On April 14, Meghan Murphy (editor-in-chief of Paper Darts) and I were delighted to attend the 24th annual Minnesota Book Awards, at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul Riverfront Hotel. The event is presented each year through a partnership between the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, the St. Paul Public Library itself, and the city of St. Paul. The gala celebration this year comprised three parts: a reception where guests were invited to mingle, order drinks from the cash bar, and buy books for the finalists autograph; the awards ceremony itself; and a post-gala party. Of all three, the post-gala party was by far my favorite in terms of socializing and people-watching—by the time we left some teens and parents were grooving heartily to music by the Endband (a trio with members from Cloud Cult and Seymore Saves the World), who were really bringing the noise in the best way possible.
At 750 guests, the Book Awards were more crowded than I had expected, populated mainly by industry folks, friends, and families of finalists, sponsors, and honorees. We were the youngest by far at our table, which was full of the friendly faces of well-to-do and well-read Minneapolites who no doubt have a great deal to do with the wealth and success of the local literary culture. It was lovely to get to know a different side of the community that I typically run into at bar events and curse-strewn readings. While none of them were acquainted with Paper Darts, they all were very familiar with the Loft (where I work), and every time the organization was mentioned on stage the whole of my table would point to me and clap. It was very heartwarming.
Hosted again this year by the ever-affable Jeff Kamin, who may have lost his audience a little with the James Franco jokes but definitely brought them back in with Titanic, the Minnesota Book Awards honor books and authors in nine categories: general nonfiction, children’s literature, memoir and creative nonfiction, Minnesota, genre fiction, poetry, young people’s literature, novel and short story, and the reader’s choice award. Additionally, there are three special awards: the Book Artist Award, the Hognander Minnesota History Award, and the Kay Sexton Award—won this year by Coffee House Press founder Allan Kornblum, whose tribute video and speech were both very moving. Each winner was honored with a song chosen specifically for him or her by the Willie August Project, the band whose music accompanied everyone to and from the stage.
One of the biggest surprises, at least for me, was Ed Bok Lee’s win for Whorled over Jim Moore’s Invisible Strings—not because I have a particular opinion on either, but rather because Moore had won a Guggenheim Fellowship just the day before (although two prizes in one weekend would be a lot of glory for one man, I suppose). Still, I was delighted to see that Lee won, and thrilled that he called attention to the fact that there were hardly any attendees of color, referring to himself as “disoriented” and smirking at the pun.
Overall, the night was a testament to the passion that this community has for literature—which may also be a testament to books being the best of many ways to keep busy during the long winters. Of all the people involved, however, I’ve really got to hand it to the judges. There were 270 books nominated this year, and (from what I understand from speaking with some of the judges) they all must be read over the span of a few months—maybe less. That’s an incredible amount of reading, even for those of us who really, really, really love to read.
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