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Minnesota Nice: Best books of 2013

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This year I set up another GoodReads Challenge to read another 100 books. I am very close, but I don’t think I’ll make it, due to some personal family and health issues. However, there are some gems here that I just have to share, and that makes it all worthwhile, even if I don’t make my goal. As usual, the titles shared here have some Minnesota connection, as required by my mandate to examine the books of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Sometimes, there’s a stretch, but there’s always a connection.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

The Minnesota connection here is two-fold: there was a big kerfluffle about some parents in Anoka objecting to this book back in September, which resulted in a cancelled appearance at a school by Rainbow and then, ironically, added scheduled appearances later, one of which I attended. The other connection is that the story ends up in Minnesota. How do you like that? The appearance that I attended was a Censorship Panel, which turned out to include one of the most heartfelt defenses of a character by any author that I have ever seen. She cried, I cried. It was a wonderful event. And I got to meet her.

The book is phenomenal. It is set in the 80s, and if that weren’t enough to take me back to my teenage angst, the characters are high school students. If you grew up in the 80s and love underground music, this is for you. It’s a love story, but it’s also a story about family, acceptance, belonging and finding yourself. It wrenched my gut right out of me – I cried at the end for several reasons. I cried the next day. It was a good cry, though. God, high school was awful. But this book was beautiful. It beautifully blends all the best things about that time of life with all the worst things, and on top of that it gives you characters you can love.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Wecker graduated from the U of M and lived in MN for a time, which qualifies her for this list. This was a fascinating book, on so many levels. The dawning realization the Golem has of herself as an individual was fantastic, as was the constructed world of the Jinni. I loved them both, but I also found the elements of Jewish culture arresting, especially the questions that this brought to mind for the Golem. I loved the depiction of early immigrant culture in New York City, the dawning of an era but also the closing of one. The magical elements were, of course, the clincher for me. In short, this story was engrossing and captivating. What’s the word for something that draws you in so deep that you feel like you have stepped through a portal? Oh yeah, this.

Vacationland by Sarah Stonich

On the surface, if you had to explain this to someone, as a story, you might say it’s a lovely story about a resort up north. But the real brilliance of this, besides the wry humor, beautiful writing and stunning sense of place, is the construction. The book is laid out in a series of chapters that are told from the point of view of different characters that are all somehow linked to this resort. It is a great study of a slice of northern Minnesota culture, but it is an absolutely genius way to tell it. The pieces all come together slowly, over time, just like the history being told. The reader is introduced to characters out of time, as young, old and somewhere in between. Motives are not always clear. Some scenes will take your breath away, like the plane ride, or the sisters in the airport. Or the hand. It is imaginative, clever, and flawless. Even if you’ve never been ‘up north’, you owe it to yourself to curl up with this sometime this winter.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

If magic were able to be bottled, this would be its form. This is a book that reaches deep into your psyche and makes you wonder about everything: your past, memory, childhood realities – all of it. Did you really used to do that? Do you remember that the way it was, or the way someone told you about it? It is scary and highly charged with all those things that children fear the most – change, strangers, lost friends, and so much more. I loved this, and I will read it again. But I also must mention that if you haven’t read Neil Gaiman yet, start with The Graveyard Book. That is the book that haunts me, and I only wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it. Finding these two books was like finding a window into a past that I didn’t know existed. They are perfect. Sadly, I missed Neil when he visited the Twin Cities, but I did snag a copy of the City Pages where his interview appeared. I also nabbed a signed copy of this title that became available when he happened to drop in at Magers & Quinn. Minnesota claims Gaiman; he has claimed Minnesota as his home at various points in his life.

Ghoulish Song by William Alexander

In keeping with what some might consider the YA theme (though honestly, that moniker is so misleading as to be almost useless), I will also highly recommend the two books in the Zombay series by Minneapolis author Will Alexander, Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song. These were reviewed in my Halloween Reading column (as were Gaiman’s two), but I have to bring them to light again, because they are simply brilliant. Listen, I have a lot of respect for an author who can construct a world and make up all these new rules, and then somehow imbue that world with the old rules of something as complicated as drama or music. These two books (the first of which won the National Book Award, as if you needed more of a reason) are well worth your time, and make for a completely, utterly satisfying weekend of hibernation fodder. I love everything about them: the wordplay, the strong characters, the truths that come to light.

The Book of Killowen and The Road from Castlebarnagh

I have to recommend these two titles by St. Paul authors, because they are simply lovely. Why together, you might ask? Because the authors, Erin Hart and Paddy O’Brien respectively, are married, and they were also clients of mine. I enjoyed many months of helping to promote especially Paddy’s work as a writer and as a musician. Both of these titles were highly satisfying. The Book of Killowen, Hart’s fourth novel, is a memorable addition to the Nora McGavin series, this one set completely in Ireland. We get all the pieces that make a good mystery: a modern celebrity death, an ancient monastic death, artifacts, a mysterious artists’ colony, and all kinds of motives and secrets. It’s also got touching scenes that bring us closer to the main characters, which bodes well for more of this in the future.

The Road to Castlebarnagh: Growing Up in Irish Music, a Memoir is something wholly different: a lovely, lyrical memoir from a man who has become world famous for playing and collecting Irish traditional music. The family stories are delightful, the writing flows effortlessly, and brings to the mind’s eye easily this vanished way of life. It is so unique, it is hard to explain in terms that do not sound trite. I loved every word of it, and I only hope he continues with part two. Anyone with an interest in Irish culture will love this.

Other favorites

Other books I loved this year that didn’t make the MN connection cut were The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, and Ghost Man by Roger Hobbs. I also read a lot of nonfiction this year, and the volumes that I found perhaps the most intriguing were The Vikings by Neil Oliver and The Venetians by Colin Thubron. Several good books for writers and readers presented themselves, such as The Reader’s Book of Days by Tom Nissley and Still Writing by Dani Shapiro.

What was your favorite book of 2013? Or are you toying with the idea of writing your own? If you are a writer or author, you may be interested in a new website that will launch in January, called The Publishing Bones. The Bones will be a content-rich community, covering the business side of publishing, starting with promoting your book and all that entails. It will be a subscription website, but anyone signing up between now and Dec 31 will be grandfathered in for a free membership. Think of this as your prize for reading all the way to the end! Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year!


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