Tag Archives: Detroit

Down the Drain

Beer-Money-Cover

Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, & The Decline of a Detroit Dynasty by Frances Stroh (Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

“The house (my father had purchased in New York City when I was six) and most of its contents would soon be gone, just as the brewery was. We’d somehow allowed ourselves to be pinned into place by these things; and in our search for freedom, some of us had self-destructed.”

Despite the title, this poor little rich girl memoir offers no insight into the brewing industry. That’s because Frances Stroh, a one-time partial heir to billions of Stroh Brewery dollars – all of which vanished into thin air, was far removed from the family’s management (and mismanagement) of the company. As with most of these memoirs, Frances did not realize early on how rich her family was. In her bored teen and early adult years she carelessly used and abused alcohol and drugs. And as a grown-up she learned to mourn the fortune she would never acquire.

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However, the rich are different. Even as Frances writes about Stroh’s going down the drain, she makes sure to inform the reader that she flies first class; she lives in a fine abode in San Francisco. And when her spendthrift brother came to visit her in The City, he’d rent out entire floors of swank hotels for parties and feast on the best food and drink from room service.

Stroh’s was a “beer giant… in the eighties and nineties…” But Frances has no explanation for the Detroit company’s rapid downfall other than to admit, “we’d simply blown it.” Indeed.

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Beer Money is a pointless, meaningless tale of privileged denial.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: According to Forbes magazine, the Stroh Brewery Company blew through $9 billion in profits. That’s a lot of beer money.

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Detroit Breakdown

Detroit Shuffle: A Mystery by D. E. Johnson (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 336 pages)

Detroit Shuffle (nook book)

“God knows it could snap apart right now / Just like putting scissors to a string.” Bob Dylan (“God Knows”)

D. E. Johnson’s fourth book chronicles crime and graft in the Motor City at the onset of the 20th Century. Will Anderson is presumed to be insane and his lover, Elizabeth Hume – a woman’s rights activist – is the target of an assassin.

Anderson is perhaps a bit decadent, but not crazy mad. He embarks on a quest to save Elizabeth – the presumed target of bootleggers who do not wish for women to have the right to vote. The ending brings her father’s dalliances into the picture and shows that it is more complicated than that.

Will’s former infatuation, Sapphira Xanakis, a prostitute in the hands of the enemy, is central to the action and eventual resolution.

Politicians, businessmen, cops and the underground element are all in bed with one another making it difficult to sort the good guys from the bad guys. For example, Will, a supposed good guy, is fired by his father who views him as a lazy slacker.

The story is told almost exclusively in dialogue, which, for those who like that style is a plus and for others it becomes tiresome. The middle third of the novel muddles along as Will is trying to figure out the best path to heroism. The police chief, Riordan, turns out not to be such a bad guy after all (by this book’s standards) and by the end, he and Will team up to foil those who are after Elizabeth – but not until after multiple wire taps condemn and exonerate the characters.

As the book ends, it is obvious there will be another book in this Detroit Mysteries series. There are highlights but unless one is particularly drawn to certain elements or themes that permeate the book, this is a run of the mill crime novel.

Mildly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Johnson does for early 20th-century Detroit what James Ellroy did for Los Angeles.” Publishers Weekly

Dave Moyer is an educator, sometime musician and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce C. Hoffman.

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Summer of ’68

Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel (Da Capo, $25.00, 288 pages)

“…in 1968, we of the pitching profession came as close to perfect as we’ve ever come in modern times.”   Bob Gibson

There’s a reason the phrase “inside baseball” has come to be used.   And the phrase represents the problems with trying to determine who will want to read the rather awkwardly titled Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel.   If you’re a baseball fanatic, you probably already know about every detail, every fact in this account of the 1968 World Series.   If you’re not, you won’t be able to relate to the names that pop up on every page – many of the details seem to pile on without context.

And then there’s the problem with the sub-title.   Yes, there were assassinations and riots that year that horribly marred the country’s history, but this reader felt that Wendel never adequately made the connection between the socio-political events and the sport covered here.   The story of Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals will spark an interest for some – but, again, if you’re not already a deep-in-the-weeds baseball fan, this retelling will not mean much.

Wendel also tries a bit too hard to make the case that Bob Gibson may have been the best pitcher ever – a case that won’t convince fans of Sandy Koufax and others.   Summer of ’68 is sometimes interesting, but more often it’s just passable reading.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Drive My Car

Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Auto Makers by Bill Vlasic (William Morrow, $26.99, 400 pages)

The Germans couldn’t change their company’s name back to Daimler fast enough.   Chrysler was a bad memory, and the automotive merger of the century a regrettable failure.

In 2005, the Ford Motor Company built 4.8 million cars and trucks, and sold 3.3 million of them.   This meant that 1.5 million sparkling new cars, SUVs, trucks and pick-ups were destroyed.   Such was the prelude to the disaster that fell upon the auto industry when the U.S. economy hit rock-bottom three years later in the summer of 2008.   Ironically, Ford was the manufacturer left standing, while General Motors (GM) and Chrysler came within days and weeks of shutting down operations forever.

How bad was it?   Well, by the end of ’08, GM was losing $60 million every single day.  Instead of buying 16 million cars a year, Americans were purchasing just 10 million.   Gas prices were up, leases were non-existent, and the home mortgage crisis was in full swing.   As Vlasic puts it, “The U.S. car market had imploded.”

GM had made some tough decisions, but it had not made them soon enough.

This is the tale of that implosion caused by faulty leadership and tepid management at two of the Big Three auto firms.   GM was within just weeks of insolvency when Barack Obama took over as president.   Yet GM’s then-chief, Rick Wagoner, “refused to even discuss bankruptcy as an option” and flew on a fancy corporate jet when he first traveled to D.C. to ask the nation’s politicians for a hand-out.   Wagoner’s leadership proved to be so disastrous that the Obama administration made Wagoner’s resignation one of the pre-requisites for federal support.

In its time of need, GM was missing the one attribute that could save it: credibility.

Wagoner was so detached that, “…he left the actual duties of building cars at arm’s length.”   Vlasic, though, not only details Wagoner’s many failings in this “fly on the corporate wall” account, he also takes us through the hopeful marriage and subsequently messy divorce of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler; and he shows us how and why forward-thinking leadership ensured that Ford would survive without needed dollars from American taxpayers.

Did America care enough about the autoworkers to save them?

(The) help was not simply to save GM or Chrysler, but rather to prevent an economic catastrophe on the order of the Great Depression.

Vlasic’s uber-detailed 400 page reporting will leave even the most skeptical reader with a full and fair understanding of why the federal automobile bailout of 2009 was essential; well, anybody not named Mitt Romney.   For years, the Big Three had been operating on razor thin profits (literally, working for cents on the dollar); in ’08 Ford brought in $38 billion in revenue, of which only $100 million remained as profit.   It was a business model that could not last, especially because more than 3 million jobs in the U.S. were tied to the auto industry.

The Big Three had to hit bottom – or avoid doing so, in Ford’s case – and refocus in order to see a future in which American consumers would prefer to drive a Ford Focus rather than a Hummer or Escalade: “It had a special, European-style direct injection turbocharged engine.”   It’s a new day in Detroit and Once Upon a Car tells the story of how we arrived here, for better rather than worse…  And, baby, you can drive my Focus.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The reviewer once served on the Ford Motor Company Consumer Advisory Board.

General Motors lost $45 billion in the last 15 months of Rick Wagoner’s tenure as CEO.

Bill Vlasic is also the co-author of Taken for a Ride: How Daimler-Benz Drove Off With Chrysler (2001).

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Where Did Our Story Go? The Supremes: A Saga of Motown…

Supremes

I keep hoping for another book like Geoff Emerick’s fine account of how he recorded the Beatles in Here, There and Everywhere…  and this is most definitely not that caliber of book.

Not that this is the worst read, but it follows an all-too-familiar formula.   First, there’s the truly interesting tale of The Supremes before we knew them.   Next, we learn how they came together and got their big break.   Then, the trouble with the book begins when every intra-group personality conflict is embellished to the point where the band appears to be on the verge of a nuclear war.   And for any fan wanting to know how The Supremes’ songs came to be inspired or written, or crucial and interesting details concerning how they were recorded, this book is not the answer as such accounts are rare in this Saga of Motown.   What you will find in this book are obsessively detailed descriptions of exactly who slept with who over forty years ago.

What, exactly, did the sex lives of Diana, Flo and Mary have to do with their music?   I have no idea, but by page 180, this dead horse had already been beaten to a bloodless pulp. My excitement over this new music group biography dropped away quite quickly, and I would venture to say that yours will too – unless, of course, you have little interest in the songs of The Supremes and prefer a rehash of everything you might have learned from reading the tabloids for the last 40 or more plus years.

Da Capo Press, $24.95, 426 pages

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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