Literary Treats for Politics
and Policy Geeks
by Bill Castanier
December 16, 2010
Politics and policy geeks are in for a treat this holiday season with this baker’s dozen of recent books that plumb Michigan’s experience in the public arena.
The books include six 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award winners and run the gamut from ruins’ porn to political corruption, and from prison life to civil rights reform. These 13 books, published this past year, are weighty and thoughtful tomes that provide a look, both directly and indirectly, at public policy in Michigan in the first part of the 21st century.
Often these books do this by peering into the past, such as in Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, which unravels some of the mystery and myth of Prohibition. Others, like the biography of Governor John Swainson, take a step back in time to examine the flaws of human nature.
The Notable Book Award winner Wounded Warrior by former Ingham County Circuit Judge Larry Glazer is the first biography of one of Michigan’s most enigmatic governors, John Swainson, who served as governor from 1961-1962. Not only does Glazer tell us who this man was, but with the mind of a judge, Glazer recreates the investigation and trial of Swainson for bribery and perjury and arrives at his own decision of guilt or innocence. The author details how Swainson, while recovering in a veterans’ hospital from a double amputation due to his World War II injuries, saw racial discrimination first-hand, leading him to become a modern civil rights pioneer. He appointed Michigan’s first black Supreme Court justice and helped create a racial balance in state government.
In his debut Michigan Notable novel, To Account For Murder, Appeals Court Judge William C. Whitbeck draws on the legacy of former Michigan Supreme Court Judge John Voelker, who virtually created the modern legal thriller more than 50 years ago when he penned Anatomy of a Murder writing as Robert Traver. Whitbeck crafts a fictional world for the actual 1945 assassination of Michigan State Senator Warren G. Hooper. It is a sobering look at unbridled government corruption that will make you want to reassess the good old days. Whitbeck weaves fiction and fact together to create a time when, as he says, “everybody lies, coffee was a dime and a state senator could be bought for a hundred bucks.”
If you want to know where Governor-elect Rick Snyder is coming from, a gander at Patchwork Nation, co-authored by MSU journalism grad Dante Channi, is in order. The book is a new look at how we categorize America by demographics and includes nearly a chapter on Ann Arbor, which is characterized as a region focused on “campus and careers.” The book will show you that the nation is much more complex than “Red State–Blue State.”
Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? is a peek into the Michigan prison system by author Buzz Alexander, award-winning University of Michigan English professor. For two decades Alexander has worked in Michigan prisons with his Prison Creative Arts Project, allowing inmates to produce plays, music and visual art. The book is a memoir by Alexander about his work. An 18-page color section recreates some amazing work of inmates, and the work seems to scream at you with both despair and hope.
Detroit Disassembled reminds you that art is meant to be controversial, and that’s the likely reason that some of the dramatic photographic images by Andrew Moore of Detroit’s savaged architecture have been called “ruins’ porn” by some. There is no question that the surreal images in this book will elicit a reaction. Nearly every reader who picks up this book will go “wow” or “oh my god.” The essay in this Michigan Notable Book by former Detroiter and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Levine is brief but dramatic.
Reimagining Detroit by Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher proposes a new Detroit built on a different scale and parameters. Gallagher, who specializes in urban development and architectural critique, has lent his keen eye and analysis to the proposition of downsizing the city of Detroit. In this simply designed Notable Book Award winner, Gallagher lays out how Detroit, by getting smaller, will emerge once again as a great city.
Last Call by Daniel Okrent may be the best history ever written of Prohibition. Okrent dispels most of the great myths of Prohibition and discovers gems of history not previously accounted for. This Detroit native and U-M grad has woven together a readable and historically accurate account of Prohibition and its roots. The book was named one of the 100 Notable Books for 2010 by The New York Times. Detroit’s and the Upper Peninsula’s roles in providing demon rum to a parched country is fascinating reading. Okrent makes the case that Prohibition created unparalleled government corruption and was responsible for the first national crime syndicate.
Michigan’s Economic Future by Charles Ballard, professor of Economics at Michigan State University, is his periodic installment on his analysis of the Michigan economy. He takes a look at the trends affecting Michigan and offers his solutions.
Pointed Poems by Lansing businessman Craig Wieland and illustrated by Lansing caricaturist Dennis Preston is a compendium of editorial-style illustrations wrapped around Wieland’s homespun conservative poems. First written to teach his five daughters about capitalism, his poems are a creative paean to conservatism.
Two Michigan attorneys and civil rights pioneers are the subject of new books that provide a look at the legal and social history of Michigan. One is a memoir, Dean Robb: An Unlikely Radical coauthored by Robb and his son Matthew Robb, and the second, The Color of Law: Ernie Goodman, Detroit and the Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights, is a biography of the preeminent Detroit civil rights and labor lawyer. Authors Steve Babson, Dave Riddle and David Elsila follow Goodman’s career across five decades of defending unpopular cases. The Robbs tell a similar story of a man committed to social change.
Sixty to Zero is a behind-the-scenes look at the fall of GM. This Notable Book Award winner by Alex Taylor III is likely to be a casebook study for MBAs on what went wrong with America’s leading corporation.
A good companion piece to Sixty to Zero is the collection of essays, poems and short stories contained in the book Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams edited by M.L. Liebler. More than 30 Michigan authors and poets contributed to this Michigan Notable Book and literary bible of the thoughts of working men and women. The introduction by Ben Hamper, author of the cult-classic Rivethead, is worth the price of admission.
Some of these books make for pretty heavy reading, so readers will have to pace themselves — but they should be on every policy geek’s shelf or Kindle come January.