Beer captivates and divides a family in J. Ryan Stradal's new Midwestern saga, "The Lager Queen of Minnesota"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

J. Ryan Stradal and his book The Lager Queen of Minnesota

Author photo by Franco P. Tettamanti

Beer and pie remain constant for characters through rifts, tragedies, and changes in J. Ryan Stradal’s new book, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. The novel follows two sisters, Helen and Edith, as they come of age and make lives for themselves. Yet their paths diverge when Helen taps their father for all the money from the sale of the family farm, which divides the family. Edith becomes known for her pies, hops between service industry jobs, and endures several major losses, all while bottling her feelings about the uneven inheritance. Helen pores over chemistry and learns to make beer in college, and then she grows a large, successful brewery with the help of the farm proceeds. When Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, inadvertently enters the beer business, their paths head toward each other again.

Chapters in this plot-driven yet poignant novel alternate the focus between characters and are titled by various sums of money exchanged within them. The backstory and present lives of the three female main characters are blended throughout the chapters as Diana’s story parallels Helen’s in some ways. It is not only about what is happening or has happened, though. The novel also lingers on nostalgic or emotional moments. When Edith loses her husband, Stanley, the narrator describes that:

Her grief was a forest with no trails, and she couldn’t guess how long her heart would walk through it, as her body walked other places. For half a century, she had seen or spoken with this man almost every day, so his life didn’t end when he died; it found its way into cereal aisles and intersections and post office lines and conversations she didn’t intend.

It’s clear that Edith cares deeply about those around her even as she struggles to get by.

The characters don’t succumb to bitterness despite challenges to support themselves, and they celebrate their successes in an industry that fluctuates based on consumers’ preferences. Beer aficionados and foodies might appreciate the well-crafted descriptions of brewing methods and tasting notes. One passage describes “Grandma Edith’s Rhubarb-Pie-In-A-Bottle” ale as such:

The beer has a fluffy pink two-finger head and smells like malty rhubarb, so it’s certainly not out to fool anybody. ... This beer is flawed, wonderful, and strange in a way only a certain individual could devise, and it renders every other beer on the shelf a faceless SKU.

This review of her beer illustrates Edith’s and other characters’ work ethics and distinct Midwestern traits.

Stradal has first-hand knowledge of the setting, as he grew up in Minnesota. He now lives in Los Angeles and is a contributing editor at TASTE, an online magazine about food and cooking. His first novel is Kitchens of the Great Midwest. He reads at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 24, at 7 pm, and I interviewed him ahead of time.

Retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth co-authored the definitive biography of blues legend Robert Johnson

MUSIC WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Bruce Conforth and his book Up Jumped the Devil

Decades of painstaking research and meticulous attention to detail have led to the 2019 book Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, which aims to rewrite and correct the story about the legendary bluesman. Co-authored by retired U-M professor Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, this book entertains with facts, cut through myths, and lets readers learn about a man who has for too long been reduced to a single (and impossible) anecdote about trading his soul to the devil down at the crossroads in order to play the blues.

“When Columbia released its Thesaurus of Classic Jazz [in 1959], it was the first chance for most country-blues artists to have their recordings on a major label," Conforth says. "Most people didn’t even know that these folks existed. And on this record was Robert Johnson. … The liner notes said that he was the greatest blues musician there ever was, but we had nothing to compare him to and didn’t know anything about him. Almost immediately this mystique formed around Johnson while at the same time people were saying, ‘Oh, we’ll never know anything about him.’”

Conforth, who grew up in and around New York City during the 1960s folk revival, took that as a challenge.

Poet, Princeton lecturer, and former Zingerman's employee Michael Dickman accounts for days line by line in new collection

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Poet Michael Dickman and his books Days & Fays

Author photo by Michael Lionstar.

Days go by in many sorts of ways: hectic, enjoyably, dragging, intensely, calmly, explosively, gratifyingly. They can take on not just one but a range of characteristics. I am convinced that poet Michael Dickman goes through his days attentively if his poems are any indication of how he lives.

Drawing on nature and circumstances, Dickman’s new collection, Days & Days, reveals observations about parenthood, television, love, hotel stays, prescription drugs, and bodies of water. The poems are associative. Lines next to each other may seem unrelated and abstract at times, and then a line a few pages later will relate to a previous thought. The longest poem, “Lakes Rivers Streams,” reads:

          This is the earth & sometimes the earth

                    changes color

          Now I remember they were horses mulching the backyard

The horse metaphor for children continues:

          My horse kids eat something off the ground I can’t quite make out 

and

          What should I do with their withers & fetlocks what should I do with

                    their dressage?

          A parade is nice

These lines capture the variety and vicissitudes of days, whether with children or other topics. One wonders if Dickman is constantly jotting down fragments as he goes through his days and later fits them together into cohesive poems.

Formerly of Ann Arbor, Dickman now teaches at Princeton University. He reads at Literati Bookstore on Friday, September 20, at 7 pm. I interviewed him prior for Pulp.

Sarah R. Baughman's middle-grade book "The Light in the Lake" marries science and magic

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Sarah R. Baughman and her book Light in the Lake

Author photo by Ashley Cleveland.

Sometimes it feels like monsters are everywhere and the world is out to get you. At times like this, we all need some magic in our lives to make it better. For 12-year-old Addie, whose twin brother Amos died recently, these truths can all be found in Maple Lake. 

Addie is the protagonist in Sarah R. Baughman’s debut novel, The Light in the Lake, and she spends much of the book in the coveted role of a summertime Young Scientist studying the very lake where her brother drowned three months ago. Using a notebook that Amos left behind and with the help of her new friend Tai, Addie learns that the lake has secrets that include both those of a scientific nature (pollution) and of a more supernatural nature (a mysterious creature described by Amos as living deep inside the lake). Addie straddles the two worlds, one foot firmly in her trusted science and the other not so firmly in a magic realm that she’s not quite sure she believes in but one that might ultimately bring her closer to her late brother. 

U-M grad and Michigan native Baughman says she has always been interested in the “connection between these seemingly different ways of looking at the world.” Though not a scientist by training, “I deeply value scientific knowledge and approaches to problems.” 

Ann Arbor jazz musicians interpret guitarist Sonny Sharrock's avant-jazz masterpiece "Ask the Ages"

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Sony Sharrock

Sonny Sharrock played guitar like a boxer throws punches: with fluidity and violence. Sweet-science superfan Miles Davis must have recognized this when he had Sharrock join John McLaughlin in the ax section for the trumpeter's stellar 1971 jazz-rock soundtrack for a documentary on the boxer Jack Johnson.

In the mid-'60s, Sharrock began about a decade-long run playing with his singer wife, Linda, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, flutist Herbie Mann, and others, but he went into semi-retirement from music after divorcing. As with many singular stylists, Sharrock's skills weren't fully appreciated when he first came onto the scene, but his reputation rose up in the 1980s when bassist and producer Bill Laswell recruited him to play in his avant-funk jazz band Material and the punk-jazz supergroup Last Exit. During this time, Sharrock resumed his career as a leader and also played free jazz with Machine Gun, with everything culminating in the 1991 avant-jazz-rock masterpiece Ask the Ages, a Laswell-produced album featuring Sanders on sax, Elvin Jones on drums, and Charnett Moffett on bass. (Sharrock also did soundtrack work for the Cartoon Network classic Space Ghost Coast to Coast.)

But on the eve of signing to a major label, Sharrock died in 1994 at the age of 53. While he died too young, the guitarist's reputation as a major force was sealed forever.

On September 11 at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti, four Ann Arbor jazz musicians will fete Sharrock's Ask the Ages by playing the  album in its entirety. Guitarist Max Bowen transcribed the music on Ask the Ages, which he'll interpret with saxophonist Andrew Bishop, bassist Aidan Cafferty, and drummer Bob Sweet. 

I interviewed Sweet and Bowen about Sharrock, Ask the Ages, and how this project came together.

Civic kicks off a new season with the meta-musical "Urinetown"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

A2 Civic Theatre's production of Urinetown

Eeww!

The funny, punny title of Urinetown: The Musical may wrinkle some noses, but the show has been a smash hit off and on Broadway and at theaters across the United States since it opened in New York in 2001. On Sept. 12, the pee-centered satire will kick off the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s 90th anniversary year.

Urinetown: The Musical is the most important musical of the 21st Century with the worst title,” said Rob Roy in an email interview. “In fact, it’s that meta approach to the subject matter that makes it even more relevant to the audience. One is never allowed to just sit and be entertained. Authors Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman specifically brought Bertolt Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt to the show to force the audience to pay attention to the vital subject matter: our way of life is unsustainable.”

Verfremdungseffekt is a German word for a distancing technique used in theater and film to prevent an audience from getting too wrapped up in the story instead of bringing a critical mind to the ideas being explored. 

This meta-comedy is a shrapnel satire aiming for big capitalism and populism, bungling government bureaucracy and corrupt business with a format and musical score that lampoons the very idea of serious-minded musical entertainment, including the seminal work of Brecht and his musical collaborator Kurt Weill on The Threepenny OperaUrinetown was a critical as well as popular success, winning three Tony Awards and many other honors.

Rachel DeWoskin's "Banshee" follows a woman exploring impulses and freedom after a medical scare

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Rachel DeWoskin, Banshee

Author photo by Annie Li.

Rachel DeWoskin's Banshee is a novel about Samantha Baxter, a woman who faces a serious medical diagnosis and casts about for meaning while acting out in ways inconsistent with the life she has lived so far. She crosses lines in her job as a professor and her roles as wife and mother. Through it all, she recognizes the incongruencies of her actions, but she does not just plow ahead disrupting her middle-aged life; instead, she both makes her choices and contemplates how they unfold.

While her actions appear extreme, ranging from sleeping with a student to alienating her husband, Samantha does not leave her life and home. Her defiance centers on how she acts within her existing family and professional relationships. Samantha says what she wants to, unapologetically follows her impulses, and lets the consequences unfold. Accordingly, the prose consists of her first-person narration of her experiences and perspective as she transforms and reacts to her major health problem and to how she feels in new situations. The plot becomes about what she does or doesn’t do, what she says or doesn’t say, and what she thinks and feels about all of it.

Writer, poet, and Ann Arbor native DeWoskin previously acted in a Chinese soap opera and now teaches at the University of Chicago. She will speak about and sign Banshee at Literati Bookstore on Monday, September 9, at 7 pm. Beforehand, I interviewed her about her writing and new novel.

Author and A2 Pioneer Instructor Jeff Kass Contemplates the Working Life in "Teacher/Pizza Guy"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Jeff Kass, Teacher/Pizza Guy

What do you do?

It’s what people ask when they first meet as a way to identify each other, yet our jobs do not have to define us.

When I asked Jeff Kass this question, he answered with three jobs: a full-time English teacher at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, part-time pizza delivery person, and part-time director of literary programs at the Neutral Zone for a year in 2016-2017. During that time, he also worked on drafting the autobiographical poems about this experience that form his new collection, Teacher/Pizza Guy (Wayne State University Press).

Teacher/Pizza Guy reveals Kass’ experiences in the classroom and pizza place, including issues with service industry jobs, challenges of aging, and relationships with colleagues, youth, and family. Despite the possible mundanity of work, Kass offers poetic insights on the situations. The first poem in the collection, “Oh, Splotch of Blue Paint,” not only addresses the paint on the sidewalk outside of the school where Kass teaches but also ruminates about its origins:

…were you trying to paint the sea? A place 

for you to float in? The breeze a lovely, reassuring

friend who brings you cookies and iced tea

and listens to you without judging…? 

This speculative question, in turn, raises a question for me: Isn’t that what we’d all like, a pleasant place, a friend who shares treats, and good conversation? Another poem depicts colleagues crossing paths in the night as Kass returns to home from his pizza-slinging job to see a fellow pizza slinger working his other job of delivering newspapers.

Amidst dishwashing, disastrous delivery runs, and the grind of teaching students in class after class how to write essays, Kass pulls out moments of clarity that describe the working life. One poem describes a break during which he makes a pizza for himself, one that’s not on the menu, and writes, “Believe / for a moment / your time / belongs / to you. / Savor. / Chew.”

Within the drudgery of going from job to job, Kass is not all work; he observes and shows parallels between his jobs and life, recognizing and taking ownership of those moments rather than letting work consume him, almost as if he is both living his life and watching it from the outside. Kass finds meaning in those fleeting moments of entering and exiting customers’ lives to bring them pizza and also seeks respect as he makes ends meet.

Kass, who lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Karen Smyte, and their children, Sam and Julius, will read from his collection at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, September 10, at 7 pm. I interviewed him about his poetry and work.

Brazilian mandolinist Danilo Brito returns to Ann Arbor with a new album and the history of choro at his fingertips

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Danilo Brito

Brazilian mandolin wizard Danilo Brito is returning to the Metro Detroit area for what now annual performances in Ann Arbor (September 1 at Kerrytown Concert House), the Detroit Institute of Arts (August 30), and the GlasSalon in the Toledo Museum of Art (August 29). Brito (mandolin and tenor guitar) will be joined by Carlos Moura (7-string guitar) and Guilherme Girardi (6-string guitar).

Brito's new album, Da Natureza das Coisas (The Nature of Things), is bookended by two important works of Heitor Villa-Lobos, closing with "Melodia Sentimental" and opening with "Chôros No. 1 (Chôro típico Brasileiro)," which was composed for guitar in 1920 in tribute to composer Ernesto Nazareth. Villa Lobos grew up among choro musicians and said that the soul of Brazilian people is found in choro. Many classical guitarists play this work, but Brazilians such as Turíbio Santos play it with a distinctive verve absent in the others. Brito takes this a step further -- arranging the work for his mandolin in the lead voice with two guitars carrying the others. The bright, clarion sound of his mandolin riding the group's Brazilian drive leaves Brito thinking that it would make Villa Lobos smile. 

"Chôros No. 1 (Chôro típico Brasileiro)" sets the tone for the album which journeys through composers venerated and new. Works of Garoto and Jorge Santos are mingled with newcomers Brito, Penezzi, and Arante.

Brito's U.S. booking agency, Musica Extraordinaria, is based in Ann Arbor and its leader, Michael Grofsorean, conducted an interview with the Brazilian mandolinist. (For even more Brito, Pulp editor Christopher Porter interviewed him before his April 1, 2017, appearance in Ann Arbor.)

False Figures make no-frills, minimalist Americana on their self-titled debut

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

False Figures

There’s some irony in the name of the Ypsilanti band False Figures. Taken from a line in one of their songs, “Red Herring,” the name refers to fake idols.

But False Figures’ sound is anything but fake. The band is low-fi and low-profile (their social media presence is limited), creating a soulful, warm sort of Americana music that sounds like it might be played by friends around a campfire.

The core band has mostly consisted of Jim Cherewick, vocals, guitar, harmonica, and violin; Joel Parkkila, vocals, guitar and more; and Jason Lymangrover, bass and guitar. More recently, Stefan Krstovic has joined the band as the regular drummer. All the members have experience in other local bands including Human Skull, Best Exes, Congress, and Hydropark.

Their self-titled debut album is an accessible, engaging listen. The no-frills sound is well suited to the songs, which tend to be short and to the point -- one highlight on the album, “Matchbox,” gets the job done in just over a minute and a half. There’s a thoughtfulness to the lyrics, though, especially in songs like “Stay On” and “Out of Time.”

A second album is already in the works. And although the band has been primarily a studio project, they will play a live date at Ziggy’s in Ypsilanti on Wednesday, August 28 with Simon Joyner, Raw Honey, and Idle Ray. The show is being produced by Fred Thomas' Life Like Tapes.

The band recently agreed to answer a few questions via email.