Category Archives: Authors

‘Paris in the Present Tense’ is a Stunner

Paris in the Present TenseAvid readers know that when time for leisure reading is limited, solid book choice is crucial. Imagine then how pleased I was to have selected Paris in the Present Tense from the shelves of my local public library. I’m drawn to books about Paris, though many end up being too weak or sappy to push through. I can assure you, however, that this is certainly not the case with author Mark Helprin’s latest work.

Paris in the Present Tense revolves around Jules Lacour, a seventy-four-year-old cellist who has seen much in his lifetime. War, love, and loss have left Lacour with a pragmatic view of his remaining years, yet determined to provide his daughter and her family with choices of freedom that he never had. Paris is their home, but as acts of racial violence escalate Jules is sharply reminded of his war-torn childhood and the carnage left in the wake of the Nazi occupation. Jules’ perceived responsibility to right the wrongs of racial hatred lead him to a moment of violence that changes the trajectory of his quiet, disciplined life in ways unimagined.

Paris in the Present Tense is a deep and beautifully written novel. Whether it was author Mark Helprin’s intention or not, the movement of this story is propelled by the character of Lacour’s cello itself. Jules’ music plays an almost mystifying role in Paris in the Present Tense, and gently carries the story through to its final crescendo. The harmonies and dissonance of Lacour’s relationships – work, love, family, and life – seem to lift from the pages, creating a mystical presence that permeates each passage regardless of setting.

And then there’s Paris. Helprin must have an intimate relationship with this magnificent city because he is able to lay it down so well. Jules takes us with him as he daily navigates the Sorbonne, the Seine, les petits cafés, and his routes through the city’s majestic gardens. “In spring the trees of Paris bloom so lightly they seem to float on the breeze,” Lacour regards. “In summer, its deep green gardens often shade into black and an orange sun revolves in the air like a crucible risen from a foundry. In winter, white silence in the long, treed allées and not a breath of wind. And in the fall bright colors and deep blue sky roll in on cool north winds.”

I loved this book. All of it. Paris in the Present Tense has a lot to offer, but as a recommendation I do feel it demands a certain age of its reader. Jules’ reflections on the passage of time and his unyielding – if not bizarre – ambitions to preserve his remaining family show a desperation that perhaps only a parent (or survivor) might understand. The book is truly beautiful, but some passages might strain the less patient reader. Where some might savor Jules’ deep thoughts on the various stages of life and love, others might get muddled down in his challenging, thicker thoughts. That said, this book definitely worked for me. I’m new to Helprin’s literary style and it hit the right note. While some passages took extra effort (and a dictionary), there is a quick, underlying pulse that keeps you engaged to the very last page.

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

Other Strong Parisian Reads – remember to buy from your local independent:

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paris by Edward Rutherfurd

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

The Greater Journey by David Mccullough

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle – French series if you’re looking for something lighter



Leave a comment

Filed under Authors

Dolan’s Back with ‘The Man in the Crooked Hat’

The Man in the Crooked Hat

Bestselling Ann Arbor author Harry Dolan is at it again with his latest mystery, The Man in the Crooked Hat (Putnam, $27). Dolan’s fourth book follows Bad Things Happen, Very Bad Men, and The Last Dead Girl, all of which quickly found themselves on must-read lists. Mr. Dolan has been called “a new master mystery writer” (Forbes), and has made quite a name for himself in lit circles and on national media outlets. Though Mr. Dolan originally hails from New York, we’re screaming Pure Michigan!  for yet another great writer who represents.

I have yet to dig into The Man in the Crooked Hat, but I have re-posted my review of Dolan’s Bad Things Happen (2011) for your enjoyment below. If you are looking to buy, please consider the independent Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.

Bad Things HappenIt’s true that bad things happen, but are we supposed to enjoy them so much when they do? In Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen, half the fun is waiting out the next “bad thing” (of which there are plenty) while the other is enjoying the ride.

Bad Things Happen is…well…sexy. From the alluring, yet solitary main character David Loogan right down to the seductive college vibe of Ann Arbor itself, Mr. Dolan hooks you up with a delicious murder that fills you with a sweet, edgy unease. As his sultry characters glide in and out of focus, you are left wondering beyond wonder, who in the world can you trust?

After David Loogan becomes inadvertently involved with the mystery magazine Gray Streets, his quiet low-key life somehow slips into a sea of complicated suspicion. However, Mr. Loogan’s appeal lies in his subtle, easy dialogue and blithe manner towards all things homicidal. As Loogan makes his way through the maze of Gray Street personalities in hopes of solving his friend’s murder, he encounters one Elizabeth Waishkey. Elizabeth is a cop who is also intent on solving the murder, but is saddled with the snag of distancing herself from the ambiguous Loogan, who is a promising prime suspect with each turn of the page.

As Waishkey works on Loogan, and Loogan works on his own, this shadowy tale is spun on pure Ann Arbor background, bringing about a well-deserved nod for this progressive midwestern pocket. Matched in sophisticated tones, Ann Arbor provides the perfect setting for Dolan’s sleek, hard-boiled fiction.

“Ann Arbor has the street life of a much larger city. When the weather is fair, and sometimes when it’s not, the sidewalks along State Street and Liberty and Main bustle with people:  hip, arty, confident people who walk to theaters and shops, bookstores and coffeehouses, who gather at sidewalk tables that spill out of restaurants.

David Loogan found them fascinating. He thought it must be the university that produced them. The university made the city more prosperous and young and good-looking. It gathered all these people to itself and then it sent them out into the city where they ate fine meals, and attended plays, and greeted one another on the street with hugs and cheery shouts and back-slapping.”

Bad Things Happen brings in the sharp, classic styles of other noir lit authors such as Raymond Chandler, whom is mentioned more than once in the book. Even if you are not a seasoned mystery reader, Harry Dolan’s seductive style easily translates. Mr. Dolan’s work is fun, and mentally unspools itself in close-up, pan-back fashion. Like a smooth, smoky Hollywood flick, Bad Things Happen definitely has movie rights potential, but for now I highly suggest kicking back and enjoying it just the way it is.

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

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Leave a comment

Filed under Harry Dolan

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.

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

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Leave a comment

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 –

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

Leave a comment

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

Michigan’s Literary Stars to Shine on Saturday Night

Michigan’s finest authors will be stepping out Saturday night for a few hors d’oeuvres, some fine Michigan wines, and a swell of well-deserved recognition for their award-winning contributions to the 2012 Michigan Notable Books.

The Library of Michigan’s annual Night for Notables is an event designed to pay tribute to those authors who have written works that offer high-quality titles with wide public appeal and are reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience.

This year’s featured speakers are 2010 and 2011 National Book Award Winners for Fiction, Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones) and Jaimy Gordon (Lord of Misrule). The evening’s moderator is both a National Book Award Finalist and one of my favorite authors, Bonnie Jo Campbell (American Salvage and Once Upon a River).

Authors to be honored at the Night for Notables this year include such names as Michael Moore, Jack Dempsey, Steve Hamilton, and Jim Harrison among others. Many of this year’s contributors will be on hand to sign and discuss copies of their award-winning books.

What are the Michigan Notable Books? Each year, the Library of Michigan selects up to 20 published titles over the last year that celebrate Michigan people, places, or events. Stretching back to 1991, the Michigan Notable Books began as the “Read Michigan” program but switched its name in 2004.

Anywhere between 250 to 400 Michigan-related titles are reviewed each year. Book selections are highly competitive and are reviewed by a board of 10-16 members who come from various literary backgrounds. The program is supported by sponsors and grants handled by the Library of Michigan Foundation.

For NLR coverage of a few of this year’s titles, you can link here. For a detailed piece on the upcoming event, link to this wonderful City Pulse piece by fellow friend and Mittenlit blogger Bill Castanier.

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

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Jaimy Gordon

Nicola’s Books Stacks Stellar Appearances This Week

Dust to DustNicola’s Books in Ann Arbor has plenty on tap for local readers this week.

On Tuesday evening, actor and author Benjamin Busch will be appearing at Nicola’s Books for a discussion and signing of his memoir, Dust to Dust. Busch, who currently lives in Reed City, Michigan, was born in Manhattan and grew up in upstate New York. He is an actor, photographer, film director, and a United States Marine Corps Infantry Officer who served two tours of combat duty in Iraq. In addition, he has appeared in the HBO series The Wire, Homicide, The West Wing, and Generation Kill.

Acting aside, Busch’s memoir is a heavy, thoughtful read that utilizes the elemental (water, metal stone, blood, etc) as device for examining the brevity of our existence.

Dust to Dust will hit stores this Tuesday, which happily coincides with Busch’s appearance at Nicola’s. The discussion and signing will take place on March 20, 2012 at 7:00 pm. For more on Benjamin and Dust to Dust, try this recent piece in the Detroit Free Press.

The Boiling Season: A Novel

Also appearing this week at Nicola’s Books is author and debut novelist Christopher Hebert. Hebert is a graduate of Antioch College and earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and was awarded its prestigious Hopwood Award for Fiction. Currently, he teachers at the University of Tennessee and lives in Knoxville with his wife and son.

The Boiling Season, Hebert’s debut novel, is a stunner thus far (I’m halfway through), and I’m quite shocked Hebert isn’t getting more airtime for this richly detailed and beautifully written work.

Hebert’s discussion and signing of The Boiling Season will take place Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 7:00 pm. For more with Christopher Hebert you can link to this Metro Pulse interview.

Nicola’s Books is located in the Westgate Shopping Center at 2513 Jackson Avenue in Ann Arbor. As always, events are subject to change so please call first before heading out the door (734.662.0600).

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

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors

Kudos for Kotlowitz – Award for ‘The Interrupters’ Acknowledges Another Important Work

The incredible efforts and social dedication of Alex Kotlowitz have once again been recognized. The Interrupters, a film by Steve James and Kotlowitz, won Best Documentary at the Film Independent Spirit Awards Saturday night.

The Interrupterstells the moving and surprising story of three ‘violence interrupters’ in Chicago who with bravado, humility and even humor try to protect their communities from the violence they once employed.”

In honor of Kotlowitz’s win, I’m posting a piece I did a few years ago pertaining to the heavy impact his book There Are No Children Here had upon me  while living in Chicago. To get a feel for the powerful, magnanimous art of Kotlowitz, take a look at the trailer for The Interrupters.

NLR – Kotlowitz Perseveres in Granta Piece

Years ago when I was living in Chicago, I read There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. Up to that point, Chicago had been my happy college home. The Chicago I had grown to love carried its own energetic pulse with its winking, open-windowed restaurants, beckoning beer gardens, star-lit nights at Wrigley, and the constant comforting rumble of the El. Navigating the Loop and northern neighborhoods both day and night, I believed Chicago to be the friendliest city in the world and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

But after my literary introduction to young Lafayette and Pharoah in There Are No Children Here, my view of the city took a different turn – not worse, just different. Realizing these young boys lived mere miles from my Lincoln Park playground left me unable to total the sum of my advantages. How had I been riding the El over the projects for years without truly thinking about the people occupying them?

It is to the credit of Kotlowitz that I began to think outside of my insular box. I began to tutor in Cabrini Green, and upon graduating from Loyola took a teaching job in a poor, tagged pocket on Chicago’s West side. As I slowly peeled back the layers of my privilege, I was quickly made aware of the violence inherent in these communities.

On my first day of teaching, my doe-eyed second grade students informed me that the closest neighboring school wouldn’t be starting until the following day. Why? Because a body had been found in the parking lot and the school needed to be taped off as a crime scene. I was stunned, but based on the kids’ reactions this event seemed a matter of course rather than surprise.

Regardless, I continued to love and live in Chicago for ten more years. Though I still had my fun it came with a deeper understanding of my dual surroundings, and the essence of Kotlowitz’s work filtered into my expanding view of privilege and poverty.

I now write this from my home in Michigan, which sits within the borders of my youth a mere twenty minutes from Detroit. However, while I’ve settled into a quieter appreciation of suburban life, Alex Kotlowitz is still hard at work. With the arrival of my most recent issue of Granta, I realize Mr. Kotlowitz continues his attempt to create some understanding of the incomprehensible.

His Granta contribution Khalid is a brief, heartbreaking work which looks at the people behind the violence that continues to puncture the heart of Chicago. It is a work that translates to any major American city, including Detroit, that suffers the pointless murder of its youth.

So, as my content life buzzes along with errands, carpools, work and quick trips to Target, it is with sheer admiration that I once again read the work of Mr. Kotlowitz – a man who has valiantly dedicated himself to recognizing the gross racial and social discrepancies of our time.

Other works by Alex Kotlowitz:

There Are No Children Here

The Other Side of the River

Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Leave a comment

Filed under Alex Kotlowitz