My Favorite All Iowa Reads List

Peace like a river

Leif Enger

FICTION Enger, Leif
Fiction

Fair or not, Enger's first novel will inevitably be compared to the work of Garrison Keillor: both men are veterans of Minnesota Public Radio, and the book very much shares the spirit of Keillor's radio work and fiction, with its quiet, observant gaze capturing the beauty of simple things, related through wise and thoughtful characters in this case, the Land family from North Dakota. Asthmatic youngster Reuben Land tells the admittedly shaggy-dog story of his older brother Davy, who shoots and kills two violent intruders as they break into the family's home;Davy is convicted but manages to flee. Both the Lands and the law follow in hot pursuit, but the family seems to have support from a higher power father Jeremiah himself has performed a miracle or two in his lifetime (walking on water, healing the afflicted with his touch, and the like). Biblical allusions abound, and fantastic things happen, such as the patriarch's four-mile tour via tornado. "Make of it what you will," says Reuben. LJ Reviews, June 2001

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First ever All Iowa Reads book selected in 2003, still a great read of young man's journey after a tragic event.
- Susan C

The Master Butchers Singing Club

Louise Erdrich

FICTION Erdrich, Louise
Fiction

All of the virtues of Erdrich's best works-her lyrical precision, bleakly beautiful North Dakota settings, deft interweaving of characters and subplots, and haunting evocation of love and its attendant mysteries-are on full display in this superb novel. Drawing on her paternal German ancestry, Erdrich tells the story of Fidelis Waldvogel, a WWI sniper and master butcher with a "talent for stillness" and for singing. After marrying Eva, the pregnant fiancée of his best friend, who was killed in the war, he emigrates to America. Settling in Argus, N.Dak., he and Eva establish a butcher shop known for its Old World expertise and for housing Fidelis's beloved singing club. The focus then shifts to Delphine Watzka, a performer in a traveling vaudeville act, who has recently returned to Argus to care for her alcoholic father, Roy. Roy's health problems pale beside his legal problems: the predatory Sheriff Hock is investigating how the Chavers family came to perish in Roy's basement. Not willing to abandon Roy, Delphine and her vaudeville partner, Cyprian Lazarre, a homosexual Ojibwa, set up house in Argus, where Delphine soon befriends Eva and develops a disturbing attraction to Fidelis. Erdrich's plot spans 36 years, covering two world wars, several violent deaths, near-deaths, illnesses, accidents and crimes-"awful things occurring to other humans," but somehow not to Delphine, who draws on reserves of toughness and compassion to sustain herself as well as the surprisingly vulnerable Waldvogel family. PW Reviews December 2002 #5

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I love Louise Erdrich's historical novels -- long, complex characters who aren't like anyone you've ever met, but somehow they feel very real. If you haven't read this one you should.
- Susan C

Splendid solution : Jonas Salk and the conquest of polio

Jeffrey Kluger

614.549 /Kluger
Nonfiction

For children today, the word "polio" means little more than a series of shots, a mundane part of health care. Fifty years ago, however, polio was a dark shadow that arrived every summer, a deep fear hanging over every child and parent. Every year, the disease left tens of thousands of children crippled, paralyzed or, worse, reliant on an iron lung to aid them in breathing. Time magazine senior writer Kluger, coauthor of the bestselling book that was the basis for the movie Apollo 13, tells how polio was beaten 50 years ago in one of the triumphs of modern medicine. The narrative naturally centers on Jonas Salk, whose lab developed the first polio vaccine, but this is by no means a simple biography. Kluger is best when describing science as a team enterprise, and this account offers a keen understanding of the vast machine of people and resources mobilized to combat polio. The book is well researched and accessible, made all the more tense and gripping by the author's depiction of the pre-vaccine world-by describing what it was like to live in fear of polio, Kluger reminds us how joyous and heroic an event its conquest was.. PW, Jan, 2005

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The first nonfiction All Iowa Reads. Growing up in the 50's and early 60's polio was a very important concern and this story of developing the vaccine is fascinating.
- Susan C

Driftless

David Rhodes

FICTION Rhodes, David
Fiction

Words, Wisconsin, an anonymous town of only a few hundred people. But under its sleepy surface, life rages. Cora and Graham guard their dairy farm, and family, from the wicked schemes of their milk co-op. Lifelong paraplegic Olivia suddenly starts to walk, only to find herself crippled by her fury toward her sister and caretaker, Violet. Recently retired Rusty finds a cougar living in his haymow, dredging up haunting childhood memories. Winifred becomes pastor of the Friends church and stumbles on enlightenment in a very unlikely place. And July Montgomery, both private and gregarious, instigates a series of events that threatens the town's solitude and doggedly suspicious ways.

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Love, love, love this book and David Rhodes. The sequel, Jewelweed, published five years later is even better than this one.
- Susan C

Sing them home

Stephanie Kallos

FICTION Kallos, Stephanie
Fiction

This novel is a portrait of three siblings who have lived in the shadow of unresolved grief since their mother's disappearance when they were children. Everyone in Emlyn Springs knows the story of Hope Jones, the physician's wife whose big dreams for their tiny town were lost along with her in the tornado of 1978. For Hope's three young children, the stability of life with their preoccupied father, and with Viney, their mother's spitfire best friend, is no match for Hope's absence. Larken, the eldest, is now an art history professor who seeks in food an answer to a less tangible hunger; Gaelan, the son, is a telegenic weatherman who devotes his life to predicting the unpredictable; and the youngest, Bonnie, is a self-proclaimed archivist who combs roadsides for clues to her mother's legacy, and permission to move on. When they're summoned home after their father's death, each sibling is forced to revisit the childhood tragedy that has defined their lives.

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I like this book because it's unique -- not a well known author and very Midwestern -- focusing on one family in a small town in Nebraska hit by a tornado.
- Susan C

My name is Mary Sutter

Robin Oliveira

FICTION Oliveira, Robin
Historical Fiction

Traveling to Civil War-era Washington, D.C., to tend wounded soldiers and pursue her dream of becoming a surgeon, headstrong midwife Mary receives guidance from two smitten doctors and resists her mother's pleas for her to return home.

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I do like a good historical novel -- this one set in the Civil War era follows a young woman aspiring to be a doctor who works in a soldiers hospital in Washington D.C., and then moves closer to the battlefields. A little gimmicky at the end, but a great story.
- Susan C

Lila

Marilynne Robinson

FICTION Robinson Marilynn
Fiction

We catch glimpses of the Reverend John Ames' much younger second wife, Lila, in Robinson's Pulitzer Prizeâ€"winning novel, Gilead (2004), the first in a deeply reflective saga set in a small Iowa town, the second volume of which is Home (2008). We now learn Lila's astonishing story, which begins with a thunderbolt opening scene, in which an abused little girl is swept up by a strange young woman called Doll. The two roam the countryside as itinerant workers, settling down just long enough for Lila to learn to read and write. As life grows even more harrowing during the Great Depression, and Doll's dangerous secrets catch up to her, capable and strong Lila fends for herself, ultimately arriving in Gilead. The wanderer and the minister embark on a wondrously unlikely and fitful courtship as Lila asks confounding questions about existence, belief, trust, and justice. Bringing the land to ravishing life, season by season, Robinson sets the tentative lovers' profoundly involving emotional and metaphysical struggles within both the singing web of nature and the indelible stories of the Bible. Robinson has created a tour de force, an unforgettably dramatic odyssey, a passionate and learned moral and spiritual inquiry, a paean to the earth, and a witty and transcendent love storyâ€"all within a refulgent and resounding novel so beautifully precise and cadenced it wholly transfixes and transforms us. Booklist #1, August 2014

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Nobody writes like Marilynne Robinson and this is my favorite of the Gilead trilogy. I wanted to read entire pages out loud just the hear the words spoken. The 2016 AIR selection.
- Susan C

The boys in the bunkhouse : servitude and salvation in the heartland

Dan Barry

362.384 /Barry
Nonfiction

A full-length account of the author's prize-winning New York Times story chronicles the exploitation and abuse case of a group of developmentally disabled workers, who for 25 years, were forced to work under harrowing conditions for virtually no wages until tenacious advocates helped them achieve their freedom,"--NoveList.

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This year's AIR selection is another non-fiction book -- this one set in Iowa. The Library's book discussion is July 21 -- lots of time to get it read. Much to talk about.
- Susan C