My favorite book this year was “The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made us Smarter Than We Think,” by Douglas Kenrick. It was insightful and very compelling — and it was written by a University of Minnesota business professor. A close second was “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline, a unique book with adventure and video game nostalgia. It’s hard to compare books so I couldn’t choose just one.
The book I most want to put in people’s hands and whose characters have stayed with me is “The Gravity of Birds,” by Tracy Guzeman.
What lies beneath the surface is as important in “The Gravity of Birds” as what is evident. Sisters, a family, both torn apart and held together by their interactions with the artist Thomas Bayber. The search for a lost masterwork. Here we have the beauty and the intellect, deception and discovery, strength within weakness. A near perfect, beautifully written debut that refuses to be put down until all the pieces are drawn together, many in unexpected ways. There is much here about art, and artifice, but also about the multi-dimensional experience of life, of what we choose to grasp — of ourselves, and of others — and what we inevitably remain blind to either by choice or by inattention.
Little Falls, Minn.
I really loved “The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am,” by Kjersti A. Skomsvold. I picked this book up while on vacation in San Francisco. I found it in the fantastic Green Apple Books on the written recommendation of a bookseller. As I was buying it, another bookseller (at the cashier) said, “Oh, I want to read that.”
Skomsvold’s debut was the winner of the Tarjei Vesaas First Book prize in 2009, and the translation by Kerri A Pierce appeared on our shores in 2011. It is the story of an elderly woman who has outlived everyone she knows and decides it is time to make her mark, and her efforts in making a mark are unusual, to say the least. One of the many odd things she does is knit pair after pair of earwarmers for her deceased mathematician husband, Epsilon. She wears Epsilon’s watch when she makes a rare venture outside of her apartment, hoping people will ask her for the time. Of course, they never do.
I love stories about forgotten, lonely people. Stories that are a little sad and dark, like this time of the year, but that have the touch of oddball humor and humanity we need, particularly at this time of the year. It is a gem of a book — runs 147 pages.
West St. Paul
“The Last Hunter,” by Will Weaver. I’m not a hunter myself, but I was impressed by the vivid yet low-key description Weaver gives us of how a bright kid from a dairy farm in the boondocks left home for Minneapolis, moved on to Paris and Santa Cruz, but later returned to his home town, where he somehow succeeded in integrating the best aspects of his rural upbringing into rich family and literary life. There’s plenty of hunting and trapping, but also much more.
“All That Is,” by James Salter
Salter’s latest novel is composed of snapshots of 40 years from World War II to the early 80s. Exquisite prose, perfectly constructed sentences, and narrative that somehow captures the mundane, lovely, surprising, and heartbreaking truth of human existence in this one life. This is what a novel should be. Really sad it ended. What can I possibly read now?
“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” by Robin Sloan. Loved every second I spent reading this novel about a bookstore clerk who stumbles into a secret society. Finished it in a day. Perfect mix of high tech and love of books. Wish I enjoyed everything I read this much.
“The River Swimmer,” by Jim Harrison. As usual, two exquisite novellas by one of my very favorite authors. Wished they wouldn’t end. I especially liked “The Land of Unlikeness.” Can’t ever get enough of his work. Really, really enjoyed them.
I’ve had a hard time finding really good books this year, but these three were very rewarding.
“Eleanor & Park,” by Rainbow Rowell
I found “Eleanor & Park” to be real, vulnerable, authentic, hopeful, and utterly beautiful. It gives the message that no matter your situation, there is hope for you, that it will get better if you just allow yourself to survive this one moment. The love that Eleanor and Park shared is the love of ordinary people becoming extraordinary in each other’s eyes. That right there makes this the best book of the year for me. Because that love saved Eleanor when she needed saving.
“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki was my favorite read of the year. I love how the author became a character in the novel. I love the ideas she presents — that words and time are powerful agents in one’s life.
“From Tiger to Prayer,” by Deborah Keenan. With this book, you’ll have enough ideas to write for the rest of your life.
I recommend “Song of Destiny” by Paul Legler, a novel about two brothers growing up in rural North Dakota in the turbulence of the 1960s and 70’s. What distinguishes this book is the rich description of the lives of stoic, hard-working rural people and the effects of changing societal rules and expectations. The stark landscape, with its subtle beauty, is a presence and affects the lives of the brothers. They make different life choices, sometimes with similar consequences. Beautiful writing about the land, the harshness and richness of rural life, free will and fate, and complex family relationships.
“Submergence,” by JM Ledgard. What I loved most about this book — which, sure, could be and has been called a romance as well as a spy thriller (though it’s certainly not your father’s spy thriller) — is how strange, episodic, and carefully told it is. Ledgard, a correspondent for the Economist, is deeply concerned with questions of survival (small scale: a spy taken hostage by jihadis in Somalia; large scale: an engagement with ecological disaster). The writing is pristine. He reminds me in some ways of Graham Greene, though a Graham Greene for Our Uncertain Times (which is reflected in his fractured style as well). Ledgard would probably hate that comparison. I loved the book. It’s contemporary and immediate, but not topical — it’s literary. And hurray for Coffee House Press, who brought it stateside.