MI Notable Books list offers challenging and comforting reads from a difficult year | Michigan Radio
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MI Notable Books list offers challenging and comforting reads from a difficult year

Jan 22, 2021

The Library of Michigan released its 2021 Michigan Notable Books list — which features new fiction, histories, essays, and poetry from throughout the state — in early January.
Credit Courtesy of the Library of Michigan

Every year, the Library of Michigan releases a list of Michigan Notable Books, which features books that are about or set in Michigan — or that were written by authors from the state. But in 2020, the selection committee faced a unique challenge: compiling a list of notable works published in a year like no other.

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“To be honest, at the beginning of the year, it was hard to see how we even move forward,” said Tim Gleisner, head of the selection committee and manager of special collections at the Library of Michigan. “We were able to exchange titles, exchange ideas — obviously, like everyone else, go virtual on our meetings. But it was definitely more chaotic this year.”

For many, heightened anxiety and extended stress during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to difficulty concentrating. And while some people sought solace in stories this year, others found that reading books with serious subject matter had suddenly become tiring in a new way.

“It was really only in the fall that I’ve been able to really focus on some of those harder stories,” said Jessica Trotter, a librarian with the Capital Area District Library who was also part of the selection committee. “I was gravitating toward much more comfort reads than challenging.”

When evaluating books for the 2021 list, Gleisner and Trotter agreed that the guiding force behind the selection process was finding titles that reflect Michigan’s many voices, regions, and varying perspectives.

Find the 2021 list of Michigan Notable Books — including some of Gleisner and Trotter’s favorites, as well as Stateside interviews with featured authors — below.

Black Bottom Saints by Alice Randall

Trotter says the creative format of Black Bottom Saints, which fuses fact and fiction to tell stories of real Detroiters from the city’s historic Black Bottom neighborhood, is part of what drew her to the book.

“I had a harder time reading with everything going on this year. And the thing about Black Bottom Saints is that it’s set up in the form of a saints book,” Trotter said. “It’s something that I could approach kind of piece by piece, instead of one long narrative.”

Stateside's conversation with Randall originally aired on October 5, 2020.

The Star in the Sycamore: Discovering Nature’s Hidden Virtues in the Wild Nearby by Tom Springer

Gleisner says he didn’t want Springer’s collection of essays about “the nature next door” to end.

“He really looks at everyday things that you would just find outside in your yard, and he’s able to give it a majesty, a nobility, that you wouldn’t otherwise attribute to the various aspects of, say, Southwestern Michigan,” said Gleisner.

Half by Sharon Harrigan

Trotter says the style and structure of Harrigan’s “haunting” story about a closely bonded set of identical twins help make the book compelling.

“It’s the unraveling of the story,” Trotter said. “It starts with their father’s funeral, and it’s moving both backwards and then later forwards, and it’s just spun out in such an interesting way that it drew me in.”

Stateside's conversation with Sharon Harrigan originally aired on June 16, 2020.

I Have Something to Tell You by Chasten Buttigieg

The conversational tone of Buttigieg’s memoir — as well as the audiobook, which Buttigieg narrates himself — made for enjoyable reading even when the book discussed serious issues, says Trotter.

“It’s not a political book per se,” Trotter said. “I mean, he is a political husband. But this is more of him telling his story, and the thing is, his story is still guided by somebody else’s political choices — his issues with school debt, medical debt, the whole concept of coming out. All of these things are affected by our politics, but it wasn’t a polemic. It was a very conversational storytelling about his life.”

The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch by Miles Harvey

Gleisner says he found Harvey’s book a “brilliant” portrayal of both the story of King James Jesse Strang, the self-proclaimed Mormon monarch of an island in Lake Michigan, and American society as a whole in the mid-19th century.

“It wasn’t just about King James,” Gleisner said. “It really showed all the different strands that were going into this man, who basically was trying to form his own country within a country at that point.”

Stateside's conversation with Harvey originally aired on July 24, 2020.

Words like Thunder: New and Used Anishinaabe Prayers by Lois Beardslee

Stateside spoke with Beardslee — a writer, artist, and educator from northern Michigan — about her latest poetry collection, which brings traditional stories into a lyrical contemporary context.

“I use the traditional stories very often in updated forms,” Beardslee said. “Our traditional culture and traditional approaches are so powerful, so competent, and so flexible that they help us continue to function today.”

This conversation originally aired on April 16, 2020.

Boulders: The Life and Creations of Earl A. Young in Charlevoix, Michigan by David L. Miles, photography by Mike Barton

City of Champions: A History of Triumph and Defeat in Detroit by Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

Grief's Country: A Memoir in Pieces by Gail Griffin

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist

Lakewood by Megan Giddings

The Mason House by T. Marie Bertineau

A People's Atlas of Detroit, edited by Linda Campbell, Andrew Newman, Sara Safransky, and Tim Stallmann

R E S P E C T: The Poetry of Detroit Music, edited by Jim Daniels and M.L. Liebler

RESPECT: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison

The Ship We Built by Lexie Bean

The Wicked Sister by Karen Dionne

Wolf Island: Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal by L. David Mech, with Greg Breining

You're in the Wrong Place by Joseph Harris

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.