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Fundamental reading
A year's worth of favorite books

Credit:Paul Hoppe

For years ' 29 of them, in fact ' the Isthmus year-end book wrap-up was written by avid reader and Broom Street Theater director Joel Gersmann. His list was a departure from most year-end book picks in that he did not restrict himself to new books published within the last year. In his memory, we continue the tradition he started: If you read it during the previous year, it's fair game. We asked a number of Madison-area writers and readers to share a few of the books that made their year.

Topologies, no apologies
by Rae Meadows

By Marilynne Robinson (Picador)

Robinson's long-awaited second novel, written as a letter from a dying minister to his 7-year-old son, is a serious, meditative and moving book. In the end, it dares to celebrate life without apology. Although the story is agonizingly slow to begin, it's worth it.

A Woman in Berlin
By Anonymous (Picador)

An unnamed female German journalist left in the rubble of Berlin kept a diary as the Soviets rolled in at the end of World War II. She chronicled a time when rape was as common as scrounging for nettles for food. As fascinating as it is devastating, this is a story of survival in a brutal wasteland, told in a voice without self-pity.

How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space
By Janna Levin (Anchor)

Topologist Levin delivers physics in a way that I could begin to understand. The narrative is framed by letters to her mother and woven through with anecdotes about Levin's life on her quest to determine the size of the cosmos. I was awed by the possibilities she poses.

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship
By Ann Patchett (Harper Perennial)

Patchett's memoir about her 20-year friendship with the late poet/writer Lucy Grealy is achingly sad and beautifully written. Grealy, who lost most of her jaw to childhood cancer, was tormented by her disfigurement and by the incessant unsuccessful reconstructive surgeries that followed. Patchett explores the power and the limits of her friendship with a woman she could not save.

By George Eliot (Penguin)

It took a while until I was hooked, but then this sprawling Victorian novel unspooled, and it was just plain enjoyable. Eliot creates a richly nuanced portrait of provincial life and populates it with masterful characters, notably the women who she seeds with ahead-of-her-time insights critical of gender roles. She's also a great commenter on the human condition. One of my favorites: 'In all failures the beginning is certainly the half of the whole.'

Meadows is the author of Calling Out, a novel.

All over the map
by Rosemary Zurlo-Cuva

By Mary Gaitskill (Pantheon)

Gaitskill writes with honesty about the things people do to themselves and each other as if she's wired to keep staring, long after most of us look away. In this, Alison, a former B-list fashion model, talks to us in a voice that is precise, sensuous and elegiac about her teenage years on the street, her model years in Paris and Manhattan, her friendship with the eccentric Veronica, the schisms and reconciliations with her family. Places and times, their particular fashions, energies and musical themes, all come alive as if each strand of memory were extracted whole from Gaitskill's brain. This is a stunning book, savage with all of life's grief, exaltation and mystery.

Broken for You
By Stephanie Kallos (Grove)

Kallos had me hooked on her writing by the end of the first page of this big, juicy novel. It followed up on its promise with vivid characters, interesting ideas and a surprising amount of drama ' at least in these days of well-heeled literary fiction. The emotional experience reminded me of reading The World According to Garp. Readers who have trouble with magical realism might find this one trying.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
By Geoff Dyer (North Point)

My husband and I were considering a trip to Sicily last spring when I remembered that Dyer had described a hilarious research trip to Taormina: train strikes, the difficulties of getting around in a 'respect culture,' Italians and telephones, the necessity of eating fish. I found those passages, and then had to read the whole book again. Lawrence is actually the jumping-off point for a wonderful, labyrinthine and fall-off-your-chair funny essay/memoir/rave on life and art, as well as on being a writer and passionate reader.

The Lives of Mapmakers
By Alicia L. Conroy (Carnegie Mellon)

The stories in this collection are full of surprises. Conroy likes big ideas from science, history and mythology, and she's willing to experiment with what we think of as normal reality. She gets a lot of balls in the air, and, amazingly, very few of them fall to the ground. The stories all deal in some way with the alienation of modern life, those confusions about what is real and important that make relationships fail. Her observations feel fresh and invariably true.

Referred Pain and Other Stories
By Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Counterpoint)

'Referred Pain' is the tour de force of this rare collection in which each of the stories is worth reading. In it, a seemingly happy young man's unexamined life begins to unravel after a painful dental emergency, resulting in a beautifully observed, often funny study of survivor guilt that ends on a note of perfect, if heartbreaking, resolution.

Rosemary Zurlo-Cuva has received several Ragdale writing fellowships and has published short fiction in numerous literary magazines.

Beautiful, warm and alive
by Mukoma Ngugi

Fools Crow
By James Welch (Penguin)

This book is set on the cusp of full-blown genocide against Native Americans, and the language used to capture resistance and resiliency is brave, implacable and beautiful. It made me aware of the paradox of writing ' one best captures the human capacity for death and ugliness through a literature that is beautiful, warm and alive. As a writer, this was probably the most important read for me in many years.

The Women of Brewster Place
By Gloria Naylor (Penguin)

This short novel is about a group of black women who seek refuge from sexism, racism, poverty and homophobia, among other things, in a tenement called Brewster Place. From the tapestry of Brewster Place each woman's story is woven ' it is like jazz musicians each taking turns playing a solo as the rest of the band plays on.

Wizard of the Crow
By Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (Pantheon)

It is a treat to speak on the merit of my father's new novel. Close to 800 pages and translated from Gikuyu into English by him, it is, as he calls it, a 'global epic.' But more than a critique of the debilitating politics of the Third World in interaction with the West, it is also a story about love as true solidarity and human resiliency.

Long for This World: New and Selected Poems
By Ron Wallace (Pittsburgh)

In this collection by Madison poet Ron Wallace, language is at once beautiful, muddy and of flesh. In 'Why I am not a Nudist' we find the ecstatic effect the poet's wife slipping into clothes in the morning has on him. My favorite poem in the collection because it, well, reminded me of my fiance.

Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics
By Tejumola Olaniyan (Indiana)

An appreciation of Fela Kuti, a Pan-African and truly international musician. This critical work matches the intensity of Fela's music. Fela was a rebel who gave sound to the 'wretched of the earth,' and Olaniyan captures the various ideologies, be they political or esthetic, that made Fela possible.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is a Kenyan writer and columnist for BBC Focus on Africa magazine doing his graduate work at UW-Madison.

Girls and women
by Maureen Leary

The Point and Other Stories
By Charles D'Ambrosio (Back Bay)

Both the title story and 'Her Real Name' are standouts in this debut collection that explores love, loss, despair and the tenuousness of human connection. But 'American Bullfrog' is the story I will turn to again and again. At turns apt, hilarious, heartbreaking and unsettling, this original rendering of adolescence and first sex is the rare story that articulated an experience I didn't have words for previously, and explained something crucial to me about being human.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
By Z.Z. Packer (Riverhead)

This debut collection is funny and sharp without being glib or contrived; every turn of phrase is artfully rendered and often startlingly insightful. The characters in this socially relevant yet highly personal collection possess a clear-eyed sharpness and wit that transcends their immediate circumstances.

Lives of Girls and Women
By Alice Munro (Vintage)

I never really understood why music geeks got excited about previously unreleased tracks from their favorite band until I discovered that Alice Munro had written a book I hadn't read. One of Munro's earliest works, and her only novel, it chronicles a young girl's coming of age in rural Ontario in the 1940s. With the confidence and unflinching honesty that Munro acolytes have come to expect, the novel explores love and social class, and the narratives that determine the course of a life.

By Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon)

After hearing her speak at the Wisconsin Book Festival, I got the distinct impression that the sharply funny Satrapi doesn't suffer fools gladly, and, thankfully, neither do her characters. This slim graphic novel depicts a multigenerational gathering of women that serves up a wickedly funny challenge to conventional, widely held notions of Iranian femininity. With gallows humor, Satrapi's women regale us with tales of the men they have loved and/or endured, holding forth on the joys of being a mistress as opposed to a wife, how to fake one's virginity and how to escape an arranged marriage. An oddly inspiring tale of how love, desire, and feminine deceit can wend their way around even the most virulent forms of oppression.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O' Brien (Broadway)

Not a war story in any traditionally stoic/heroic sense, The Things They Carried presents the mundane, human side of war in all of its callow, terrified humanity. O'Brien's territory is Vietnam, and the ways these young soldiers find distraction and comfort in the jungle are vivid and poignant. One of this book's profound strengths is O'Brien's willingness to tell these stories with all their flawed, recognizable humanity intact, an act of singular bravery and generosity.

Maureen Leary has an MFA in creative writing from Hunter College and has published fiction in Bust, Beloit Fiction Journal, Big City Lit, Redivider, The Laurel Review and Wisconsin People & Ideas.

by Dean Bakopoulos

The Woman Lit by Fireflies
By Jim Harrison (Pocket)

2006 was the year of the novella for me ' I read 'em, wrote 'em, reread 'em, rewrote 'em ' and in the process discovered that the form is specific and sweeping, daring and traditional, and more hard-boiled and heartbreaking than most major epic novels. The finest collection of novellas I read was The Woman Lit by Fireflies. Harrison, I think, should be the next American Nobel Laureate. Go read everything he has ever written. I spent much of 2006 doing just that.

Platte River
By Rick Bass (Ballantine)

I also revisited Rick Bass' work, including this collection of three novellas. The masterful title work examines the desperate quality of male bonding experiences and kicks the shit out of anything Hemingway ever wrote about men fishing. A new edition of the book is coming out from Bison Books in March 2007, though used copies can be found fairly easily.

The Age of Grief
By Jane Smiley (Vintage)

A novella I reread every year. Simply one of the saddest, most painful, and somehow hopeful novellas ever written.

I Am a Bunny
By Ole Risom and Richard Scarry (Golden Books)

I Don't Want to Live on the Moon
By Jeff Moss and Dagmar Fehlau (Random House)

Since much of my evening reading consists of tales told to my 18-month-old daughter, I have found myself quite taken with two board books for little peeps: I am a Bunny, which conveys a very Zen-like approach to change, and Don't Want to Live on the Moon, a surprisingly eloquent and moving meditation on restlessness starring our old buddy Ernie from 'Sesame Street.'

Dean Bakopulos is the author of Please Don't Come Back From the Moon and the director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

Men and boys
by Oscar Mireles

Poems by Father and Son
By Trinidad Sanchez Jr. (Renaissance Publications)

I exchanged poetry chapbooks with Trinidad 'Trino' Sanchez Jr. over 20 years ago. I put his book away in my files at the time, and decided to read it this year after his recent death. Trino Sanchez was a get-in-your-face poet, always looking for a way to share poetry with prisoners or at community centers and making a mark. In his book, he wrote a poem about Death:

we futurized
of our death
how we would want it
celebrated without being present.
Good memories '
And no one cries.

He died without health insurance, with over $500,000 in medical bills. If there ever was a good reason to initiate universal health care, Trino would be a major one.

The Catcher in the Rye
By J.D. Salinger (Back Bay)

My son Sergio was reading this for his AP American English class, and I was sure I had read it when I was in high school, but I was mistaken. I was struck by the way Salinger used language to create the main character, Holden Caulfield, especially repeated phrases like 'phonies' and 'if you want to know the truth' and 'that kills me.' It is hard to believe that this book was published in 1951, and the action takes place in the 1940s. Yet I can see how this book continues to appeal to teenagers.

The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life
By Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens (Jossey-Bass)

This book makes the argument that there are biological and environmental reasons why we should try to make schools 'boy-friendly' and surround young men with a male support system of family and friends, to help them navigate educational and social challenges as they move toward adulthood. The book shares many strategies for reaching the underachieving male student. As I work at Omega School with young males, it's clear to me that with some guidance, support and direction they can achieve educational success.

Thirteen Moons: A Novel
By Charles Frazier (Random House)

Thirteen Moons shares the story of orphan Will Cooper. He works as an indentured servant, becomes a successful merchant and befriends the Cherokee Nation at the time of the Trail of Tears. The character is based loosely on the real-life exploits of a William Holland Thomas. I was surprised to find out that during that time, some members of Cherokee Nation owned land off the reservation and were slave owners. I was also shocked to read that many of the slaves were forced to leave North Carolina during the Trail of Tears as well. Frazier makes the Smoky Mountains come alive, and history intertwines with small stories and recipes that evoke the area's rich history, culture and food.

Oscar Mireles is a poet, director of the Omega School and the editor of I Didn't Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin, vols. I and II.

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