Book Review: Voices From the Rust Belt – Edited by Anne Trubek

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Just what is the Rust Belt? In simple terms it stretches from Milwaukee to Buffalo with cities like Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh inbetween, cities that were once known as vibrant communities of manufacturing that have fallen on hard times but are trying to recapture their former glory. The Rust Belt is also a place I call home.

Sometimes romanticized,sometimes looked down upon, and often ignored, the Rust Belt is a place rich in history and tales so I was only to happy to find Voices from the Rust Belt, a collection of essays by people of all kinds who deftly write about what it is like to live in the Rust Belt.

After a brief introduction, which describes what is the Rust Belt and why it matters, Voices from the Rust Belt is divided into four parts.

1. Growing Up
2. Day to Day in the Rust Belt
3. Geography of the Heartland
4. Leaving and Staying

I pretty much loved all the essays written by talented women and men of all kinds. Some stories I could relate and others opened my eyes to experiences completely foreign to me. These stories are written by journalists, immigrants, students, artists, business owners, activists and working stiffs of all kinds who call the Rust Belt home. Nearly every one of theses writers impressed me and I was thrilled to find brief bios of the writers, which gave me further insight to these people beyond their written words. I also pondered what it would be like to see a well-made documentary on the Rust Belt – Ken Burns, I’m looking in your direction.

If I have any quibbles with Voices from the Rust Belt it is there is no voice from Milwaukee. Hmm, maybe in the sequel.

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Book Review: Nico’s Warriors by Mitchell Nevin

It’s a funny thing. I’m a fan of various televised crime-related shows like “Criminal Minds” and the various Law and Order series, but I’ve never been one to read a lot of crime-related books. But when local author Mitchell Nevin reached out to me to review his book Nico’s Warriors: A Veteran’s Revenge I just knew I had to read it considering it takes place pretty much in my backyard—the city of Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs.

Nico’s Warriors is about Zak Klatter, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan now back home Wisconsin. Driving home one night after a night of revelry at a local tavern, Zak picks up a duffel bag thrown from a speeding car being chased by the cops. Inside the bag Zak finds something quite interesting and decides the contents might help him in various ways.

But Zak knows he can’t do this alone so he gathers up a rag tag bunch to help him accomplish his mission, many of them his fellow veterans. They decide to rob and fight Milwaukee’s most venomous and deadly drug gangs to some incredibly results that prove to be lethal and ambiguous.

Among Zak’s comrades include Ethan who provides the brain power, Raul, who lost his beloved niece to drug addiction and Xavier, who provides the much-needed tactical expertise. Along for the ride is the idiosyncratic Dwyer.

In the meantime, Zak opens up a tavern (with plenty of help from his father), which he calls The Fallen. The Fallen is dedicated to honoring veterans, firefighters and police officers who have died in the line of duty. Not only does it provide plenty of alcoholic beverages (this is Wisconsin after all) for its patrons, it also offers basic pub food. The Fallen also acts as a quasi-meeting place for Zak and his gang to right the wrongs brought on by Milwaukee’s most nefarious and notorious drug kingpins and drug gangs.

Among Zak’s cunning crew also includes his family, his somewhat girlfriend Mandy and other assorted friends and acquaintances.

Then there are the other characters—fellow veterans and members of the Milwaukee-area law enforcement and other assorted individuals that make up both Zak and the Milwaukee community. Needless to say, Nico’s Warriors also looks into the inner workings of the city’s drug dealing culture, one that is quite chilling but quite fascinating indeed. What I found quite enlightening is how both cultures are not conveyed fully in black and white—both are painted in shadowy shades of gray—showing the good, the bad and the downright ugly in both cultures.

Nico’s Warriors is a fun read that kept me guessing, trying to put together a puzzle of people, places and things. Just when you think things will zig, they zag. Nevin clearly knows the world of crime and law and order, which is conveyed in both the actions and the dialogue of the characters.

Needless to say, I also loved how Nico’s Warriors takes place in Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs. It names lots of familiar Milwaukee neighborhoods and its city streets, including my very own Farwell Avenue on Milwaukee’s lower east side. I had a bit of a giggle over the name of a radio host Jack Plankinton and his show “Walking the Plank” for Plankinton is an actual street in downtown Milwaukee (it crosses Wisconsin Avenue if you need to know).

Nico’s Warriors ends on a very mysterious note. Zak and his gang don’t quite finish their mission. But don’t fret my readers for a sequel is coming out shortly and this book is part of a trilogy.

Nico’s Warriors does have a few faults. I noticed several spelling and grammatical errors, but nothing that can’t be fixed with the help of more proofreading and of an experienced copy editor.

For the most part Nico’s Warriors: A Veteran’s Revenge is a pretty solid effort for a first time author, and if you’re a fan of the crime genre, you’ll probably enjoy reading this book.

Book Review: You Gotta Be Dirty-The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin by Michael Grogan

31827805As someone who is more “born to be mild” than “born to be wild,” and who is more likely to watch a rerun of My Three Sons on a retro TV channel than an episode of Sons of Anarchy, I have to admit the biker culture is one I am not at all familiar with even though I live in Milwaukee, the home of the iconic Harley-Davidson. The motorcycling enthusiast I’m most likely to come across is probably a well-heeled baby boomer whose biggest act of rebellion is not having granite kitchen counter tops.

So needless to say reading You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club In & Around Wisconsin by Michael Grogan was a total culture shock. For the longest time, I thought “outlaw” biker culture consisted of some rebellious rabble rousers who drank, smoked weed, did a line of coke every now and then, got involved in bar brawls and petty crimes, and had a thing for strippers and hookers. But reading Grogan’s well-researched book was a complete eye-opener.

You Gotta Be Dirty focuses mostly on the Outlaws Motorcycle Club (OMC) from its inception to the modern day. The Outlaws Motorcycle Club was based mostly in Wisconsin with some activity in bordering Midwestern states, mostly Illinois.

In the first couple of chapters, Grogan tells us the formation of the OMC and biker culture in general. It’s very extensive. Grogan clearly did his research, and I was happy to get some of the nuts and bolts of this unfamiliar lifestyle before I proceeded with my reading.

Formed sometime in the mid-1960s, the OMC initially just seemed like a rag tag bunch of somewhat disheveled rebellious young men (and their “old ladies”) who had a mad fetish for motorcycles and motorcycle culture. But by the 1970s, the OMC was feared and notorious for their extreme violence and acts of terror, especially towards people of color and women, even their old ladies. To say, members of the OMC were both racist and sexist is putting it mildly. But among the OMC’s victims included people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Men, women and children often met tragic ends due to OMC’s actions.

Among these actions including shootings, stabbings, rape, assault, torture and bombings, which educated me while also upsetting me greatly.

Several of these actions continue to haunt my thoughts; one story was about the brutal torture of one young woman whose palms were impaled with nails and later she was nailed to a tree. Then there is the horrifying death of a teenage paperboy named Larry Anstett, who while delivering the Milwaukee Sentinel, died when he picked a package left on a customer’s car. The package contained an explosive device. It went off and Anstett died from his injuries, just at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And in 1994, the Chicago chapter of the Outlaws detonated a car bomb. This bomb was the third largest of its kind, just after the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and later, the 1995 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168, including 19 children; and over 800 other people were injured.

The Outlaws didn’t become famous; they became notorious and feared. Their violence went far beyond Wisconsin, causing fear among their enemies, innocent civilians, the media and law enforcement at local, state and national levels. Even their own members weren’t safe, and several of them met atrocious fates at the hands of their “brothers.”

While reading You Gotta Be Dirty I had to put it down a few times because I was so overwhelmed by the senseless violence and hateful activities of the OMC. And I must admit, I sometimes thought of keeping an Excel spreadsheet of various people involved with the OMC, some innocent, some guilty, because it was so overwhelming, yet informative. I am truly in awe of Grogan’s research ability and fortitude and at the end of each chapter, he properly provides his resources. His willingness to get the “story behind the story” is a true testament to solid journalistic standards and reporting fortitude.

You Gotta Be Dirty is a very interesting book for anyone who is interested in fugitive biker culture as whole, a total history buff or anyone interested in a world beyond their wildest nightmares. I know I certainly got an education.

Book Review: Evicted- Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

EvictedI keep telling myself, “Bookish, you need to lighten up. You need to read more fun and frolic silly chick lit that doesn’t tax your brain or make you feel.” Then you receive a copy of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and you just have to read it.

Desmond is a sociologist and professor at Harvard, much like Barbara Ehrenreich tried to live life as a member of the working poor in her classic Nickel and Dimed, Desmond learned about both the lives and struggles of both the poor and the landlords that rent to them by taking up residence in Milwaukee, and letting both sides tell their stories about their struggles and challenges. He focused on two Milwaukee communities, the northwest side, which is prominently black, and a trailer park on the south side where many of the residents are white. Many have made bad choices; they fail to get an education, get hooked on drugs, have children they can’t afford, they party too hard, they blow their allotment of food stamps on expensive food, etc. Needless to say, this often doesn’t leave a whole lot of money to pay the rent, and the landlords had no choice but remit eviction notices. Desmond, for the most part, doesn’t condemn or condone these actions, but makes us question, “Do bad choices lead to poverty or does poverty lead to bad choices?”

And one wonders if these bad choices would lead to so much struggle if they weren’t also poor at this point in their lives. Remember, there are plenty of rich people who make bad choices and their lives are never affected too greatly (or at all). And they certainly don’t face becoming homeless.

But at the same time, many of the residents dealt with issues outside of their control, a loss of a job, stagnating wages, certain benefits not coming through, a serious illness, a death in the family, a car accident or just a really awful winter, which made their heating/electric bills sky rocket. Some of these residents tried to help their lot in life by looking for a second job, selling their belongings (sometimes their plasma); many of them get roommates or bring in extra family members to help pay the rent.

The actual eviction descriptions are exceptionally difficult to read, and often left me queasy. Desmond writes of these passages with the clarity and detail of a film maker, which made me truly see them in my mind’s eye. I kept shaking my head, wanting to get them out of my brain, but to this day, I just can’t let go of the “scenes” of people being thrown from their homes during moments of both fun and frolic and at moments of utter despair and desperation. Where do they go? What do they do? And I can’t fathom how this devastates the children involved, many who via eviction go from home to home, family member to family member, school to school, and shelter to shelter, not knowing any sense of security or stability. If this is difficult for an adult, I can’t even imagine how eviction damages a young child.

Still, I had to keep in mind the landlords are business people, and renting out property is their business they can’t rent out to people who can’t pay up. And though there were times I found the landlords lacking in empathy and some of them verged on being slumlords, I also understand they need to be paid.

What surprised me while reading Evicted is how expensive these places were despite their less than glamorous zip codes and truly detestable conditions, one being a place inhabited by maggots, yes maggots. Many of these places weren’t much cheaper than places found in “better” neighborhoods like Milwaukee’s east side, or places like Bayview. Yes, the rent is “too damn high!”

The best thing about Evicted is how Desmond just lets both the tenants and the landlords speak their truth; like a true reporter, he doesn’t preach or take sides. He lets the reader takes sides…or in this case of this reader, don’t take sides. Evicted is not an easy read, but I can’t recommend it enough.

Book Review: Meet Me Halfway-Milwaukee Stories by Jennifer Morales

Meet-Me-Halfway-coverJennifer Morales is a former Milwaukee-based activist focused on education, and once acted as a board member for Milwaukee public schools. Now she can add published author to her list of accomplishments with the release of her interconnected collection of short stories in Meet Me Halfway-Milwaukee Stories.

Meet Me Halfway opens up with “Heavy Lifting.” In this story, Johnquell, an African-American teenage boy, is mortally wounded when helps his white neighbor, Mrs. Czernicki move a heavy piece of furniture in home. Feeling fully, responsible, Mrs. Czernicki feels compelled to connect further with Johnquell’s family that goes beyond attending his funeral. She becomes friendly towards Johnquell’s grieving mother and learns more about Johnquell from his siblings, learning though there are differences that divide us, there are also shared experiences that explain our shared humanity.

Thus, Meet Me Halfway, uses “Heavy Lifting” as a launching pad to share intermingling stories about various Milwaukee residents in one of America’s most segregated cities-Milwaukee.

In “Fragging,” a still alive Johnquell describes his experiences as a black student from a lower middle class family in a mostly white, wealthy suburban highschool.

In “Revision” Stu Reid’s limited ideas on young black men change when he feels compelled to attend Johnquell’s funeral after dealing with him in class as a substitute teacher. Perhaps Milwaukee’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, Clark “Psycho” Sykora, doesn’t have all the answers after all.

When flowers are “Misdirected” and accidentally sent to Johnquell’s mother Gloria that are meant for another woman, Gloria learns a long-kept secret of Donna Tillet, a white suburban matron, a secret that kept Donna estranged from her children for far too long.

And in the final chapter, “Pressing On,” Tarquan, Johnquell’s surviving brother navigate the difficult aftermath of his brother’s death, putting up with the questions from concerned adults, his siblings, and high school friends and peers. If adults can’t explain life and death, how can Tarquan? Perhaps, some day he’ll have the answers.

Morales’s empathetic and vivid writing is both thought-provoking and inspiring. In a city like Milwaukee, so segregated amongst all races,  Morales is able to fully evoke the multi-dimensional characters with wisdom and grace. She doesn’t just feel for these men, women and children; Morales’ feels with them as truly masterful writers should and do. Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories is a slim book that spoke to me in volumes. And I hope it is not the only book Jennifer Morales has within her. I want more books from such a talented writer.