Jan. 5 2011 12:00 AM

’Rich Boy,’ ’Just Kids’ among the year’s finest literary works

Take Jonathon Franzen’s much-heralded “Freedom” and stick it in the snow. Instead, put two similar, but better written books — “Rich Boy” by Sharon Pomerantz and “Driving on the Rim” by Tom McGuane — on your reading list.

Pomerantz, who teaches writing at the University of Michigan, comes to Ann Arbor by the way of Philadelphia and New York and drops her no-holds-barred character in search of the American dream into the Big Apple of the free-wheeling ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, while Michigan State University grad Tom McGuane places his “Confederacy of Dunces”-style character into roughly the same era of the American West.

McGuane might have coined the best line of the year when he describes how fellow Montanans deal with outsiders: “Giving freaks a pass is the oldest tradition in Montana.”

For a more cultured approach to the world, grab the exquisitely produced and written “The Etiquette of Freedom” by beat poet Gary Snyder and former Michiganian Jim Harrison. It’s a collection of the old codgers talking about trans-species, erotics, Zen Buddhism and the natural world.

The conversations were pulled from rambling walks by the two in the San Simeon Mountains. The book (which is not quite a book) and the accompanying DVD documentary, "The Practice of the Wild" (which is not quite a movie), provide insights into the minds of two of world’s greatest writers — and Harrison never looked better than he does on a 47-inch plasma.

Three books that you should have on your coffeetable feature looks at a Michigan most of us have never seen. Dr. William A. Decker’s “Northern Michigan Asylum” tells the story of the mental health facility in Traverse City that closed in 1989. The often stylized photos of the beautiful buildings carry the insightful history, written by a psychiatrist who worked in the state’s mental health system for more than 30 years.

“Detroit Disassembled” will both stun you with its beauty and disgust you at the same time. It will make you consider our past glories in a totally different way.

“Blues in Black and White,” with an essay by entrepreneur, musician and astrologer Michael Erlewine and photos by the late Stanley Livingston, chronicles a simpler time for concerts in Ann Arbor, when virtually every major blues performer visited the city for an annual blues festival.

The book (a 2011 Michigan Notable selection) includes photos from the pre-digital age that have great depth and tonality, showcasing the onstage and offstage emotions of some of the genre’s greatest performers. Hopefully, the tens of thousands of other images Livingstone shot during that era will eventually come to light.

Former Detroiter Patti Smith has always been an integral part of social and cultural transformations, and her memoir “Just Kids” provides a look into her early life in New York’s Greenwich Village, including her times with her best pal, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith has hinted about a second memoir that hopefully will combine her life as a poet and punk star and her time in the Detroit music scene. "Just Kids" won this year’s National Book Award.

Hope College Professor Heather Sellers has written another one-of-a kind memoir in “You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know”. This book could’ve been one of those "I survived a dysfunctional family stories" if Sellers wasn’t such an accomplished writer whose chaotic life was further complicated by the rare neurological characteristic prosopagnosia, which doesn’t allow her to recognize faces.

Probably one of the more unusual books this year was “Room” by Canadian Emma Donoghue. For those lucky enough to have been at Schuler Books & Music when the author kicked off her national tour, she introduced the amazing story of a child who, along with his mother, is held captive in a single room by a predator.

My book of the year is a gem from Wayne State University Press: “Picturing Michigan’s Hemingway” by Michigan historian Michael Federspiel. The book looks at Hemingway’s early life in Michigan as a “resorter” and how that time profoundly influenced his writing style. It masterfully combines Federspiel’s scholarly research with 250 images that portray a very special time in the making of a writer. It’s not a scholarly tome but rather an informative and fun look at a young Hemingway who spent his formative years “up north.”