Best of 2013: Books

By Bill Castanier

“Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton” by Matt Phelan

This graphic novel, suitable for both adults and young adults, tells the charming but little known story of silent film star Buster Keaton and his family’s vaudeville troupe that summered near Muskegon in the early 1900s. Keaton and a local boy become friends, each wanting to be in the other´s shoes. The graphics are stunning and the story of two young boys trying to get a feel for who they will be in life is endearing.

“In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods” by Matt Bell

In the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Bell uses the power of myth and magic realism to explore family and fatherhood. It’s a dark tale with strange creatures, a labyrinth and a family like no other. Bell, a professor of writing at Northern Michigan University, is a young writer to be watched and read. It will startle you. You’ll put it down, but you’ll pick it up again.

(tie) “Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City” by Gordon Young and “Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff

These are sad tales that explore the plight of two Rust Belt cities, Flint and Detroit. Journalism professor Young, who lives in California, takes a look at his native Flint by temporarily moving home. He’s ostensibly looking for a great real estate deal, but really he’s there to relive the life of a city that no longer exists. Meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist LeDuff, a Detroit native, weaves his own tough family history into a complex story about a great American city on the ropes. Although both writers pull no punches when relating the grim reality of their home cities, you come away from these books with an inherent sense of hope.

“Brown Dog” by Jim Harrison

Harrison’s latest, a collection of his novellas featuring his character, Brown Dog, could be this generation’s “Don Quixote”; readers 400 years from now may use it to get a taste of what it was like to live happily as an outsider in this century, away from the suits and stock portfolios. Those who know are flocking to this compilation and those who haven’t been exposed to this ribald, primal and witty character will be surprised by his intense loyalty to his friends and his Pope Francis-like love of underdogs. That it is set in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a plus.