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Wednesday, July 22,2009

Adventureland

Michigan-related books offer mystery, monsters ghosts and exploit

by Bill Castanier

Keeping your vacation close to home this summer? A slew of new books with Michigan connections should offer some escape.

Two children’s picture books, a ghostly tale for middle schoolers, a young adult book, a family memoir and an amazing tale of Henry Ford’s Amazonian adventure could crowd your bedside table from now until the end of August.

Three Ann Arbor men have gone where few have traveled. Women typically dominate the children’s picture book business, but these three have found a way to break into a difficult market with first-time books.

John Perry is the author of the aptly titled “The Book That Eats People,” a crazy, fun look at the legend of a book that, well, eats people. Early on the author warns, “This is that book.” The illustrations are clever combinations of collage and comic realism. This is a book that will be read often.

Illustrator David Coverly and author Jim Tobin, also from Ann Arbor, have teamed up to create a new, spellingcentric version of “Old MacDonald had a farm” in their first children’s book, “Sue MacDonald Had a Book.” The book follows Sue, as she searches for errant vowels, so she can put the book back together. Coverly is the cartoonist behind “Speedbump,” a comic strip featured in several daily newspapers nationwide, and Tobin is a major nonfiction writer.


Middle school-aged children will find “The Mystery of the Copper Turtle” similar to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series of their grandparents’ (and even great-grandparents’) generations, but with a Michigan locale. “Copper Turtle” is the first in a series to be published by Arbutus Press in Traverse City. Author Doris Holik Kelly takes readers to Mackinac Island for a meeting of the nation’s governors, where four young adults are immersed in a mystery that involves stolen American Indian artifacts, a monster and a missing person. The new series is called “Big Mitten Mysteries.”

National Book Award Winner Gloria Whelan has once again created the authentic voice of a young girl in her latest novel, “The Locked Garden.” The book follows the believable story of a girl who finds herself intertwined with an asylum for the mentally ill and one of its residents in the early 1900s.

Washington Post editor Steve Luxenberg dug up a longtime family secret in his nonfiction memoir, “Annie’s Ghost.” Very late in his mother’s life, Luxenberg learned a family secret known only by his mother. His mother, who maintained throughout her life that she was an only child, revealed to a psychiatrist that she had a sister who was institutionalized. After his mother’s death, Luxenberg delved into the lost-aunt mystery, and he discovered some interesting facts. He found out that Aunt Annie was sent as a young woman to Eloise, a state run mental institution in the Detroit area. In addition to the family story, Luxenberg looks at the changing landscape of the treatment of mental illness, from mass institutionalization to community placement. During an interview on National Public Radio last weekend, Luxenberg emphasized the extensive changes in the care of the mentally ill in the last 60 years, pointing out that the inventor of the lobotomy won the Nobel Prize in 1949.


There may be another ghost at work in Valerie Laken’s book “Dream House,” which is set in Ann Arbor. Laken has taken a page from horror mastser Stephen King in her first book, which follows a young couple as they move into their dream house, only to find out it had been the site of a murder.

Laken, who received a major review of her book in The New York Times earlier this year, has taken the haunted house and added a new dimension, as the house becomes a metaphor for unraveling relationships. With a twist King would love, the killer returns home. But this book isn’t a slasher; it’s a more subtle look at a family’s soul, which is trying to find an address.

Anyone Michigander knows industrialist Henry Ford was an unusual man, but probably not many knew he attempted to create an industrial city in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. The book “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City," by Greg Grandin, details Ford’s quest to construct a city in the Amazon in the 1920s with the intent of harvesting rubber for the manufacture of tires on site.


Ford, who was a master of control, was unable to control bugs, disease and rioting workers. His attempts at creating a higher morality ended at the numerous bars and bordellos, which opened nearby.

Although it probably isn’t appropriate, it’s hard not laugh about some of Ford’s ideas to bring what he believed was “civilization” to the Amazon. One would have thought the residents would welcome hamburgers, weekly dances and tennis courts with open arms. This book reads like the agronomist-capitalist’s version of “The Ugly American.”


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