Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

“Between life and death there is a library,” she said. “And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices … would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

So begins Matt Haig’s THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY, a provocative meditation on regret, failure, and the parallel lives of thirty-five year old protagonist, Nora Seed. Nora has recently been fired from her job and her cat Voltaire has died; she has had every opportunity to make something of herself, but has failed to develop the raw talent she’d been gifted. There were many things she could have been: an Olympic swimmer, a musician, a glaciologist, a writer, a philosopher, a wife, a mother – the possibilities were limitless, and she squandered them all.  Nora decides that the best outcome is to retreat from the world – physically – and she takes an overdose of her antidepressant medication. When she wakes up, she’s somewhere between life and death in The Midnight Library. The librarian, Mrs. Elm, is one of the rare trusted adults from her childhood. In the library, she learns, there are thousands and thousands of books – all of them portals to all the lives she could be living. Pull a volume off the shelf and try on the world famous rock star life, or the glaciologist, the Olympian, the pub owner, or any number of lives being lived in any number of parallel universes. It’s a fascinating premise, an option that many of us would adventure to take, given the right opportunity. And that’s what makes THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY so much fun. All the what ifs answered.

Mrs. Elm also introduces Nora to a much larger, heavier volume – the Book of Regrets – and she begins to read. In this volume the what ifs are agonizing – the weight of guilt and sorrow and remorse like a noose around her neck. “Close it. You have to do it yourself,” Mrs. Elm advises Nora. Nora questions the point of it – and Mrs. Elm tells her that if she really wants to live one of the lives in the library, she will stay there as if she has always been there. Quoting Thoreau, Mrs. Elm reminds Nora, a philosophy major, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” And truly, Nora finds that when you change your perception, you change your reality. It’s easy to mourn the lives we aren’t living, Nora realizes, near the end of the book . . . but it’s not the lives we’re not living  that are the problem, it’s the regret itself. The most radical change in Nora’s life happened not inside of another life, but inside of her.

The MIDNIGHT LIBRARY is imaginative, thought-provoking, and fun . . . it’s just what I needed to read during the polar vortex, a big-hearted read that gave me a fresh perspective on all the roads not taken.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Set in 1931, Kathleen McMorris’s SOLD ON A MONDAY is based upon an actual photo from the depression era that swept the nation, capturing the agonizing desperation of families struggling to find jobs and provide food and shelter for their children.

When Ellis Reed, a middling newspaper reporter assigned to the Society Page, sees two children on a road with a sign that reads: Children for Sale, he snaps a photo and it leads to his big break. When the photo is ruined, Ellis attempts to recreate it. Returning to the home of the first family, he finds that they have moved, but a single mother and her young daughter and son live there and Ellis pays the mother to allow her children to pose with the sign. Instead of launching Ellis’s career, the story ends up launching him into a desperate search for two innocent children caught up in his failed attempt to make a name for himself. Lillian, a secretary at the paper with a secret of her own, has dreams of becoming a reporter like Nellie Bly, but her boss is none too eager to give her an opportunity to prove herself. Ellis and Lilly team up to find the missing children – motivated by their own family histories to right a wrong.

McMorris’s novel flags at times, and some of the backstory feels unrealistic, but as the reporters close in on a dark underworld of mobsters, unscrupulous children’s homes, and characters broken by loss, the novel becomes compulsively readable. You’ll find yourself flying through the last third of the book, as desperate as Lilly and Ellis to find the lost children. Though the novel lacks the depth of other books on the era and at times tips into resolutions that border on magical thinking, the welfare of the children kept me reading till the end.

Let me know what you think of SOLD ON A MONDAY and if you’re looking for other recommended reads from the era, check out Christina Baker Kline’s ORPHAN TRAIN, Pam Jenoff’s THE ORPHAN’S TALE, and Lisa Wingate’s BEFORE WE WERE YOURS.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Moving between Germany on the eve of World War II and present-day Milwaukee, Lauren Fox writes a love story to her family in SEND FOR ME, a story loosely based on her own family history. As a young graduate student, Fox found a wooden box of treasured letters written to her grandmother in Wisconsin from her great grandmother in Germany, dating from 1938 to 1941. It would take years before Fox found the voice to tell this story, but how lucky we are that she did.

Annelise works at her parents’ bakery in Feldenheim, Germany. It’s a popular bakery until the insidious rise of anti-Semitism gradually destroys their business and their friendships. Annelise falls in love with Walter, a shoe salesman, and they have a child together, Ruth. Soon, friends dissociate from them and Jews are restricted in their daily activities. Faithful customers stop coming to the bakery. There are rumors of impending danger, but Annelise and her family can’t believe that things won’t soon settle down to normal. When a brick is thrown through Annelise and Walter’s window and an old friend stops by with a dire warning, Walter and Annelise take Ruth and emigrate to America, leaving her parents behind.

Two generations later, Annelise’s granddaughter, Clare, is newly in love with a journalist from England in America on a one-year assignment. Back home, he has a young son.  When Claire finds the treasured letters and the grief that infuses them, she is torn between loyalty to family and love. Her own mother, Ruth, broke off an engagement that would have required her moving to Baltimore, away from her mother Annelise and father Walter. A family history of loss and leaving hobbled Ruth, and now Clare must choose as well.

In her author’s note, Fox says that her great-grandmother’s letters felt like an introduction, “her cadences were familiar, her fear-soaked love the source of the same concoction that was handed down to me . . . not a coherent story . . . more like a song, a howl of grief.”

Powerfully conveyed through shifting narratives, SEND FOR ME is not a lament, but rather an ode to family and a love that transcends time and place. I recommend SEND FOR ME for fans of Kristin Hannah and Geraldine Brooks. Listen to my interview with Lauren Fox on Superior Reads, May 27 at 7:00 pm. on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it live from the web, http://www.wtip.org.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Katherine Heiny’s EARLY MORNING RISER was a great way to kick off 2021 – funny, smart, insightful, with dazzling dialogue and keen wit, Heiny has brought us another deep dive into what makes us loveably human.

Jane moves to Boynton City, Michigan to take a job as a second grade teacher. There, she falls in love with Duncan. Duncan has been well-loved; he’s slept with most of the women in Boynton City and though the relationships may have been short, they have an afterlife that sticks with Jane. She wonders if she will ever truly have Duncan to herself. Duncan’s ex-wife Aggie is ever-ready with advice and recipes, and shows up at every event looking as if she’d just had her hair coiffed and her dresses ironed. Duncan still mows her lawn even though Aggie has remarried. On top of that, Duncan’s affable coworker Jimmy, a lovable yet vulnerable man, shows up at the most awkward moments at Duncan’s apartment. After a devastating accident, Jane’s life is inextricably bound to Duncan, Jimmy, and Aggie. Through these relationships, though challenging each in their own way, Jane is pressed to discover the true meaning of family and love and living fully.

I cannot recommend EARLY MORNING RISER enough. EARLY MORNING RISER brims with love and hope and humor. Heiny redefines family in this enchanting novel and I felt my heart lifted from the heaviness of the past year. Her characters are complex and quirky – they’re your mother, your brother, or your neighbor – they are just like all those complicated people you encounter on a daily basis. Whether you live in a small town, or your village of people is in a big city, you’ll recognize them and after reading EARLY MORNING RISER, you’ll find the things that may have previously annoyed you, endearing. Heiny is like that – through her lens, you’ll see things differently.

I recommend EARLY MORING RISER for fans of Ann Tyler and Elizabeth Strout. Run, don’t walk to your favorite bookstore and preorder this radiant gem which will be available in April from Knopf Publishing.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Over the course of one year, the nameless narrator in BROOD by Jackie Polzin cycles through grief as she cares for her four chickens: Gloria, Gam Gam, Miss Hennepin County, and Darkness. The challenges are daunting – brutal cold, scorching heat, determined predators, and an indiscriminate tornado. In the end she is no more able to save her brood than she was the child that she miscarried. She questions her relevance. She contemplates motherhood –she thinks she would have been a good mother and has trouble letting go of the possibility. Yet at the same time, she cannot bear the thought that other people might see her as someone who did not want children. She wanted them. And she believed she would have been a good one.

When confronting a racoon in the coop in the middle of the night, she comes alive, all her fierce instincts igniting a switch buried somewhere in the center of her grief. She swings a rake and growls at the racoon:
“I was not one bit afraid, or my fear was unrecognizable as such, pulsing like a thing outside me in the warm dark night. The air sparked with possibility. What would I do next? I rather hoped it would involve a feat of superhuman strength.”

BROOD is not a plot driven read, it is not really even about raising chickens or children. It is quietly reflective, a time capsule of a story about a woman coming to terms with childlessness.

BROOD brims with hope in the midst of grief and tenderness in spite of loss. “Life is the ongoing effort to live,” Polzin writes, “some people make it look easy. Chickens do not.” BROOD is an honest look at life, love, loss, and to some extent, chickens.

I recommend BROOD for fans of Ann Tyler, Fredrik Backman, and Elizabeth Strout. BROOD will be released on March 9 and is available for preorder from your favorite bookseller. Listen to my interview with Jackie Polzin on March 25 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads.

In SOMEWHERE IN THE UNKNOWN WORLD; A COLLECTIVE REFUGEE MEMOIR, acclaimed author Kao Kalia Yang compiles the stories of refugees from diverse backgrounds. Whether from Syria, Thailand, Afghanistan, or any of the other countries represented in these 15 harrowing stories of escape, the refugees have one thing in common – outrageous hope and courage. With empathy and compassion, Yang tells the stories of these survivors who ultimately came to Minnesota to build new lives for themselves and future generations:

The story a Syrian woman whose comfortable life on the skirts of Damascus disappeared overnight. “The war came to us in two days’ time. One day we had electricity and running water. The next day these modern conveniences were gone and the schools were closed.”

The story of a family who opened a restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul that attracted an array of Southeast Asian refugees , resettlement workers, teachers, and friends, serving pho, the national dish of Vietnam. The success of this restaurant allowed the family to send all five of their children to college, and ushered in an age of revitalization along University Avenue. Their son, following college and a career in corporate America as an analyst, opened a Vietnamese Bistro in the same space and in 2020 was nominated for a James Beard Best Chef Midwest Award.

Other stories in the book, tell of the horrors of war, harrowing escapes, years languishing in refugee camps, and families separated by continents. The story of Fong Lee, who as he was escaping Laos across the Mekong River with his wife, three boys, and baby girl, is confronted by two orphans, a six-year-old girl with her three-year-old sister strapped to her back, who begs him to take her sister safely to the other side, away from the violence and the soldiers who are rushing toward the river’s edge. He has no room for them, but promises to come back for them; before he is able to turn around, he hears the cracking of guns from the tree line and the girls are gone. He lives with the memory of their eyes, “round like the moon in the night sky” begging him for help.

A refugee, Yang tells us, is someone who is unable to remain in their home country because of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, or politics. Every October the president of the United States , in consultation with Congress, sets a cap for the number of refugees we can take in as a country. Each refugee is expected to take out a no-interest loan for his or her flight, and upon arrival each receives a onetime grant of $1125 from the federal government. For ninety days, the refugee is assisted by a sponsoring organization and then they are expected to make it on their own.

She writes that the immigrants and refugees that come to America are often fleeing countries and wars whose history is absent from American consciousness.

“Life will teach you the strength of the human heart, not of its weakness or fragility,” Kao Kalia Yang’s father tells her. It is a lesson that Yang passes on to her children and one that she hopes will fortify the hearts of children everywhere, passed on through the stories in Somewhere in the Unknown World. The book is dedicated to “Refugees from everywhere – men, women, and children whose fates have been held by the interests of nations, whose rights have been contested and denied, whose thirst and hunger go unheeded and unseen.” Through this important work, we see them, Kalia, we see them.

I recommend SOMEWHERE IN THE UNKNOWN WORLD for readers interested in global politics, immigration policy, and those who have loved the poetic voice and masterful storytelling of Kao Kalia Yang in her books THE LATEHOMECOMER and THE SONG POET. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Things weren’t always easy for Lyle and Peg Hovde, but in retirement they welcomed the return of their wayward adoptive daughter Shiloh along with their five year old grandson, Isaac. Set in rural Wisconsin, LITTLE FAITH by Nicholas Butler bravely examines the fragility of faith and family.

Lyle Hovde attends the local Lutheran Church in his small town with his wife Peg where his friend Charlie is the pastor – a man who left Redford to see and conquer the world, only to return a softer version of himself. “There were no sharp corners left on Charlie—only rounded edges, like those smooth river stones a person plucks from the moving waters and keeps in their pocket.” Charlie’s faith seems hard won, and the thing that Lyle appreciates most about him is his vulnerability; he never preaches like he has all the answers, but rather as a flawed human being.

Lyle lost his faith the day they buried their infant son. “The heaviest thing in the world is the coffin that carries the weight of a little child, for no adult who has ever borne that burden will ever forget it.” After the death of their son, Lyle and Peg, in a miracle of sorts, adopted Shiloh, and the only person in the world Lyle loves perhaps more than Peg and Shiloh, is Isaac. He revels in playing hide and seek with his young grandson and bringing him to visit his old friend Hoot, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer.

Not long after her return, Shiloh starts attending a new church – one in an abandoned strip mall led by a charismatic and slightly shifty preacher. Shiloh falls in love with the wayward pastor, Steven, who soon declares to the congregation that young Isaac is a healer. Shiloh questions Lyle’s brand of faith and, perhaps abetted by Steven, a conflict brews between Lyle and his daughter. Both Peg and Lyle are uncomfortable with Steven, whose fire and brimstone rants from the pulpit feel disingenuous. Steven exercises a great deal of influence over Shiloh and she withdraws from Peg and Lyle – eventually prohibiting Lyle from seeing Isaac for fear that his lack of faith will negatively effect him.

The novel is divided into the four seasons, and as winter dawns, cold and unforgiving, Shiloh and Lyle’s relationship slips from his tenuous hold. The grandson he so embraced is torn from him and at the novel’s climax, it seems that it may be forever.

Butler masterfully examines the tenuous bonds of family against the backdrop of faith. The emotional landscape fittingly mirrors the physical as we progress through the seasons. LITTLE FAITH explores the significance of lifelong friendships, the fickleness of the seasons, and the capriciousness of romantic and familial love. In Butler’s world, as in real life, nothing comes without a price.

I recommend LITTLE FAITH for fans of Gilead by Marilyn Robinson and Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout. Listen to my interview with Nickolas Butler on January 28 at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio, Grand Marais, Minnesota or on the web at http://www.wtip.org.

Barack Obama’s A PROMISED LAND is the first volume in his presidential memoirs. The memoir touches lightly his childhood, education, and early years in politics as a community organizer and state senator, and then details his first term as President of the United States. Volume two will cover his second term.

I must admit that I had never read a presidential memoir and I expected it to be cracking dry with policy speak, but what I found instead was an almost poetic narrative highlighting the challenges and opportunities he’s faced personally and politically. Obama is a gifted storyteller; rather than letting the narrative get bogged down with rote policy and timelines, he leavens it with personal reflection. It would be easy to lose sight of oneself when you are the ruler of the most powerful nation in the world, but Obama is not afraid to look sideways at himself. When he received the call notifying him that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize only a year into his first term, he asked himself, “For what?” And in the ensuing months, when he made the difficult decision to send more troops into Afghanistan, he wondered if people would judge him an imposter.

The thing that saved Obama from his ego is his uncompromising ability to understand and acknowledge his humanity — his weaknesses and strengths. With an unflagging commitment to truthfulness, Obama turned an eye first on himself, then his administration, and finally his opponents.

Reading A PROMISED LAND, one can’t help compare Obama’s legacy with that of his successor . . . from the size of the inauguration crowds to his response when he acknowledged the responsibilities of the separate branches of power, and his belief that public officials are fodder for public scrutiny and criticism. Within his administration, he embraced opposing opinions in order to bring greater clarity to a decision.

With all his challenges and successes, including a divided Congress, the passage of the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act, his humanity was never more evident than when he visited a wounded soldier or comforted a grieving family. Obama never shirked the ultimate responsibility of the Commander in Chief – to keep his people safe. Whether those decisions were made from the situation room as he watched the capture of Osama Bin Ladin or as a response to Malia’s plea to “save the tigers” at a Global Climate Conference, it is clear that Obama was a leader who put country before self and understood that global stability translated to national stability.

A PROMISED LAND is an honest exploration of Obama’s first term and he doesn’t shy away from admitting his mistakes. Covering the global financial crisis, the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Wall Street reform, and much more, A PROMISED LAND is a sweeping account of an historic presidency. Regardless of your political leanings, it’s worth a read or a listen. I was transfixed by the audiobook which he narrated. If Obama’s post presidential aspirations don’t pan out, he certainly could have a future as an audiobook narrator. His ability to narrate this 700+ page memoir, replete with the voices and dialects of others as disparate as Putin, Michele and his daughters, Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham – is remarkable. Not as remarkable as his stint as being the leader of the free world, but impressive in its own right.

I recommend A PROMISED LAND for fans of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Bob Woodward.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

In Catherine Ryan Hyde’s HAVE YOU SEEN LUIS VELEZ, a lonely sixteen-year old boy finds an unlikely friendship with 92 year old Mildred Gutermann, A German Jew who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. Raymond Jaffe feels like an outsider in almost every area of his life. His best friend has moved away, his parents have divorced and remarried, and their new partners display a genuine disdain for him. As he walks to his apartment one day after school, he meets Mrs. G, an elderly blind woman whose caretaker has inexplicably disappeared. “Have you seen Luis Velez?”  Mildred asks him as he walks by, and thus begins their unlikely friendship. While he tries to track down Luis Velez, he becomes Mrs. G’s new caretaker, taking her to the grocery store, making sure that she eats meals, and bringing her a cat as a companion.

Catherine Ryan Hyde has written over 30 novels, and is the author of the book Pay It Forward, which was made into a movie staring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. HAVE YOU SEEN LUIS VELEZ ultimately has the same feel-good message, though Hyde does not shy away from addressing racism, the justice system, and our increasingly fractured society. Raymond and Mrs. G are genuinely fond of each other and their relationship provides each of them with something they desperately long for – connection, validation, wisdom, and kindness – in a world that oftentimes feels harsh and uncaring.

While HAVE YOU SEEN LUIS VELEZ wasn’t my favorite read this year, it did provide some much needed respite from a steady stream of dense reading and a challenging year burdened by the pandemic, stay-at-home orders, and a raucous election cycle. Hyde’s characters are often one-dimensional and her plots simplistic, but the relationship between a cast-off young man and a disillusioned elderly woman who has watched her neighborhood devolve into a place of bigotry and fear, is like putting a warm blanket over 2020. Could I look more hopefully into the face of 2021? Maybe — if I let myself believe that the good people in HAVE YOU SEEN LUIS VELEZ exist outside of its pages.

I recommend HAVE YOU SEEN LUIS VELEZ for fans of PAY IT FORWARD, and A MAN CALLED OVE.

%d bloggers like this: