Category Archives: Book Reviews

Vande Zande’s ‘American Poet’ Gives Notable Nod to Poet Roethke

perf5.500x8.500.inddDenver Hoptner walks at night. The recent University of Michigan grad, jobless and without prospects, has returned home to live with his father while he regroups and considers his future.

Instead of opening doors, Denver’s fresh MFA in Poetry has left him open only to his father’s scrutiny, and worse, at a devastating loss for the words he longs to put down. Seeking solace, Denver routinely takes to the bleak Saginaw streets searching for a sign.

In Jeff Vande Zande’s  tight, coming-of-age novel American Poet (Bottom Dog Press $18.00), Denver’s sign comes in the form of late poet Theodore Roethke’s boyhood home. The prize-winning poet’s house, found smoke-damaged and in disrepair, gives Denver angry encouragement and fuels his commitment to both his craft and the preservation of a bygone poet’s brilliance.

“It was one of the few things that I didn’t hate about the town,” Denver says. “When I was in high school and thinking that maybe I wanted to write, I used to walk out to the Roethke House at least once a month, just to look at it. He was a pretty big poet in his day. Pultizer Prize for one thing, and it meant something that a guy like that could come from a place like Saginaw. He was a guide. A lodestar.”

Poet Theodore Roethke drew his words from the well of his Saginaw surroundings. Through Denver’s eyes, author Vande Zande also offers bright discovery in the gray and grit of this roughed-up city. Ultimately, it’s in Denver’s struggle to reconcile his future ideal with his present reality that his true poetry begins to emerge.

Jeff Vande Zande teaches English at Delta College and writes poetry, fiction, and screenplays. He was selected as the recipient of the 2012 Stuart and Venice Gross Award for Excellence in Writing by a Michigan Author for American Poet; his novel that was also selected as a 2013 Michigan Notable Book.

– This review can be found in the January, 2013 issue of Hour Detroit. For Hour subscription information, link here.

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– Post by Megan Shaffer

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Filed under American Poet, Authors, Book Reviews, Jeff Vande Zande

‘Annie’s Ghosts’ is Back as the 2013 Great Michigan Read

Annie's Ghosts

The Michigan Humanities Council has announced their much-anticipated biennial title for the 2013-14 Great Michigan Read program. Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by journalist and Detroit native Steve Luxenberg, is the selection for this impressive statewide program.

“It was quite a surprise, and certainly a pleasant one,” shared Luxenberg in a recent email. “It’s an honor for the book to be in the same category as the previous choices, and to be considered worthy and compelling enough for the selection committee to choose it.”

Annie’s Ghosts  is the thorough, moving story of Luxenberg’s mother, and a mysterious relative long hidden away at Eloise, the massive psychiatric hospital that once housed some nine thousand people from the state of Michigan. Luxenberg’s story digs into the dark corners of his family’s past, and exhumes the complicated history of his ancestors in hopes of revealing a family secret.

Michigan Humanities Program Officer Carla Ingrando said the response to Annie’s Ghosts has been tremendous. “Within three days of the announcement, more than 100 organizations have preregistered as Great Michigan Read partners.”

The Great Michigan Read is a statewide reading initiative sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council. Reaching out to schools, libraries, religious organizations and other nonprofits, the program aims to connect readers throughout the state with titles that explore our past, present and future.

How did the program select Luxenberg’s title? “The Great Michigan Read titles are selected through a grassroots process,” explained Ingrando. “During the fall of 2012, six regional selection committees made up of librarians, teachers, and literary enthusiasts nominated titles to a statewide selection committee, which met in January 2013.”

This year, Ingrando said the tragedy of Sandy Hook played a significant role in the 2013-14 title selection. “We met in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, and the committee felt like reading and discussing Annie’s Ghosts would provide an opportunity to think deeply about mental disability, mental illness, and mental health care.”

Annie’s Ghosts is a fascinating journey of immigration, identity and Detroit history. Luxenberg’s work has other honors in the Mitten as well; Annie’s Ghosts was selected as a 2010 Michigan Notable Book. For all program and participation information, link here.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Link

– Annie’s Ghosts on NPR: A Journalist Uncovers His Family’s ‘Ghosts’  Full of Detroit’s colorful history, this true mystery was selected as

Live announcement of The Great Michigan Read –http://www.spreaker.com/embed/player/standard?episode_id=2201249

The Great Michigan Read is presented by the Michigan Humanities Council with support from Meijer and the National Endowment for the Humanities

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Filed under Annie's Ghosts, Authors, Book Reviews, Steve Luxenberg

Natalie Taylor Brings ‘Signs of Life’ to Birmingham Biggby Coffee

Signs of Life: A MemoirWhat do you do if you’re 24 years old, five months pregnant, and your husband suddenly – tragically – dies? If you’re Natalie Taylor, you write one honestly good book. Yes, we all know that shelves sag with overdone memoirs of tainted childhoods, deeds done wrong, and ruined lives, but Taylor defies the dark and opts to soar instead with this tight uplifter, Signs of Life.

Natalie’s husband Josh Taylor died on Father’s Day of 2007. He was 27 years old, married to the woman he loved, and happily awaiting the birth of their first child. Who would have thought that a quick blow to the back of his head while Carveboarding would put an end to his own life just as the one he created was beginning to bloom?

Signs of Life is the narrative compilation of Natalie Taylor’s journal entries that span the year following her husband’s death, yet Taylor’s pragmatic approach toward handling her grief is precisely what lands Signs of Life in its own little camp of the genre. Though Taylor’s voice cuts with pure pain and candor, she unwittingly softens the blow with her straight-forward sincerity and unwavering humor.

“When I decide to do something, I want it done quickly. I do not dilly-dally. When Dr. G. told me that grief takes time, I wanted to say, ‘But what about for the smart kids?’ I took Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. Let’s talk Advanced Placement Grief. But one of the first things I realize about this stupid emotion is that AP Grief does not exist. Time goes by, weeks pass, a month passes, my belly grows, my hair grows, but when I wake up in the morning it feels exactly the same. Grief goes at its own speed.”

As Taylor begins to piece together the brokenness of her life, the fog of her grief lifts just enough to reveal a bit more of both herself and the world around her. Through Josh’s death, Taylor is inadvertently exposed to life outside of the insulated bubble in which she grew up. Instead of self-absorption with her own sorrows, Taylor finds in herself an unexpected wellspring of compassion and understanding for all walks of life.

Taylor is a high school English teacher, and she structures Signs of Life around the books she teaches and those that pass through her hands the year after Josh’s death. Seeking solace through literature, Taylor looks to some heavy hitters for help. Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are but a few of the many authors who step up to hold Taylor’s grieving hand.

Also balanced by the support of some killer friends and family, Taylor puts you on a nickname basis with Ads, Matthews, Moo and more, but it’s never overdone. Taylor’s memoir is incredibly fresh and breathes life and hilarity into the not-so-funny-at-all realm of death, darkness and grief. While Signs of Life is based on Josh Taylor’s terribly sad and untimely death, one can’t miss the budding evolution of a determined woman, a beautiful baby boy, and the incredible ongoing power of life.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

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Filed under Authors, Natalie Taylor, Signs of Life

Essays and Credits and Recs, Oh My! Korelitz Spins Tale Around Secrets of ‘Admission’

AdmissionThe complex process of college admissions is a high-pressured business that few of us will ever see from the inside. With big money on the line and parents pushing their kids to the brink of insanity, applying to college has become a game of high emotional and monetary stakes. Suffice it to say, the days of easy-flow transition from high school to college are definitely a thing of the past.

There are some 37,000 secondary schools in the United States, yet those who attend  posh prep schools up the ante and level of admissions play by deploying an annual mass of glowing curricula vitae to America’s finest universities. Not only do these high caliber students put the squeeze on the competition, but they also turn up the heat for admission officers as they attempt to bring only the best and brightest to their respective campuses.

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz provides a glimpse into the chaotic, mystifying world of university admissions in her engaging novel Admission. Korelitz has firsthand experience with the process of Princeton University admissions where she was a part-time reader for their Office of Admission during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Intimate with student essays, credentials, and recommendations, Korelitz fuels her story with the angst and crush of desperate 18 year olds determined to make a difference.

Main character Portia Nathan, also an admissions officer for Princeton University, takes us inside the big machine of Ivy student acceptance and decline. Hand picking from thousands of applicants across the globe leaves Portia emotionally drained as the future lives of the finest students teeter on the brink of her decision. The “ordinarily qualified, the usually brilliant, and the expectedly talented” are all relative when moving through the towering stacks of mega potential.

The drama surrounding Portia’s personal life is a bit predictable and overdone, but the characters are vidid and certainly entertain. Admission exposes the shocking world of inflated ego, poor parent behavior, privilege, entitlement, and the lengths that people will go to access the ivory tower.

Not everyone was as entertained by Admission as I was, particularly this high school senior who reviewed Korelitz’s “silly novel” for The New York Times. Regardless, should you live in an area of privilege and affluence and think your child is a shoo-in for the ivy league, Admission is a must read and will definitely leave you thinking again.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

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Filed under Admission, Authors, Book Reviews, Jean Hanff Korelitz

Ayad Akhtar’s ‘American Dervish’ – Muslim from the Midwest

American DervishAyad Akhtar’s anticipated debut novel, American Dervish, hit shelves this past Monday. Though I reviewed it for the upcoming issue at Bookbrowse.com, I will share that it is a solid, accessible work that both delights and disturbs.

Akhtar is an American-born, first-generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee. As such, there’s an authenticity to his work that offers readers an open, innocent approach to Islam, and allows an inside look at Muslim life in America prior to 9/11.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Dervish that Akhtar is a screenwriter. Entertaining yet provoking, Dervish is a page-flipper that will leave those in the movie industry fighting for film rights.

Ayad Akhtar on American Dervish

Review Links (Beware of possible spoilers)

NPR – Growing Up Muslim and Midwestern in ’Dervish’

New York Times – Stumbling Through an American Muslim Maze

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

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Filed under American Dervish, Authors, Ayad Akhtar, Book Reviews

2012 Michigan Notable Books Announced

The much anticipated 2012 Michigan Notable Books were announced today. The Library of Michigan annually decides on 20 of the most notable books that “are reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience” and feature “high-quality titles with wide public appeal.” (via)

This year’s list, which features fiction, nonfiction, picture and children’s books alike, were either penned by a Michigan resident or written about a subject related to the Great Lakes region.

“The list has been a year-end tradition since 1991 with selections made by a panel under the umbrella of the official state library, part of the Michigan Department of Education,” states the Detroit Free Press. “Authors don’t receive prize money for the award, but the prestige of appearing on what has become a high-profile list does invite greater visibility and a potential bump in sales.”

This year Night Light Revue weighs in on only three of the 20 titles, and all fiction at that. I must say that Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River is not only my favorite book of 2011, but now falls into my “best book of all time” list. Also, Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior is highly entertaining while Scott Sparling’s Wire to Wire is a dark and dirty little ride.

Sales aside, Michigan now holds some of the country’s hottest authors in its mittened hand. Regardless, our authors modestly accept their awards and graciously make themselves available to Michigan readers through library tours, appearances and literary engagements. In addition, our university presses get a big boost and a much deserved nod for their remarkable, prolific publications.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

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Filed under Bonnie Jo Campbell, Ellen Airgood, Scott Sparling, South of Superior, Steve Hamilton, Wire To Wire

Tis’ the Season for Great Gift Titles

Tis’ the season to pick titles for the lit lovers in your life. Below is this week’s shopping list for those of you looking for great reads to put under the tree. For a little gift-giving on the side, each title below is linked to one of Michigan’s fabulous indie bookstores where you can order and support our literary arts right from your merry little home.

– Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell  (award-winning Michigan author)

– The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (hot fiction – more on McLain)

– The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer-winning Michigan author)

– Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (more on chef Hamilton)

– Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (award-winning Michigan author)

– The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011 Booker Prize for Fiction)

– Annabel by Kathleen Winter (shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize)

– Sister by Rosamund Lupton (debut mystery)

– The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (debut bestseller)

*Support your local bookstores, libraries and universities. It matters.

– Post by Megan Shaffer

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Filed under Annabel, Authors, Blood Bones & Butter, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Book Reviews, Gabrielle Hamilton, Jaimy Gordon, Kathleen Winter, Sister, The Paris Wife, The Sense of an Ending