Book Reviews: The Martian's Daughter & American Poet


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The Martian’s Daughter

University of Michigan academic Marina von Neumann Whitman is the daughter of a Martian. In this instance, “Martian” refers not to the extraterrestrial, but to the term applied to an elite group of Hungarian-born physicists who spent much of their lives contributing to the advancement of science in the United States. Whitman, a professor of Business Administration and Public Policy at the University of Michigan, summons her past and pays tribute to her genius father in her recent memoir, The Martian’s Daughter (University of Michigan Press, $30).

Famed mathematician John von Neumann had only the highest expectations of his bright young daughter Marina. Von Neumann, who kept company with some of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century, immersed his daughter in a culture of profound thought and progress. Driven by her father’s fears that marriage and family would keep her from reaching her full potential, Marina committed herself to success and expected nothing short of excellence.

Whitman writes: “Were it not for his oft-repeated conviction that everyone — man or woman — had a moral obligation to make full use of her or his intellectual capacities, I might not have pushed myself to such a level of academic achievement or set my sights on a lifelong professional commitment at a time when society made it difficult for a woman to combine a career with family obligations.”

Yet push she did. Whitman made stunning personal and professional achievements, as she describes in the memoir, “I was a pioneer in and early beneficiary of the feminist wave that swept the nation in the 1960s and 1970s, opening up new opportunities for women who dared to think that they could have it all.”

The Martian’s Daughter is a validation of Whitman’s success, and a testament to the brilliant mind of her father. “Through all the changes in my life and in the world that surrounds it, my father’s presence has never been far away.”

 

American Poet

Denver Hoptner walks at night. The recent University of Michigan graduate, who is jobless and without prospects, has returned home to live with his father while he regroups and considers his future.

Rather than opening doors, Denver’s newly minted master of fine arts degree in poetry has left him vulnerable to his father’s scrutiny and at a devastating loss for the words he longs to put down. Seeking solace, Denver routinely takes to the bleak streets of Saginaw searching for a sign.

In Jeff Vande Zande’s tight coming-of-age novel American Poet (Bottom Dog Press, $17), Denver’s sign comes in the form of late poet Theodore Roethke’s boyhood home. Roethke’s house, found smoke-damaged and in disrepair, gives Denver angry encouragement and fuels his commitment to his craft and the preservation of a bygone poet’s brilliance.  

“It was one of the few things that I didn’t hate about the town,” the protagonist says. “When I was in high school and thinking that maybe I wanted to write, I used to walk out to the Roethke House at least once a month, just to look at it. He was a pretty big poet in his day. Pulitzer Prize for one thing, and it meant something that a guy like that could come from a place like Saginaw. He was a guide. A lodestar.”

Roethke drew his words from the well of his Saginaw surroundings. Through Denver’s eyes, Vande Zande also offers bright discovery in this roughed-up city. Ultimately, it’s in Denver’s struggle to reconcile his future ideal with his present reality that his true poetry begins to emerge.

Vande Zande teaches English at Delta College and writes poetry, fiction, and screenplays. He was selected as the recipient of the 2012 Stuart and Venice Gross Award for Excellence in Writing by a Michigan Author for his novel, American Poet.
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