April 15 2009 12:00 AM

State honors authors, stories of everyday, Michigan experience


t’s not just the books that make the Michigan Notable Books program successful; it’s also the story of how the books came to be. One such story is the one behind Mary Ellen Geist’s “Measure of the Heart.” Geist was an international correspondent with CBS Radio who walkeda way from her job to come home to Michigan and help her mother care for her father. In her book, she tells the dramatic story of her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s and her ever-evolving relationship with him.

Of all the awards in her career, having “Measure” selected as a 2009 Michigan Notable Book may be the one she’s proudest of. “I don’t care about the decision I made,” Geist said. “Other values took over. I had to come home.”

After spending the day caring for her father, Geist said she would wake at 3 a.m. and write for personal therapy with no idea that her writing would ever become a book. But after giving a presentation to a group in New York, a New York Times writer who was in the audience wrote a frontpage feature for Thanksgiving Day 2005 that propelled Geist into a new world. Geist said the response to that article was more than she had ever received in her professional career (during which she had covered Princess Diana and the O.J. Simpson trial).

“Agents started calling,” she said.

Since then, Geist has been on the other side of the microphone, giving interviews on major media outlets, including NBC’s “Today” show and NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show.” On May 10, a portion of her father’s story will be included in the four-part HBO documentary “The Alzheimer’s Project.”

Geist believes her book helped open a new discussion. “There is often a sense of shame for the caregiver’s job,” she said. “When people would tell me I should get another job, I thought, ‘There is pride in this job.’”

The author considers her book to be a “gift from her father.” In addition to helping her tell a compelling story about one family’s relationship with Alzheimer’s, Geist said her father’s illness also spurred her to take up jazz singing again; she found that singing together (her father sang in an a capella group) reunited them.

Geist’s experience of taking the everyday and putting it to words may be, as Nancy Robertson, director of the Library of Michigan, said, the unifying feature of this year’s list of Michigan Notable Books. “This list in particular has a lot for everyday Michiganians,” Robertson said.

Robertson points to books on bicycling (“Roadie,” by Jamie Smith, illustrated by Lansing’s Jef Mallett), summer amusement parks (“Summer Dreams: The Story of Bob-Lo Island,” by two-time Notable winner Patrick Livingston), a small-town milling company (“Jiffy,” by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds), and a father and son in Depression-era Detroit (“Who’s Jim Hines?” by Jean Alicia Elster) as just a few other examples. “Even the book on ferries (’Ninety Years Crossing Lake Michigan,’ by Grant Brown Jr.) and the ’Historic Cottages of Glen Lake’ (by Barbara Siepker) are books we can relate to,” she said. “The cottages could be anywhere, and I remember as a kid in Frankfort going to the docks every night to watch the ferry.”

The authors of this year’s Notable Books and their relatable works will be recognized Saturday at the Library of Michigan’s Night for Notables event. Robertson said even this year’s featured speaker, Newbury Award winner and twotime Michigan Notable author Christopher Paul Curtis, represents the Michigan experience. “His story is Michigan’s story,” she said. Curtis grew up in Flint and worked 13 years on the assembly line at the city’s Fisher Body Plant before becoming one of the more revered children’s and juvenile writers in the business.

This year, Michigan Notable authors will share their Michiganian tales with more than 50 libraries and schools as part of the state program, and the Michigan Center for the Book has created a programming guide, so other libraries can participate in reading programs featuring Notable books.

Patrick Livingston, author of “Summer Dreams,” about Bob Lo Island, drew from his experience working on the Bob-Lo ferry as the impetus for his book recalling the heyday of what once was Michigan and Canada’s premier summ er musement park. “During Bob-Lo’s peak in the 1970s, it was even difficult to get on a boat to go to the island,” he said.

Livingston said audience members at readings recall Bob-Lo with fond memories. “I can’t tell you the number of people who tell me they met their spouse on the island or the boat,” he said.

‘Night for Notables’

Paul Curtis, keynote speaker Library of Michigan, 702 W. Kalamazoo St.,
Lansing 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18 $35 (517) 373-4692 www.michigan.gov/hal