Michigan's must-reads

By Bill Castanier

State library announces 2009 Notable Books

What began in the heat of July was decided on a dark, cold December day. But in the room where the Michigan Notable Books Selection Committee held its final meeting last Thursday, the temperature was rising. The committee charged with selecting the 20 best Michigan-related books of the last year had been reading and discussing hundreds of books since the summer. The final decision grew heated, as some very good books had to be left behind. (Full disclosure: the author of this article served on the Michigan Notable Books selection committee. Not all of his first choices made the final list.)

This year’s list, announced today, is one of the most eclectic in some time, ranging from Jim Harrison’s “The English Major,” one of The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2008, to a little sleeper from Detroit, “Who Is Jim Hines?” by Jean Alicia Elster. Also remarkable about this year’s list is what’s not on it — no children’s picture books, no mysteries, no cookbooks and no poetry.

To be considered for the Michigan Notable Book Award, a book must be written by a Michigan or Michiganrelated author or be about Michigan. (For example, one of this year’s award winners, “Expeditions,” is a historical, coming-ofage novel by Karl Iagnemma, a research scientist at MIT, which is set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)

State Librarian Nancy Robertson said she is amazed at how much the list differs from year to year. “Each year different types of books and different categories are represented,” Robertson said. “The books highlight how diverse the history and current goings-on are in Michigan. This year’s selections strongly represent the cultural, literary, historical and ethnic diversity of Michigan.”

Several books help fill gaps in Michigan history, including “The Toledo War,” by Don Faber, former editor of the Ann Arbor News, which offers a new look at Michigan’s pre-statehood era.

There are two books on the auto industry, Robert Casey’s “The Model T: A Centennial History,” and Margery Krevsky’s “Sirens of Chrome,” a photo history on the models of the Detroit auto shows.

For niche readers, there is a book on bike racing (“Roadie,” illustrated by Lansing’s Jef Mallett), the history of contemporary gospel music in Detroit (“When the Church Becomes the Party,” by Deborah Smith Pollard) and two books on Michigan maritime history (“Ninety Years Crossing Lake Michigan: the History of the Ann Arbor Car Ferries,” by Grant Brown, and the “Wreck of Carl D,” by Michael Schumacher).

Three books settle in around memoirland: “Knucklehead,” Jon Scieszka’s crossover for young adults; Tom Springer’s “Looking for Hickories;” and “Measures of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, A Daughter’s Return,” by Mary Ellen Geist and Oliver Sacks. “Hickories” is a semilyrical, almost poetic look at natural life in Michigan. “Measures of the Heart” follows a successful CBS journalist, as she leaves her job and returns to Michigan to help her father with Alzheimers.

For nostalgia lovers, there’s Patrick Livingstone’s “Summer Dreams: the Story of Bob Lo Island,” and a particularly good vanity history of Jiffy products in Chelsea (“Jiffy: A Family Tradition, Mixing Business and Old Fashioned Values” by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds).

Two books dissect the turbulent 1960s by looking to unusual suspects. Carl Oglesby, former president of Students for a Democratic Society and an Ann Arbor resident, has written a complex memoir, “Ravens in the Storm,” of his time and trials. In “War as They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America in a Time of Unrest,” Detroit Free Press sports columnist Michael Rosenberg follows the legendary coaches as their ideals conflict with the campus attitudes of the decade.

This list always includes at least one unsuspected gem, and this year that may be “Who is Jim Hines?” a thin book written for juveniles that tells the endearing tale of a young African-American growing up in depression-era Detroit.

Unusually themed picture books on the list include Brian Leigh Dunnigan’s “A Picturesque Situation: Mackinac,” which explores images of Mackinac before photography, and “Historic Cottages of Glen Lake,” by Traverse City photographer Dietrich Floeter and author Barbara Siepker.

Finally, there is one particularly haunting book by William A. Decker, which examines the contextual history of the state’s first psychiatric facility, the Michigan Asylum for the Insane. The book, “Asylum for the Insane,” is a history of mental illness and its treatment.

For more information, visit www. michigan.gov/notablebooks.