2015 Book of the Year
Almost to a person, the book that would be voted our favorite of the year was not one any of us thought we would like. It is not really a pleasant story, but it is a moving one and something of a paradox. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This year’s Book of the Year meeting was a quiet affair. It was a quiet evening at The Rivers, and the four of us occupied a small table. It took us almost half-an-hour to even start talking about books because Art asked if anyone had gone kayaking in Voyageurs National Park. That started us on a very pleasant conversation about favorite paddling destinations. Jack talked about Wabakimi National Park in Canada and Irv brought up the Churchill River. Ed marveled at just how cool a group of guys we are.
When we did settle onto our evening’s topic, the first thing we all agreed on was that it wasn’t a stellar year for reading. Many of our selections did not turn out to be overwhelming favorites, and no one had read all eight of this year’s books. Of the eight, only Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth received no votes at all, and among the remaining seven, just three received votes from more than two of us.
One of the less-than-favorite books––Ron rated it an “absolute zero”––was The Circle by Dave Eggers. The story of a social media company (The Circle) that takes its mission of creating an open and transparent society beyond its Facebook-like website by placing a network of cameras everywhere, some of which are worn by volunteers who agree to film every minute of their day, and broadcast them for followers to watch. Art noted that “The Circle was not well-written, but it was good to discuss those issues of technology and privacy.”
The year’s three top books were very close in the number of votes they received. Many enjoyed Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World, a fascinating look at how a variety of animals survive the cold months. Art said it was the only book he bought all year, and it was a lot of work to read, but he would read it again. In part, Jack enjoyed Winter World because of Emily Stone’s participation in our discussion of the book in January. Emily is the Naturalist at the Cable Natural History Museum, and she was a student of Heinrich’s, so she had interesting insights not just to Heinrich, but also to the natural phenomena about which he wrote.
There were no supporting comments made about Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, but it was a favorite for at least seven of us. It is a historical fiction story about an immigrant girl who comes to America without her parents, so is placed with all the other orphan immigrants on a train and sent north to Minnesota, where she endures a series of adoptions and abandonments before settling with an older couple who own a hardware store. The orphan girl’s story is told as a parallel to the modern-day problems of another girl who is adjusting to her own foster family.
The third popular book was The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. For some reason, few of us expected to like this book as much as we did. Rob Peace came from a very tough neighborhood in New Jersey. His is the story of many inner city kids who have to work so much harder than anyone else to break free of their neighborhood connections, move beyond the danger, and find their place in the world. Rob Peace was blessed with an intelligence and good-natured manner, and earned his way into Yale. He graduated with a degree in molecular biochemistry. But Rob Peace was also a low-level marijuana dealer, and even though he shared used his accrued wealth to help his mother and many friends, and even though it was never his plan to keep doing it all his life, that world would never let him go.
Jack pointed out that we read Short and Tragic Life at the same time that racial unrest was ripping through Ferguson, Missouri, so for him, the book coupled with the news was draining. Despite this, we all agreed that Jeff Hobbs had shared an outstanding story, and when the votes were tallied our 2015 Book of the Year was The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace First and second runners-up were Winter World and Orphan Train, respectively.
We have had close calls in the past. We have had to do two rounds of voting to break ties. This year, the only tension came from Ted’s inability to remember his own “proprietary” scoring process so that we could make the decision official. (Ed offered to write a computer program for him, a double stab referencing Ted’s inability to do the math and his venomous comments about technology when discussing The Circle. It’s OK; he deserved it.) In the end, there was a bit of surprise because we expected Winter World would squeak out the top spot. But that was not to be. A societal trouble that manifests itself in the news almost daily won out over a more comfortable look at nature. But that, we learned again, is the beauty of a book group. It pushes us out of our comfort zones and brings us to places we never thought we would be.
Post-Script: We have been reading Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag since October. It’s a big book, and though it is a 2015 selection, we are reading it over a two-month period and discussing it in January, so it will be among the contenders for the 2016 Book of the Year.