Sunday, April 26, 2009

Minnesota Book Awards

I haven’t been to the Minnesota Book Awards since they were dropped by the Humanities Commission, taken over by the Friends of St. Paul Public Library, and turned into a celebrity event. But last year I worked with Margaret Hasse on the design and production of her book Milk & Tides, and when the book was nominated for an award the publisher, Norton Stillman, generously arranged for Hilary and I to attend the proceedings. By the time we arrived at the hotel, the main room was thronged with people, with a bar and food tables in the middle and the nominated authors arranged behind tables around the edges of the room. We said Hi to Margaret and to William Kent Krueger, who was right next to her. (A few weeks ago I made a guest appearance on Kent’s cable TV show to discuss book design, and he also did a reading recently at Hilary’s library, so he’s practically an old friend.) We also chatted with Julie Kramer, the first-time author of Stalking Susan, who aced Kent out for the genre award later that might.

I ran into artist Randy Sholes and we discussed the look of a recently-published book he and I had worked on, Jill Breckenridge’s The Gravity of Flesh. Over the dregs of the grilled vegetables I mentioned to Louise Erdrich how much I had enjoyed her little book on Lake of the Woods (old news to her) and soon thereafter we ran into Peg Meier. We discussed the films we’d seen at the film festival (no overlap), and she informed us that the Minnesota Historical Society had recently cut its frontlist from 37 to 20 books, with her children’s history being one of those that got the ax. She asked me if I was still putting out a paper edition of Macaroni, and I agreed to put her back on the subscription list.

Hilary ran into a friend who’d recently lost her job as Customer Relations Manager during a Barnes and Noble cutback. Later we chatted with Debbie Wright, a very old friend whom we hadn’t seen in a decade at least, and we reminsced about weddings and squash matches of long ago. She’s teaching sixth grade now, and, as she puts it with a sardonic laugh, “The kids are getting dumber and lazier every year.”

But although the economic and social trends seemed bad all the way around, the atmosphere in the ballroom was festive, and that mood continued once we wandered in to attend the ceremony itself. Margaret lost out to Heid Erdrich in the poetry division, alas, though in her acceptance speech Heid informed to audience that she’d already lost three times already. Margaret has now lost out twice. Her time will come. On the other hand, there is so much life and experience in even one book of poems, I find it remarkable that poets like Margaret keep on producing material.

Her wonderful book aside, I had read only a small part of one of the 32 finalists—Landscapes of Minnesota. Several of the winners were entirely unknown to me, including Kao Kalia Yang, whose Hmong memoir, The Latecomer, won both the memoir and the People’s Choice awards.

In their acceptance speeches the winners turned our attention repeatedly to the robust book community the Twin Cities sustains, with its book arts center, library programs, bookstores, small presses, and talented authors and illustrators. Yes, books are wonderful. And the people who write, publish, and read them are pretty neat too.