What you Aught to read

By Bill Castanier

The best Michigan-related books of the ’00s

Like selecting a fine wine, choosing the best Michigan-related books of the Aughts can be a daunting task. But I’ve popped the cork on a dozen or so that should hold their bouquet for a few years.

The books cut across genres, from a Pulitzer Prize winner about a hermaphrodite to a look at Michigan’s first literary author.

The book at the top of this list is Detroit native Jeffery Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” which follows in John Dos Passos’ fashion the “coming to America” of a Greek family in the 1920s and the hermaphrodite Cal/ Callie. The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2003, rises above all others.

“Ursula, Under” is another book from the last 10 years that will only get better with age. The 2004 debut novel by Ingrid Hill follows the dramatic rescue attempt of 2-year-old Ursula Wong, who has fallen down an Upper Peninsula mineshaft. The real catch is the way Hill uses the accident to probe the story of her ancestors, which even by U.P. standards is an unusual pairing of a Chinese alchemist and a Michigan miner.

One of the most heralded Michigan books of the decade was a non-fiction look at the state’s racial history. “Arc of Justice,” by Kevin Boyle won the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction. The book tells the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African- American who kills a man while defending his home and family from a white mob in 1920s Detroit. The resulting courtroom drama, which received worldwide attention, was a seminal to the civil rights movement.

Patricia Polacco’s children’s book, “January’s Sparrow,” published this year, is a 90-plus page picture book that will be read and re-read, as the country moves through the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The book offers a look at the notorious Crosswhite Affair in Marshall, during which citizens of this quiet Southern Michigan town rebuffed slave hunters.

Now fast forward to Paul Clemens’ “Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir.” Clemens tells a coming-of-age story of a white boy in the predominantly black city of Detroit. The book, a memoir of the Coleman Young days, is an unusual, funny and frank look at racism and prejudice. It was a New York Times notable in 2005.

The dreadful changes wrought by the decline of the auto industry in Michigan are examined in a touching 2005 novel by Dean Bakopoulos. Using the unusual literary convention of magical realism, “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon” will kick you in the shin and pull at your heart. The author uses a fictional setting that could represent any number of communities in the Detroit suburbs. The men of the city are disappearing, and the young males and mothers are left to their own devices.

Two books that were considered for the National Book Award this year need no aging; they should be read immediately. “American Salvage,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell is one of those books that gnaws at you; it will disgust you and make you laugh, but you will never forget the complex characters of these short stories. Campbell is a modern day Flannery O’Connor with a twist of Raymond Carver. Most of all she wants to remind us that these are our neighbors, friends and relatives.

The second is “Stitches,” a groundbreaking graphic novel by award winning Michigan children’s author and illustrator David Small. Small chose the graphic novel style to tell his painful memoir of a tortured childhood.

Elmore Leonard and Jim Harrison, two authors who made or make Michigan their home and who have contributed greatly to our literary richness, each have books that should be included. “Mr. Paradise,” from 2003, is a classic example of Leonard’s crime writing. For Harrison, try “Off to the Side,” a 2002 memoir about growing up in Michigan and his literary life.

Harrison makes the list again with what is the hands-down poetry book of the decade, this year’s “In Search of Small Gods.” Poetry is so personal, but this collection will resonate with every baby boomer, as it plays out their life, death and the siege of illness. Harrison has said this book was inspired greatly by the time he spent in Northern Michigan.

Another children’s book worth a long look is “Tracings,” by Lita Judge. Not many children’s books will make an adult reader tear up, but this one will. The 2007 book examines the impact of war on survivors and innocent victims, as it shares the humble heroism of a young Michigan couple who launch an amazing program to help Germans after World War II.

War ands its aftermath are also deftly pursued in Escanaba native Tom Bissell’s 2007 book, “The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son and the Legacy of Vietnam,” about his journey with his father to the Vietnam battlefield where the latter fought. Bissell uses unusual techniques in this part-memoir, part-coming-of-age story of the generational impact of war.

Former Michigan autoworker Christopher Paul Curtis’ young adult book “Elijah of Buxton” won the 2005 Michigan Author Award. The book follows a young African-American boy who finds himself in Detroit tracking a thief. The young man finds his life drastically changed, as he learns of the reality of slavery.

Each year, numerous Michigan history books
compete for attention, but two from the last decade have the staying
power to remain on shelves as others are culled. One is “Write it When I’m Gone” about
President Gerald R. Ford. The 2007 book by Thomas M. DeFrank is an
insider’s look at Michigan’s only president, written after his death.
The other, “William G. Milliken,” written by Dave Dempsey in
2007, is about a governor whose political career bridged World War II
and has people harkening back to a saner time in Michigan politics.
Every elected official in the state should check this book out.

The next time you hear, “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee,” the 2007 book “The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky” will
have you rethinking the state’s literary heritage. The book, edited by
Robert Dale Parker, is a wonderful look at the life story and
literature of the mostly unknown Ojibwe poet and writer Jane Johnston
Schoolcraft (1800-1842). From Sault Ste. Marie, Schoolcraft is the
first known American Indian literary writer.

Two of Michigan’s most popular pastimes, baseball and fishing, also make the list. The 2001 book “Traver on Fishing,” by
Robert Traver and edited by Nick Lyons, is a collection of writing by
the late Upper Peninsula author and jurist, mostly known for his book “Anatomy of a Murder.”

With the last brick recently hauled out of old Tiger Stadium, “The Final Season: Fathers, Sons, and One Last Season in a Classic American Ballpark,” by
Tom Stanton, takes on greater meaning. The 2006 book is a sad look at
the final home game of the 1999 season at Tiger Stadium. Stanton, who
won many awards for this book, pulls together his childhood and current
family memories with the help of the likes of Ernie Harwell, Al Kaline,
Elmore Leonard, fans and stadium ushers. Even though it is now an
unmarked grave, we can still hear the cheers from "The Corner," thanks
to Stanton.

No list would be complete without a book that ponders the state’s environmental future, and “Pandora’s Locks,” by
Jeff Alexander, is great for that. Alexander uses his decades of
environmental writing to examine the disaster caused by opening the St.
Lawrence Seaway. The 2009 book is especially timely as another invasive
species, the Asian carp, threatens our waters.

To close this list, I’ll offer a book that uses no words but still manages to electrify: the 2005 pop-up book "Winter’s Tale: An Original Pop-up Journey," by
former Michigander Robert Sabuda, the world’s foremost paper architect.
Like any good read, this complex book will have you shaking your head
and asking, “How did he do that?”