Good Reads

The Motor City stars in recent books


An image from Detroit Is: An Essay in Photographs.

Photograph by J. Gordon Rodwan

Detroit Is: An Essay in Photographs

These days, stories the national media tells about Detroit seem to fall into one of two categories: hopeless “ruin porn” or the cheerful “comeback city” narrative. The real city, of course, defies easy categorization. 

That’s what Detroit-based photographer J. Gordon Rodwan and his son, writer/editor John G. Rodwan Jr., respond to in their book, Detroit Is: An Essay in Photographs (KMW Studio,, $29.95). 

The city’s two extremes are summarized in cover image, which shows Detroit’s increasingly bustling downtown framed by the jagged edges of a broken factory window. 

Photos show architectural gems that have withstood the ages, such as the Fisher Building: Here, it appears above a plume of steam; a timeless monument towering above the clouds. Others show colorful murals and cryptic messages painted on crumbling walls (like “Martin died / I’m still dreaming”). Most importantly, Rodwan’s images show Detroiters: playing cards, skateboarding, perusing Eastern Market, proving that while Detroit may be many things, it is also someone’s home.

“When I first started doing photography, I was always waiting for people to get out of the picture, because I wanted a picture of the car or the building,” Rodwan says. “Then it dawned on me … it’s more interesting to get people in the pictures.” 

The younger Rodwan had found work as a writer and editor, including stints in Switzerland, New York City, and Portland, Ore. He always wrote about Detroit, however. The book’s title comes from one of the younger Rodwan’s poems. “It’s not so much that we want to tell anyone what Detroit is, but that it exists,” he says. “That it’s still a place where hundreds of thousands of people live.” —Leyland DeVito

The Rodwans will give a presentation May 10 at Starkweather Gallery, 219 N. Main, Romeo. and June 2, at Pages Bookshop, 19560 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-473-7342;

Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss

Since 1850, five generations of Strohs counted on a good return from Bernhard Stroh’s beer recipe. But after going national in the ’80s, their fortunes turned sour. 

In Beer Money (Harper, $25.99) Frances Stroh recounts the bitter decline through the lens of her father’s alcoholism, a brother’s drug addiction and death, and scenes of divorce and infighting. 

“Money was everything in Grosse Pointe,” she writes. But her father, Eric, overspent on antiques and fixated on having Frances practice “how not to get kidnapped.” Her mother, however, bought secondhand clothes and forbade the kids to “sign” for hamburgers at the club.

She rebels, getting caught shoplifting, and dropping acid and taking pictures at the abandoned Uniroyal Tire plant. 

Frances offers a view of the racial political climate. “As children, we understood Coleman Young to be the king of Detroit, someone our family had to please at all costs, because we were white.”  

In town for the reading of her father’s will in 2009, she ponders transplanted artists finding inspiration in Detroit. “They, too, believed in the redemptive power of danger, these gutsy people forging a life with no certainties — the kind of life Bernhard Stroh had opted for back in 1850, when the water in Detroit tasted so fresh.” — Steve Wilke​

The Turner House

If you missed this book’s debut in 2015, it’s time to circle back. Angela Flournoy’s first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23), has won all sorts of accolades: It was a National Book Award finalist, a New York Times Notable Book, and is “shortlisted” for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction (which was to be announced April 11). The story centers on the dilemma faced by 13 Turner siblings. It’s 2008, and their empty home on the east side of Detroit is nowhere near worth the $40,000 their ailing mother still owes on it. Flournoy’s tale includes ghosts, flashbacks to 1940s Arkansas, and struggles with gambling addition. In one passage, she sums up emotional attachments to neighborhoods, no matter how neglected. “Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. … Welive and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit the houses when we’re gone. … The house on Yarrow Street was their sedentary mascot, its crumbling façade the Turner coat of arms. But it disintegrated by the hour.” — Steve Wilke

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