Rachael Balsaitis, Special to the Star Tribune
Holiday books: Reader recommendations
- December 3, 2013 - 11:01 AM
The best book I read this year is: “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak. It is good because the main character, Liesel, does the best she knows how with bad situations and does not give up. She’s a survivor! Can’t wait to see the movie!
Joan Patton, Sartell, Minn.
My daughter and I are homeschoolers, so we would like to give you three book recommendations.
First, my daughter is 16 and recommends “Night Watch,” by Terry Pratchett. She loves all the Disc World books she’s read and liked this one it because it was a good take on “Les Miserables” and had a really good plot.
My recommendation is “The Fate of Mercy Alban,” by Wendy Webb. It’s got both mystery and magic and kept me guessing until the end. I loved that it is set in a mansion patterned after the Congdon Mansion in Duluth, which we have visited.
Our third recommendation is from our homeschool reading. We both liked “Waterlily,” by Ella Cara Deloria. We were studying Native Americans at the time and this is a beautiful story of a Sioux girl growing up in the 19th century. It is an interesting exploration of the plains Sioux culture as well as a good story.
Margaret Meyer, New Brighton
Ken Robinson’s “The Element” thrilled me for the love of learning and the hope of all of us realizing that our “one size fits all” is an industrial concept. The ripples through all of us to balance when we are acting out of groupthink and when we are into our creativity is the transformation vital right now. I could go on …
One of the best books I have read this year is Joyce Maynard’s “After Her.” The protagonist is a young teenager and has an unusual twist at the end. It holds the reader’s interest and has a good deal of humor in it.
I would also recommend “The President’s Club.” It’s about how former presidents get together to help the current occupant of the White House. Quite a change from what is happening today. My book club enjoyed it and learned some things we may have forgotten and/or did not know about politics.
Ann Hanna Walsh
The best book I read this year is “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” by Katherine Boo. In the book, Boo follows the lives of some citizens of the Annawadian slum near the Mumbai airport. The people who live in this slum must face constant problems keeping their homes habitable, maintaining their daily food supply, and avoiding trouble with the law. Crushing though the book is to the reader’s sensibilities, it opens a window into the injustice present in the world.
The best book I read this year is Jenny Lawson’s “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a Mostly True Memoir.” It is hard to find a truly hysterically funny book, and this is it. This is ROTFL funny! I have never laughed so hard when reading a book, I think because I could relate to so much of what she said. This is my vote for best book of the year!
My choice for best book read in 2013 is “Me Before You,”by Jojo Moyes. A beautiful love story that plays out in the context of assisted suicide. Character development is marvelous and the story will evoke much thought and discussion. Anxious to see your list.
“Ordinary Grace,” by William Kent Krueger. It is a novel (written beautifully), moving in its simplicity. Krueger uses no excess verbiage in his work. Small-town characters, some mystery, a bit of gossip keep the action flowing. A second read added to my “mind pictures”. It is a lovely experience
I’ve narrowed my search to Vishal Mangalwadi’s book: “The Book That Made Your World.” This is a must read for those who enjoy history. The author brings a challenge to our Western minds of epic proportions: Is the sun setting on the West? Will democracy as we know it, prosper? What is wrong with our nation?
Mary Ann Barnett
“We Need New Names,” by NoViolet Bolawayo.” A novel from a child’s perspective that makes you feel what it is like to be part of the African diaspora.
My best book read this year is “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” a work of fiction and first novel (nominated for the Booker Award) by English writer Rachel Joyce. This book renewed my faith in the human race at a time when no one seems to be able to get along. Through Harold Fry’s journey from the south to the north of England I learned that everyone has a story; a reason for doing what they do, and that there is good in everyone.
I hope it makes your list.
My husband and I took on the trilogy of Rick Atkinson this summer. His last volume, “The Guns at Last Light” (WWII from D-Day to June 1945), was recently released. I read them backwards in time and my husband, a veteran who saw the results of war in Europe, read them from Book One (“An Army at Dawn,” the war in North Africa) to Book Two (“The Day of the Battle,” the invasion if Italy), finishing with the third. The research is monumental and the stories of real men thrown into impossible situations is what drives you to read without stopping. As teenagers during the war, we only knew what the newsreels or headlines told us. We’ve read other books on the war, but this puts it all in context of those years.
The men who returned to our small towns never spoke of their experiences until close to death. These three books tell of many real experiences and angst of leaders’ mistakes that were costly, and also of lucky breaks. These three books are a must-read for all to understand the “real” war.
Delores Gustafson and Robert Hatlestad
How can one choose just one book? May I mention two? “Blue Highways,” by William Least Heat-Moon, and “Oryx and Crake,” by Margaret Atwood. The reason I chose the books I liked most was because of the excellent writing and unusual story.
“The Dry Grass of August,” by Anna Jean Mayhew. The story is set in the South in 1954 and told through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl. It offers a riveting depiction of Southern life in the throes of segregation. It is simply and beautifully written, but describes powerful events and beliefs during a time of tremendous change.
I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the girl’s coming-of-age and found it easy to identify with her and her conflicting thoughts and feelings.
Best book read so far this year: “Stoner,” by John Williams.
Why it’s good: The characters are engaging, honest, and recognizably human. Stoner himself is an archetypal American, a college English Professor and scholar with a touch of existential hero, quietly eloquent in his marginality, who endures in a career he loves uncomplainingly, but ultimately suffers in undeservedly. He creates a life worth living out of disappointments and sacrifices, and finds some degree of warmth and meaning in his literature and himself in a cold world.
Second-best book: “The Good Lord Bird,” by James McBride.
Why it’s good: Henry Shackleford is a 12-year-old, black, Huck Finn-like first-person narrator and picaresque anti-hero who journeys around having rip-roaring adventures in the mid-19th century with John Brown (yes, that John Brown), climaxing at Harpers Ferry. Young Henry is as disrespectful, illiterate, innocent, and sound-hearted as Huck, and belongs to a cadre of thoroughly likable rascals and scamps in American literature — from Rip Van Winkle and Huck, to Dean Moriarty, Holden Caulfield, Augie March, and even Bart Simpson. A kind of Huck Finn meets Billy the Kid and Billy Sunday at Harpers Ferry. With humor.
Hands down, the best book I’ve read this year is “Doctor Sleep” by Stephen King. It was so nice to re-visit a character from long ago and he did an excellent job of protraying a recovering addict’s mind set. Reading Stephen King is like catching up with an old friend!
“The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance and Wellness,” by Gerald Klickstein. My trio all read this book and declared it very helpful in learning to look at music, planning a practice session, overcoming performance anxiety, playing well with other musicians, avoiding injuries and staying healthy as a musician. Music is food for the soul.
St. Louis Park
The best book I read this year is the one I just finished, fittingly on Veterans’ Day, entitled “Thank You for Your Service,” by David Finkel. Finkel does an extraordinary job of describing the difficulties faced by a handful of men who were together in Iraq, as well as their spouses (including widows) and families, once they returned to the U.S. Dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, terrifying nightmares of memories, and few if any job prospects, these men feel anything but thanked. Finkel has entered the lives of these men and their families, building their trust to share their harsh and raw realities and by telling their stories reveals to the reader that war is no good for anyone.
“TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann is the most stunning literary work I have read this year.
Within this story McCann describes a notable author’s ability to reach down and pull up the most specific, meaningful word for his intent.
McCann clearly demonstrates his own art as a wordsmith. For example, “The grass was exhausted by the shape of war.” is how he depicts the ground where wagon loads of bodies of Civil War soldiers were unloaded and left for a day before being buried. For me, it is a concise metaphor for the United States, both then and now.
I was very surprised that TransAtlantic did not make the short list for the National Book Award.
Martha C. Brown
Among the best books I’ve read this year is “The Shoemaker’s Wife,” by Adriana Trigiani. It was recommended by my sister, Marie, as a glimpse into the lives of an immigrant family from Italy to New York and Minnesota in the early 1900s. Our great-grandfather and great-grandmother had immigrated from Germany in the 1890s; he was a shoemaker in St. Paul until she died, and the children (including our grandfather) were raised by relatives or foster families; we think our great-grandfather may have gone back to Europe. Since retiring a year ago, I’ve been keeping a list of the books I’m reading (more than 50 so far, non-fiction, fiction, poetry). Both my grandfather and father kept track of the books they read during retirement, so I decided to keep up the tradition.
Anthony A. Bibus III
I happened to just finish a book by a first-time author, M.L. Stedman, “The Light Between Oceans,” which I think is one of the best books I have read in a long time! It is fictional, location Australia in the 1930’s about a young couple who maintain a lighthouse and by fate, what occurs when they are living there, and the consequences of the choices they make, over a period of many years.
Clear Lake, Minn.
“Particularly Cats,” by Doris Lessing. The cover of this book caught my eye in a used book store. I’ve never read anything by Doris Lessing, I like cats, so I gave it a try. Nothing really happens, it is just Lessing’s memories of cats in her life, starting very gruesomely during her childhood in South Africa when a beloved cat’s tail is mistaken for a deadly snake. But then it becomes comforting and easy in England, the cats get pregnant, they have their cat affairs, they explore the garden, they grow old. Lessing simply watches them and writes what she sees. She loves them, and gives them each a good story to tell.
I recently finished the Leo Demidov trilogy (“Child 44”; “The Secret Speech”; “Agent 6”), by Tom Rob Smith. All three books are awesome and I recommend them highly. Some might say they don’t have to be read in order, but I would disagree. I am looking forward to the film version of “Child 44,” which is now in production.
“The Light in the Ruins,” by Chris Bohjalian. I am always impressed with Bohjalian’s historical research that is the basis for his writing. It makes his storytelling seem so believable. This book is much more suspenseful than others of his I’ve read, making it hard to put aside. I was reminded while reading, and he references at the end, another book on this time in Italy I thought wonderful: Mary Doria Russell’s “A Thread of Grace.”
The best book I’ve read this year is David Shenk’s “The Forgetting: Alzheimer’s: Portrait of an Epidemic.”
My interest in the subject is personal as my mother is in her seventh year of dementia with nothing but death and decline in her immediate future. But my interest in the book is that it towers above the typical self-help books for caregivers. This book describes the beginnings of our understanding of this heinous disease but it also validates its history through quotes, anecdotes and personal stories from well known persons who have succumbed to its finality. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aaron Copland, Jonathan Swift, Willem de Kooning, and Ronald Reagan are a few of the people whose journeys with dementia are described in this well-written book.
Inspired by the Dorothea Lange photograph “Migrant Mother,” “Mary Coin,” by Marisa Silver, provides beautiful language and a heart-breaking view of the Depression.
“The Devereaux Dilemma,” by Steve McEllistrem. Why it was good: Set in a society in the future, this political thriller has action-packed battles; philosophical choices; and deep social issues. Science Fiction at its best.
Fiction: “Inferno,” by Dan Brown. I didn’t want to like it, but the mix of history and cliff hangers won me over.
Non-fiction: “My Reading Life,” by Pat Conroy. Part memoir and part ode to books and some of the people who love them — as a reader and writer myself, what’s not to like?
I have read 67 books so far in 2013. One that stood out as really good was”Cold Justice,” by Jonnie Jacobs. It was a book I could not put down and held my interest until the last word. I have also checked out 19 other books which I returned to the library after reading very few pages. Every character used the “f” word gratuitously. I have checked those authors off my list of books that I will ever buy or get at the library.
“The Night Circus,” by Erin Morgenstern. Enigmatic, intriguing, mysterious. When finished I wanted to re-read — for its great writing and story, but also for the carefully designed structure of the book. An all-time favorite!
“One Shot at Forever,” by Chris Ballard. A small farm community high school baseball team makes it to the State Tournament in 1971 during a time of social change. The”Bad News Bears meet “Hoosiers.”
“The Light Between Oceans,” by M.L. Stedman. A dilemma — a problem where no solution seems satisfactory — forms the plot of “The Light Between Oceans.” By odd circumstances, a boat containing a baby drifts to an island where a couple who have longed for a child live. Should they keep the child? What’s the honest thing to do? The fairest thing? The right thing? This conflict made this the most fascinating book I read this year.
“Submergence,” by J.D. Ledgard. Why: Profound, a bit daring in concept but not too arty, and a conclusion that was both surprising and satisfying. I’d just read “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” which I also thought was very good. The books dealt with a similar theme, how to persist and hang onto hope in a world that seems to have no regard for human life. I found Ledgard’s connections among the political, spiritual and biological threads of existence less predictable and more compelling.
My favorite so far was “The Roundhouse” by Louise Erdrich because of the beautiful writing and the empathetic compelling story.
International Falls, Minn.
“The Thirty-ninth Man” by D.A. Swanson, historical novel about a man who tries to do the right thing his whole life. Takes place before and during the 1862 Dakota Uprising in the Midwest. The characters were so believable I wanted to know them and speak with them. The book expanded my knowledge of not only the uprising but also the Civil War and what it was like to live in those times.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson gets my vote. It’s non-fiction, recounting the difficulties faced by three black individuals and their families seeking a better life out of post-slavery south, two moving north, one to Chicago and one to New York, the other to Los Angeles. Written with sensitivity and depth, I felt like I knew these people and their struggles by the time I finished the book. This one will stay with me.
One of the best books I have ever read is “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos. I read it earlier this year and now have a copy of it in front of me to mail to a 90 year old in Canada who was one of my Dad’s best friends. They both served Canada in WW II.
This is the fourth copy I have purchased: the original for me earlier this year; two more a few months ago, one for a retired Northwest pilot and the other for an 85 year old who still flies his own twin engine craft.
Although the book is non-fiction it reads like a novel, giving great insight to WWII on both sides and the individuals who fought in it. I am not a reader of war books, real or fiction but this one really grabbed me. Adam Makos has done a remarkable job of relating a fascinating story that started in the skies of Northern Germany between a badly shot up American B-47 bomber and it’s attacker, a German Bf-109.
What makes the book even more effective is the author’s own words on the first page of his Introduction: “As remarkable as it is, it’s a story I never wanted to tell.”
The best novel I read this year ( indeed, in 10 years) is Thomas Keneally’s “Daughters of Mars.” It portrays two Australian sisters, both nurses, during World War I. The action takes place aboard a hospital ship and later in primitive clearing stations for the wounded in Gallipoli, Cairo, France and England. Plot lines, characters and setting are all remarkable, and Keneally’s unusually-crafted sentences and word choice are amazing.
“Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn. One cannot set this book down. Wife disappears on their 5th wedding anniversary and Flynn take you down a path that confounds you at every turn. It’s one of the best thrillers of all time. Six months after reading it and I still can’t stop thinking about it.
Donna NEED LAST NAME
I read a lot, all genres, but the book that has stayed in my consciousness the longest this year is “The End of Your Life Book Club,” by Will Schwalbe. Although it is about a mother’s dying of pancreatic cancer, it is ultimately about the intergenerational love of books — reading and sharing all types of literature between a mother and a son. I found it very uplifting and have shared it with my daughters and many friends.
“Long Time No See,” by Dermot Healy. I found it on a library display at the Hamline branch — of reader’s recommendations. I picked it up because of the beautiful book cover and title. I found that I needed to read the book aloud because of it’s punctuation style and that made the story and the people really come alive.
The closer I got to the end, the slower I read, not wanting the story to end. It is a book that takes you away from your life and deep inside the lives of others. Characters I loved, laughed with, cried with and miss.
“Transatlantic,” Colum McCann. McCann’s descriptions are incredible. In the beginning, I found myself transported to Newfoundland in 1919, later to Ireland in the mid-1840’s, then suddenly catapulted forward to the late 1990’s to join George Mitchell in Dublin. And all of this without leaving my armchair. An amazing power with words.
“Gift from the Sea” is as pertinent today as when it was first written and applies to all generations. This book is a life lesson about relationships, and the author tells us roads we can take to simplify our lives and be at peace. This book is written by a compassionate, patient woman named Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of a Minnesota and United States hero (Charles Lindbergh).
Kay J. Barrett
I read a lot and my favorite book this year was “The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout. Her ability to tell the story of a family from each person’s perspective gives great insight and makes even the most flawed character someone to care about. She is a wonderful writer.
“The Lacuna,” by Barbara Kingsolver. A fascinating combination of art, history, and political/social movements, by a master writer. And just because … “A Song at Twilight,” by Nancy Paddock. A family memoir that many people can related to, sadly.
The best book I read this year has to be “Grant’s Final Victory” by Charles Bracelen Flood. “Shortly after losing all of his and his family’s wealth in a financial swindle in 1884, Ulysses S. Grant learns he has terminal throat and mouth cancer. Destitute and dying, Grant begins to write his Civil War memoirs to save his family from financial ruin.”
I enjoy United States history and found this a fascinating read for what it tells of us of the man and his character that are hardly known today. We mostly remember Grant as a poor President and a drunken soldier who somehow won the Civil War for the North. I had not known about Grant’s foresight and thoughtfulness at Appomattox in deciding the terms of surrender with General Lee. One result — thousands of former Confederate soldiers traveled hundreds of miles to attend his state funeral in New York. His drinking reputation came mostly from some poor judgment while a young cadet at West Point. In the field he was alert, clear and a very effective strategist and leader. The courage and class he demonstrated writing by hand a work that required virtually no editing while enduring incredible pain from the cancer is remarkable. All the world watched as this hero to millions — and arguably the most popular man alive — fought to complete this work before he died. Woven into Flood’s book are his interactions with his friends, Mark Twain, Cornelius Vanderbilt and many other figures from history.
This is an easy and interesting read. I came away with a new respect for the man and highly recommend “Grant’s Final Victory.”
This is always a difficult task but my choice for 2013 must be “Wash” by Margaret Wrinkle.
As the country expands westward in the early 1800’s, Richardson, a troubled Revolutionary War veteran who is in debt, reluctantly decides Washington, one of his young slaves,will become a breeding sire (traveling negro),and even keeps meticulous records of Wash’s progeny.
Despite this brutalizing subject matter, Wrinkle opens a window into the human spirit and its struggles against dehumanization. While Wash is being treated like a breeding animal, he tells himself - “I keep my mind turned toward how I’m handing all my people some new bodies to live in. I’m pulling my people back into this world so they can be here with me...these here will die and mine will breathe in new air and it will be a new day.” The value of finding oneself inside a meaningful story, and retaining control of one’s life, is a major theme - we are the stories we tell ourselves.
This amazing novel carries us from the heart of whiteness into the center of ancestral African spirituality and back again. It is luminous and moving and an incredibly important debut novel, that I wish could be read and considered by us all.
“TransAtlantic,” by Colum McCann. I loved this book because it is an artistically woven novel, poetically written with unforgettable emotional moments.
Redwood Falls, Minn.
“Gift from the Sea” is as pertinent today as when it was first written and applies to all generations. This book is a life lesson about relationships, and the author tells us roads we can take to simplify our lives and be at peace. This book is written by a compassionate, patient woman named Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of a Minnesota and United States hero (Charles Lindbergh).
Kay J. Barrett
“The Distance Between Us,” by Reyna Grande, a memoir about a Mexican who, at a young age, was left with her siblings at her grandparents’ in a poor neighborhood in Mexico. Her parents had illegally immigrated to the United States, and though they forwarded money for the care of the children, the grandparents were neglectful and abusive. We hear a great deal about the angst of illegals who worry about ICE deporting them, but this is the struggle of the families left behind.
I had to pick “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” by Jon Meacham. The book was so interesting regarding the relationships between Mr. Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and his relatives, including wife and children. It was an easy read and well written.
I read a great new children book called “The Spy on Noah’s Ark,” by Lindsay Hardin Freeman, published by Forward Movement. Its a new twist on the bible stories that we grew up on. It was easy to read and made me laugh.
Although the book “One Thousand White Women: The Journal of May Dodd,” is not a new book, I read it this year. The book begins in 1875 when the American government, as an experiment, sends women West to intermarry with Cheyenne Native Americans. I had to keep reminding myself that this book was fiction, for it is so realistically depicted. Another unique characteristic is this novel is written from a woman’s point of view, but the author is a man!
The best book I read this year was “Ordinary Grace,” by William Kent Krueger. It had such wonderful characters, a bit of a mystery, great family relationships, and much more. It is a complete departure from his usual books, although it still takes place in Minnesota. I have been recommending this book to everyone, and lending it to friends. I can’t recommend this book enough.
My answer is easy, “Ordinary Grace.” There were moments in what seemed like a quiet book that blew me away.
“Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier,” by Bob Thompson. It is a compelling search for the “real” David Crockett that ended up raising more questions than it answered. The author researches what little is actually known and how the legend of Davy Crockett grew out of mostly fictitious accounts, often with the help of Crockett himself. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
One I very much enjoyed was,” Orange is the New Black.” It was a window into a lifestyle I never hope to experience, a gripping story of human endurance, and a call to action.
The best book I’ve read in 2013 has been “A Hologram for the King” by Dave Eggers. The setting is somewhere in the Mideast, with images similar to Dubai. It is written in a deceptively simple style and even though there are few characters, it is impossible to put the book down until it is finished. Somehow, the author is able to convey a deep sense of mystery and foreboding as well as keeping a sense of constant tension and empathy for the main character. A splendid read!
Mary Sue Skelton
I have read many really good books this year, but the one that has really stuck with me is “The Orphan Master’s Son,” by Adam Johnson. It had all the key ingredients for me: character, plot, education about a different culture and part of the world — North Korea — and good writing. Although it was difficult to read because of the horrors of North Korea, I loved it!
I bought a pile of books from the Rockford Road Library and absolutely loved “Crow Lake” by Mary Lawson. She vividly portrayed to me the love of two brothers for their sisters in the face of a family tragedy, how each person views life dreams differently, how circumstances lead each in the family to live the life they really wanted to live all along, and how the misconceptions of the other’s dreams distanced them as they grew older but ultimately, through the eyes of an outsider, brought them back together. So many facets to the story I am still thinking about it. A very good read.
“Me Before You,” by Jojo Moyes. An attractive, active and successful man is suddenly living his life as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair with constant care. What would you do? This book not only brings out a lot of real emotions, but the story stays with you. (Our book club is pretty tough on books but “Me Before You” got all 5’s, which is the highest. It’s a wonderful discussion book.)
I read “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich for the first time this summer. The book hit a nerve deep in my reader’s heart and I connected with those characters as real people. The author gave them such hearts and soul and the story was as real as anything happening in the papers today. It was not at all a story of crime committed in a reservation town — it was a story of a crime committed in a small community that had deep roots and political and moral impact on the lives of these human beings, and the world at large. Her writing is like music for me. Open the page and fall in … come out way later smarter and better for the hours spent.
Cold Spring, Minn.
Extremely difficult to choose one book of the numerous excellent ones I’ve read this past year.
Pared it down to three, but since you want one only, it must be Alan Paton’s classic, “Cry the Beloved Country.” This 1948 gem is quintessential for life lessons through the decades (had read it in high school — rereading 40 years later — even more profound)!
I have found the current crop of best sellers to be, overall, somewhat disappointing. But when I took “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving off my shelf, it was, once again, a delight. The copyright is 1989, but, for me the themes resonate in 2013.
St. James, Minn.
“East of Eden,” by John Steinbeck. Why? Multiple plot levels/themes/subplots that overlay and are interwoven; and incredible development of characters, each of which is essential to the story told. So many good choices, but limited to one choice, this has to be it.
I just loved “Vacationland,” by Sarah Stonich — what great characters woven warmly together in such amazingly deep yet simple stories of life.
A very close second was “Ordinary Grace,” by William Kent Krueger, another story with great characterizations in a small Minnesota town. I highly recommend them both.
My favorite book this year is “Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend,” by Matthew Dicks. It’s a story about an eight-year-old boy named Max, who has autism, and his imaginary friend, Budo. The book, which is told from Budo’s perspective, is a story about life, love, and friendship. As I read it, I found myself cheering (literally) for Max and Budo.
My favorite book of the year was “Vacationland,” by Sarah Stonich, a local author. We read it for book club (five couples) and it was a unanimous thumbs up (something rare). The book captures Minnesota in terms of its people, its setting, its culture. Though it is fiction, we have all encountered parts of people and aspects of events that Stonich portrays. It weaves beautifully and is so much more than just a story.
I really enjoyed “The View From Penthouse B” by Elinor Lipman. I’ve read other Lipman novels that I have enjoyed but I don’t remember any of them for taking on social issues. Her lighthearted and sometimes self-depreciating approach made it very pleasant for me.
Ideal Corners, Minn.
Tough assignment, but I think the best book I read this year is “Ordinary Grace,” by William Kent Krueger. Its honesty about the small and gigantic joys and pains of family life made it deeply personal for me.
Grey Eagle, Minn.
“Benediction,” by Kent Haruf, is the best book I’ve read this year. In elegantly simple prose he illuminates all our lives by focusing on people in small-town Colorado. We recognize them and their emotions and feel privileged for having spent time with them.
“Ham on Rye,” by Charles Bukowski — raw and believe able. Never read anything like it.
“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Fowler is a compelling, painful, and transforming read. The author is skillful and the book is very well constructed, but what made it stand out for me was the raw heartache I felt through the story itself. A novel that will touch you in many ways, and a message we all need to hear, however painful.
“The Other Typist,” by Suzanne Rindell. I liked the Prohibition setting and especially the female villain; however, the ending was a bit perplexing. I wish someone would explain it to me.
Little Falls, Minn.
My vote goes to “The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplan. It was recommended to me by a bookseller at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash, when I visited the summer. I loved it because it was so different, a mental change of scenery, which really is why I read.
Set in the Yakima Valley in the early 1900s, the environmental setting is unimaginable to Minnesotans. The time is different: the characters lived in a relatively small world, getting on the train to go to another town is a big deal, they have a small circle of friends and relationships, sex is not a priority, there is no technology and pretty much everything is done by hand labor. Their personalities, the way they communicate, their views of mental illness, everything is different. And yet, they are human, and we are all the same.
I have selected “Suspect,” by Robert Crais. It is a stand-alone from his excellent Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series. An L.A. policeman, Scott James, and a bomb-sniffing dog, Maggie, both seriously injured, and suffering from PTSD from injuries are in a canine unit. The story is told from both Scott’s and Maggie’s perspectives. It evokes laughter and tears while reading. Of the many books I have read, it tops the list!.
“How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” by Scott Adams
With humor characteristic of the creator of “Dilbert,” Scott Adams observes patterns in his life which led from failure to failure and finally to spectacular success. As the mother of four children ages 12 - 19 years, I particularly appreciate the idea that successful people focus on systems rather than goals. Too often, I think, teenagers get the idea that their lives have to be one stellar accomplishment after the other or they fall off the ladder of success. What Adams advises is to set up systems which allow for daily success in following the systems because eventually good processes lead to success. Scott Adams says, “goals are for losers and systems are for winners.” My children may be receiving their own copies for Christmas!
“Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control” by Medea Benjamin, who spoke at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis a few months ago. Hardly a day goes by but what the Strib reports drone strikes and drone protests. Benjamin, co-founder of the women’s peace group CodePink, is in the front rank of protestors and even has squared off at least twice with President Obama face to face at his speaking engagements. And he hears her out.
“The Death Of Bees,” by Lisa O’Donnell. The book grabs you right at the brief prologue. It is written from different characters’ perspectives so the reader gets the story from many angles. The result is a sympathetic view of all the main characters and a better understanding of the plot. And its just simply a good and well told story
The best book I read this year is, again, “The Magus,” by John Fowles. I own five copies and used to read it annually. I hadn’t read it for over 10 years but read it again this year and it is still my all-time favorite book. As an avid reader (I have my own library — over 1,200 books), this one will always be my favorite!
Grand Rapids, Minn.
“Ordinary Grace” eased my sorrow from the loss of so many loved ones in 2012-13. William Kent Krueger shared the beauty of “grace” with all his readers. I have memorized the last two sentences and repeat them frequently. “The dead are never far from us. They’re in our hearts and on our minds and in the end all that separates us from them is a single breath, one final puff of air.” Thank you Mr. Krueger!
“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” by Rachel Joyce
A beautiful story of hope, forgiveness and change with the most lovable and likeable characters. Made me laugh and cry and I couldn’t put it down.
“Children are Diamonds,” by Edward Hoaglund. This revelatory novel set amongst the war ravaged, suffering tribal villages of Kenya, Southern Sudan, and Uganda conveys a reality that no news story has ever quite captured.
The best book I read this year was “East of Eden,” by John Steinbeck. It was our Book Club’s “Classic” selection for the year, and, for me, it surpassed any of the other more recent books. (I read about 50 books a year)
Spring Valley, Minn.
“Boxers and Saints,” by Gene Luen Yang.
This is a story about a very dark period in history, the Boxer Rebellion. Yang presents both sides of the conflict with equal compassion in a two-volume format. The illustrations are exquisite and tell much of the story. The two main characters, Bao and Vibiana, are complicated and empathetic. Yang is a wonderful storyteller and uses humor in this very sad and violent turning point in China’s history.
The best book I’ve read this year is “Tyger! Tyger!” by Walter J. Roers. I loved this little book and was so captured by it that I read it in just two days. It is a story of a man recalling his life as a teen in South Minneapolis in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The story of young love and teens growing up in a time just before the war and unrest of the 1960s is entertaining, humorous and at times heartbreaking. I really did laugh out loud at some parts of the book and tear up at others. A real bonus for local readers is the setting in South Minneapolis and South High School. At the same time, the story is universal and could have been set anywhere in the US. My fear is that this wonderful little book is going to be overlooked by readers.
“Monument Men,” by Robert Edsel.
While on a recent trip to Belgium and the Netherlands one of tour guides referred to this book a few times, so when I came back home, I wanted to know more about it. I knew it was related to art work and WWII, two subjects I am interested in. It was fascinating reading. I never knew there existed a group of men and women, called the Monument Men, who saved thousands of priceless works of art, stolen by the Nazis. It had special meaning to me, as I saw some of the art work that had at one time been hidden deep below the earth in salt mines. I highly recommend it.
“Life After Life,” by Kate Atkinson, because it was so creative, thought-provoking, and compelling.
Does “Bleak House” count if I started it in 2012 but finished in 2013? My very favorite Dickens so far. The female characters seemed more fleshed out, and he didn’t tie things up neatly at the end. Quite an accomplishment in that Esther starts out as a rather annoying goody-two-shoes, but becomes a fully realized, sympathetic character who I really rooted for. It marks the third of Dickens’ books that I’ve read in a small group, and we’re reading them as originally serially published. It’s so cool to see how he structured the individual sections. And those cliffhangers!
Best discovery of 2013: Tom Drury’s “The End of Vandalism.” This is the quintessential small-town Midwestern novel. There were scenes in there that made me howl with laughter, but also one scene in particular that did just the opposite, rather inconveniently while I was in a doctor’s waiting room, probably looking like I’d just gotten a bad diagnosis.
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.
“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.
© 2014 Star Tribune