13 Minnesota books you really ought to read

"Minnesota's Hidden Alphabet" by Joe Rossi and David LaRochelle.
“Minnesota’s Hidden Alphabet” by Joe Rossi and David LaRochelle.

The world has changed and there will be no going back. News that we’ll have even fewer bookstores in 2011 is a depressing non-surprise, another sign that we are reading and thinking differently — and probably less. Yes, there’s a good chance that you bought or just unwrapped an e-reader this holiday season, but when the same device that delivers a good read also offers Angry Birds, how many tired people will opt to blast pigs with a slingshot instead of reading a book?

People will still read books, but the selection of titles (and ideas) is becoming narrower. The experience of wandering in a bookstore, life-changing especially for the young, is going away. A Facebook feed is no substitute. When I heard that Biermaier’s Books, by the U, was closing, my heart especially sank. How many books did I find there, through guidance or serendipity, that I would never have read otherwise? One alum and former neighbor told me he learned more from the books he found at Biermaier’s than in most of his college classes.

That said, I’d like to share a selection of this year’s books by Minnesota writers. Talk about them, give them away, and try to buy them in a store.

• I’m not sure how big Chris Monroe plays outside of Minnesota, but the “Violet Days” cartoonist is the top banana in the local preschool set, and she deserves a wider audience for her work. Chico Bon Bon, the star of her “Monkey With a Toolbelt” books, is earnest, ingenious and hardworking, a nice antidote to all the snotty characters out there, and Monroe surrounds him with a million tiny, often humorous details that make each page absorbing. Her new book, “Sneaky Sheep,” is in the same vein.

• There are plenty of ABC books to choose from, and every kid should have at least one, so why not choose “Minnesota’s Hidden Alphabet,” a clever photography book that finds letters in the unlikeliest of places.

• For slightly older readers, “Bink and Golly,” by Alison McGhee and Kate DiCamillo, gives girls their own version of the odd-couple friendship archetype. There’s Frog and Toad, Bert and Ernie, and these two girls, one tall and refined, the other short and a little bit crazy.

• McGhee does a really nice job with books for teen readers, but she doesn’t have a new one. So instead, check out Steve Brezenhoff’s “The Absolute Value of -1,” in which teens weather family crises by forming their own dysfunctional family unit. Or Pete Hautman’s “Blank Confession,” a smart crime thriller in which a teenager walks into a police station and confesses to murder.

• Peter Bognanni’s “The House of Tomorrow” isn’t billed as a young-adult novel, but young readers will appreciate his sympathetic portrayal of outsiders. A boy is raised in strange isolation in a dome home tourist attraction, and forms a friendship with an angry young dude who knows all about punk rock, and thus opens up the whole world.

“Paddle North,” by Layne Kennedy and Greg Breining is a stunning picture book for grownups that shows exactly why people keep going to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and want to protect it.

• Another nice coffee-table topper is “Prairie Lake Forest,” by Doug Ohman and Chris Niskanen, which visits Minnesota’s state parks, nicer than those in most other states and wonderfully different from one another.

• A more substantial read, “North Country: The Making of Minnesota,” by Mary Lethert Wingerd, is one of the best regional history texts I’ve read, gracefully written, exhaustively researched and filled with amazing details and images.

• My other favorite fiction titles this year included Louise Erdrich’s “Shadow Tag,” a troubling tale of romance gone very bad, set in modern-day Minneapolis; William Kent Krueger’s latest Cork O’Connor thriller, “Vermillion Drift”; John Jodzio’s short-story collection, “If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home”; Mary Sharratt’s witch-trial tale, “The Daughters of Witching Hill.”

And of course, there are so many others. For whatever reason (another 4-8 inches!?), we produce an awful lot of good books and writers here. Most of them don’t have banner ads or media coverage, but you might find them stacked together on a table at a bookstore. I hope you run into a few in 2011.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Charles Leck on 12/30/2010 - 05:57 am.

    You’re right on about the Wingerd book. It’s an extraordinary look into an important period of MN history. Paddle North is also a delightful, visually pleasing book. I gave a few away as holiday gifts.

  2. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 12/30/2010 - 10:37 am.

    It’s not new, but it’s wonderful, if you want a good Minnesota read: Bill Holm’s “The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth,” his paean to Minneota, Minnesota, his childhood home and the Icelander immigrants who peopled it. My book club is discussing it tomorrow. Happy New Year!

  3. Submitted by Richard Parker on 12/30/2010 - 10:47 am.

    Naturally, you’re going to get recommendations for more books. Here are two from me: “Ant Farm,” by Pioneer Press photographer Ben Garvin, a compilation of his portraits and interviews with interesting and quirky people. Garvin’s a skillful reporter and writer as well as a former Minnesota News Photographer of the Year. Available at quality bookstores — let me put in a plug for Micawber’s in St. Paul. “St. Paul Serenity” is a collection of superb photographs by Leo Kim, beautifully printed not overseas, but in Minneapolis. Get a taste at http://www.leokim.com.

    One of my first grandchild’s presents on her first Christmas, from a relative in England, is a new (to me) edition of the classic “The Wind in the Willows.” Seeing it took me back to seventh grade, around 1955, when a friend and I rode our bikes a couple miles to a small bookshop in Hinsdale, Ill., to order copies of that book, then rode back to pick them up. Do kids still do that? I still have my copy — I imagine the Disney cartoon version is available on DVD, though, and maybe it’s out for the e-books by now.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/30/2010 - 02:23 pm.

    Mary Beth Wingert’s earlier book on St. Paul history, “Claiming the City,” is one of my favorites.

    She describes the interrelationships between James J. Hill’s widow Mary (who provided the money), the Archdiocese of St. Paul and its then Archbishop Ireland (who provided the vision), and the Irish Catholic construction firms (who employed unionized Irish Catholic and other skilled craftsmen) to build a number of the beautiful neighborhood churches around St. Paul (among them Nativity and St. Luke’s).

    In the process, providing this much employment to unionized workers helped prevent the violence between workers and anti-union forces that Minneapolis endured.

  5. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 12/30/2010 - 03:35 pm.

    For a year-end wrap, this is a weak sign of support for Minnesota writing. Just for starters in fiction, where’s:

    Matt Burgess’s excellent “Dogfight, A Love Story”

    Peter Bognanni’s “The House of Tomorrow”

    John Reimringer’s “Vestments”

    Peter Geye’s “Safe from the Sea”

    Nicole Helget’s “The Turtle Catcher”

    Wendy Webb’s “The Tale of Halcyon Crane”

  6. Submitted by Emily Brisse on 12/30/2010 - 06:32 pm.

    I’ll put plusses behind “Vestments,” “If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home,” “Minnesota’s Hidden Alphabet,” and (although not published recently) anything by Bill Holm and Paul Gruchow.

    Also, “Our Neck of The Woods” is a collection of great outdoorsy essays that were published in Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. All are perfect reminders of why people choose to make Minnesota home.

  7. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 01/03/2011 - 09:02 am.

    Someone mentioned Bill Holm…what a great literary voice whose piano keys almost leaped off his black piano when he read his poetry for a public audience.

    Holm’s “Coming Home Crazy” is an early writing of his China adventure, teaching in Xian to students who wore mittens and coats to keep warm…and his euphoric study of the ‘dumpling’ in all its variations…one could almost taste them.

    Two articles that may complement and stretch Holm’s experiences into the present may be Michelle Chan’s “Season of Hardship Connects Workers in Two Worlds” (inthesetimes.com)…plus Behzad Bahamian’s “A Chinese Migrant’s long March” (counterpunch.com)

    The list of Minn writers and their books appear to focus on nature, childrens books, adult personal journey fiction…books that may give any writer a clue to what regional publishers support; what they know best I suppose.

    Too bad David Finkel isn’t a Minnesota writer…he, an investigative journalist with a narrative style like no other…with an interest in global and national issues…being-there,you could say,is his hallmark. He takes the reader across the globe or across this nation covering war and hard times; journeys we never can take with quite his inside-another-man’s soul perspective.

    He’s been doing it for years; Pulitzer Prize reporter for the Wash post and now has one powerful book, “The Good Soldiers” set in Afghanistan on the reality of war face to face… being there in all its terror, tragedy and sadness; sidebar confrontations we and the media don’t always care to know.

  8. Submitted by Linda White on 02/24/2011 - 02:13 pm.

    I agree with all of these suggestions! I’ve read almost all of them. One glaring omission – I also love Erin Hart – she does not get near enough press. Her book False Mermaid was a fantastic wrap-up to the mystery started in Haunted Ground. Irish themes, folklore, music – her books are superb. We have an awesome collection of mystery writers here.
    Also just found Todd Boss – if you ever read poetry, you have got to check out his Yellowrocket. Looking forward to reading Blank Confession, and I also have Split on my list.
    Maybe the fantastic collection of Minnesota writers is one reason why we also have a fantastic collection of indie bookstores? Yes, I think they’re related.

Leave a Reply