What makes a book meaningful to you?
It has to be one that "spills over into the rest of my thinking," said author George Saunders. "You're on a certain trajectory on Wednesday, then you read the book and the rest of your life is at a different angle."
Writers Saunders, Amy Quan Barry and Carrie Mesrobian joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to share the books they found meaningful in 2015. Their selections sparked their imaginations, shook their perspectives and stuck with them throughout the year.
George Saunders's selections
"I think I must be a reincarnated Russian because ... I want the big questions: I want life and death and love, and I always respond to the Russians. They have that understanding: Why are we writing this book if it's not about the stuff that's going to matter to us at the very end?" Saunders said. Saunders is the author of "Tenth of December," the prize-winning short story collection.
"Opening Heaven's Door: What the Dying Are Trying to Say About Where They're Going" by Patricia Pearson
A death in the family led journalist Patricia Pearson to investigate "nearing death awareness" — a phenomenon similar to near-death experiences.
Though a large number of people have reported such experiences — including visions and messages — many keep them a secret for fear of being dismissed. Despite the stigma around these experiences, Pearson argues that they can offer meaning and comfort, even if science can't explain them.
"Faithful Ruslan" by Georgi Vladimov
Saunders uses this book in his classes at the MFA program at Syracuse University. The book is told entirely from the point of view a dog trained to guard a gulag prison camp.
"The book starts at the day they closed the camp, so he's a killing machine who has no mission," Saunders said. "It's an incredible point of view exercise. He is a dog, yet the dog has a completely human ability to see the world."
Carrie Mesrobian's suggestions
Carrie Mesrobian is the author of "Cut Both Ways" and "Sex and Violence." She was the winner of the 2014 Minnesota Book Award for Young People's Literature.
"Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness" by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Mesrobian became completely fascinated with crows after reading Haupt's book, she said. It's a rare nature book that doesn't delve into far off, exotic places — it speaks to the birds in your own backyard.
Crows, she said, are like the cockroaches of the bird world. "Seeing more crows and less songbirds is not a good thing." Haupt's book digs into the science and research behind the birds that surround our everyday lives.
"Infandous" by Elana K. Arnold
"This is a gorgeous young adult book that I think makes the perfect crossover for adult readers or people who say they don't read YA," Mesrobian said. It's the story of the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter, interspersed with retellings of fairy tales.
The included fairy tales "are so gorgeous and gory and disturbing, in a way the Grimm brothers would probably approve of," Mesrobian said. "It's so vivid about the uncertainty of being a teenager and the mythology your own family makes about itself."
Amy Quan Barry's selections
Barry is poet and novelist. Her debut novel, "She Weeps Each Time You're Born," hit shelves this year.
"Boy with Thorn" by Rickey LaurentiisLaurentiss' poetry collection addresses racial trauma in America, sexuality, and sense of place, Barry said. "Even when he's talking about painful episodes in American racial history, they are still beautifully portrayed, utterly moving and utterly haunting."
"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh NguyenIn "The Sympathizer," a group of South Vietnamese soldiers flee Saigon for Los Angeles after the war, but they don't know that a spy is among them. The double agent, a former captain in the army, reports back to the Viet Cong all about life in America, even as he settles in.
Barry praised Nguyen's use of black humor to show how Americans obsess about Vietnam, without really understanding much about the country or the war.