‘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

Boyle’s ‘Arc of Justice’ is Back in the Spotlight as this Year’s Great Michigan Read

Cover ImageAuthor and Detroit native Kevin Boyle is pretty pumped about the idea of coming home this fall. The reason? Boyle’s compelling book, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age has been selected by the Michigan Humanities Council as this year’s featured title for the 2011-2012 Great Michigan Read.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to have Arc of Justice selected for the Great Michigan Read,” Boyle shared in an email, and said the choice of his book holds “particularly powerful meaning.”

Boyle’s Arc of Justice “tells the story of African American Dr. Ossian Sweet and the chain of events that occurred after he purchased a home for his family in an all-white Detroit neighborhood in 1925.”* After an altercation one evening with his enraged white neighbors, Sweet’s life – and the course of Detroit’s racial history – are forever altered.

Published in 2004 (Henry Holt and Co.), Boyle’s Arc of Justice was released to high praise. Called “electrifying” and “powerful” by critics, Arc of Justice snagged several coveted literary prizes such as the 2004 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was nominated as a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Arc of Justice has also made its mark on Michigan’s literary scene. Boyle’s nonfiction book was selected in 2005 as a Michigan Notable Book and was the 2007 pick for the Detroit metro community-wide Everyone’s Reading program. Now Arc of Justice will make yet another appearance in the state as the star of this year’s Great Michigan Read.

The Great Michigan Read is a free statewide initiative intended to encourage Michiganians of all ages to read and participate in book discussions and events that take place across the state. It targets Michigan themes so the literature will be more accessible and interesting to citizens of communities throughout the state.

Free is certainly a word that catches the eye these days. As our literary and   educational resources continue to dwindle, programs such as the Great Michigan Read are a boon to local communities and to those of us who relish fine reading. Book clubs, classrooms, colleges and museums are but a few of the potential sites that can sponsor a reading or get directly involved with Arc of Justice and bring fine literature to life.

This fall The Humanities Council will offer reader guides, teacher guides and free discussion kits that will include copies of the book. Supporting programs such as book discussions, classroom exercises, exhibitions, lectures, oral history projects and more will also be available. For communities offering bigger programs, the Council can provide opportunities to host the author as well as financial support.

Whether or not Kevin Boyle will hit your hometown is still to be determined as the Great Michigan Read schedule continues to take shape. Boyle currently lives in Ohio but is, in fact, excited to be “coming home” this fall for a six-city author tour as part of the Read program. “It’ll be great to talk about Detroit, about Arc of Justice, and about the big questions the story raised,” Boyle says, “Most of all, it’ll be great to be home.”

*Information from Michigan Humanities Council

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

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

Powells.com Review of Arc of Justice

Warning: plot spoilers – NYT review ‘Arc of Justice’: I Swear it Was in Self-Defense

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Stealing Buddhas Dinner
Stealing Buddha's Dinner

“We arrived in Grand Rapids with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes…”  So begins Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen (bit-min-win). Arriving in Grand Rapids in 1975, Ms. Nguyen and six family members converge “in that gray house on Baldwin Street” amidst an unknowable cold and an unrecognizable world.  With minimal knowledge of the English language and even less of American culture, the Nguyen family narrates the story of the immigrant, or less poetically, the refugee, through the eyes of a young Bich Minh Nguyen.

I have always been fascinated by the valiant, desperate courage inherent to the immigration experience.  Having been born into the American cushion, I have no comprehension of what it might be like to “flee” one’s country.  I’ve always pictured the literary “chaos” or “under cover of night” scenario, yet Nguyen takes it to the next gut wrenching level with this passage:

At Saigon River my father and uncle abandoned their once fiercely protected bikes only to see thousands of people already gathered at the headquarters gates, where guards patrolled with automatic rifles.  They began searching for another way to the docks, pushing through the screaming crowd.  A full panic had hit the city, the kind that sent people racing after airplanes on the runway, that made people offer their babies to departing American soldiers.

With luck and perseverance, when “fear pushed into fearlessness”, the Nguyen family squeaked their way onto a ship which would lead them from the Philippines to Guam to a refugee camp in Arkansas, only to finalize their trek in the unlikely location of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Vietnam to Grand Rapids – an ocean’s divide of language, custom, religion, habits, and ideals, “…with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes.”

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is riddled with food as metaphor.  From a winking Mr. Pringles to the degrading term of “Twinkie”, Ms. Nguyen utilizes the foods of her childhood to mark the passage of time and her undying need to fit in. Used “to appease, to distract, to mark happiness,” the foods of her youth represent the sheer abundance of choice and society’s pervasive dictation of what products have the ability to make one more American.

To me, life lived in commercials was real life.  Commercials were instructions; they were news.  They showed me what perfection could be:  in the right woman’s hands, the layers of a cake would always be exactly the same size… Commercials had a firm definition of motherhood, which almost all of my friends’ mothers had no trouble fulfilling.

That Nguyen’s own biological mother’s existence was shrouded in secrets and mystery only served to exacerbate her already addled self-esteem. As her own family members confidently expand, we conversely watch young Bich Minh grow smaller. It is through this paradox that Ms. Nguyen finds her soul in the vast world of literature. “I had only one thing to call my own:  I read. Reading was my privacy…I read to be alone. I read so as not to be alone.”

After reading Stealing Buddha’s Dinner I knew I wanted to share it, for as much as this memoir entertains, it excels in its sheer provocation of thought. Only having a few years on Ms. Nguyen, I easily identified with her 1980’s adolescent references: the untamed hair, the Madonna-inspired fashions, and the questionable music… but that isn’t what hooked me.

What hooked me was the book’s ability to make me stop and consider the truth and beauty within our own ethnicities. Despite the gray palette from which Ms. Nguyen paints the story of her childhood, the bold colors of culture can’t be subdued. I loved the musty green smells of the Vietnamese market, the brassy reds I saw in step-mother Rosa, and the tranquil blue hues of grandmother Noi. It made me think about my own whiteness and what  assimilating might truly mean to a young Vietnamese girl growing up in a largely white, Christian, Midwestern state.

Nguyen’s memoir is deeply honest. It is a story of complex familial love pieced together over the circumstances of place and time. Clever, witty, insightful and poignant, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner serves as an instrument of awareness and compassion one carries away long after the last page is turned.

-Post by  Megan Shaffer

*Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is the 2009-2010 Great Michigan Read.  For details see my Whimsy post titled Stealing Buddha’s Dinner:  A Great Michigan Read.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Great Michigan Read

This year’s Great Michigan Read, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen (bit-min-win), is a fine and timely choice made by the Michigan Humanities Council. By spotlighting this Grand Rapids memoir, Michiganians get an up close and very personal view of Ms. Nguyen’s migration experience as her Vietnamese family attempts to replant their severed roots in Michigan soil.

Functioning as a statewide book club, The Great Michigan Read is sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council. The Council was created as a way to foster thoughts on  our diverse backgrounds and the value of the human experience. The site states, “Humanities play a vital role in shaping our communities by helping us understand the histories that connect us and the issues that divide us,” and Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

gracefully assists this ambition. An ambition of great substance and import.

In this brief Bich Minh Nguyen clip, the author introduces both herself and her memoir. I highly recommend the book though it is very heavy on the 80’s, in which time Ms. Nguyen grew up. Regardless, it gives the reader so many obscure facets of the immigration experience, you inevitably come out much richer for the experience.

Bich Minh Nguyen will be touring throughout Michigan the week of Oct 13-17 and all events are free. For more information or to find an appearance, link here. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is available at your local libraries, bookstores and is sponsored by Meijer stores, where I was told it is sold at a discounted price.

*NOTE: When I went to the Meijer store in Royal Oak, they did not carry it and had no information on the book at all. I purchased mine at Borders for $14, where there were a number of copies available.

-Post by Megan Shaffer