reading cleveland: a summer reading list by locals for locals

You’re headed on vacation and need a good page-turner for the airplane or beach. Don’t grab the latest bestseller from the rack of overpriced paperbacks at the airport. Leave the stack of magazines at home. Instead, check out Fresh Water’s local author reading list.

Northeast Ohio has an impressive cadre of writers, and several of them have fine new books out this year. They include Thrity Umrigar, the Case professor and novelist praised by the New York Times Book Review, and George Bilgere, a John Carroll poet who’s shared his work alongside literary celebs like Billy Collins and Garrison Keillor.  

1. The Hard Way on Purpose, by David Giffels

Very few people can say that they’ve never left Akron and still become famous, but David Giffels can. The Akronite was previously best known for All the Way Home, a poignant memoir about renovating a once-fancy, holes-in-the-roof old house. This collection of essays is about growing up and choosing to stay in a city that people were leaving. Giffels wound up on NPR, and Beth Macy wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “A region on the mend has found its voice…” (Watch for that blurb to appear on his next book jacket cover.)

The Hard Way on Purpose is essential reading for any Rust Belter. Giffels manages to sound both clear-eyed and optimistic as he delves into Akron’s past. The book captures the sense of loss and hardheaded optimism that characterized his ‘80s generation, young people who’d only experienced cities as places being abandoned.

Giffels is at his most compelling when he writes about the small, experimental acts of reclamation at the root of “Rust Belt Chic.” He and his friends explore the old canal, spelunk in empty factories and rock out at shows in The Bank. The book’s weakness lies in slightly more forgettable essays about basketball entrepreneur Chuck Taylor and Akron’s legacy as birthplace of the hamburger, but these are minor blemishes.

Favorite moment: “Here, uniquely, we do things the hard way on purpose. We recognize virtue and a necessary creativity in choosing to do things that way. I once heard Jack White -- a native Detroiter; one of us -- say that he preferred playing plastic guitars that didn’t go in tune, that the challenge was inspiring. If the keyboard onstage needs to be two feet away for him to reach it, he moves it three feet away. The struggle becomes its own aesthetic.”

Giffels on Rust Belt Chic: “I think the reason the region is getting this kind of attention is that cities like Cleveland and Akron… have a certain kind of authenticity -- they look and feel ‘real.’ They're really well built and aesthetically interesting, but they also have scars and stains. A lot of American places have lost their uniqueness… New York City, which is one of my favorite places, feels like Disneyland anymore, and I wouldn't have said that even 10 years ago. So a lot of people are attracted to cities and stories that do have that sense of soul and grit.”

2. Whiteout: The Secret Life of Heroin, by Michael Clune

This memoir was chosen as a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker. Clune, a Case prof, maintained a daily heroin habit while earning a Ph.D in Literature from Johns Hopkins University a decade ago. The junkies he hung out with are mostly dead or in prison, but Clune got his life back after being arrested. Before that happened, though, he spent years as an addict, scoring dope in the worst neighborhoods in Baltimore, getting high in abandoned houses and bouncing checks. The book’s haunting, metaphoric language makes you feel like you’re trapped in his druggie mind. Clune riffs on a well-trod storyline by refuting the notion that addicts are chasing their first high. They’re not after “nostalgia for their first mind-blowing time” so much as “that glimpse of timelessness.” Heroin offers an illusion that the user is protected against the effects of time itself.

Favorite moment: “There were at least fifty or sixty junkies milling around in the green space between the park’s path and the busy street. As I stared, another junkie came up the path in a wheelchair. Two more came out of the bushes to my left. It seemed like all Funboy’s top five percent were here. Some were wearing ratty jeans and faded Metallica T-shirts. Some were wearing ratty jeans and faded Bob Marley T-shirts. Some were wearing ratty jeans and faded ‘Baltimore Reads!’ T-shirts. It was a diverse crowd.”

Clune on reactions to the book: “Some of the best feedback I've gotten on the book has come from recovering addicts. I've heard from people who first read it in jail and say it's helped them in their recovery. To me, that's the best kind of review. On the other hand, some have found it challenging in that it's so different from what they've come to expect from a book about addiction. People have often asked me what I think about the current heroin epidemic in Ohio. After doing volunteer work with addicts for several years, I recently wrote this brief piece that describes my sense of the big issue in recovery right now in this area.”

3. The Story Hour, by Thrity Umrigar

When it comes to experiencing other cultures, books are cheaper than plane tickets. In a recent keynote address at Case’s Breaking Genre Writers Conference, Thrity Umrigar argued that fiction can help break us out of isolation and better understand our differences. Umrigar, a native of India who worked as a journalist for many years and has published six novels, knows a few things about crossing broad cultural chasms.

In The Story Hour, her new novel to be published in August, Umrigar explores the notion that storytelling can help us bridge radical divides. Maggie is an educated, African-American therapist from a working-class background with a troubled past. Lakshmi is an Indian immigrant in an unhappy, emotionally abusive marriage. When the women’s lives intersect, the results are both unexpected and transformative.

Umrigar’s prose is gorgeous and adept, and although she sometimes makes her point too forcefully, the book is good enough that this is easy to gloss over. The character of Lakshmi is an absolute triumph; her closely rendered immigrant English is full of wit and tenderness, and the interplay between Maggie and Lakshmi is fascinating.

Favorite moment: “The people in the next room have their good English, they clever, they know how to make the jokes, they live in big house like this one, they having good job, good marriage. They knowing what the nephew look like, they visit their sister and old father when they feel like. They not live in small apartment on top of store which smell of onion and garlic from restaurant below. I not living in same country as them.”

Umrigar on reader responses: “I'll never forget the letter from a Brazilian woman who said she was in the hospital fighting a life-threatening illness and began to read one of my novels. She said it gave her the push she needed to hold on. Since then, she's read all my books. I mean, you hear a story like this and think everything you've gone through -- the 5 a.m. writing sessions, writing in pain, losing your entire summers to a book -- is so worth it.”

4. Imperial, by George Bilgere

You might think you don’t like poetry, but then again, you probably haven’t read George Bilgere. The John Carroll prof transforms ordinary moments into transcendent ones. This is the best kind of poetry, work that’s both accessible and narrative in style yet draws us upwards into revelation. Bilgere was featured this year on Prairie Home Companion, and after the show, he says he got to hang out at Garrison Keillor’s apartment in New York City.

The author of five previous collections, Bilgere’s newest work, Imperial, offers funny, touching poems about everything from baseball and his dad, to seeing a stack of Encyclopedia Brittanicas at a yard sale, to the new Super Walmart in South Euclid. There are lots of local references Clevelanders will appreciate. In “Eighty Yards,” Bilgere recounts seeing two black kids break into an impromptu foot race on Lee Road: “I realize I never knew / a human being could move so fast, burning the air…”

Favorite moment: “They’re bulldozing the turf from the old / Cleveland public golf course / in order to turn it into a Walmart Superstore / which will replace the old, non-super Walmart.”

Bilgere on poetry’s relevance: “I want the house of poetry to have its door wide open with a big ‘Welcome’ sign hanging on it. An old mentor of mine, Howard Nemerov, once said in response to this craze of ‘difficult’ poetry over the past few decades, ‘It's easy to be difficult.’ And I agree. But it's hard to write a poem that takes something complex and puts it in language you don't need a Ph.D. in English to comprehend.”

5. A Detroit Anthology, edited by Anna Clark

The latest offering by Rust Belt Chic Press, the locals who published the Cleveland Anthology a couple years back, is a book of essays, poems and photographs about Detroit. There’s been much written about Detroit’s decline, yet much of that material has been written by outsiders. This isn’t a bad thing when it’s done honestly, yet it leaves a lot of stories untold. A Detroit Anthology fills the gap with first person stories about what it’s like to live in Detroit. Not every piece is great, but there’s a lot to like. In “Fort Gratiot,” local writer Steven Pomerantz writes about his family of Russian Jews who owned a hardware store. Even as the neighborhood fell apart around them, they hung on until they finally couldn’t. “I’m From Detroit” by Shannon Shelton Miller tells what it was really like to grow up as a black youth in Detroit in the ‘80s (answer: in many neighborhoods, not half-bad). The piece takes on racial polarization, criticizing whites from the suburbs who claim Detroit as their hometown when they don’t know the city.

Favorite moment: “Detroit has been broke all my twenty-nine years.”

Anna Clark on writing about Detroit: “So much that's written about Detroit these days is in the explanatory mode -- the ‘what the hell happened and why?’ shtick. I felt that there was room for a book that got beyond that by elevating the kind of candid, honest, strange, heartbreaking and funny stories that people tell one another over well-cooked family meals and late nights at the bar.”

Check out Anna Clark’s Detroit reading list here.

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.