Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 Favorites

Here are more of my favorite 2015 books.
Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is the second of editor Ron Riekki’s loving tributes to the landscape and people of the Upper Peninsula. Here is an anthology of short stories and poems set in the U.P. or written by women with a connection to the U.P. Organized according to the seasons, the writings reflect rugged landscapes, both harshness and beauty, in what we see all around us and those more hidden and internal landscapes of the heart and mind. The writings, from the 1840s to the present, include Carroll Watson Rankin (old Marquette), Elinor Benedict (Rapid River), April Lindala (Marquette), Beverly Matherne (Negaunee), Jane Piirto (Ishpeming), Roxane Gay (Houghton) and Ellen Airgood (Grand Marais). The pieces will make you laugh, cry, get angry, want to hibernate or sigh in recognition and awe.

Miss Emily, the American debut novel by Irish writer by Nuala O’Connor, brings Emily Dickinson to life by imagining the poet’s private family life. Told through the alternating voices of Emily and the Dickinson family’s new recently arrived Irish maid, 18-year-old Ada Concannon, this story imagines how Emily might have overcome her demons and defied her family to help her young friend. Not only is the story a joy to read for its sense of 1860’s Amherst and its study of Dickinson family relationships, but Ada’s Irish prose voice is as poetic as Emily’s verse and recognizably echoes some of the poet’s themes such as nature, birds, feathers and hope.

Amy Stewart’s novel Girl Waits with Gun is based on a true story of Constance Kopp, one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the U.S. Set in Paterson, N.J. in 1914, Kopp and her two sisters are riding home when their buggy is hit broadside by an arrogant and drunken factory owner. The buggy is smashed and the horse hurt. Stubborn Constance embarks on a determined drive for justice and compensation which leads to a terror campaign of bricks, threats and bullets courtesy of the Black Hand gang. Progressive Sheriff Heath and his men work day and night to protect the Kopp family. Constance figures out a career path and how she can contribute to saving the family farm. Along the way readers learn about the 1913 Silk Workers’ Strike, the place of women, the lot of workers, and jail conditions in the early 20th century. A lot of history in a very fun book.

Barry Estabrook’s riveting Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat explores pigs, the commercial pork industry and alternative approaches to raising these intelligent, playful and social animals. Estabrook’s fondness for pigs shines through each chapter. He discusses both domestic and wild pigs and includes a tale of a feral pig hunt in Texas. He shows us the conditions under which most commercial pork is raised in the U.S., reveals resulting environmental conditions for neighbors and waterways near our pig farms, visits farms with alternative approaches to raising pigs, discusses diseases in both pigs and humans, includes both policy and science, and portrays the personalities of farmers, corporate owners, lawyers, government inspectors and chefs. I’ll still eat and enjoy pork but I will be much more aware of its source.

These last two books are my very favorites of the year, although there are many more by terrific authors that I can’t wait to read.

Last year I read and loved Anthony Marra’s 2013 debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. This year, Marra has brought us a collection of tightly linked stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno. The stories are told in different voices and bounce back and forth in time and place from 1937 Kirovsk (a Siberian nickel mining and smelting disaster of an outpost) to 2013 Chechnya (and Outer Space). The characters’ lives intersect in amazing and unexpected ways including a connection to a landscape painting of a bland, peaceful meadow. Each story stands alone but together they create a remarkable portrait of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the war in Chechnya. The characters are both courageous and flawed. One rewrites history by brushing out images of purged people from photos; another, after wartime capture, finds his imprisonment in an old well the most serene time of his life. The landscape is melancholy, polluted and full of land mines, yet there is enough love and repentance that you close the book with a sense of hope and gratitude.

Last week I began this list of my favorite 2015 reads with a book whose main character is a librarian. I’ll end this week’s column with another librarian. Erika Swyler’s debut novel The Book of Speculation is a magical, marvelous, whimsical, rather dark (except for the electric boyfriend who emits sparks and can make lightbulbs shine) tale. Simon Watson is about to lose his job due to budget cuts at the library. He lives in his family’s home that is crumbling into Long Island Sound. An antiquarian bookseller mails him a damaged book, a log book written and illustrated by a traveling circus proprietor in the late 18th century. As Simon reads, he realizes the book is about his family whose young females, including his mother and grandmother, worked as circus mermaids and tarot card readers, and drowned on July 24. Simon’s long-absent sister Enola, and her electric boyfriend Doyle who work in a traveling carnival, decide to visit. It is early July. Simon frantically struggles to understand and break the curse that kills the women in his family. Simon’s story alternates with the histories of the original traveling circus’ characters, including the Wild Boy, the Proprietor and the Fortune Teller, each of whom factor into the lives of Simon and his neighbor and love interest, fellow librarian, Alice.

Happy Reading in 2016.

--Cathy Seblonka, Collection Development/Reference Librarian

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