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(More) Top Books from the Past Year (or So) by (Mostly) Local Authors

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Welcome to the second entry in my series of posts on the best books from 2011 (or 2010) from local(ish) authors, some of whom are friends of mine. Read the first entry here.

I Was the Jukebox
Poems by Sandra Beasley
2010 by Norton / 2011 paperback by Norton

In 2011, Washington, D.C. poet Sandra Beasley published Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, her memoir about food allergies that doubles as a guide to a world in which any culinary treat might trigger anaphylactic shock. But I think I Was the Jukebox, Sandra's second collection of poetry and winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, also released this year in paperback, is the best introduction to her writing.

As Joy Harjo, who selected Beasley's collection for the prize, said in her citation, "every object, icon or historical moment has a soul with a voice." I Was the Jukebox gives voice to the sand, the minotaur, the piano, eggplant, and a theater, among other objects, animals, and figures from history. I first read this book in 2010 and many of its images remain fixed in my brain. But the best part of Sandra's work, I think, is how much fun it is.

In "Another Failed Poem About the Greeks," an ancient warrior takes the poet on a failed first date at an amusement park:

We went on the Pirate Ship three times
swooshing forward, back, upside down,
and he cried Aera! waving his sword,
until the operator asked him to please keep
all swords inside the car . . .

Beasley's poems are playful, but they also find their way to small revelations of eternity. History speaks between their lines.

"Show me a tent of well-dressed witnesses," Beasley writes in the collection's final poem, "and I'll show you how a circus catches fire." In the tragedy that follows, among the raging elephants and panicked monkeys, a woman fleeing for her life absently takes a stranger's hand. "Convince me eternity / is just this art of surviving, over and over," Beasley sings. "Promise me you're worth my weight in burning."

Tropical Depression
By Arin Greenwood
2011 Back Porch Books

I feel another disclosure is in order, as Arin is another friend. We met when we were both recruited to join a sketch comedy group made up of an NPR reporter, a spoken word artist, a public interest lawyer turned actress, and a corporate lawyer with a knack for comedy writing. We met on Saturdays, developed a few monologues about online dating, and talked vaguely about organizing a performance. Our little sketch comedy group never got off the ground, but Arin and I stayed friends.

I don't just know Arin, I know her novel, too, because Arin asked me to read the manuscript before it was published and I made a few small edits and suggestions. So, technically, I'm an editor of Arin's novel. This makes my review of her book about as subjective and prone to bias as any book review could possibly be. Only if I were Arin's publicist could this review be any less dispassionate.

And yet I can fearlessly recommend Tropical Depression as a fun, fast read. I predict it is only a matter of time until it is made into a hit romantic comedy for television or the movies.

The novel is about Nina, an unhappy corporate lawyer in New York who quits her job, breaks up with her boyfriend, and moves to a Pacific island. It is loosely based on Arin's real-life experience of being an unhappy corporate lawyer in New York who quits her job, breaks up with her boyfriend, and moves to a Pacific island. (Arin has since married and become an editor at the Huffington Post.)

Tropical Depression would be the perfect gift for someone heading into his or her final semester of law school, your way of telling this person that, even if the worst happens, and she becomes an unhappy corporate lawyer in New York who quits her job, breaks up with her boyfriend, and moves to a Pacific island, everything will still turn out OK.

The island in the novel is Miramar. It has an absurd kangaroo mascot, an unreliable electricity supply, and the world's highest per-capita concentration of poker cafes and strip clubs. Everyone on the island thinks Nina is a teacher. It is a further signal -- as if she needed one -- that she took a wrong turn somewhere. On Miramar she takes an older lover, becomes involved with a CIA agent, and almost drowns on an ill-fated kayak expedition.

The pleasure in Tropical Depression lies in Arin's consistently amusing prose style and her eye for details that are perfectly matched to her quirky tale. Of course, it's also fun to follow Nina's journey back to happiness, which Greenwood tells with great skill. The last scenes work beautifully by revealing something we hadn't realized we'd seen -- how far Nina has come.

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Thanks for reading, and write your suggestions in the comments!