploration of a crumbling family paired with complex issues of religion as a functional and social tool/problem. It was beautiful, upsetting, and wholly original, and I made a point to read her debut story collection. "The Anointing" wasn't just a flash of brilliance, but rather one of many pieces that are unafraid to get into unsettling subject matters in weird, sometimes brutally honest ways. Now that I've read more of Quatro's work, I'm amazed at how diverse her stories are. She moves seamlessly among tales of infidelity, crisis, and small worlds of suspended disbelief. Some of the characters appear in multiple stories, creating a wider arc of interactions across various time periods. And she explores religion in a way that few contemporary writers can match, deftly balancing the subject with all of its complications, showing how it can be essential and disappointing. I Want To Show You More is that nearly perfect combination of entertaining storytelling that forces the reader to pay attention and weigh various possibilities.

Almost all of these ideas are on display right away in the opening story. In the span of a couple pages, "Caught Up" tells the story of a woman's childhood memories (a combination of celestial awe that turns into complicated ideas of god in adulthood), a casual affair, and honesty. I was very tempted to scoff at copyright law and transcribe the entire story, since taking one passage as an example leaves out bigger parts of the entire narrative. But the passage below is a decent sample size that manages to pack in various ideas.

"This time, in the vision, the other man was with me. I would like to say he was standing beside me--that we were equals--but he was the size of a toddler. I was holding him. He was limp and barely breathing, his skin gray, the color of my two-year-old son's face the night we rushed him to the ER for croup, and I knew the reason I was about to be caught up was because I was supposed to carry the man to God and lay him in His lap so that God could...what? I didn't know.

Bullshit, the man said when I told him about the vision. I'm already there (Quatro 3)."

In the next story, the reader is then thrown into similar circumstances with one of the creepiest, weirdest plot devices I've ever encountered in a story. With "Decomposition," Quatro gets into another saga of a family torn apart by infidelity, but this time, the lover's body is a constant, physical presence. The body lays on a couple's bed, and evidence is given for it being either an actual body or a wax figure. The reader weighs both of these possibilities, but the focus remains on the collapsing marriage outside of said physical manifestation. Also, Quatro is deftly playing with a big metaphor. Any writer of her stature can work with careful metaphors, but in this piece, the act of the metaphor being an unavoidable, essential piece of the narrative adds even more texture to what is already a tense unfolding. Upon a second reading, it's even more amazing combined with Quatro's beautiful descriptions and minute details. It's a combination of classic storytelling with modern, experimental twists.

"In the front yard you pick clusters of holly and magnolia to arrange on the pillow around the man's head, thinking the least you can do is create a little beauty around the edges of death. But when you enter the bedroom you notice the man's skin has turned the color of wet newspaper. You smell menthol and burnt plastic and something like rotten Nilla wafers. You hold your breath and close your eyes while the word inaccessible lights up against the backs of your eyelids--the thing you wanted there in front of you but also as far away as the bottom of the ocean--and you remember how your husband said, when you were pregnant with your first child, inches from us but she might as well be on another planet, and it is perhaps this realization--you are shut out--that makes you drop the leaves onto the wood floor, grab the bedpost and hold on, and say, to your husband, still curled up on his side of the bed: But I wanted him.

I checked the body out, your husband says. It's fucking wax (Quatro 8)."

I Want To Show You More has some pieces that are scaled back, yet no less powerful. "1.7 To Tennessee" tells the story of an elderly woman's dangerous walk along a highway to get to a post office. She lost her son in Vietnam and is determined to send a letter to President Bush in protest of the Iraq War. It's a small, personal narrative with hints of a much bigger backdrop. It's as much about the woman as it is about the people she encounters along the way, in addition to the having a link to worldwide protests (on a tinier scale). By having the main character be an elderly woman, Quatro is able to add careful touches: Eva needs help writing the letter, yet is sharp, feels responsibility, and pushes herself into what turns out to be her final act.

"In her pocket was a letter, addressed: Pres. George W. Bush, Penn. Ave., Wash. D.C. Seven envelopes she had thrown away before she felt her handwriting passed for that of an adult. The letter itself she dictated to Quentin Jenkins, one of the McCallie boys who went down the mountain for her groceries. Quentin wrote in cursive on a college-ruled sheet of paper. She preferred he type it, and considered offering to pay him an extra dollar to do so, but when she finished her dictation and Quentin read the letter back to her, she grew excited and snatched the paper from him, folding and stuffing it into an envelope. Then she realized she hadn't signed the letter, so she had to open the envelope and borrow the boy's pen. Quentin offered to mail it for her but she had made up her mind to deliver it to the post office herself. She took great pride in the fact that she, an eighty-nine-year-old woman, still had things to say to the President Of the United States. It was a formal letter, protesting the war. She felt it her duty to place it, personally, into the hands of the government (Quatro 67-68)."

Another aspect of Quatro's writing that I love is her joy in truly challenging the reader, not on an emotional level (although there is plenty of that), but on a tangible one. Some of her longer narratives are complicated, multi-layered sagas that require rapt attention, especially since they draw you in so casually before going off into unexpected directions. "Ladies and Gentlemen Of the Pavement" explores marathon running in which the participants are required to carry heavy, cumbersome statues; "Sinkhole" takes place at a religious camp and unfolds adolescent sexual attraction on the backdrop of various kinds of fervor; and in one of my favorite pieces, "Demolition" starts off as the story of an unexpected church patron, then becomes a staggering exploration of loss, strange ceremonies, and the actions of a small town congregation. Although stylistically and thematically different, it reminded me of one of my all-time favorite stories: Matt Bell's "His Last Great Gift," another complicated mystery with religion at its core.

"Unwilling to abandon the church, the remaining leaders--an elder, the organist, and Robinson himself--formed a Committee for the Reestablishment of Order. Their first recommendation: the immediate removal of Sunday services to the windowless Fellowship Hall. But we refused to move. For the first time we could see each other worshipping in the natural light. Breezes fluttered our skirts and chucked our collars up under our chins. Through the empty lead cames drifted scents of honeysuckle and wisteria, mown grass, grilled fish. We could hear weed trimmers, children's laughter; the whir of a moped, the drone of an airplane.....

....Without the support of the beams, the roof, too, would have to go. But this was no great loss. Many of us--though we'd never said so to one another--had begun to long for total open-air worship (Quatro 168)."

As I have a tendency to stress in my reviews, the small sample citations are no match for the collection as a whole. I Want To Show You More demands to be read, since there are so many other details that I've neglected to mention, and I'm sure once I post this, I'll think of other, better avenues I could have explored here. But this was one of the best reading experiences I've had in quite some time, and in a year dominated so far by terrific, heralded story collections (George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell, etc.), it was exciting to be so enthralled by a writer whom I didn't know about until a few weeks ago. I was challenged, vastly entertained, and definitely felt like I was discovering someone who needs much more recognition. Jamie Quatro really transcends genres and manages to do something that many writers attempt, but few can accomplish: she completely upends a reader's expectations, and does so intentionally and intensely.

Work Cited:
Quatro, Jamie. I Want To Show You More. Copyright 2013 by Jamie Quatro.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Thank You, Mr. Ebert

I met Roger Ebert twice in my life (well, more than that, if you include sitting in the same screening room with him a couple dozen times). When I started as a film critic for The Chicago Flame during my UIC days, I was in a state of shock when I first walked into the private screening room on Lake Street in downtown Chicago. The film was Wind Talkers, a terrible Nicholas Cage vehicle about American Indian soldiers in World War II. Richard Roeper sat behind me. Jonathan Rosenbaum was down in front. Various journalists milled about. I turned around and saw Ebert walk in, and my heart was racing like crazy. If it hadn't been for him and Michael Petersen, my high school cinema teacher, I wouldn't have been in that room. I wouldn't have walked into the Flame's office to offer my services as a novice sophomore, freshly steeped in unabashed film snobbery. After the film, I walked up to him, completely interrupting his conversation with someone, and told him how great it was to meet him. He looked rightfully confused and irked that I had barged my way into his chat, but was nice enough to shake my hand. I never had the nerve to speak with him again. In fact, after the next screening, I avoided getting into the same elevator with him. I didn't know what networking was, and I was too embarrassed to try another attempt at a one on one conversation.

Mr. Petersen had my class read some of Ebert's reviews after we screened various films. The class taught me how to analyze film narratives, direction, and the filmmaking process. Mr. Petersen was right when he said "you'll never watch a movie the same way again." Like many people (as I've discovered through today's social media tributes), I began reading his reviews every time I watched a movie, and generally, I found myself having the same thoughts that he did, therefore giving me the confidence to start writing reviews for the college paper. It was never a case of "pfft, I could do better than this," but a genuine excitement along the lines of "hey, I can do this." My writing was very shaky then (you can read some of my college film writings here, under the tag "Chicago Flame Archives"), but my analysis and love of expression grew, along with my talent. I'm still nowhere near the writer he was, but he was a direct influence on me. And I'll never forget him for that, and I'll always be indebted.

Roger's writings veered into political arenas, and he proved just how adept he was at any subject he was passionate about. I most admired his call to politicians to publicly distance themselves from the right-wing loons spitting conspiracy theories about President Obama's birth certificate. In this, he proved his love for intelligence, reason, and education. He never suffered fools, and was one of the most engaging public commentators of our time.

I'm writing this out of emotion and a need to share my thoughts. I'm just one of thousands dealing with today's loss. Rest in peace, sir. You'll always be one of my writing idols.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Fabulous Ruins: Mark Binelli's "Detroit City Is the Place To Be"

For the past several months, I've wanted to read a book about Detroit, and I wasn't sure if I wanted a complete history or a more contemporary look at a consistently analyzed, poked, and prodded city. I've read handfuls of (now) forgettable articles about the area, but I have no immediate memory of these pieces, save for the general consensus of: "Detroit has fallen apart, let's see how this mirrors/represents the recession, etc. etc." In the last year, several new book releases have popped up. I kept meaning to check out last year's Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle, since at first glance it seemed like a more academic, complete exploration. I never got around to it, and the recent publication Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff has been getting a lot of press lately. Judging the titles alone, the two books are stark polar ends of what I wanted to read. One is an overall history, one is another layer in the vast documentation of Detroit analysis/head-shaking reporting. On a whim, I instead opted for Mark Binelli's Detroit City Is the Place To Be. The jaunty title is juxtaposed by a grim, postcard-like illustration of industrialization. In hindsight, I think I decided to read this book because it struck me, at least visually, as a Detroit version of Neil Steinberg's You Were Never In Chicago. Having grown up outside the city, Binelli returned multiple times to research how Detroit has grown and regressed since bottoming out. In retrospect, I feel I know more about the city than I did going in, but there were times when I wasn't sure what kind of book Binelli wanted this to be.

In his very good introduction, Binelli gets the obvious thoughts out of the way, the ones I've referenced above. Detroit has become a "new obsession," to borrow his words. Internationally, journalists, photographers, and writers have journeyed to the city to explore and highlight its desecration, but in the end, are readers really learning anything about the city? Andm most importantly, are there any real answers on how to bring Detroit back to sustainability, both economically and socially? Months ago, I was putting away photography books at work, and ended up paging through a glossy coffee table collection of abandoned, crumbling infrastructures. Artistically, Detroit is irresistible. Ruins (or, as Binelli references later, "ruin porn") are great fodder for visceral reactions. But there are serious problems that need to be addressed. Detroit and its outside perception is very complicated.

"The new obsession with Detroit did not end with journalists, at least not according to the journalists themselves, who reported on how artists were also colonizing the city. Could this be a first wave of bohemian gentrification? Was Detroit the next Williamsburg? One young couple from Chicago had bought a home in Detroit for a hundred bucks. Brooklyn artists came and froze another house in a block of ice. Thanks to a nearly 50 percent tax incentive being offered by the state, Hollywood film crews also arrived, along with actors like George Clooney and Richard Gere. A glossy French fashion magazine even produced a special 'Detroit issue' featuring shots of models in ruined industrial backdrops. The magazine cost twenty dollars in the United States--or, in local terms, one-fifth of the price of a home in Detroit (Binelli 15)."

Binelli offers some excellent historical research into Detroit's founding and some of the very early issues plaguing the city. He pokes fun at the sometimes strained attempts by writers and historians to bridge the gaps between the past and the present, but his research did teach me about some of the historical events in the very early days of Michigan. He offers some big examples, but I found the smaller, less known depictions to be much more enthralling. Since I was hoping the book would be a balance between the old and the new, there's just enough information to satisfy before moving on the bigger, more current pictures.

"Aside from Pontiac's Rebellion, the most well-trod historical marker of Detroit's frontier century is the Great Fire of 1805. Just as the Michigan Territory of the United States was officially established with Detroit as its capital, the fort was almost entirely destroyed by a freak conflagration. The temptation to ascribe Detroit's misfortunes to conspiracy is apparently an old one, and a theory quickly developed--arson!--supposedly committed by lumber barons up in Black River, now Port Huron, who wanted to sell the city more wood. In fact, the fire was started by an employee of John Harvey, a baker, who knocked some ashes from his clay pipe, igniting a pile of hay. Detroit was made up of old wood buildings built very close together on narrow streets, and by the middle of the afternoon, the entire village was ablaze. There was only one fire truck. Citizens tried to put out the fire with river water and 'swabs at the ends of long poles.' Eventually they evacuated the fort in canoes and watched the settlement burn (Binelli 44-45)."

After this and more historic details, Binelli gets into the heart of his book. He travels through the city and takes part in a variety of activities--he sits in on a gun class, interviews urban farmers, attends a murder trial, and sits in with a group of firefighters, to name a few. He doesn't attempt to leave himself out of the proceedings, not that this is distracting. He's a consistent first-person narrator, offering his opinions and reactions to conversations and happenings in real time. This is acceptable, since he never stops to offer any "this is what I would do" type analyses. Instead, he focuses on the big picture, and isn't afraid to tackle sensitive racial issues head-on. The city's population is predominantly African-American, and some critiques border precariously on racial lines. While tailgating at a Detroit Lions game, Binelli struck up a conversation with another tailgater, expressing optimism over Detroit's health and outlook. The unnamed person

"...shook his head and said he'd been hearing that for the past thirty years. The main problem, he claimed, was leadership, that the city really screwed up by electing the worst people ever, that nothing would change unless you changed things at the top--a not uncommon assessment from white suburbanites, 'leadership' often signifying 'thieving blacks who demanded the keys to the shop, and now look what the fuck happened.' If there was national schadenfreude about the failure of Detroit, regional schadenfreude was even stronger, and it hinged in large part on race.
In that moment, I thought of certain aspects of United States foreign policy--the practice of isolating enemy states financially and then watching the leader whom we've labeled a tyrant act more and more like one when his regime begins to crumble under the pressure of the embargo. The leader and his state must fail in order to confirm the triumph of our own ideology. And if his people do not rise up against him, their suffering is, at least in part, their own fault. Here, Detroit was a rogue state, defying the bullying hegemony of a superpower that (in the eyes of many Detroiters) wanted to install its own hand-picked leader, making the transfer of any remaining natural resources that much smoother (Binelli 113-114)."

Passages like these represent Binelli at his finest. He's able to make complicated analogies and civic policy understandable, but at times, he'll stop and quickly move into another area of discussion. His ability to get himself into hard-to-reach places with hard-to-reach individuals is admirable, but there were far too many times in my reading when I simply didn't know what his ultimate goal was supposed to be. Binelli might have been better off with a strictly oral history of the city--he manages to get fascinating memories and insight out of anyone he interviews. Late in the book, he mentions research for what was supposed to be a novel about Detroit. He has a definite flair for the dramatic, even in seemingly offhand paragraphs.

"[Firefighter Eric] Hollowell sat nearby, chain-smoking and drinking coffee from a thermos. A trim black man with a cleanly shaved head and a wispy mustache, he wore a blue Highland Park Fire Department polo shirt tucked into dark slacks. Hollowell was thirty-seven. He'd grown up in Highland Park, just a few blocks from the warehouse; so few houses remained on Hollowell's old street, one of his coworkers told me, 'I call that block We Lost It.' Hollowell's mother had been a teacher at Highland Park High. His father died when Hollowell was only ten years old. An electrician, he'd been doing work in a friend's basement as a favor and stepped into a puddle of water, not realizing someone had cut the power back on (Binelli 189)."

Detroit City Is the Place To Be is much better when Binelli profiles Detroit's two most recent mayors, Kwame Kilpatrick and Dave Bing. The two men are contrasts in physical and political styles: Kilpatrick was younger, bigger, and affectionately (and not so affectionately) dubbed the "hip-hop mayor" before political scandals brought him down. Bing is older, more reserved, and in most opinions, sometimes too timid or laid back for a city dealing with such upheaval and needs. Binelli also travels with a group of artists to a warehouse exhibition, and in the process shows how even the most forward-thinking artists can be terribly out of touch with reality. The artists seem bemused with the surroundings, even making offhand jokes about buying up cheap properties for creative purposes. Binelli doesn't judge them outright, but lets their actions and words show how good intentions came come across and cringe-inducing and insulting to struggling citizens. He later expands his thoughts on "ruin porn," the seemingly exploitative nature of people seeking enlightenment and meaning in crumbling infrastructures.

"Ruin porn was generally assessed the same way as the other kind, with you-know-it-when-you-see-it subjectivity. Everyone seemed to agree that Camilo Vergara's work was not ruin pornography, though he'd arguably been the Hefner of the genre. Likewise, the local artist Lowell Boileau, who, around the same time Vergara proposed his American Acropolis, began posting his own photographs on a website called the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, also received a pass, perhaps because he approached his subject from a native's perspective, and with unabashed nostalgia. Photojournalists, on the other hand, were almost universally considered creeps pandering to a sticky-fingered Internet slide-show demographic. To some extent the critique had been just: as with stories about misbehaving teenage starlets, editorial love of Detroit came with obvious exploitative commercial reward: a link to a titillating shot of Detroit's architectural dishabille could always be counted to rise to the top of your website's 'most emailed' lists, which, of course, was the bottom line (Binelli 272-273)."

In the end, I wanted more of this kind of analysis. There are so many stories to tell, and Binelli tells all of them admirably. Perhaps he's still so attached to the city as a native citizen that he doesn't want to go on his own nostalgia trip. This is a very well-researched book, but after, I still don't know exactly what his intention was as a whole. Entire books could be written about contemporary Detroit politics and the subject of ruin porn, and perhaps I was so drawn to those subjects that I wanted more. I feel I know more about the city than I did going in, so as a sort of introduction, Detroit City Is the Place To Be works well. It would be silly to expect a single volume to encompass everything, but Binelli tries. In this, he succeeds and stumbles. It's an admirable project, but it left me wanting more concrete analysis rather than just some sketches. Devoting equal footing to all of his subjects would have led this to be a multi-book project, but in the end, we're left with some vivid people and the hope that a once bustling city has the pieces to rebuild.

Work Cited:
Binelli, Mark. Detroit City Is the Place To Be. Copyright 2012 by Mark Binelli.

"You Against You" in Hobart; "I Don't Want to Pry" in Pidgeonholes

Hey y'all. I'm a little late posting these, but I was fortunate to have two new publications this week, working in new genres, a...