The Biblioracle: Marginalized here in the flyover states

I've long maintained that being a Midwesterner is a significant handicap in achieving author superstar status.

As other natives of the flyover states know, from birth we are inculcated with the notion that we are nothing special because no one is anyone special.

Tooting one's own horn is firmly and resolutely frowned upon. To court attention and acclaim is sinful. As my Illinois-born grandmother told me often, "The band doesn't always play for you."

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This isn't to say we don't hold any pride, it's just that to express it would be an affront to those things we're prideful of.

For example, my wife has a T-shirt that says "Midwest is Best" across the front, but she'll only wear it at home.

Because you won't find many Midwestern writers tooting their own horns, I like to use this forum to occasionally toot for others. I previously did it for Jon Hassler.

This time, I'm shouting — to the extent a Midwesterner is capable of raising his voice — for Charles Baxter.

In the teachers of creative writing circles that I run in, Baxter is a rock star (he's currently a professor at the University of Minnesota), and he's had some popular publishing success, including being a finalist for the National Book Award for his novel "The Feast of Love," which was turned into a (so-so) movie starring Greg Kinnear and Morgan Freeman.

But Baxter should be up there with Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison as a writer whose new books should be treated as events worth paying attention to.

Baxter is perhaps most known as a writer of short stories, and many of his best can be found in "Gryphon: New and Selected Stories." The title story is a perfect gem about a boy and his grade school classroom shaken up by an unconventional teacher, Miss Ferenczi, who shows them what's possible in the world. Like many of Baxter's stories, it is both funny and unsettling and reveals beauties that in less-skilled hands would remain hidden.

Unfortunately, some of my favorite Baxter stories were not selected for "Gryphon," which means you need his second collection, "Through the Safety Net," which includes "A Late Sunday Afternoon by the Huron," a prose homage to the Art Institute's most famous inhabitant, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat. In the story, Baxter brings the lives of ordinary Michiganders into the same kind of fine relief Seurat achieved with his pointillism — even though nothing much happens (as in Seurat's painting).

I swear, Baxter is some kind of necromancer of the spirit. It has taken me a month to write this column because once I start reading Baxter, I can't stop.

If you're starting with Baxter's novels, definitely begin with "The Feast of Love," a multivoiced novel rooted in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" that so closely observes what it means to love, your heart will hurt.

But you also must spend time with Baxter's recurring characters, Saul and Patsy, who first appear in a stand-alone story in "Through the Safety Net" before getting a fuller treatment in the eponymous novel, "Saul and Patsy," one of the great Midwestern novels of all time. As the title characters settle into their new home and raise their first child, their lives are spun unpredictably by Gordy, a troubled and troubling student of Saul's.

I have seen reviews that mean to condemn the book because it is "quiet," but all those critics have done is reveal that they're not listening hard enough, which is why I'm shouting.

Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.


The Biblioracle offers his recommendations

1. "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

2. "The Art Forger" by B.A. Shapiro

3. "The Young Wan" by Brendan O'Carroll

4. "And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini

5. "The Midwife of Hope River" by Patricia Harman

—Joanne F., Park Ridge

I think there's some chance that Joanne has read this one, but my senses are so strong that it's the right recommendation that I'm going to take the risk. If she has indeed read "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen, I hope she'll give me a chance at a second bite at the apple.

1. "The Bully Pulpit" by Doris Kearns Goodwin

2. "The Man He Became" by James Tobin

3. "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tart

4. "Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

5. "Still Life With Bread Crumbs" by Anna Quindlen

—Joanne J., Sandwich

Last year everyone in my inbox had read Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl." This year it's "The Goldfinch." No complaints, they're both terrific books, but sometimes I wish there was room for more than one book a year that everyone has to read. I want to go fiction and historical, and fortunately there is a recent release by one of the best writers we have working today. "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr.

1. "By Its Cover" by Donna Leon

2. "The Secret Rooms" by Catherine Bailey

3. "Divas in the Convent" by Craig A. Monson

4. "Can You Forgive Her?" by Anthony Trollope

5. "Undiluted Hocus-Pocus" by Martin Gardner

—Joan P., Chicago

Feel like I need to go historical again, though this is an admittedly weak area for your humble book recommender. Rather than seeking the genre out, as I do other areas, I tend only to encounter the big titles everyone else is reading like "Wolf Hall" or "The Name of the Rose." I just hope Joan has not yet read Kazuo Ishiguro's classic, "The Remains of the Day."


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