Favorite books from the News Tribune's features writers: Wily, heroic teens to adult ennui
This year's best books, according to features reporters Christa Lawler and Melinda Lavine, include plenty of real life events given novel twists.
We've had a lot of time to read this year. And looking on the bright side, this made it even more fun to put together our annual list of the best books consumed in the past year. Here are some of the gems uncovered by the News Tribune's features reporters.
“Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer
This is the kind of collection that you want to keep close. Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is a scientist who is always considering the lessons of nature — specifically balance and relationship among living things. She writes in a way that makes you want to breathe in nature scents and go elbow deep in dirt. If ever a book could change your life, make you slow down and crack yourself open, this is it.
“Evidence of V” by Sheila O’Connor
O’Connor never knew her maternal grandmother; she died young, and all that remains is a small file of official documents about “V”: pregnant at age 15, presumably by the 35-year-old owner of the Minneapolis nightclub where she was working, then sent to live at the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. This was essentially a jail. Once the girls nursed their newborns for three months, the babies were taken away. The girls are stuck in this rule-filled and stifling place until they are 21. O’Connor uses the scraps of what she has learned about V to create a narrative for this mysterious grandmother. It is heartbreaking and gorgeous and heavy and beautifully drawn.
"Village of Scoundrels" by Margi Preus
Margi Preus’ novel, one of a few she released this past year, is based on a true story about teenagers in a remote French village who helped smuggle Jewish people over the border during WWII. It becomes a more harried role when the Gestapo rolls into town. Preus finds such great stories to tell of young heroes and consistently does it in a warm, visual, exciting and immersive way. You can feel the winter wind on faces as the sledders whip through town.
“Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid
Emira Tucker gets called in for an emergency babysitting job and ends up wandering the aisles of a fancy grocery store with the kiddo while waiting for the all-clear from home. A shopper, seeing the Black woman with a white child, snags a security guard to investigate it as a possible kidnapping. Another bystander makes a video of this gross moment, insisting that Emira is going to want a record of it. The child’s mom, who is a recognizable monster, wants to make up for what happened. This white mom, a life coach boosted by the freebies from companies she acquires for simply asking, does it in all the wrong ways. This is a cringe-y tale that will stick with you. So will Emira.
“Want” by Lynn Steger Strong
Elizabeth has two kids at home, a husband who left a job in finance for something more soul-satisfying. And despite her two jobs — one at a high school, the other as an adjunct professor at a prestigious college — they’re in the process of filing for bankruptcy. So she's started leaving work early to sit in coffee shops and read or to study paintings in museums. This novel covers a lot in a way that feels especially real and of this moment: close female friendships, mental health, what it means to be one root canal from financial ruin, and the things we want.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson’s literary nonfiction is the complete life stories of three people who were part of the Great Migration — the decades-long shift from southern towns to cities that were believed to be more hospitable to Black people. She is so thorough as a reporter and really knows her subjects: a doctor who moves to Los Angeles, a woman who sneaks off to Chicago, and a man who lands in New York City, but spends his time working on the trains traveling around the country. The level of reporting (mimes mind-blown gesture) is incredible — but also seamless. It sits like a novel.
— Christa Lawler
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“Becoming” by Michelle Obama
In her memoir, the former first lady shares about her upbringing in a cramped apartment on the south side of Chicago, to her rise through Princeton and Harvard to meeting her husband. She shares openly her struggles and distaste for politics, and is vulnerable in her divulging about marriage counseling, issues with balancing being a working mother and observing racial disparities in the U.S. From afar, Michelle Obama seems like an accessible, tough and glamorous leader. Her memoir reinforces this and allows the reader into the depth of her being.
“Dear Girls" by Ali Wong
Comedian and actress Ali Wong’s debut memoir is just like her stand-up: brutally honest and hilarious, and this has the added bonus of heart-felt. Intended as letters for her two daughters, “Dear Girls” is also off-limits to them until they’re 21. Along with the misconceptions of casual sex to the nitty-gritty (and sh*tty) of childbirth, Wong also delves into her marriage, overcoming body issues, her brother’s mental health — all with the levity, pacing and humor she brings to the stage. This was a huge light during the earlier days of the shutdown, and the afterword from Wong’s husband, Justin Hakuta, may nudge the tear ducts.
“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter’s friend Khalil is shot in front of her by a policeman during a traffic stop. With pressure mounting, Starr questions whether to testify to the grand jury, as she reconciles her reality of code-switching as a Black young woman from one part of town attending an all-white school in another. Through it, she has the support of her strong and grounding family, whose patriarch lovingly tries to educate his children about how to survive as a POC around the dinner table. Now a major motion picture, Angie Thomas’ first book is a searing, hard-to-put-down read, filled with insights and undeniable heart.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” by Michelle McNamara
Crime writer and University of Minnesota alum Michelle McNamara died while investigating the serial rapist and murderer Golden State Killer, whose reign of terror spanned decades. With exquisite detail and skill, McNamara recounts the victims and survivors of his crimes while charting his sadistic tactics with logic and humanity for those affected. McNamara also peppers sincere glimpses into her own backstory — a complex relationship with her mother, her takes on longtime GSK investigators, her obsession with the hunt. McNamara died before she finished her book, but it was craftily sewn up and published two months before GSK was arrested — making the book’s epilogue, McNamara’s letter to him, even more stunning and eerie. This is a must-read for true crime goobers.
“We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.” by Samantha Irby
While it has a place here, comedian and blogger Samantha Irby’s collection of essays is more than toilet humor. Irby digs into her irritable bowels, her rocky relationship history and her eventual introduction to her now-wife. What never fails to delight is Irby shows up unapologetically as she is: a lover of bad TV who can tuck her breasts into her waistband. In her second book, though, Irby goes deeper into her childhood living with an abusive alcoholic and a very ill mother, as well as her personal struggles with depression and anxiety. Irby is a breath of fresh air, and her writing will elicit unfamiliar cackles from your face hole.
“The Witches Are Coming” by Lindy West
Comedian, activist and New York Times opinion contributor Lindy West’s follow-up to “Shrill” is hard to put down. She watches all (read: most) Adam Sandler movies and comments, visits a Goop event and shares how the world might be a better place if we all followed the lead of an online music gear swap. West’s voice is merciless, funny and refreshing.
— Melinda Lavine