Hunt’s 2013 Book Picks

31 Dec

For better or worse, I mentally divide my reading into fiction and nonfiction.  This is, in part, to keep up my fiction reading. A few years ago, I found I was reading almost exclusively nonfiction and that scared me. I didn’t want to become a non-reader of fiction.  So I’m picking two favorite books from my reading this year.

Fiction Pick: The Round House by Louise Erdich

Erdich’s books are always well reviewed nationwide and well read in Minnesota, which is where I live.  I loved The Round House because it was so evocative of a Gen X childhood.  The fact that Erdich did not herself grow up in the 1980s and 1990s makes me that much more jealous of her powers as a writer.  And she is amazing.  She tells a damn good story and she perfectly captures the most important tension in a teenager’s life—the tension between the desire to effect the newly understood world and feeling powerless to do so.

I feel old to say that I liked this book because it brought me back, but it really did that.  The allusions to Star Trek: The Next Generation brought to mind the sound of a knife clacking against the lip of a blackened popcorn pan.  My dad always melted a cube of butter, which he would then pour over the giant stainless steel bowl of popcorn that we would eat by the handful as we watched TV.

The way that the protagonist and the other kids in The Round House talked about church camp and Star Trek: The Next Generation was so true to life and so funny that I almost cried in places. Too often, the pop culture references in books work like winking—they’re for the in-crowd and like a wink, they drive away all sense of majesty—but that wasn’t the case with Erdich’s references to Lieutenant Worf.  These references only made the book more evocative of life at the end of the Twentieth Century.

Nonfiction Pick: Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

I don’t think I would have enjoyed Pilgrim’s Wilderness as much if I had already known the story of Papa Pilgrim and his family.  But because I didn’t, the plot twists surprised me and I was hooked.

I think I was lucky to be ignorant of the story beforehand, because it’s a fairly recent one, which received some national news coverage.  A back-to-the-bible eccentric, self-christened Papa Pilgrim, buys several acres within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska and, after moving his wife and fourteen children onto the land, begins a battle with the National Park Service.  Pilgrim has a troubled and fascinating past and Tom Kizzia, a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, unspools it like a novelist.

The book is great because its lead character is so unique—and, in his way, compelling—but also because Kizzia makes the story about more than just the Pilgrim family.  He explores the meaning of Alaska, a liminal place where government and wilderness meet and the rules break down.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s breakout book, Into the Wild. And though some might bristle at even mentioning the name of Christopher McCandless in the same breathe as Papa Pilgrim, the two men both showed that the idea of Alaska is still a powerful force in the imaginative lives of many. Unfortunately, that imaginary Alaska is different from real Alaska in important and sometimes costly ways.

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