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“Black Aperture,” by Matt Rasmussen. In general, I get very little out of readings (who knows why). But I’ve seen Rasmussen, who lives in the Twin Cities, read from this book and it was astounding. In the time it took him to read about 20 poems, I felt like I’d been both pushed well outside of — and then returned to — myself. I felt what I can only describe as a sort of sadness that shades into joy. I’ve never been to a reading like that, one that was so moving. This, for me, is a sad book — almost all the poems address a brother’s suicide — but it is also beautiful, and should be read by everyone. But why take my word for it? In addition to winning the Walt Whitman Award, Black Aperture was recently named one of five finalists for the National Book Award in Poetry.
I wanted to share how much I loved Russell Hoban’s “Turtle Diary,” an eccentric, elegant, surprising novel that is one of the most moving works of fiction I’ve read this year.
Laura van den Berg
“Good Kings Bad Kings,” by Susan Nussbaum is a book to be read and savored at one sitting. Susan Nussbaum has given the reader a very close and what I believe, real, look at the lives of juveniles in a corporate-run school for disabilities. From the very beginning I was drawn in by its inhabitants, those who occupy the beds (or “recruits,” as an administrator views them), and by the people whose lives intersect them in one way or another. There’s humor, there’s anger, there’s pathos, and there’s an incredible amount of bravery to be found.
Nussbaum has written a book that’s beautiful, relevant, and eye-opening — eye-opening to me because it’s raised my consciousness to another level. It has definitely opened up my eyes to yet another way we willingly or unknowingly let corporations treat others in the name of “improvement” and being “cost effective.”
Laurel Hamilton Eden
“A Tale for the Time Being,” by Ruth Ozeki. Smartest, most profound book I’ve read in a long time.
“Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King is structured like a mystery full of twists and turns — but it’s all true. Thanks to access to previously unreleased NAACP Legal Defense Fund files and FBI reports, King explores a Florida crime that shaped the future of both Thurgood Marshall and the civil rights movement. It’s a lurid story — and it happened just 70 years ago. Plus, I like the fact that, according to the NYT, King’s publisher was just about to remainder the book when it won a Pulitzer, and now he’s sold the movie rights.
I read a lot of well-written and enjoyable novels this year, including “The Broken Places” by Ace Atkins, “The Maid’s Version” by Daniel Woodrell, “Where’d You Go Bernadette” by Maria Semple, “Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon and “Lexicon” by Max Barry, and I was tempted to name one or the other of those as the best. But finally I decided that the best one was “Ghostman” by Roger Hobbs. Why was this debut thriller the best? Because every time I put it down, I couldn’t wait to get back into it again. I carried that thing everywhere I went. The story, and the way it was structured, grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.
St. Petersburg, Fla.
“The Fall of St. Sebastian” by E. Kelly Keady was of one of my favorite books this year. It is a real page turner and filled with interesting characters. The plot has many twists and turns and is set against a backdrop of fascinating history and world events.
“Bobcat,” by Rebecca Lee. The flawless, crystalline prose in these stories took my breath away, and the funny-yet-melancholy stories thoroughly captivated me. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Any book by David Finkel is worthy of celebration, so I’m adding “Thank You For Your Service.”
I read a great many novels this year — some of them really touching. But for me the best books of the year were two practical, down to earth guides. The first was “MN State Parks: How to Get There, What to Do, Where to Do It,” by Anne Arthur. It was terrific! It had me walking into the other room to show my husband the pictures and making lists of wonderful places to visit. There was really just the right amount of detail. And everything seemed so do-able, since the camps are right here in Minnesota. I got the book from the library, but after the first few chapters I called my local book store and asked them to order me my own copy so I could write notes inside.
The second book I loved was “Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving,” by Kevin West. Really it read like a novel — so many beautiful stories and quotes along with some terrific pictures. I never use the word “lush” in regular conversation, but this book was certainly it.
In “Flora,” Gail Godwin shows her fine knack for exposing the depths of the internal struggle for possession and retention of “self” in the face of encounters with the vicissitudes of life visited upon her young, growing, reaching, parentless (or ineptly parented) protagonist Helen. Helen reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s young protagonist in “Cat’s Eye” and Wally Lamb’s lovable/hate-able monster of a child protagonist in “She’s Come Undone.” There’s something endearingly creepy, delightful, fresh and real about these multi-dimensional girl children invested with diabolical power.
“The Interestings,” by Meg Wolitzer. Meg Wolitzer adeptly renders through her protagonist Jules the awkwardness of being an adolescent in the grips of a longing to belong. “The Interestings” speaks to the way we carry that longing far into our adult lives in an attempt to rise above all we consider to be mundane. The question throughout is this, “Is this all there is and am I getting it right?” Reading “The Interestings” is like being a fly on the wall in the lives of a group of friends from my generation and being validated in the sense that life is not so very different for me than it is for others. “…as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.” One thing that strikes me about “The Interestings” is how deeply interested I am in observing, treasuring and celebrating the “ordinary.” I think I find that celebration in each of Meg Wolitzer’s books.
“The Roundhouse,” by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich understands and illuminates what I would like to think we are all capable of understanding by now, that human beings should take responsibility toward making the world a place of justice for all, but, for goodness sake, especially for the children! This wonderful story, told through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, is a story of lost innocence. I felt exposed to the realities of the continuing inhospitable world where indigenous people have no protection under the laws I assume protect us all. In a time of so many hard-won freedoms in the realm of civil rights there are still so very many wrongs to be set right. In recent months and in books I’ve read I have been visited repeatedly by the voices of the children bravely making their stand for basic human rights. This is a tender and true story of the work that remains toward becoming an undivided human family.