Saturday, December 31, 2016

Completed: Detroit: A Biography

Dear Jenny,

Read this a few months ago. Looks like the template is really for fiction books (do we need another for non-fiction, maybe?) so I'll just go on my own here...

Since moving to the Detroit area in 2012 (almost FIVE years ago, if you can believe it), I've been on a "learn more about Detroit/Michigan mission." So this book landed squarely into that realm.

As the subtitle says, this book is written as "a biography," so it goes back to the settling of Detroit, how the city grew, how and why it fell/is falling. In general, I struggle reading biographies and I must say that I struggled to read this book -- it was pretty dry.

And then there were small nits that detracted from the book as a legit information source.

For instance, the author called "ruin porn" "ruins porn":
A lot of neighborhoods have risen and fallen in Detroit, but none has been more emblematic than Brush Park. It is the visual center for "ruins porn," as locals refer to the unending stream of photographs of empty crumbling buildings. [63]
The "as locals refer" line just made me look this guy up. He's from Maine. He lives in LA. His time at the Detroit News is barely a footnote in his biography. It's a small nit, but come on. If you're going to use a "hip" term, make sure you get it correct. That, along with the dryness of the reporting, I think is because this guy is not a local and, honestly, I don't really get the impression he cares about Detroit at all. Which may not be a requirement for a "biography," but it sure makes for a less interesting read.

There were also what I would call some flat-out "Duh" moments:
A recent study published in the American Sociological Review charted the progress of more than four thousand children into adulthood, and concluded that those raised in poverty had a significantly lower chance of graduating high school, and, by extension, reaching long-term stability. [xiv] 
Oh, FFS. Really? You needed a study for that? How about this: Use the damned money for funding that study and spend it on education. Ugh. I know that's not the author's fault, but why even quote that dumb stat? Who are you even talking to?

And this complaint doesn't necessarily have to do with the book itself, but I do wonder what the author thought of this (if he even cared)....

I have the pBook, but I needed to burn through some books, so I got the aBook. I had some trepidation because the negative reviews say that the reader totally butchers local place names. But I thought, "Well, I can deal with that... there are some weird looking words here and some butchery is okay..." For instance, there is a street called "Gratiot." Detroiters say "Grasshit" [Wow. Never noticed the "shit" in there -- it's less noticeable when spoken aloud!] This narrator said "grah-tio" -- like... the French pronunciation. I expected that.

But THIS guy mis-pronounced "Michigander!" I mean... what?! (Hard to explain how, exactly, but he basically said the state name and then "der" at the end. Like: "Michigan-der" vs. "Michi-GANder" -- you the bird?!) That just seemed so avoidable. I mean, it's like... not knowing how to pronounce "Hoosier." Sure, it's an odd demonym, but there are only 50 damned states and you're a voice actor.

I guess I would say, as a primer -- like, for someone who truly knew nothing about Detroit (and maybe didn't really care that much), this book would be fine. As it turns out, my education is working and I already know a lot about Detroit! Go, me. For my money, I would recommend Detroit City is the Place to Be (re-reading my review, it seems like I wasn't crazy about that book, either, but I have thought a lot about it since reading it, which is a good sign). It's got some kind of radical ideas about how to "fix" Detroit, but I liked that. In this book, I just felt like there was a long list of wrong turns the city has taken (especially over the past century) and... hey! Looks like we're f'd.

I didn't expect this review to turn so negative, but looking back on my notes... yeah... I didn't really enjoy this book. I think I felt "responsible" for that at the time (like, "I don't like biographies, so that's on me") but looking back on these issues, the book itself had some fundamental problems.

From now on, I think I'm going to stick to reading books about Detroit that are by Detroiters. Or transplants, but certainly people who have some affiliation with the city.

Ok! Another one down! It's the fiiiiiinal coooountdoooown...


1 comment:

  1. Books about Detroit from Detroiters sounds like good advice. I'm always on the fence with these books by reporters. Sometimes they are *so good*, which seems logical, right? These are people in the business of telling stories! So I'm always so astounded when a reporter serves up the sawdust cake instead. Ugh.

    Sorry it was such a downer, but hey! One more off the list, you crazy Michigan-der, you.