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Wednesday, April 16,2014

Midwestern sensibilities

Night of Notables event honors distinctly Michigan voices

by Bill Castanier
This year’s 20 Michigan Notable Books are weighty — close to 60 pounds — so if you plan to haul home some of this year’s selection at the Night for Notables, where the authors of 2014 books are being feted, bring a reinforced book bag. Two-time Edgar Award winner Steve Hamilton will be keynote for this year’s event. Hamilton was recognized in 2012 for his book “Misery Bay”; he broke new ground when he began writing about Alex McNight, a tough ex- Detroit cop who retires to the Upper Peninsula only to find crime is everywhere.

Hamilton, 53, calls his work “hardboiled Northwood crime fiction.” He grew up in Michigan and graduated from the University of Michigan before relocating to New York for a job with IBM.

“I am proud to be from the state — it has an amazing literary tradition,” Hamilton said. The mystery writer returns numerous times each year to Michigan for book tours and vacations in the Upper Peninsula, often using his time to research his next novel.

This year, three local authors were recognized (four if you include Jim Harrison, who spent his teen years in Haslett): East Lansing’s Keith Widder for his book “Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow,” a retelling of the Michilimackinac Massacre; Linda Hundt of Dewitt for her cookbook-memoir “Sweetie-licious Pies” and MSU professors Joe Darden and Richard Thomas authors of “Detroit” about the racial divide in Detroit.

Michigan State University Press hit gold this year with three books on the list. Along with “Detroit” and “Pontiac’s Shadow” the Press also published the “Great Lakes Sturgeon” which is also an award winner.

Hamilton said he was influenced in his writing by what he calls a “Midwest sensibility,” and points to the late Elmore Leonard as an influence.

“When you think of Midwestern writing, you think of Elmore,” he said. “He’s the ultimate Midwest writer.” He added that Midwest writers are “a little bit more authentic” and “they are not a put on or showoffs.”

Hamilton fondly remembers first meeting Leonard sitting in a bar in Denver.

“I was so scared of him, but we began talking about old Tiger Stadium and it was perfect way to start,” he said.

Also at this year’s event will be Jamie and Robin Agnew, owners of the mystery bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor. They will be recognized for winning the Raven Award, given annually by the Mystery Writers of America for contributions by non-writers to the genre. One winner, for Reader of the Year, of some renown was Bill Clinton, an avid mystery reader.

Hamilton said that Aunt Agatha’s represents “an amazing literary tradition of independent bookstores.”

“That’s (also) my home bookstore,” he said.

Although Hamilton does not have a book on the Notable list this year, he does have a short story in a hefty collection of writing about the Upper Peninsula, “The Way North,” which is being recognized as a Notable Book this year. The book was edited by Ron Riekki, an Upper Peninsula author, and Hamilton believes it’s the type of book that represents the Midwestern sensibility.

“He was doing it on his own against all odds and the crazy thing worked,” Hamilton said. The book is in its second printing.

Each year a panel of 10 judges (including the author of this column) looks at hundreds of books that have a Michigan theme or are written by a Michigan native or author. Randy Riley, a librarian who oversees the Awards for the Library of Michigan, said the Notable designation, especially for first-time authors, might provide enough momentum to get a second book deal.

Although it is difficult to say that the Notable Book Award can kick start an author’s career or make a book popular, anecdotally there appears to be a correlation.

Jeff Vande Zande of Midland’s book, “American Poet,” is written against the backdrop of the literary home of Saginaw poet Theodore Roethke. Since his book was named a Notable Book last year, he has seen it go into multiple printings. The attention has also created a renewed interest in preserving the home. One of this year’s winners, “Bootstrappers,” by Traverse-area writer Mardi Link, was recently optioned for a film. Link first won the award in 2008 for her true crime book on a Northern Michigan murder.

The award also helps the books get noticed by other organizations; the Michigan Humanities Council is using the 2009 Notable Book Award winner “Annie’s Ghost” by Steve Luxenberg as the Great Michigan Read.

Erik Nordberg, executive director of the Michigan Humanities Council and a major sponsor of the Notable Award, said he believes the award helps identify books worth reading in sea of material.

“There are so many books being published in both print and digital that the challenge is to find good quality books,” he said. “The award helps identify some of those (standouts).”

2014 Night for Notables

5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 26 Library of Michigan, 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing. $40 (517) 373-1297, libraryofmichiganfoundation

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