Wrap Yourself in Winter with ‘The Windward Shore’

Cover ImageSlowing things down in our furiously paced society is a discipline or luxury few of us can afford. Technology, economy, and mere 21st century self-preservation have together constructed a high-speed connection to a life that leaves many of us sapped and stopping to smell only the virtual roses.

If winter, which was once respected as a period of rest and quiescence, has become a bang-out battle to avoid the flu and maximize those dwindling daylight hours, then perhaps you should meet Michigan author Jerry Dennis.

Dennis has made the very ebb and flow of the Great Lakes define his life’s direction. Well known for his literary works on nature, science, outdoor sports, Michigan’s lakes, and this entire Bountiful World, Dennis has become the collective voice of integrity when considering our magnificent waterways.

His latest book, The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes, is a timely work as we silently slip from the hands of autumn into those of winter. The Windward Shore covers a season of winter solitude along Michigan’s shores in which Dennis lived in homes both posh and crude, taking in and reflecting upon our ever-evolving relationship with nature.

Dennis is a deep thinker, but he’s an accessible writer who won’t leave you behind. He takes the time to examine and brief us on our current eco-condition, and rewards with passages of introspection and great beauty.

“Wild nature is crucial to our well-being. It is our universal reservoir of hope. It is the raw material for our daydreams and night dreams. It sustains us even when our other hopes languish – hope in technology, for instance, or effective government, or wise leaders. An afterlife is the hope for many, of course, but for now, for life on earth, the only life we know, we turn to the remaining unspoiled deserts, forests, mountains, and seas, even if only in imagination and art, for relief from the turmoil of everyday life.”

Despite its depth, Dennis strikes an easy balance and offers plenty of humor as he grapples with his own bouts of boredom and unsettling ennui that so often hit us during winter’s thick-armed stretch. While some environmentalists push and preach, Dennis is a realist who doesn’t sound-off or claim to rise above. Instead, he defers to his subject matter – nature – with nothing less than sheer awe and appreciation of her power and unrelenting splendor.

The Windward Shore is a provoking work meant to accompany slow, steaming cups of coffee rather than an extra hot grande-on-the-go. It’s not  a wild page-turner that blows through to the end, but a work seasoned to mull over, enjoy, and consider long after you close the cover. “Let this be a celebration, then, and a grieving,” writes Dennis of The Windward Shore. “Both a love song and a lament. A tribute to what was and a plea for what remains.”

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

Jerry Dennis podcast discussion of his book, The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas

University of Michigan Press

Prior NLR Post on Living the Great Lakes

Mitchell Zuckoff Brings ‘Lost in Shangri-La’ to Grosse Pointe War Memorial

Cover ImageSeveral noted military attacks took place as part of World War II combat on May 13, 1945. However, on that very same day there also occurred a more anonymous incident of devastation that has, until now, slipped historians and the world at large.

Author and journalist Mitchell Zuckoff  has plucked a diamond of a story out of the remaining rubble of World War II history with his vivid account of the crash of the Gremlin Special. Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II draws on remarkable interviews, journal entries, diaries and photographs to recount the astonishing tale of three plane crash survivors and their unlikely jungle rescue.

Lost in Shangri-La literally takes off in Dutch New Guinea where two dozen officers, soldiers and Women’s Army Corp members (WAC’s) board the Gremlin Special, a C-47 transport plane. The flight isn’t a tactical military mission, but rather a morale-boosting joy ride into the lush, untouched hidden valley known as Shangri-La.

The reader knows what’s coming, but Zuckoff maintains a holding pattern of suspense as he lays out the tropical tangle of mountainous land below. Anticipation builds as the Gremlin’s passengers unwittingly jockey for prime seating and optimal views of the very gorge into which the plane will soon disappear – and disappear it does.

“The distance between the C-47 and the unforgiving terrain closed to zero. To the ear-splitting din of metal twisting, glass shattering, engines groaning, branches snapping, fuel igniting, bodies tumbling, lives ending, the Gremlin Special plunged through the trees and slammed into the jungle-covered mountainside.”

Lost in Shangri-La is a wonderfully readable account of the demise of the Gremlin Special, inner-tribal warfare, and World War II military history. Zuckoff doesn’t cease to fascinate as he touches on topics such as the WAC, Filipino forces, tactical rescue and indigenous peoples. Shangri-La doesn’t bog down with overdone detail, but rather offers the opportunity for insight and tender reflection on prophecy and contemporary contradictions long after you close the cover.

Mitchell Zuckoff will be bringing his fantastic story, Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, to the Grosse Pointe War Memorial this Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 7:30pm. This event is presented by Wayne County Community College District and the Grosse Pointe Public Library. For more information, call 313.343.2075.

* Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Related Links

The Ambiguous Charms of Zuckoff’s ‘Lost in Shangri-La


The Ambiguous ‘Charms’ of Mitchell Zuckoff’s ‘Lost in Shangri-La’

Cover ImageAs a reader I often find myself wondering about little tangential topics, quirks, or details that cushion a story. As my eyes move over one page my thoughts might still be caught a few paragraphs back, roaming around with questions that itch for a little more info. What was that war all about? Does this tiny country really exist? How did the author manage to survive?

Charms candy was that little itch for me in Lost in Shangri-La. 

It seems that Tootsie Roll Industries would have little to do with Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La. However, Tootsie Roll Industries is the owner of Charms Candy; the very candy that provided the Gremlin Special’s crash survivors with enough sustenance to survive in the jungle.

“Breakfast was water and more Charms, still their only food on the third day after the crash,” writes Zuckoff. “They separated the candies by color, eating the red ones until they tired of them, moving on to yellow, and so on.”*

Due to the hardiness of Charms Candy under a variety of conditions, the candy became a standard part of American soldiers’ military issue around the time of World War II. The individually wrapped candy squares, made from sugar and corn syrup, came in an assortment of fruit flavors and were a staple of soldier rations.

The treat meant to sustain military forces, however, has taken on a more ominous tone in recent years. The Curse of Charms Candy is of unknown origin, but superstition claims that if a soldier eats, or even keeps the candy in their possession it brings bad luck.

In the article US Marines Ditch Their Unlucky Charms, one sergeant says, “Chew on a lemon Charm and you’re heading for a vehicle breakdown. Suck on a lime and it rains. Raspberry – for the highly superstitious – means death.”

Journalist Ashley Gilbertson of the New York Times found the same beliefs among forces in Afghanistan. “Never eat the Charms, the troops say; they’re unlucky. It’s just a superstition, of course – I’ve never met a soldier who could tell me why they were unlucky – but the G.I.’s take it seriously. I sometimes think that if I ever got separated from my unit in the field, I’d just follow a trail of discarded unopened Assorted Charms to find them again.”

You can link over to BookBrowse.com where you will my full review of Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La as well as thousands of reviews and intriguing sidebars.

* Taken from Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredibly Rescue Mission of World War II

-Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Post by Megan Shaffer

Meteorologist Paul Gross Takes ‘Extreme Michigan Weather’ in Stride

Mother Nature received a standing ovation last night for her exceptional performance in yesterday’s storms. Pooling water and weighted trees are a common sight this morning if you’re not still bailing out from the 3 inches of rain that fell across the Detroit metro area. Not sure what I’m talking about? Click here.

Michigan is a definite beauty, but the weather is full of stunning surprises every season, year after year. Much like the dog beaten by his master, we remain steadfast and true to the unpredictable climes of the state that keep us sunning in the summer and weeping in the winter.

Paul Gross, however, has taken Michigan weather up a few degrees. The Local 4 weatherman is well known in the area as the official meteorologist for the Detroit Tigers, Detroit Lions, and the University of Michigan football and baseball teams. Gross now adds the title of author to his forecast with the perfect “go to” book for those of us looking for more information on the mystifying weather that both irritates and brings Michiganians such pleasure.

Extreme Michigan Weather: The Wild World of the Great Lakes State is a slick paperback that digs into the state’s heat waves, bitter snows, ripping winds, ice storms, and yes, floods. Gross gets into the reasons behind our harsh climate and explores the causes behind fog, rainbows, lake breezes, ice jams, black ice and even global warming.

Extreme Michigan Weather carries the interest and kind of information that easily transfers to those of us who aren’t so science savvy. For more information about Extreme Michigan Weather, check out this interview with Paul Gross. If you’re interested in buying Gross’ book, it’s available through the University of Michigan Press site.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Get Your Amen! from ‘Same Kind of Different as Me’

Cover ImageIt’s all good. Really good, in fact, if you read the words of authors Ron Hall and Denver Moore in the huge uplifter Same Kind of Different as Me. This true story of two men who find spiritual order in the chaos of each other’s lives is nothing short of miraculous.

The course of life, as we all know, is a haphazard ride. Like a bouncing pickup on a back country road, each pit and pock has the capacity to keep us on course or toss us clear out the window. But international art dealer Ron Hall and modern-day slave Denver Moore (yes, unbelievable) have buckled in together for the long haul.

Though time doesn’t allow for a full review, I can tell you that “wealthy white man helps poor homeless black man” is far too simplistic for the emotional depth of this book. The winding road that constructs Same Kind of Different as Me snakes through the plantation south, scales the heights of heaven, drops to the depths of hell, and delves deep into the heart of both Texas and humankind.

Same Kind of Different as Me might not snag you for its literary prowess or impenetrable threads, but it will certainly grab you with its honesty. There’s much to learn about life and love within its pages, so I’m going to push this one as sheer inspiration. Believer or not, let faith take over and enjoy the ride.

Related Links of Interest

-Same Kind of Different as Me video and coming soon movie

-About Ron Hall

-About Denver Moore

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Educator Esquith to Light a Few Fires at B’ham Borders

A quick trip to the site of Rafe Esquith will fill you in on the man known to teach like his hair’s on fire. Now the celebrated educator returns with his latest book, Lighting Their Fires: How Parents and Teachers Can Raise Extraordinary Kids in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World.

“Esquith expands on the techniques presented in Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire to show that any child can become extraordinary,” states the B’ham Borders site. For more on Esquith and his concepts, try this NPR segment Rafe Esquith Offers His Fiery Teaching Methods.

Borders in Birmingham will host Rafe Esquith for a hot reading and signing of his latest work this Wednesday, July 28th at 7:00 pm. As always, confirm all information before heading out the door as details are subject to change.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

Post by Megan Shaffer

When Books Breed Compassion

DetailsWhile stopped at a traffic light yesterday, I noticed a puttering station wagon next to me with a little old lady in a floppy gardening hat behind the wheel. I could just make out her profile as she peered out her windshield patiently waiting for the light to change.

My obstructed view was not due to her petite stature or an advanced stage of osteoporosis, mind you,  but rather from the climbing stacks of old newspapers, rotting stuffed animals, cardboard boxes, blankets, and foils in differing states of decomposition; overall, a stockpile that threatened to bust out the windows and swallow her whole.

Fiction often intersects with my reality, and it was at this moment of observation that I was tossed back into the Fifth Avenue home of the Collyer brothers.  Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow’s jaw-dropping tale, was my first real insight into the pathos of hoarding and the uncontrollable obsession with accumulation.

Based on this fiction, my mind soared with the endless possibilities of what might await on the residential end of this little lady’s drive. However, instead of being horrified by this mobile compost and thoughts of her potentially toxic home, Doctorow’s Homer & Langley offered me the possibility to translate this scenario into one of knowledge, creativity, compassion, and empathy.

And isn’t that, after all, the true gift of a book?

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

Non-fiction: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Mark Athitakis Beneath the (Expanding) Surface

Skloot Explores the Mortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Every ambitious explorer sets out to learn more about the unfamiliar; to chart, mark, and categorize new territory is innate to the quest. History has shown us grand explorations  of land, sea, and air in the pursuit of fame and fortune. Yet not every venture is so grandiose, and sometimes such expeditions take on a quieter, nobler tone when mere curiosity steps in and humanity takes over.

Science writer Rebecca Skloot is not an explorer per se, but she certainly found herself navigating foreign fields when she decided to seek out the story behind the cells that revolutionized modern medicine. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the result of Skloot’s unending patience in her search for scientific truth and the hard-won affection of the family behind the legendary HeLa cells.

When the name Henrietta Lacks was briefly mentioned in Skloot’s biology class years ago, her young journalistic wheels began to turn. Skloot’s instructor informed the class that Henrietta died in 1951 from cervical cancer, but before she died, samples of her tumor were taken and cultured. Henrietta’s cells (HeLa is taken from the first two letters of her first and last name) began to reproduce at a startling rate which had never occurred before in a lab setting. This quick reproduction provided scientists with endless possibilities for cellular testing and examination, and as a result Henrietta’s cells have become the “standard laboratory workhorse.”

However, it wasn’t the cells that caught Skloot’s interest. Rather, it was the mysterious Black woman behind them that ultimately set the aforementioned wheels into full motion. “I’ve spent years…wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever – bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine… .”

But to get to the true story of Henrietta Lacks one must first win over the family of Henrietta Lacks, and no doubt this was the most difficult obstacle for Skloot. Kept for years in the dark from any information of their mother’s cells, the Lacks children are reticent to give interviews or even return calls. Repeatedly blindsided by doctors, lawyers, and reporters, the Lacks family collectively tossed years of anger and frustration into a bubbling pot that continues to boil over at the mere mention of HeLa cells. For the Lacks family, HeLa is inextricably bound with intense racial, moral, and economic injustice. Yet somehow Skloot’s persistence  paid off, and her earnest intent eventually won over Debra Lacks (Henrietta’s daughter), thus prompting the rest of this profound story.

Encompassing everything from the plantation South to research procedures to cellular biology, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks could have been one laborious read. However, Skloot succeeds in her deft attempt to set the Lacks’ record straight. With a crosscut approach to Henrietta’s cellular and familial evolution, Skloot simplifies the history of HeLa while working the Lacks backstory. Though at times Skloot steps off-trail and gets tangled in the branches of the Lacks family tree, she does manage to stay objective leaving ample room for individual interpretation. Even for those who are not cell savvy, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a sympathetic and interesting journey marked by the tender lives behind the the world’s most important contributor to contemporary medicine.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters!

-Review by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

CBS News Segment

-NPR’s ’Henrietta Lacks’: A Donor’s Immortal Legacy

-NYT Book Review Eternal Life By Lisa Margonelli

Isadore’s Secret Still Thrills

“Every device imaginable for the darkest gothic novel appears in these pages, and yet this drama was not drawn from the imagination, but from tattered bits of fact confined, for more than a century, to local gossip and legend, and scattered historical records. This story is true, and yet somehow had escaped a thorough retelling until now.”

So accurately states Mardi Link at the beginning of her latest work Isadore’s Secret, the true story of the 1907 disappearance and murder of the young Felician nun, Sr. Janina.  Incredibly, the “…sin, sex, torture, confession, and secrets…” that abound in this novel push like contemporary fiction, making it all the more sensational that the event in question happened more than 100 years ago.

Living in the tiny town of Isadore, Michigan was an isolated affair. Not only was the Leelanau Peninsula geographically remote, but Isadore of the early 1900’s was further obscured by its tight-knit, Polish settlers and their devotion to God and the Catholic church. At the time of this story, anyone outside of Isadore’s proud community was considered undesirable. It was among this insular, Polish speaking populace that “the tragedy” occurred.

Not unlike the handsomely paid bloodhound of the book, Mardi Link also “hunts a cold line” for the truth behind the murder of Sr. Janina. For on a seemingly ordinary day in August of 1907, Sr. Janina went to her room to rest and was never seen again. The massive search that ensued turned up only speculation and rumor, and the quiet town of Isadore was reluctantly thrust into the media spotlight.

With what must have been painstaking research, Link digs into the past and unearths the facts and events surrounding the mysterious disappearance of the affable young nun. From stark fields to dark confessionals, the reader is taken on an esoteric journey into the mind-set of small town secrets and the larger, though no less complex, machinations of the church.

Isadore’s Secret is absorbing, and its constant supposition keeps you ruminating on the facts long after you close the book. Though the story is a century old, it continues to be cloaked in mystery up to the present day. Artfully drawn on historic Michigan tableau, it is no wonder that Isadore’s Secret was selected as a 2010 Michigan Notable Book. However, with its mass appeal and intrigue, you don’t have to live in Michigan to appreciate its thrill.

-Review by Megan Shaffer

Of Interest

-Mardi Link is a native Detroiter who currently resides outside of Traverse City. Click   here for more on the author.

-Milan Stitt’s play adaptation of the story:  The Runner Stumbles

-The movie adaptation of The Runner Stumbles

University of Michigan Press

*Please support your local bookstores and our state universities!

Poetry in Motion

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Low on inspiration? Your cup will spilleth over when you read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the true story of an African boy who refused to give up on his dream despite incredible odds. Armed with a burning desire to learn, a mind wired for invention, and a tremendous love of his family and motherland, William Kamkwamba takes you to the Malawi of his childhood where necessity first forced his wheels to turn.

Sitting at his father’s feet, young William listened attentively to the storytelling that explained the reasons for the pervasive magic that permeates the logic of Malawians and much of Africa; how magic has been with them from the beginning. “In a land of poor farmers, there were too many troubles for God and man alone. To compensate for this imbalance, he said, magic existed as a third and powerful force.”

As William grew, he quickly understood the need for some belief system to justify the instability and hardships of farming. In 2002, as the scorching sun and angry rains of Africa withered the country’s food supply, William lived in helpless horror as his family struggled to survive on one scant meal each day. Widespread famine brought the bloated bellies and hollowed eyes of starvation into the homes of William’s beloved friends and neighbors. Watching the thin wisps of his fellow countrymen being swept away, William decidedly opted for science over magic.

“No more skipping breakfast; no more dropping out of school. With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger. In Malawi, the wind was one of the few consistent things given to us by God, blowing in the treetops day and night. A windmill meant more than just power, it was freedom.”

It was on this wave of thought that the ever resourceful William scraped and scavenged from his surroundings in hopes of creating his “electric wind”. By having a power source, William could generate both electricity and the power to irrigate crops, ultimately providing two annual yields instead of one. So, with enviable tenacity and the loyalty of friends, William managed to construct his windmill despite the scoffs and taunts of “madman” coming from town. Slowly but surely persistence paid off, and the wind of William Kamkwamba’s machine became headline news.

In essence, this is the story about the wonder of a child and the fruition of his dream. It is a story of purity and unselfishness; a loving quest to better the lives of others. It is the coming together of belief, science, technology, and people who work to improve the plights of our planet. But more than that, it reinforces our most important resource after all: the human heart. Perhaps there is magic in Africa in the person of William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

-Review by Megan Shaffer

*For related information, please try these links but be aware that they might provide plot spoilers. As always, reading the book first is optimal:

Bryan Mealer is the co-author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Video presentation by William Kamkwamba

BBC article on the 2002 famine in Malawi

Picture of William Kamkwamba with his windmill

TED technology page

*Please support your local book stores*