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A year of reading dangerously

Highlights from 2015’s crop of books


In 2015, there were books I read for pleasure, books I had to read for work and other commitments, books I overlooked (and will hopefully read next year) and books I will never read. This is an abbreviated look at that journey.

This past year, my reading leaned heavily toward non-fiction. The first standout book was “The Wright Brothers.” Written by David McCullough, this is possibly the best biography of the remarkable brothers and their sister, Katharine. McCullough takes readers to Dayton, Ohio, and Kitty Hawk, N.C., as the siblings race to be the first to fly.

“Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,” by master storyteller Erik Larson, is an amazing cat and mouse retelling of the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I, told through the eyes of a submarine captain and the passengers and captain of the Lusitania. Although you know the outcome, Larson has a finely honed skill for ramping up the tension until the inevitable happens.

Daniel James Brown's “Boys on the Boat,” about an unlikely rowing team from the West Coast who shine in the 1936 Olympics, has been on The New York Times’ best-sellers list for some time now. This year, however, I felt compelled to read it since my grandson is on a crew team in Ann Arbor. Brown nails the intensity, complexity and camaraderie of this underrated sport.

“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” by William Finnegan, rides on the waves of exhilaration and freedom in competitive surfing in the 1960s. In this memoir, Finnegan, a staff writer for The New Yorker and an avid surfer, searches for the perfect wave while ruminating on life.

“M-Train,” by Patti Smith, is a combination travelogue, memoir and elegy. The punk rock pioneer seems to open up her mind and dump it on the page without losing its poetic genius. A follow-up to her National Book Award-winning “Just Kids,” “M-Train” takes readers around the world and digs deeply into Smith’s Michigan days on a delightful and often whimsical journey.

“Galileo’s Middle Finger,” by East Lansing’s Alice Dreger, explores the dangers of unethical scientific research, with a focus on transgender issues. The book explores the science surrounding this complex medical and sociological issue while also bringing an unprecedented humanity to its telling. Dreger even becomes part of the story as her brave look at entrenched researchers and research institutions ultimately leads to attacks from those she sought to defend.

Journalist and author David Maraniss provides a well-crafted look at the decline of Detroit in “Once in a Great City.” The book focuses on an 18-month period in 1963-'64, when most of the world thought the city was at its pinnacle. In retrospect, it was on a course to failure.

East Lansing resident A. Brad Schwartz shows readers and writers that there is always a new twist on an old story in his book, “Broadcast Hysteria.” Who would’ve thought that even one more original sentence could be written about the legendary filmmaker Orson Welles? But Schwartz did, aided by his discovery of a little known archival collection of Welles’ papers at the University of Michigan. He puts a new light on some long held myths surrounding Welles’ masterful radio production, “War of the Worlds.”

And speaking about archives, public archives, private collectors and members of the Hemingway family have teamed up to publish the letters of Ernest Hemingway in what is expected to be a 14-volume collection. The latest release, “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume Three,” covers 1926 to 1929. Local history enthusiasts will delight in Hemingway’s letters to his “pal,” John Herrmann of Lansing, congratulating and criticizing him for his book, “What Happens.”

Coincidentally, “What Happens” was published in the U.S. for the first time earlier this year. The coming-of-age novel was banned for obscenity in 1926.

Without boundary-pushing books like “What Happens,” books like “The Orbit Magazine Anthology,” by podcaster and columnist Rob St. Mary, might not have been possible. Another breakthrough book from the Wayne State University Press, the anthology reproduces Detroitbased alternative publications stretching from the 1970s through the 1990s. Open any page, and it’s likely you will be in sulted and shocked — while still laughing your butt off.

Two outstanding road trip books explore the historical roots and evolution of Michigan’s M-22 and US-12. “Vintage Views Along Scenic M-22,” by Chris Byron and Tom Wilson, takes you on an almost magical trip along Michigan’s glorious lakeshore. “Michigan’s US-12 Heritage Trail” takes you through the middle of Michigan’s heartland. Both provide vivid details about a time before expressways and four-lane highways.

In terms of fiction, three books I reviewed for City Pulse in 2015 shined through. Matt Bell, in his book, “Scrapper,” avoided the sophomore jinx with this gritty urban novel. The book is a tale of love and vengeance, told through the eyes of a scrapper who salvages metal and copper from abandoned buildings in Detroit. Yes, it is dark.

Another Detroit-centric book takes you inside a family in transition. “The Turner House,” by ex- Detroiter Angela Flournoy, was recently named one of the top 100 books of the year by The New York Times. In a fabulist way, Flournoy explores the power of a home in people’s lives.

“Mothers Tell Your Daughters,” by Bonnie Jo Campbell, will make you squirm in your seat. Campbell’s short stories are reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor as she explores issues of abuse and sexuality.

There are two books it seems I should have read last year. Helen McDonald’s “H is for Hawk” has been described as the “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” for the bird world. “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, takes readers to Nazi Germany and shows how humanity thrives when darkness envelops the world.

One book of some note which I couldn’t finish was “City on Fire,” by Garth Risk Hallberg. Published with much anticipation and a $2 million advance, Hallberg’s debut novel begins to lose its zest around page 600. As I tried to trudge through the last 300 pages, I no longer cared who did it or why. Set in 1970s New York, the book sometimes soars, and the characters of that era are dead on, but the book needed fewer pages and more focus.

And finally, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo is a book I won’t read. With New Year’s Day and its resolutions just around the corner, I’m sure this will appeal to some readers. But it doesn’t sound like much fun to me.


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