Throughout last year, a group of 13 volunteers — including librarians, a book store manager and, in the interest of full disclosure, this writer — pored over some 266 books by Michigan authors or about Michigan to select the best books representing the state’s literary community. The Michigan Notable Book winners for 2017 run the gamut, representing a cross-section of genres including poetry, non-fiction, memoir, mystery, humor and short stories.
This year, 17 of the 20 winning authors will be on hand at the gala to mingle with guests, sign books and listen to previous Notable Book author Thomas Lynch talk about the importance of literature in life and society.
Following the fete, the authors don’t just pack up and go home; they tour the state doing book readings and talks at local libraries. These tours are important for remote cities like Sault Ste. Marie, which are far off the typical author tour route. When Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Ford’s “Independence Day” was named a Michigan Notable book several years ago, he selected the nation’s second oldest city for a reading.
To say this year’s list is eclectic would be an understatement. Books like “Feather Brained,” Bob Tarte’s humorous look at the quirks of bird watching, will make you laugh, while Lora Bex Lempert’s “Women Doing Life,” about women serving life sentences for murder, will make you tear up. And you’re likely to laugh, cry and even shudder as you read David Means’ “Hystopia,” a disturbing alternate universe look at the Vietnam War.
The Notable Book list always has some unusual inhabitants, like this year’s “Twelve Twenty-Five.” Kevin P. Keefe’s book tells the story of a steam engine, simply called 1225, which once sat rusting on the MSU campus. Through relentless restoration efforts by students and train buffs, it once again rides the rails at Owosso’s Steam Railroading Institute. The engine, whose moniker made author Chris Van Allsburg think of Dec. 25, was the inspiration for the “Polar Express” book and subsequent film.
Anyone who has tipped a can of Stroh’s will likely find Frances Stroh’s memoir an intriguing look at the rise and fall of Detroit and one of its iconic families. There are a number of other books that explore Detroit and its many facets. “Know the Mother,” by longtime Detroit journalist Desiree Cooper, is an exploration of motherhood through flash fiction. “Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back,” by former Detroit Free Press reporter Nathan Bomey, explores the city’s bankruptcy.
Music buffs should check out “Heaven Was Detroit: From Jazz to Hip Hop and Beyond.” The book features some of Detroit’s best known music writers reliving the glory days of Detroit music in essays. “Heaven Was Detroit” was edited by M.L. Liebler, whose book of poetry, “I Want to Be Once,” is also on the list.
Detroit author Tom Stanton takes an unusual look at a dark time in Detroit history when the white nationalist Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan-like group, crossed paths with the Detroit Tigers in 1930s Detroit. His book, “Terror in the City of Champions,” will send a chill down your spine.
One goal of Notable Books is to represent the entire state. Travis Mulhauser’s debut novel, “Sweetgirl,” is a gripping tale of survival and retribution in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. John Smolens’ thriller “Wolf’s Mouth,” a powerful work of historical fiction, is based on World War II-era prisoner of war camps in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Maureen Dunphy throws herself into travel writing with “Great Lakes Island Escapes,” which explores 30 islands in the Great Lakes that are accessible by bridge or ferry. “Lake Invaders,” by William Rapai, examines another aspect of the Great Lakes: the 180 invasive species that are wreaking devastation on the lakes and causing problems for the people who live on them.
The Notable Book list always includes gems that explore obscure topics. Attorney and author Steve Lehto, who has won the award several times already, picks up another award this year for “Preston Tucker.” The book follows the life and times of the legendary auto designer who came very close to becoming one of the giants of the auto industry before financial problems and pressure from the “big three” automakers crushed him. “Michigan Modern,” by Amy Arnold and Brian Conway, gives credit where credit is due, celebrating Michigan’s role in launching Modern design in architecture, automobiles and furniture.
Four other books round out the list: “The Charm Bracelet” by Viola Shipman (aka Wade Rouse) espouses the importance of connecting with family; Alexander Weinstein’s “Children of the New World,” a futurist glimpse at robots, virtual reality and social media implants in a world gone awry; and Dustin M. Hoffman’s “One Hundred-Knuckled Fist: Stories,” featuring a cast of “working stiffs” who inhabit his collection of short stories.
Finally, one of the most topical mysteries this year was written by MSU graduate and former federal prosecutor Allison Leotta. “The Last Good Girl: a Novel” explores the complex issues surrounding campus rape — and the administrators who wish it would just go away.
Night for Notables 5:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1 $50 Library of Michigan 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing (517) 373-2977, michigan.gov/notablebooks Local author stops: Allison Leotta Author talk and book signing 12:30-1:30 p.m. Sunday, April 2 FREE CADL Holt-Delhi branch 2078 Aurelius Road, Holt (517) 694-9351, cadl.org
Lora Bex Lempert Author talk and book signing 2:30 p.m. Monday, April 3 FREE Castle Board Room John F. Schaefer Law Library
MSU College of Law 648 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing