2012 Michigan Notable Books Announced

The much anticipated 2012 Michigan Notable Books were announced today. The Library of Michigan annually decides on 20 of the most notable books that “are reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience” and feature “high-quality titles with wide public appeal.” (via)

This year’s list, which features fiction, nonfiction, picture and children’s books alike, were either penned by a Michigan resident or written about a subject related to the Great Lakes region.

“The list has been a year-end tradition since 1991 with selections made by a panel under the umbrella of the official state library, part of the Michigan Department of Education,” states the Detroit Free Press. “Authors don’t receive prize money for the award, but the prestige of appearing on what has become a high-profile list does invite greater visibility and a potential bump in sales.”

This year Night Light Revue weighs in on only three of the 20 titles, and all fiction at that. I must say that Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River is not only my favorite book of 2011, but now falls into my “best book of all time” list. Also, Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior is highly entertaining while Scott Sparling’s Wire to Wire is a dark and dirty little ride.

Sales aside, Michigan now holds some of the country’s hottest authors in its mittened hand. Regardless, our authors modestly accept their awards and graciously make themselves available to Michigan readers through library tours, appearances and literary engagements. In addition, our university presses get a big boost and a much deserved nod for their remarkable, prolific publications.

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

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Author Scott Sparling Lights it Up in ‘Wire To Wire’

Cover ImageScott Sparling is bringing his hip thriller Wire to Wire home to Michigan.

Sparling’s recent release is the wild, amped-up story of train-hopping Michael Slater, who tries to pull his life together after taking a live wire to the head while riding freight through Detroit.

Wire to Wire is a slick departure to the darker side of northern Michigan. Hardly Pure, Sparling offers up a bevy of vice hidden among the sweet, touristy towns that sprinkle the state’s map. Next to photo-ops and fudge shops, Sparling positions the seductive forces of money and sex which play out in Wire to Wire’s hazy shades, sharp dialogue, and escalating acts of violence.

Sparling will be making a number of Michigan appearances which kick-off this evening at Petosky’s McLean and Eakin as part of their Yellow Chair Series. If you are interested in meeting Sparling, he’ll be making stops at several Michigan indies and will be a bit closer to the Detroit metro area late next week. You can link here for a full schedule of upcoming Wire to Wire events.

In a recent email exchange, Mr. Sparling was kind enough to field questions about his new book, its evolution, and the fortunate score of publishing through Tin House.

Scott Sparling on Wire To Wire

Night Light Revue: Where did you grow up in Michigan?

Scott Sparling: I grew up in Jackson, Michigan. I lived in Ann Arbor briefly in the mid-1970’s. A good friend lives in Maple City, northwest of Traverse City. I’ve spent a lot of time there, in his cabin. My time there influenced the book quite a bit.

NLR: What city is Wire to Wire’s Wolverine based on? Was the setting based on actual areas in Michigan?

SS: There’s a real town called Wolverine, but the Wolverine in Wire to Wire is a fictionalized combination of Frankfort and Elberta. I’ve created a fictional version of Northern Michigan that is populated largely by people who are escaping reality. In real life, there are the same kinds of people up north as there are downstate. So you could say the values are fictional, but the geography is fairly accurate to Frankfort and Elberta.

NLR: The premise of Wire to Wire is so incredibly unique. Did you actually know someone who got hit in the head by an electrical wire?

SS: My mom once sent me a clipping about a similar train-powerline accident. It was a news story about high school kids who’d been drinking and climbed up on top of a moving boxcar as a lark. I was riding freights all around the country at the time, so I guess my mom sent me the clip as a kind of warning. In the news clipping, the boy who got hit by the power line was killed.

NLR: The book feels so indie with its curling smoke, flickering tapes, and dark churning Michigan waters. It all seems to unspool to a killer backbeat that sort of pulses in the back of the brain as it reads. Was that your intention? Did you listen to music to pump you up while you were writing?

SS: Early on I used to listen to Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum while I wrote. The drum cuts have a beat but no real melody and you can listen to them for hours. I used to play drums, and some of the cadence and rhythms of the prose are influenced by that in places – or at least it seems that way to me. Later I started listening to more trancy-stuff, particularly Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, while I was writing. During the final edit, I listened to Jon Dee Graham and Alejandro Escoveda.

NLR: Did any particular movies, writers or books influence Wire to Wire?

SS: Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone was a big influence, as well as his earlier book, A Hall of Mirrors. Those books are probably the reason I write in third person. I also tried to learn from the way Stone moves his story forward with very little exposition. Since this is my first book, almost everything I read influenced it.

NLR: The glue-huffing, if that’s the right term, is so dark. Is that where you find parts of forgotten Michigan? Does that reflect the Michigan you know?

SS: The term “huffing” didn’t come into general use until later – so it’s the correct term now, but not during the time of the book. The glue-sniffing doesn’t have anything to do with my view of Michigan. Lane’s using it as a way to dissolve her past. If she were a different character, she’d be drinking or taking drugs.

NLR: I definitely picked up an anti-capitalism vibe in Wire to Wire. An extreme dislike of capitalism and its environmental crush come through loud and clear with both the Whispering Sands complex and the ruination of the legend of Sleeping Bear. Was Wire a message to the masses in the guise of a thriller novel? Was there any political intent on your part?

SS: All the characters in Wire to Wire have difficulty with money and sex. I tried to write about money and sex as if they were elemental forces like fire and water. Fire (or electricity) and water make our lives better when we keep them under control. When they jump channels, they flood us out or burn down the house. At various points during W2W, both money and sex jump their channels, and become forces of destruction for individual characters. Harp doesn’t think of it that analytically though – he simply sees the damage money can cause when it’s out of control, and that shapes his view. Considering the Wall Street meltdown and greed of recent years, it seems like a reasonable take on things.

NLR: Two of my favorite things in the book, oddly, were the sort of yin and yang of the gritty, skull-powdered Tru Balance knife calmed by the soft snapping of fingers by Slater’s ears. Where did you come up with these devices?

SS: Like a lot of the novel, those are little moments stolen from real life and converted into story. When my son was learning to snap his fingers, he walked around the house snapping them constantly. It seemed like an interesting bit of business, and I gave it to Slater. I’m not sure where the hidden handle on the knife came from. I’ve seen scenes in movies where a hero picks up a gun and can tell whether it’s loaded by the weight. That might have influenced my thinking.

NLR: How, with the utmost curiosity, did your research this book?

SS: My friend and I rode freight trains all over Michigan, and later, all over the country and across Canada. Most of the freight sequences in the book stem from trips we really took. By the late 1980’s, I was no longer riding trains much, but I was spending a lot of time in Northern Michigan. I stayed in my friend’s house in Maple City for six weeks one summer, taking notes all the time, reading the weekly newspaper, listening to his stories. Beyond that, it’s invented. I never sniffed glue or tried speed. I can’t throw a knife.

NLR: How long did it take you to write Wire to Wire? Was it difficult to translate the mental version onto paper?

SS: It took 20 years and it was insanely difficult, only because I’m a slow learner. And I did a lot of other things along the way, like raise a family. The first finished version was done in 1991. I got that draft to Jim Harrison and he said he liked it. He actually passed it along to his agent, but the agent didn’t think it could be sold. After that I just kept re-writing. There was another finished version in 1996, and another in 2001 and so on. I just kept working on it until a publisher finally bought it.

NLR: Wire to Wire is a totally different read and exquisitely dirty. Did you choose Tin House to push the book? How did you find your publisher or did your publisher find you?

SS: A friend told me Tin House would like the book. But I’d heard things like that before, and I forgot about it. About six months went by, and then I ran into my friend again. She asked me what Tin House thought of the manuscript. I had to admit that I’d completely forgotten about her advice. So she gave it to them. I call this story The Miracle of My Incompetence, because Tin House has been tremendous to work with. Tony Perez, who edited the book, helped me tremendously with structure and narrative flow. From my point of view, it’s been a perfect match. Obviously, I owe my friend a lot.

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

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Ann Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’ Certain to Leave You Wondering

Cover ImageWe’ve come to expect big things from bestselling author Ann Patchett. As winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for her international beauty Bel Canto back in 2002, Patchett unwittingly raised her literary bar and cleared the way for a large and loyal fan base.

Highlighted by the success of Bel Canto, Patchett has amassed a reliable readership and now publishes to eager, outstretched hands. With five praised novels to her name and one currently situated on several prominent reading lists, Patchett has been slow to disappoint. In her latest novel State of Wonder, however, Patchett just might find devotees a touch disenchanted.

Patchett’s State of Wonder boldly tackles the snarled, cacophonous wilds of the Amazonian jungle. Yet for all of the novel’s shimmering flora, pulsating hues, masticating insects, shrieking monkeys and tribal ululations, why are we left hearing only crickets?

State of Wonder starts out strong despite its floppy premise. The introduction of key characters and plot lines instantly hook and anticipation builds at the first hint of scandal. Like the exhilarating, paced ascent of a roller coaster readying for the ride, readers sense big thrills to come. Alas, as the setting switches from the midwest to Brazil, State of Wonder peters out at the perch and clambers down into a disjointed tale of outlandish proportion.

“It’s not that I don’t have any idea; it’s that I sometimes have too many ideas,” shared Patchett in a recent Tin House interview, and this is no doubt the troubling case in State of Wonder. Bioethics, biracialism, corporate greed and cultural integrity are but a few of the many story threads that still remain slack at the conclusion of Patchett’s work.

Despite the medicinal treasures that potentially abound in the Amazonian underbrush, Patchett overplays the topic in State of Wonder and takes it a bit too far. “Science came in for the first time with Run,” Patchett tells Tin House, “and then it just kind of blew up into something a lot bigger in State of Wonder… .”

Well put. An author can only take their audience so far before they run the risk of losing them in their own imaginative flight. By the time Patchett has Marina eating bark off the trees and the Lakashi tribe swabbing their private parts for the sake of modern science, it’s fairly safe to say that Patchett has left her readers staring into space.

That said, Patchett does have a gift for beautiful prose and her depth of character and relationship are at times palpable. In addition, the lush, layered descriptions of the Amazon and its foreboding tributaries are striking. In all fairness, State of Wonder offers significant literary style if not grace.

It’s possible that I might be in my own camp on this one, though it wouldn’t be the first time. State of Wonder  was just released on June 7th and is steadily climbing the charts and garnering written raves. Not only does State of Wonder grace the current cover of BookPage, but it’s also a June 2011 Indie Next List selection and was recently featured on The Diane Rehm Show. If you’ve read State of Wonder, NLR would love to know what you think.

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

– Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

New York Times book review

Tin House

I love getting my quarterly journals, so imagine my happiness when I saw the sunny cover of my new Tin House (Volume 11, Number 1) smiling up at me from the stack in my mailbox. With a big, blue HOPE boldly positioned on the front, I “hoped” its innards would match the margarine sun steadily smiling at me from the cover.

From a literary standpoint, its been a rough few days for me. After the unsettling news about Walmart’s retail of online books (not acceptable), topped by Target’s more recent name in the price-drop game (more acceptable than Walmart/still not acceptable), I desperately needed some of that emblazoned HOPE. So, consider my joy as I tore off the plastic and  found this awaiting me…

Editor’s (Hope) Note

The clouds are parting. We have escaped global economic disaster. It’s a bright day; across the globe, people are cleaning up and cooling down, and wars over oil, land, and tribe are so overrated…for culture, it is a time to rejoice, as the internet has gifted us with the ability to transcend the borders of race, politics, and religion that have always divided us. We are now recognizing each other’s humanity, are connected and transformed by each other’s experiences.

A shot in the arm, this reassuring little paragraph at least convinced me that there was much to rejoice over, regardless of what I fear will be the armageddon of literary retail. But I digress…

My Tin luck continued when I scanned the Fiction contents and spotted senior editor Michelle Wildgen’s interview with author Lorrie Moore. Eagerly anticipating my e-notice for Moore’s new title, A Gate at the Stairs (queued up at #2, public library style), I tossed all else to the side and got down to reading this fine journalistic endeavor. Upon finishing the piece, I realized it was really, really good. Notably so. Quite colorful and enjoyable, in fact.

With a nod to Tin House (no, I’m not affiliated with them in any way), I tackled the rest of my day with optimistic gusto. I ticked off my “to do” list with an extra step in my stride, inwardly content knowing that the world of fine literature would continue in spite of corporate competition.

As the day wore down, I put my feet up and began my scan of blog favorites, startling at the title of the day’s post on NYT’s Paper Cuts. Like some sort of Tin House Twilight Zone, I see Stray Questions for: Michelle Wildgen, the very same crafty senior editor Wildgen of Moore’s interview. With that, I decided to call it a day by tossing my Tin House talisman to the side.

Now as we all know, life is a heads or tails kind of affair. A world of chance and opposing forces. So as I got up to turn out the light, I noticed my Tin House was staring back at me, not with a HOPEful sun, but with a bedeviled DREAD written in Infernal red. Unbeknownst to me, my mailman had inadvertently saved my day. Had he put my Tin House in the box on the flipside, life would have taken on a much more fatalistic tone: dual covers offering dual perspectives. Chalking it up to fate, I flipped it back to the sunny side, switched off the light, and went to bed while pondering the potent powers of persuasion.

-Post by Megan Shaffer