Diego Rivera, boat making, Lebanese cooking and Michigan politics are just a few of the wide-ranging topics covered in this 2016’s crop of Michigan Notable Books, which were announced earlier this month.
Each January, the Michigan Notable Books program, overseen by the Library of Michigan, recognizes 20 of the best books from the previous year. To be eligible for the award, the author must live in or be from Michigan, or the book must have significant content about Michigan (Full disclosure: the author of this article is a member of the Michigan Notable Books selection committee.)
The slate of the 2016 Michigan Notable Books includes books as varied as “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters,” a striking collection of short stories by National Book Award finalist Bonnie Jo Campbell, to “Making Waves,” a history of boat building in Michigan by Scott M. Peters. The list also includes “Got to Give the People What They Want” by ESPN analyst and Detroit native Jalen Rose as well as “X,” Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon’s Malcolm X novelization. The full list is available online at michigan.gov/notablebooks.
The books and their authors will be recognized at an April 2 gala event at the Library of Michigan, a Night for Notables. This year’s gala will capitalize on the rampup to the 2016 election with a trio of politically minded keynote speakers. The three authors were given Michigan Notable Book Awards in past years for their compelling biographies of vastly different Michigan governors. Thomas J. Noer, author of “Soapy: The Biography of G. Mennen Williams;” Dave Dempsey, author of “William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Compassionate Moderate;” and Lawrence M. Glazer, author of “Wounded Warrior: the Rise and Fall of Michigan Governor John Swainson,” will discuss their views on what makes an effective governor and how governors respond to crisis.
The panel will be moderated by John Truscott, a former spokesman for Gov. John Engler, and Kelly Rossman-McKinney, who has worked in public relations both in government and the private sector. The two are partners in Truscott-Rossman, a bipartisan public relations firm.
Each of the authors had a distinct reason for selecting a governor for the intense scrutiny of a biography. Glazer, a former circuit court judge and an adviser to Gov. James Blanchard, said he was attracted to Swainson because his life story was different from any other Michigan governor.
“Swainson had a tremendous loss in World War II (he lost both legs in combat) and then faced an even worse loss on the (Michigan) Supreme Court when he was convicted of perjury,” Glazer said. “He was able to overcome those setbacks and lead a satisfying life.”
Noer, a history professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., said he was initially drawn to Williams for his role in international politics, especially in Africa. But during his research he learned about Williams’ service to Michigan.
“Williams was unique in that he was an unapologetic, outspoken liberal,” Noer said. “He was not shy. He wanted more government spending, more government involvement and he had a flamboyant personality.”
Williams’ trademark green and white polka-dot tie gave the politician an iconic identity.
“He was so well-known that his campaign billboards showed only the tie,” Noer said. “In those days, you had to run every two years, and Williams ran the old-fashioned door-to-door campaign. It is refreshing and so different to politics today,”
Dempsey, author of eight books and a policy adviser for the International Joint Commission, said his fascination with Milliken began around the family dinner table.
“I grew up hearing about Milliken,” said Dempsey, whose father was a department director in Milliken’s cabinet.
The author said that Milliken, one of Michigan’s most progressive governors, also admitted his mistakes. He describes Milliken’s reversal on life sentences for drug offenses and the freeing of imprisoned victims of domestic disputes as “something you don’t often see.”
Truscott said the panel discussion will be especially interesting, because Governor Snyder is facing the Flint water controversy. Truscott called the ongoing crisis “bigger than most issues.”
Each of the authors covered major crises in their gubernatorial biographies. Swainson’s most notable crisis was the dispute over Detroit’s income tax on non-residents. The legislature passed a bill prohibiting the tax.
“It didn’t matter if Swainson vetoed it or signed it — he couldn’t win,” Glazer said.
Dempsey said Milliken’s major crisis was more akin to the current crisis with the Flint water system.
“PBB (a fire retardant that was mistakenly introduced into the food chain) was his number one crisis, and number two was near depression that plagued Michigan in his last year and one half in office,” he said. “Unemployment was at 17 percent and Milliken agonized over the cuts he had to make.”
Noer views the bankruptcy of Michigan as Williams’ major crisis.
“Soapy got destroyed by that,” he said, noting that it also may have cost Williams a run at president.