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Awards: Poker Dreams & Gambler King Machines

I'm not opposed to fiction - I get it, it's a world of imagination that can teach us "larger truths" - but the world of non-fiction is endlessly more fascinating because it's actually true! Give or take whatever arguments we can have over interpretation, framing, theory, etc.

Just take a look at the winners announced today by The Society of Midland Authors in the non-fiction and biography categories of the society's annual awards for Midwest authors, as well as the finalists: from the violent history of poker to eccentric evolutionists to the "Gambler King of Clark Street" to the civil war general who later worked as a Great Lakes engineer, the stories of our lives are far more mind-blowing - and meaningful - than anything fiction writers can dream up. Fiction writing is a craft - an art form - no doubt. But I'm still trying to get over the tales told by books like these.


WINNER: James McManus, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Author lives in Kenilworth, Illinois.)

Review excerpt, New York Times:

"This time around, instead of the poker-related murder trial that frames his earlier book, and his personal adventure, McManus undertakes the story of the game itself, as his subtitle promises. 'Poker' apparently derives from German pochen, meaning to beat or beat up or pulverize. Aggression is at the heart of the game, which has a rich history of violence. Every duffer knows that two pairs, aces and eights, is called 'The Dead Man's Hand' because those were the cards Wild Bill Hickok was holding when shot from behind by an assassin named Crooked Nose Jack McCall."


* Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species, Mariner. (Author lives in Madison, Wisconsin.)

Review excerpt, San Francisco Chronicle:

"Although "Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species" might not roll trippingly off the tongue as a subtitle for Sean B. Carroll's Remarkable Creatures, it's a remarkably apt distillation of the book's appeal.

"In Carroll's own words, his goals in writing the book were 'to bring to life the pursuit and the pleasure of scientific discovery, at the same time capturing the significance of each advance for evolutionary science.'

"That Carroll succeeds in both of his aims is a credit to his storytelling skills, as well as to his choice to focus his attention on the tales of scientists whose lives seem to comprise one part Jurassic Park, one part Sherlock Holmes and two parts Nutty Professor - in other words, eccentrics, geniuses and seekers after truth."

Bonus Link: Carroll's "Remarkable Creatures" columns in the New York Times.

* Lawrence Rothfield, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, University of Chicago Press. (Author lives in Chicago.)

Review excerpt, Times Higher Education:

"Why, then, did the Americans fail so miserably to protect Iraqi cultural heritage? Rothfield's answer is that the US policy, or lack of policy, towards Iraqi cultural heritage was the result of a complex set of causal effects. On the one hand, there was an existing milieu in the Pentagon in which cultural affairs were understood not to be on the military's table. On the other hand, the actual events of 8-16 April 2003, when the brunt of the looting took place, were directly caused by a series of behind-the-scenes 'actions or inactions of a motley crew of agents and agencies,' as Rothfield observes. It is precisely this aspect of the disaster that The Rape of Mesopotamia primarily deals with; three out of eight chapters are devoted to the goings-on behind the scenes in the months immediately preceding the invasion. 'It is important to recognize,' Rothfield says, pointing out the main thesis of the book, 'that the disaster that has befallen Iraq's cultural heritage is the result not of merely personal ineptitude, indifference and ignorance but of a pervasive policy failure.'"

* Leonard Zeskind, Blood & Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Author lives in Kansas City, Missouri.)

Interview excerpt, Religion Dispatches:

"Fifteen years in the making, Leonard Zeskind's new book Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (Farrar Straus & Giroux) is more than a history of the white supremacist movement. While the movement's Christian roots, anti-Semitism and racist beliefs have been dissected over the years, the core religious beliefs of a number of white nationalist movement leaders has received far less attention."


WINNER: Richard C. Lindberg, The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago's Democratic Machine, Southern Illinois University Press. (Author lives in Chicago.)

Event excerpt, Chicago Reader:

"[P]atient readers will be rewarded with a colorful glimpse of 19th-century Chicago that reveals quite a bit about why the city is still infected with graft and corruption."


* James Ballowe, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, Northern Illinois University Press. (Author lives in Ottawa, Illinois.)

Review excerpt, Illinois Times:

"The 19th century witnessed America's transformation from a rural, agrarian economy and culture into a restless, 20th century industrial giant and imperial power. Large 19th and early 20th century firms were publicly identified with the men who founded them or guided their early growth - Ford and his auto, Edison and his light bulb, Carnegie and Rockefeller in steel and oil. Every manufactured product, from hairpins to train rails, was ripe for mass production. Even grain, the staff of life, became the basis for immense milling and cereal fortunes like Pillsbury and Post. Salt, among the lowliest, but most important foods, used in cooking, preserving and flavoring, was the basis for one of these great 19th century fortunes, still associated with its founder's name - Morton."

* Paul Taylor, Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer, Kent State University Press. (Author lives in Troy, Michigan.)

Review excerpt, Michigan in Letters:

"Orlando Poe (1832-1895) grew up ten miles outside of the town of Canton, Ohio, on a farm located on the Tuscarawas River. His German ancestors had immigrated to the United States a century earlier. As a boy Poe dreamed of becoming a soldier, a dream he later realized. Educated at West Point, where he graduated sixth in his class in 1856, he chose a career with the corps of topographical engineers, and in that capacity he served as one of the most effective Union officers in the Civil War.

"When war broke out he was assigned to the staff of George McClellan, an association that later worked to his political disadvantage. McClellan's enemies in Congress looked unfavorably on officers, like Poe, whose loyalty McClellan commanded. Poe's importance to the Union cause was only slowly acknowledged during the war, and even today few recognize the name of Brevet Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe.

"His ingenious defenses in the Battle of Knoxville won both the battle and the attention of William T. Sherman who made Poe his chief engineer and trusted advisor. Sherman placed Poe in charge of the destruction of Atlanta after the capture of that city.

"After the war, in the 1870s, the army appointed Poe chief engineer of the Upper Lakes Lighthouse District. In 1886 Poe laid out plans for a new, expanded lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, but he died before the lock, named after him, was completed in 1896."

* Jane S. Smith, The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants, Penguin Press. (Author lives in Chicago.)

Review excerpt, Chicago Tribune:

"As a child, Luther Burbank possessed what might be called a few spectral quirks - the fact that he weighed his food before he ate it, say, or preferred, for his bath, an ice-water plunge. 'Morose' was the word Luther's brother used to describe his 7-year-old sibling. 'Morbid' came to his mother's mind. Neither is a word typically lacquered upon a child, as Jane S. Smith points out in her lush but hardly sentimental Burbank biography, The Garden of Invention. But Burbank was hardly your typical guy.

"He was a genius, by the estimation of many, 'an evoluter of new plants,' by his own. He changed the shape of potatoes and married an apricot and plum. He gave rise to the Shasta daisy and the Royal walnut, gave tours of his Santa Rosa, Calif., gardens to no less than Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller and Jack London, and because he was one of the very busiest men on Earth - others said so, he concurred - he began, in 1907, to charge a fee to those ordinary citizens who hoped to stand, for a moment, in his considerable shadow."


And in the society's other categories . . .



WINNER: Kent Meyers, Twisted Tree, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (Author lives in Spearfish, South Dakota.)

Review, New York Times:

"A small rural community like Twisted Tree relies on its citizens. When someone goes missing, shock waves course through the lives of its roofers, ranchers, patrolmen, caregivers and pastors. Even the town poacher registers the loss. And losses this significant can stir up people's own stories.

"Meyers creates a stunning narrative of these stories, 16 in all, quilting together an intricate patchwork from confessions, remembrances and secrets. Each chapter, a completely self-­contained account, deepens our understanding of other community members while touching upon the mysterious circumstances of Hayjay's disappearance. What's most wonderful is Meyers's casting. There's not one flat, uninteresting character in the bunch."


* Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Author lives in Urbana, Illinois.)

* Achy Obejas, Ruins, Akashic Books. (Author lives in Chicago.)


WINNER: Saundra Mitchell, Shadowed Summer, Delacorte Books for Young Readers. (Author lives in Indianapolis.)

Interview excerpt, Cynsations:

"I've been a phone psychic, a car salesperson, a denture-deliverer and a layout waxer. Now that I'm an author and screenwriter, I'm happy that I've finally found my calling."

FINALIST: Gloria Whelan, Waiting for the Owl's Call, Sleeping Bear Press. (Author lives in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan.)


WINNER: Christine Taylor-Butler, Sacred Mountain: Everest, Lee & Low. (Author lives in Kansas City, Missouri.)

Interview excerpt, The Brown Book Shelf:

"But with Sacred Mountain, Taylor-Butler brings us a story too seldom heard. With clarity and grace, she explores the mountain's ecology, history and the lives of the Sherpa - people who call the mountain home. They are courageous guides who make incredible sacrifices for their families. They are parents and children. They are trailblazers and keepers of the mountain, a sacred place."

FINALIST: Candace Fleming, The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum, Schwartz & Wade. (Author lives in Oak Park, Illinois.)


WINNER: Jim Harrison, In Search of Small Gods, Copper Canyon Press. (Author is a native of Grayling, Michigan. Currently lives in Livingston, Montana,)

FINALIST: Marc J. Sheehan, Vengeful Hymns, Ashland Poetry Press. (Author lives in Grand Haven, Michigan.)




Awards Info:

"The Society of Midland Authors awards banquet will be Tuesday, May 11, in the Camelot Room of the InterContinental Hotel, 505 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. Cocktails begin at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. Tickets are $75. To order tickets, fill out the form at the Society's website, For further information on attending the dinner, call SMA President Robert Loerzel at 773-572-2402.

"This year's master of ceremonies is Steve Edwards, acting program director of WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. Free copies of many of the winning books and finalists will be at each table for guests to take home at the end of the night."


Comments welcome.


Posted on April 28, 2010

MUSIC - They Flirted With Disaster.
TV - A Quincy Top 10.
POLITICS - The Traitor Who Is A Great Patriot.
SPORTS - Gambling At The Grate.

BOOKS - Scientists Gone Rogue.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - A People's History Of Uptown.

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