HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. -- HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. (AP) — Mitch Albom's best-selling memoir, "Tuesdays with Morrie," gave him the literary chops to try his hand at fiction, so it's fitting that he returns to the book's central theme — the struggle to understand one's own mortality — for his fourth novel.
"The First Phone Call From Heaven," which came out Tuesday, mines the same death-and-afterlife material that transformed Albom 16 years ago from an award-winning sports columnist into a best-selling author.
A closer look, though, shows it isn't quite like his other novels.
At 323 pages, it's about 100 pages longer than his other fictional works, and he devotes the extra space to fuller character development.
Plus, "it's a bit of a thriller," according to Albom, who said some people close to him expressed surprise he had a mystery novel in him, but he realized: "I've been writing sports my whole life, and sports is exactly that."
The book follows several residents of a fictional northern Michigan town, Coldwater, who start receiving regular Friday phone calls from deceased loved ones. (There is a real Coldwater, Mich., but it's in the south of the state.) Soon, the town is overrun by out-of-towners dead-set on getting the story (media), celebrating the phenomenon (religious zealots) or disproving it (skeptics).
"There's a fundamental question: Did this really happen or not? At the core of that question is belief," Albom said. "The book to me, if you had to pick a one-word theme, it's 'belief.'"
Albom said belief is "what gets us through life" and "carries us through terrible situations when they happen to us."
Much like the one that happened to him. A series of strokes robbed his mother of the ability to speak.
"I've not heard her voice since 2010, basically. I miss her voice something terribly," Albom said.
Morrie Schwartz's voice also is one of those Albom has lost over the years.
The 1997 chronicle of his mentor's deathbed seminars provided Albom with the springboard he has used to delve into the world of fiction.
Albom said Schwartz asked him to visit his grave periodically to continue their conversations.
"He said, 'When I'm dead, you talk. I'll listen,'" Albom said, referring to his friend's request that, despite an initial reluctance, Albom has honored.
"There's nothing creepy about it," he said of his visits to Schwartz's final resting place in Massachusetts. "I have conversations with people who have passed all the time. They don't talk back, but I sit and I talk to them myself."
Schwartz also challenged Albom to do more charitable work.
"Anybody can write a check," Albom remembers him saying.
As with the graveside chats, Albom has honored Schwartz's call for charity.
He has founded six charities in his hometown of Detroit, and since the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he has operated an orphanage in Port-Au-Prince that he visits monthly.
"I do the charity work because I should, because I can," he told The Associated Press during an interview at the medical clinic for homeless children and their mothers that he set up in the Detroit enclave of Highland Park.
Moments earlier, Albom strolled through the S.A.Y. Detroit Family Health Clinic greeting patients, doctors, nurses and others with hugs and handshakes.
One of those who received an embrace from Albom was Dr. Chad Audi, the president and CEO of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries and a frequent partner of Albom's on various charitable endeavors.
Despite Albom shooing him away, Audi refused to stop singing the praises of his friend, who he said is much more hands-on than many believe.
"You will see him painting on his knees. You will see him cleaning, cuddling with the homeless people," Audi said. "He slept in their bed, literally. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be able to raise the funds ... to help those guys."
"OK, OK. Now go away," said Albom, whose critics have derisively dubbed him the "king of hope" because of the syrupy-sweet nature of his books.
Albom embraces the nickname.
"I'll take that any day," he said. "I just try to tell stories that when you're done, you feel a little hopeful.
"It's really not any more complicated than that."
Mike Householder can be reached at email@example.com and http://twitter.com/mikehouseholder
Searching for Zion
This moving, personal book sees the author traveling to African diasporic communities around the world to uncover different ideas of what homeland means to each of them. Dave Eggers said about this book, "I doubt there will be a more important work of nonfiction this year." Atlantic Monthly Press Published on January 8th, 2013
The World Until Yesterday
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My Brother's Book
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The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family
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The Ocean At The End of the Lane
This new adult novel by Neil Gaiman is described <a href="http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2012/10/the-ocean-at-end-of-lane-other-bits-of.html">by him</a> as "an astonishingly personal sort of a novel" about creatures from beyond the world, and, of course, the power of stories. William Morrow Published on June 18th, 2013
Mary Roach takes a look at our insides, and tells us more than we ever needed to know about how our bodies work, in an entertaining and compulsively quotable manner. WW Norton Published in April, 2013
Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell
This book on female sexuality and desire was already published in the UK where it received mixed reviews - some loved its unconventional narrative style, others found it frustrating. All, however, found it a moving and memorable read. FSG Published on June 4th, 2013
Odds Against Tomorrow
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Anne Carson is one of America's most talented experimental writer/poets. This story, the sequel to her breakout work <em>Autobiography of Red</em>, is a tricky read, but an important addition to her growing canon. Knopf Published on March 5th, 2013
Letters to a Young Scientist
Edward O. Wilson is the world's leading authority on ants, as well as a leading public intellectual. Now aged 83, this book is a handover of knowledge and advice to the next generation, written in the form of 21 letters. Liveright Published on April 15th, 2013
The sequel to <em>The Shining</em>, <em>Dr Sleep</em>, comes out next year. That's all you need to know. Scribner/ Hodder & Stoughton Published on September 24, 2013
McCann's latest novel ties together the real-life histories of Frederick Douglass, Alcock and Brown, and Senator George Mitchell. This National Book Award winner is a talented and skillful writer - we're looking forward to learning how he manages to weave these narratives together. Random House Published on June 4th, 2013
A Memory of Light
The 14th and final book in The Wheel of Time saga brings this bestselling series that began in 1990, to a close. To say that fans are excited is a vast understatement. Tor Published on January 8th, 2013
The Tragedy of Mr Morn
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Detroit: An American Autopsy
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The Atlantic Ocean
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Lionel Shriver, the author of <em>We Need To Talk About Kevin </em>takes on the topic of obesity in a book that is sure to be a harrowing must-read. Harper Published on June 4th, 2013 (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images For The BFI)
Dan Savage is a hugely popular sex advice columnist and creator of the <a href="http://www.itgetsbetter.org/">It Gets Better project</a>. His words are often wise and funny, and point to a happier America where people aren't judged by their sexuality and beliefs. Dutton Published on May 21st, 2013
Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg has strong words for women and for the society that hinders their progress. This could become the Bible for a new movement that tries again to shatter the eternal glass ceiling. Knopf Published on March 12th, 2013
Vampires in the Lemon Grove
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This look at Scientology and Hollywood is based on a controversial <em>New Yorker</em> article that discussed Tom Cruise and John Travolta's connection to the group. Expect plenty of discussion around this one. Bantam Published on January 17th, 2013
The Blue Book
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The Shining Girls
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Chuck Todd's book on Obama
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All That Is
James Salter is perhaps the best living American writer that most people haven't heard of. His <em>A Sport and a Pastime</em> is a modern classic, and this book is his first major work for seven years. Though he is now 87 years old, this is a typically wonderfully written love story, sparse, elegant and unforgettable. Expect to see this talked about a lot this spring. Knopf Published on April 2nd, 2013
I'll seize the day tomorrow
Goldstein is the writer-presenter of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio show <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/wiretap/">Wiretap.</a> If you're a fan, you'll know his writing, and eagerly await this book. If you're not a fan, then go and listen to it/download the podcast. It's ok, we'll wait. You're welcome. Pintail Published May 28, 2013
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Point Your Face At This
Demitri Martin's <em>This Is A Book </em>was a huge hit. This is another surreal joke/sketch-filled tome that will doubtless please his ever-growing fan base. Grand Central Published on March 19th, 2013
Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen take on the ultimate enemy of nighttime imagination. Little, Brown Published on April 2nd, 2013
The Madness Underneath
So, it turns out that Maureen Johnson writes as well as <a href="http://twitter.com/maureenjohnson">tweets</a> (though we have been known to get involved in the occasional Twitter squabble with her.) Book Two of her teen thriller series Shades of London is both sinister and fun. Just don't tell her we said so. Putnam Juvenile Published on February 26th, 2013
One of the strangest titles of the year, famous Man on Wire tightroper Philippe Petit helps you tie "beautiful, life saving knots" while also sharing something of his philosophy. Abrams Published on April 1st, 2013
Year of the Jungle
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Happiness, Like Water
This debut collection by Nigerian American writer Chinelo Okparanta is getting some interesting buzz around its elegant tales of womanhood and loss. She was one of Granta's six New Voices in 2012. Mariner Published on August 13th, 2013
You Don't Know Me but You Don't Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures with Two of Music's Most Maligned Tribes
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This barbed tale of two families is entirely set over one evening in an expensive restaurant. A smash hit overseas, Gillian Flynn called it "chilling, nasty, smart, shocking and unputdownable," and she ought to know. We enjoyed it a lot. Hogarth Published on February 12th, 2013