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Judgement Day: The trial of selecting Michigan‘s most notable books

Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli - December 29th, 2008
It’s tough to sit in judgment on your peers. I’ve been on the Michigan State Library’s Notable Books Committee for two years now, with one more to go, and it didn’t get easier this year. I doubt next year will be any different.
I don’t remember why Kim Laird, who runs the group for the library, with Nancy Robertson, head librarian, as final arbiter, first asked me to join the 14 judges from around the state. Four of the judges come from the Michigan Department of History, Arts, and Libraries. There are librarians from as far away as Marquette, a representative from Cooley Law School, and another from Grand Valley State. There are book store people and newspaper people -- reviewers and columnists.
When Laird called, the job sounded challenging. I welcomed that, and maybe having a say in the kinds of books which would represent Michigan writing. I knew I could be impartial, only search out the very best, and grind no axes. What I wasn’t prepared for were my own biases, my own pet-peeves, and my inability—at a juncture or two—to give in when a book I didn’t think one of the best was close to making the final 20. I found I’m a lousy team player. I can be intractable. Dogmatic. And a few other things I don’t wish to confess to here. But all in the name of honoring the best writers among us.

GETTING IT TOGETHER
The committee meets at least twice monthly from August through the beginning of December. We are from Detroit, Marquette, Lansing, Traverse City, Glen Arbor, Ann Arbor, and Allendale, but meet at the main library in Lansing.
George Weeks, of Glen Arbor, long-time columnist for the Detroit News, began the program in 1991, and is still a member.
My first year on the committee brought confusion and a feeling of being overwhelmed by the 300 books we had to read. I kept asking for criteria for judgment. How was I to make choices without firm rules in place? Surely we needed at least one book from each section of the state. From each genre. There must be a children’s book, a sports book, photography, fiction, poetry. I probably drove everybody nuts with my concern that we be fair. Didn’t we have a responsibility, after all, to represent all of Michigan? The answer came to be no, we have no such responsibility. The one immutable attribute of a notable book is good writing.
When the names of our most famous writers came up, someone, wanting to honor them—Jim Harrison, Elmore Leonard, Gloria Whelan—once and for all, suggested a kind of hall of fame where the names would be permanently lodged. That idea was quickly quashed. You don’t celebrate your best by leaving off the masters. So, on to other problems.
When I asked again and again what made a book truly notable, I came up against that indefinable thing all really good art and literature comes up against—the subjective, the mysterious, that ah-ha moment during which you recognize quality. This year the fiction choices were particularly easy. The English Major by Jim Harrison (Grove Press) exemplifies wonderful writing, as does The Expeditions: A Novel by Karl Iagnemma, (Dial Press) of suburban Detroit.

WELL DONE
The standards I finally accepted were few—and huge. Other than fine writing, a book must be well-edited and well produced. Historic Cottages of Glen Lake by Barbara Siepker, with photography by Dietrich Floeter, (Leelanau Press) was an easy choice by these standards this year, as was A Picturesque Situation: Mackinac Before Photography, 1615-1860 —this one for the sheer scope of the undertaking.
Next, to be notable a book must stand out from others in the same genre; it should be new, take a novel approach if the topic is one covered before, there should be something different about the book, offer vital material on the subject. For me, Asylum for the Insane: A History of the Kalamazoo State Hospital by William A. Decker, M.D. (Arbutus Press) was a shoo-in. Dr. Decker not only covered this aspect of Michigan History, but the evolution of the treatment of the mentally ill, and made it fascinating reading.
Last year I desperately wanted, and helped get, the biography of Iggy Pop on the list because it was a fresh subject, very well written, and about a time and person who came to define a period in Michigan’s music history. This year those books are When the Church Becomes Your Party: Contemporary Gospel Music by Deborah Smith Pollard (Wayne State University Press), which covers the gospel scene in Detroit, both old and new, and Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement by Carl Oglesby (Scribner).
Each book on this year’s list was debated, redebated, and disputed right up to the final meeting when the twenty ‘best’ had to be chosen. Books were hotly fought for or against. The final 20 changed again and again until at last there was consensus. The list stands, perhaps not completely satisfactory to everyone, but it is a list we take pride in. The books chosen are truly representative of the best Michigan has to offer, and are a testament to the quality of writing being produced in Michigan today.
Sitting in judgment on such a group of pros isn’t easy, but I’ll be back at it next year, looking for the greatest writing, the new and the surprising. Each year the standards get higher, the writing better, and our writers even more deserving of honor.

Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli is a novelist and journalist. Her novel, Dead Dancing Women (Llewellan Worldwide) is available in bookstores.


Notable Books for 2008:

ASYLUM FOR THE INSANE: A History of the Kalamazoo State Hospital by William A. Decker, M.D. (Arbutus Press)

THE ENGLISH MAJOR by Jim Harrison (Grove Press)

THE EXPEDITIONS: A Novel by Karl Iagnemma (Dial Press)

HISTORIC COTTAGES OF GLEN LAKE
by Barbara Siepker, photography by Dietrich Floeter (Leelanau Press)

“JIFFY” A FAMILY TRADITION: Mixing Business and Old-Fashioned Values by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds

KNUCKLEHEAD: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszke (Viking Press)

LOOKING FOR HICKORIES: The Forgotten Wildness of the Midwest by Tom Springer (University of Michigan Press)

MEASURE OF THE HEART: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Return by Mary Ellen Geist (Springboard Press)

THE MODEL T: A Centennial History
by Robert Casey (Johns Hopkins University Press)

NINETY YEARS CROSSING LAKE MICHIGAN: The History of the Ann Arbor Car Ferries by Grant Brown, Jr. (University of Michigan Press)

A PICTURESQUE SITUATION: Mackinac Before Photography, 1615 – 1860 by Brian Leigh Dunnigan (Wayne State University Press)

RAVENS IN THE STORM; A Personal History of the 1960s Antiwar Movement by Carl Oglesby (Scribner)

ROADIE: The Misunderstood World of a Bike Racer by Jamie O. Smith. Illustrated by Jef Mallett (Velo Press)

SIRENS OF CHROME: The Enduring Allure of the Auto Show Model
by Margery Krevsky (Momentum Books)

SUMMER DREAMS; The Story of Bob-Lo Island by Patrick Livingston (Wayne State University Press)

THE TOLEDO WAR: The First Michigan-Ohio Rivalry by Don Faber (University of Michigan Press)

WAR AS THEY KNEW IT: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America in a Time of Unrest by Michael Rosenberg (Grand Central Publishing)

WHEN THE CHURCH BECOMES YOUR PARTY: Contemporary Gospel Music by Deborah Smith Pollard (Wayne State University Press)

WHO’S JIM HINES? by Alicia Elster (Wayne State University Press)

WRECK OF THE CARL D.: A True Story of Loss, Survival and Rescue at Sea by Michael Schumacher
(Bloomsbury USA)

 
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