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Carnival noir, magical women, stories about land among locals' best books read in 2021

In 2021, local readers and writers enjoyed the rediscovery of Dorothy Hughes, "Braiding Sweetgrass" and dancing frogs.

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Several books on the Duluth News Tribune’s annual "Best Books" list for 2021 sit on a book rack at Zenith Bookstore. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Bob Dobrow of Duluth's Zenith Bookstore will tell you that 2021 was an "amazing year for books" and that it's tough to pick favorites. But he did — and so did more than a dozen other local writers who read and readers who write including award-winning author Margi Preus, poet-professor Jayson Iwen and Beth Probst, a local runner who describes herself as a person who hates to run.

Here are our favorite books read in 2021 (though not necessarily published in 2021).

Wild rides

Master of noir Dorothy Hughes has been rediscovered and is having her novels republished one-by-one, lucky for all of us! In "Ride the Pink Horse," political fixer Sailor has fled Chicago in the wake of a scandal to find and blackmail his former boss, Sen. Willis Douglass. He arrives in the small town only to discover that the annual carnival is in full swing, and all the hotels are full. From there, Hughes takes us on a wild ride, with musings about culture, class and race — and also plenty of combative banter and noir double-crosses. Unlike anything I've ever read.

Oak Flat is land sacred to the Apache located near an old mining town in Arizona. Sadly, the land is under threat from a massive international mining company. In this urgent, beautiful graphic novel hybrid, "Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in American West," Laura Redniss tells the story of the land and the town through family and environmental history — activism and art combined perfectly. Save Oak Flat!

In this unsettling novel "The Underneath," by Melanie Finn, a former journalist moves into an old farmhouse in rural Vermont and finds a disturbing message scrawled in the crawlspace. She becomes obsessed with finding the meaning of this message, and her amateur sleuthing leads to a logger named Ben, who is dealing with his own complicated issues, attempting to protect the child of a drug addict from her mother. Finn ties together vastly different life experiences and explores the harsh beauty of the Northeast Kingdom in this amazing book — not to be missed!

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"Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land" is one of the News Tribune's "Best Books of 2021." Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune


"Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land," by Toni Jensen, is a beautifully written memoir of growing up Metis in Iowa. Jensen explores her own family's trauma and violence, and how it is a microcosm for the country. Jensen specifically focuses on gun ownership and gun violence — how it has affected her life and her family's lives. A finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, this is one of the most powerful memoirs of the year.

SARAH BROWN is the manager at Zenith Bookstore.

Carnival noir

These novels appealed to me: William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 carnival noir "Nightmare Alley," Donald Anderson's "Fragments of a Mortal Mind" and Minneapolis writer Paul Legler's sometimes uneven, though powerful, "Half the Terrible Things."

ANTHONY BUKOSKI published “The Blondes of Wisconsin” in summer 2021.

A plea to the gods

I just finished the Zenith Reads December 2021 pick “Butter Honey Pig Bread,” by Francesca Ekwuyasi, and 20 pages in, I declared: "I would give anything to write like this. What do the gods want from me?" Can hardly believe this Canada Reads 2021 Selection is a debut novel. The women are magical, their struggles exceptionally real, and it includes inspiration to get in the kitchen and cook!

I listened to “One, Two, Three,” by Laurie Frankel ( libro.fm ), and do think that is the medium for consumption. A powerful story about triplets, their mom, a forever fight against nasty business practices that left a small town reeling — and dying. I think about those girls often.

ANGEL DOBROW owns Zenith Bookstore .

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Haunting, beautiful

Such a hard assignment to come up with a "favorite" read when 2021 was such an amazing year for books. I did absolutely love — and think about it still — “Klara and the Sun,” by Kazuo Ishiguro. Not exactly dystopian, the story of Klara, an “Artificial Friend,” is a haunting and beautiful story that touches on friendship, love and innocence.

My other favorite reads for 2021 are:

“The Golem and The Jinni” and “The Hidden Palace,” by Helene Wecker (they come as a pair): a magical tale of historical fiction that weaves Yiddish and Arabic mythology. Listening to the audiobook version of “The Golem and the Jinni,” narrated by the amazing George Guidall (available on Libro.FM , the pro-Indie, anti-Amazon counterpart of Audible), was one of the highlights of my year.

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“Bewilderment” is one of the News Tribune's "Best Books of 2021." Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Bewilderment” by Richard Powers. The Pulitzer-winning author of “The Overstory” has done it again, and maybe even surpassed himself in this tale of a scientist father raising his troubled 9-year-old in the world of climate and technological change.

BOB DOBROW owns Zenith Bookstore .

Magic and horror

I read a lot this year for research and for fun. A couple of my favorites were “Daughters of Jubilation,” by Kara Lee Corthron, a novel about a girl coming into her magical powers in the Jim Crow South, and “Anoka,” by Shane Hawk, a collection of short horror stories explored through an Indigenous lens.

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KELLY FLORENCE and writing-podcasting partner Meg Hafdahl released their fourth book in fall 2021, “The Science of Serial Killers.”

Tea with Tashia

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“The Good Berry Cookbook: Harvesting and Cooking Wild Rice and other Wild Foods” is one of the News Tribune's Best Books of 2021.

“The Good Berry Cookbook: Harvesting and Cooking Wild Rice and other Wild Foods,” by Tashia Hart (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2021): Reading this beautifully written and photographed book is like sitting down to tea with her for a gentle conversation about the gifts of sustenance from the Earth and ways in which history, harvesting and preparation of food are interwoven with the wellbeing and continuity of the Anishinaabeg. The recipes are both time-honored and innovative, the stories about the symbiotic lives of plants, animals and Indigenous relationships with the natural world and its bounties are timely and timeless.

LINDA LEGARDE GROVER published the collection “Gichigami Hearts” in October.

Filmography deep-dive

The best book that I read in 2021 was “The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan” (2020). Nolan directed such films as “Memento,” “The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” “Dunkirk” and plenty more. This is the most in-depth look at his filmography that I've come across, and it's filled with tons of interviews with him dating as far back as the late 1990s. I think this book can serve as an amazing resource for anyone who's curious about complex storytelling, regardless of the medium. It's definitely helped me refine the way I approach creative writing.

KEITH HOPKINS published the bloody novella “Red Betty and the Murder Farm” in the past year.

Environmental correctives

“Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World,” by Tyson Yunkaporta. It is an exceptionally well-written, intimate and accessible explanation of Aboriginal Australian cultures and how they can provide important correctives to the environmentally and psychologically destructive aspects of modern society. Very thought-provoking.

JAYSON IWEN is an award-winning poet whose “Roze & Blud” was released earlier this year.

Uncommon page-turner

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“Firekeeper's Daughter” is one of the News Tribune's Best Books of 2021.

I absolutely loved “Firekeeper's Daughter” (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, March 2021), a young adult debut novel by Angeline Boulley, who is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I read it in one weekend. Boulley's novel, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, is described by the author as an “Indigenous Nancy Drew,” and indeed it is.

It's a thriller about a teenage girl, Daunis Fontaine, who lives her life straddling the worlds of her French-Canadian mother and (late) Ojibwe father. When she investigates the drug overdoses of several high school friends of hers, as well as the mysterious death of her uncle, and the trail leads deep into the tribal community, Daunis discovers some things about life and the people closest to her that she'd rather not have known.

I loved this novel for so many reasons: It's a rarity — contemporary fiction set in the Upper Peninsula; the protagonist is a total badass; it's a page-turner with a surprise at the end concerning Daunis's love interest that will knock you back on your butt; and it dispelled for me misconceptions about contemporary Anishinaabe life and culture.

Even though “Firekeeper's Daughter” is categorized as YA, it's one of those novels that has crossover appeal, adult readers will get a lot out of it, too.

CLAIRE KIRCH, of Duluth, is the Midwest correspondent for Publisher’s Weekly.

Absurdity of it all

Steph Cha's "Your House Will Pay" is the story of a shooting that leads to an uprising in Los Angeles and the way it continues to affect the city, but specifically the families, a decade later. A young woman works in her family's pharmacy unaware that her mother played a major role in the unrest. Meanwhile, a young man's family is still struggling with the death of his sister and the release of his uncle from prison. This novel, which has real life at its core, is a nuanced story of family.

I keep thinking about Ross Gay's "The Book of Delights," in which the poet considers, in short pieces, things that simply bring him delight: a certain kind of candy where the wrapper is edible, nature, A Tribe Called Quest. Gay is so charming and offers new ways of looking at things always seen.

I was blown away by Patricia Lockwood's "No One Is Talking About This," a story in two parts: first about the absurdities of it all, the second about stepping away from a place where a person can be famous for writing "can a dog be twins" and into real life.

CHRISTA LAWLER is a features reporter for the News Tribune.

Memoir, history, race

I really enjoyed “The Night the Lights Went Out” (Harmony, 2021) by Drew Magary, a funny, frequently profane writer and podcaster for Defector Media. His memoir about the traumatic brain injury hits both those marks, but is also an intensely personal chronicle of his struggle to find answers and recover, while also accepting his injury had changed his life in profound and permanent ways.

“The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance and 40 Years that Shook the World” (Twelve, 2021), by Patrick Wyman, is a vivid account of the decades around the beginning of the 16th century. Wyman, a podcaster and former mixed martial arts reporter, examines how the development of state finance and the printing press unleashed a torrent of change that changed the trajectory of Europe as it emerged from the Middle Ages. Wyman uses figures as famous as Columbus and Isabella of Spain to those as anonymous as a wool trader in England to provide a fast-paced and intensely readable account of the changes in warfare, access to information and even the role of government.

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“Stamped from the Beginning” is one of the News Tribune's "Best Books of 2021." Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

In "Stamped from the Beginning” (Nation Books, 2016), Ibram X. Kendi’s history of racist ideas in America challenges the notions of racism in the history of the U.S. For decades, the conventional way to examine racism in the U.S. looks at underlying racial hatred. Racist ideas develop to justify that hatred and discriminatory policies are the result.

Kendi challenges the structure of the argument, claiming discriminatory policies — starting with the West African slave trade — produced racist ideas to justify the policies, with those ideas causing the racial hatred.

As someone raised in the southeast U.S., with slavery sanitized and segregation virtually ignored in school, this challenged many of my longheld beliefs about the racist history — even my supposedly “enlighted ideas” as I learned more about ugly legacy of slavery and racism in this country.

This was the best book I read all year.

JAMEY MALCOMB is a sports reporter at the Duluth News Tribune.

Re-reads

2021 was a heavy "reread" year for me. I enjoyed (for the second time) Rebecca Stead's 2009 Newberry winner, “When You Reach Me” — a seemingly everyday tale about family and friendship that veers bravely away from audience expectations. I'm repeatedly tickled by the beauty and macabre of Ray Bradbury's “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which has become something of an October staple for me.

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“Anna Karenina” is one of the News Tribune's "Best Books of 2021." Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

I also carved out three months for something new — at least to me — by spending the summer with Tolstoy and “Anna Karenina.” Not exactly a beach read, but I'm glad I finally took on the mighty tome.

LUKE MORAVEC’s “Ghost Town Run” is available for Kindle on Amazon.

Dancing frogs

“World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments,” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Writing about the natural world and quirky characters like dancing frogs, pink salamanders and narwhals, Nezhukumatathil gleans lessons from their weird ways — like how to smile in the face of unkindness, and how to move gracefully through a world where you are "Othered." The essay collection has a gentle, joyful tone that made me smile deeply.

JESSICA LIND PETERSON published a collection of personal essays, “Sound Like Trapped Thunder,” earlier this year.

Get breathless

"My Heart is a Chainsaw," by Stephen Graham Jones. With prose that roars off the page and suctions onto the psyche, Jones creates an intricate, heart-wrenching story of horror film fandom, small town gentrification, and the fierce vulnerability and grit of a teenage girl who lives in the margins. By the time readers reach the glorious final paragraph of this gut punch of a book, they’re breathless and full of awe.

JOCELYN PIHLAJA is an English Instructor at Lake Superior College.

If by 'best book' you mean ...

If by “best book,” you mean the best book for young readers featuring small mammals, then my favorite 2021 read is "Skunk and Badger," by Amy Timberlake, a kind of "Frog and Toad" as played by Walter Matthau and Tony Curtis.

Or if you mean the best fantasy for middle-grade readers that really sticks it to the patriarchy, then my fave is the new "The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy," by Minnesota’s own Anne Ursu.

If you mean the most important book that also happens to be for children, that would be "Our House is On Fire," a picture book about Greta Thunberg by Jeannette Winter.

As far as grown-up reads go, my choice for 2021 "most astoundingly impressive" is Anthony Doerr’s " Cloud Cuckoo Land." If you don’t get sucked in right away, stick with it the same way you’d stick with the first few episodes of a TV series somebody assured you that you’d like — because it is worth it. But OK, now I’m remembering probably my favorite read of 2021, a book published in 2013, but apparently many readers, including me, are only now catching up to it: "Braiding Sweetgrass," by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which is like taking a beautiful walk in the woods with a wise teacher.

MARGI PREUS writes historical fiction for middle grades and young adult, including "Village of Scoundrels," "The Littlest Voyageur" and the Enchantment Lake series. She has two books scheduled for publication in 2022: "Lily Leads the Way," a picture book featuring the Aerial Lift Bridge, and "Windswept," a novel that has "a lot of Norwegian fairy tales involved."

Love, strive, resilience

(My) all-time favorite trilogy this year: Peter Geye's “The Lighthouse Road,” “Wintering” and “Northernmost.” A trilogy designed for Northlanders to read by a fireplace in the height of winter. Love, adventure, generational strife, resilience — this trilogy has it all. Seriously, the best books I've read since discovering Kristin Hannah a few years back.

BETH PROBST wrote “It Could Be Worse: A Girlfriend’s Guide for Runners Who Detest Running” this year. On her blog, circletouradventures.com , she also highlighted her favorite memoirs (“The Courage to Start,” by John “The Penguin” Bingham; “Untamed,” by Glennon Doyle; “Brave Enough,” by Jessie Diggins; “Bravery,” by Alexi Pappas; and “Believe It,” by Jamie Kern Lima).

Profound joy

Martha Beck’s “The Way of Integrity.”

I’m taking notes and having deep conversations with my besties about this book! If you long for more simple contentment and profound joy, get your copy and do the exercises, create a study group — whatever feels good to you. Your whole life is about to get upgraded.

SARAH SEIDELMANN is the author of the new novel, “Where the Deer Dream.”

Beautiful, weird

I'd suggest "The Temple" (Bull City Press, 2020) and "The Echo Chamber" (Milkweed, 2021), both by Mike Bazzett. His poems are equal parts beautiful and weird, and his metaphors are so striking you'll be thinking about them long after you close the book.

RYAN VINE published his poetry collection, “Ward,” earlier this year.

Christa Lawler is a features reporter for the News Tribune. She can be reached at clawler@duluthnews.com .

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Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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