Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson examines the unspoken system of caste in America in her new book, CASTE: THE ORIGINS OF OUR DISCONTENTS.

Wilkerson began writing Caste out of a desire to better understand the system of assigning meaning to the unchangeable physical characteristics that direct politics and policies and personal interactions. As I read, I wondered how, why, and when this hierarchy that determines opportunities or disadvantages was established in a land that declares itself to be the land of the free and home of the brave?

One of the most startling revelations in Caste is that the Nazi’s wrote their Nuremburg Laws using the Jim Crow South as their model. Wilkerson quotes Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman: “In debating how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich, they began by asking how the Americans did it.” Hitler praised the United States’ near genocide of Native Americans and the Nazi’s were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African Americans and the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.”

In order to never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews, Berlin set stumbling stones in their streets with the names of Jewish citizens so that as you walk and trip upon them you will remember not the Nazi’s, but their victims. In stark contrast, in many American states, there are still monuments to Confederate soldiers and their removal has led to protests and a great deal of controversy.

Though Wilkerson started her research by looking at the Jim Crow South, she soon realized that the caste system in America manifested itself North and South, that the hierarchy of power was not determined by geography, but that it followed people wherever they went, much like the caste system in India.

Ultimately, Wilkerson says that though someone is born in the dominate caste, they have a choice not to dominate – to see beyond how people look and value them for who they are. Caste, as defined by Wilkerson, is the “granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”

Caste is a remarkable work with stunning revelations. The notes and bibliography take up nearly 80 pages at the back of the book. In the author’s acknowledgments she explains that Caste is a book that she did not seek to write but had to write in the era in which we find ourselves. In a world without caste, Wilkerson writes, instead of a false swagger over our own tribe or family or ascribed community, we would look upon all humanity with wonderment. I recommend Caste by Isabel Wilkerson for everyone, absolutely everyone. This book should be required reading for all Americans.

 This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Promise by Minrose Gwin is a novel based on one of the worst tornadoes in the history of the country. On April 5, 1936 an F5 tornado flattened Tupelo, Mississippi killing more than two hundred people – not counting an unknown number of black citizens – one third of Tupelo’s population, who were not included in the official casualty figures but whose homes and lives were equally destroyed by the storm.

The story revolves around two families, one black and one white, whose lives are inextricably bound through a traumatic event. Dovey Grand’homme is an African American washwoman who takes in the laundry of white folks around town and as such she is privy to some of the intimacies of their lives. One of those families, the McNabb’s have a teenage son who rapes and impregnates Dovey’s granddaughter, Dreama, resulting in the birth of a light skinned baby named Promise. The McNabb’s have a new baby at their home as well and when the tornado strikes both Promise and Tommy are lost in the storm. As Dovey Grand’homme and the teenage McNabb daughter, Jo search for their missing family members, Gwin reveals the disparity and injustice caused by the town’s racial divide.

Gwin does a remarkable job of moving the plot forward at a clip while revealing the backstories of the two women as they search for the missing babies. Hopes rise and fall as the sun sets and darkness descends on a town collectively mourning. It’s a stark reminder that grief knows no color, that loss transcends class, but that man’s inhumanity to man even in the midst of a natural disaster remains constant. Minrose Gwin’s strength is in developing characters that we come to care about, in spite of their flaws. Both Jo and Dovey are tenacious and fierce and when the two women find themselves in a biblical tug of war, love and truth win out.

I recommend Promise to fans of Southern historical fiction. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE by Sonia Purnell is billed as the never-before-told story of the American spy who changed the course of World War 2. You might imagine a James-bond like figure at the center of this true life story, but Virginia Hall was one of the first women to be recruited by the British Special Operations Executive to run a resistance campaign against the Nazi’s in occupied France during World War II. This is remarkable for several reasons, one being that she was a woman during a period of time when women’s work was relegated to the kitchen and the home and two, she had lost the lower part of her leg in a hunting accident and wore a prosthesis.

Virginia hailed from a once wealthy Baltimore family and her mother wanted nothing more for her than for her to marry well to buoy the family fortune. She attended Radcliff and Barnard, and finished her education in Europe where she traveled and became proficient in several languages. She wanted to serve in the foreign service, but time and again she was relegated to the secretarial pool.

Rebellious by nature, Virginia eschewed convention. As a young woman, she hunted, skinned her own game, rode horses bareback and once wore a bracelet of live snakes to school. The life of a spy suited her and she became one of the most important SOE officers, the only civilian woman in the Second World War to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, for extraordinary heroism against the enemy. It was a rough go at the beginning, with male agents pushing  back against her authority, but soon she was running five companies of 400 spies, coordinating munitions drops, training agents in subterfuge, and constantly changing her appearance and her location to avoid arrest, certain torture, and death. The Gestapo considered her the most dangerous of all the Allied spies.

Purnell meticulously researched the book, scouring archives for long lost documents, reading correspondence, and interviewing Virginia’s niece. The narrative is dense, full of timelines, facts, and the names and code names of Virginia’s operatives who were often, to her great frustration, ill-suited to the work and reckless, putting herself and others at great risk. The book reads like an adventure story, and Virginia’s winning personality, charm, ability to change her appearance – and most of all her complete fearlessness – left an indelible mark on the course of history. Following the war, Virginia was one of the first females hired by the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency.

I highly recommend A Woman of No Importance for fans of World War II literature. You might also watch for Erika Robuck’s forthcoming novel, The Invisible Woman, a fictionalized account of Virginia Hall’s life due out in February.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

AMERICAN GOSPEL will be out in October and  is Lin Enger’s third novel. The plot revolves around the apocalyptic vision of an old man whose message resonates with a nation in turmoil. Like his other novels, Undiscovered Country and High Divide, AMERICAN GOSPEL flawlessly weaves together personal stories of fractured families with historical events resulting in a satisfying, yet surprising resolution.

Enoch suffers a sudden cardiac death and rebirth and in the moments suspended between life and death, he has a revelation from God. The end of the world is coming. He preaches the word to his congregation and the media eats it up.  Like wildfire it goes – gathering the lost and dispossessed from throughout the land to the Last Days Ranch; Enoch’s small farm on a lake in the center of the northern forest has been renamed for the imminent Rapture, the day that God will gather his saints together and they will rise like steam into the heavens. In his dream state, Enoch believes that God has set the date for August 19, 1974, just ten days after the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Set in a time not unlike our own, the nation’s soul is at stake, and Enoch has a way out (which just happens to be . . . up).

Amongst those who gather at the Last Days Ranch, are Enoch’s estranged son, Peter, Peter’s high school girlfriend, Melanie, now a famous movie actress, and their child, born to Peter and Melanie in their youth and put up for adoption. Melanie is a magnet for the media and Enoch does not discourage them. Enoch and his farmhand, Victor, clear land for tents, install showers and porta potties, and prepare for the ever-growing population of believers and curiosity seekers coming to the ranch. As the day draws near, Enoch seeks to reconcile his flawed family and deliver them to God during the Rapture.

Enger is wise in the ways of father and son relationships, and he can spin a mean yarn. The ending is so perfectly rendered – and surprising – that you will want to read it again and again.

I recommend AMERICAN GOSPEL for fans of Gilead by Marilyn Robinson and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Listen to my interview with Lin Enger on Superior Reads at 7:00 pm on October 22 and online at WTIP.org.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

It’s 1999, Y2K is looming, and the country is a little on edge. The people at the Rose of Sharon Church are preparing for the Apocalypse. So begins Thomas Maltman’s newest novel, due out in October, THE LAND.

Lucien Swenson, recovering from an auto accident, drops out of college and sets out to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his missing lover, Maura, who vanished along with money stolen from the bank where they both worked. His search brings him to the Rose of Sharon, a white supremacist church deep in the wilderness, where Maura’s husband is the pastor. The congregants have stockpiles of guns and have retreated to their remote land in preparation for the end times.

Like his first two novels, The Night Birds and Little Wolves, the landscape in The Land is evocative – ravens falling from the sky, koi fish frozen in a pond, winter in a wild place, and a mysterious stranger on the doorstep – all of these things setting a stark, bleak backdrop for the end of the world. Lucien Swenson is young, naïve in matters of love and relationships, conflicted about his own family, and searching not just for the woman he loves, but for a life he could love.

There’s a lot at stake in Maltman’s THE LAND – will Lucien be able to infiltrate the Rose of Sharon and maintain his integrity? Can a soul in search of meaning unwittingly find it in a corrupt religion? These questions, dear reader, are the ingredients of a page turner.

I recommend THE LAND for fans of Cormac McCarthy and Larry Watson. Listen to my interview with Thomas Maltman on Superior Reads on September 24 at 7:00 pm or online at wtip.org.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Some books are meant to be re-read, and it seems that for me the time was now to reread Eva Hoffman’s After Such Knowledge: Where Memory of the Holocaust Ends and History Begins. With everything going on in the world today, with global politics tipping right and an election bearing down on us, reading it again was a poignant reminder of that old trope, we must remember and understand history or we are destined to repeat it.

In her last book, Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman showed us what it was like to experience the self-absorbed me-generation of 1960s America as an adolescent emigrant from war-torn Krakow, Poland. In After Such Knowledge, Hoffman reveals her outsider’s perspective once more, only this time as a second generation Holocaust survivor.

Hoffman asks fellow survivors, readers and herself, “What meanings does the Holocaust hold for us today—and how are we going to pass on those meanings to subsequent generations?” As the age of living memory nears its end, sixty years after the Shoah, the legacy—and the responsibility for passing on its moral, historical and psychological implications—is being handed down to the second generation.

Hoffman’s parents survived the Holocaust in what was then the Polish part of the Ukraine with the help of neighbors, but their entire families perished. One of the most poignant moments in the book is when the author finally meets the family who saved her parents’ lives.
Hoffman’s meditation is a dense narrative that interweaves Freudian thought, theories on the transmission of trauma, historical accounts of the Holocaust and other genocides, with her personal stories of loss, restoration and forgiveness. In order to grieve and move on, she says reflecting back Freudian theory, “you have to know what you have lost.” And “transferred loss” is what the children of survivors inherit.

At the end of the book, Hoffman answers her initial question, by saying, “If we do not want to betray the past—if we want to remain ethical beings and honor our covenant with those who suffered—then moral passion needs to be supplanted by moral thought, by an incorporation of memory into our consciousness of the world.” And it is this final thought that makes this book exigent among not only Holocaust literature, but all of literature, for it addresses the extensive implications of atrocity.

When Scott Carpenter moved his family from Minnesota to Paris, the cultural chasm was deep and wide. Never mind that he was fluent in her language and literature, there were certain proclivities of her nature that had to be experienced to be fully understood. Welcome to the hilarious world chronicled in Scott Carpenter’s memoir, French Like Moi, A Midwesterner in Paris, where an errand to a cheese shop becomes a lecture on cows; a remodeling project must be delayed until a neighbor dies; and a friend’s Coq Au Vin becomes fodder for a more palatable Americanized version, one that doesn’t involve offal.

Shortly after moving into his new neighborhood, the street in front of Carpenter’s apartment became a construction zone.

“Men in blue coveralls unloaded sheets of corrugated metal and built a work enclosure the size of our apartment, as tightly wrapped as a Christo installation.”

No one knew what they were doing or seemed to care. He quickly realized that his neighborhood, in the southeast section of town, held little of the romance or glitter of the postcard Paris with which most tourists are familiar. Similarly, the residents were real people and he frequently found himself stepping over vagrants or beggars to get to his favorite shops. Yet, when he reported one beggar to one of the bakery ladies, she shrugged it off.

“The French tolerance for the scruffy and unhinged of the world hadn’t entirely eluded me. Paris is unforgiving of small social infractions, but once you cross a certain threshold, almost any eccentricity can be pardoned – sort of the way that, in the US, petty thieves get thrown in prison but the more ambitious ones are put in charge of hedge funds.”

In France, students are set upon a regimented program of learning. It seemed ridiculous to the French that American students were given so many choices, when they were yet uneducated. When one of Carpenter’s friends asked him the best way to teach an incoming group of American students, he advised him to make his presentation more interactive. American students, compared to their French counterparts, have less tolerance for facts. They want to participate in discussions. The difference, as Carpenter paints it, is the difference between a pointillist Seurat and an impressionistic Monet.

Life in the City of Light wasn’t all glitter and gold. Parisians had their share of twenty-first century problems. It seemed terrorism showed no favoritism. Due to several events in recent years, Parisians were forced to open their bags for inspection before entering a shopping center and armed military strolled through the parks on the alert for terrorist activity. While we’ve come to associate terroristic experiences with American culture, they were also happening in France.

“The difference was, in Paris people got depressed, while in the US they got angry. Americans were buying guns in record numbers . . . In the States people don’t like to sit on their hands. They’d rather sit on a crate of ammunition.”

From the mundane to the evocative, in the end Carpenter’s essays point to our shared humanity. I recommend Scott Dominic Carpenter’s French Like Moi for fans of Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

THE STREET is the heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young, black, single mother trying to raise her son on the streets of Harlem. First published in 1946, THE STREET was Ann Petry’s debut novel and was the first book by a female author to sell over a million copies. THE STREET is as resonant today as it was in 1946.

Lutie Johnson takes a job as a live-in domestic for a white family in Connecticut and can only afford to come home twice a month to visit her young son, Bub, and her unemployed husband. When she discovers her husband cheating on her, she leaves him, and she and Bub move into a fourth-floor apartment in Harlem. She takes a new job but is barely able to make ends meet. When she is offered an opportunity to sing at a casino owned by a white man, Junto, she jumps at the chance, even though the job means that she must leave Bub alone in the apartment at night. She has dreams of rising out of poverty and leaving Harlem behind. At every turn, Lutie is taken advantage of by both black and white men. Boots, the manipulative band leader; Junto, the casino owner who won’t pay her; and Jones, the superintendent of her building who fondles her clothing while she’s out, all desire her and think she’s an easy mark. But Junto is perhaps the most dangerous because of his position of power.

“In every direction, anywhere one turned there was always the implacable figure of a white man blocking the way, so that it was impossible to escape.”

When Jones attacks her in the hallway, he’s interrupted by Mrs. Hedges, the first-floor resident who runs a brothel out of her apartment. Mrs. Hedges warns Jones not to mess with Lutie because she essentially belongs to Junto, who owns the apartment building. Jones is hellbent on revenge and implicates Bub in a criminal act to get back at Lutie. Bub is taken to a children’s shelter and Lutie is convinced that he’ll be sent to reform school and never escape the poverty of Harlem.

We can feel the hopelessness of Lutie’s situation. She is caught in a cycle of poverty and the walls created by racism, classism, and sexism begin to close in on her.

“The men stood around and the women worked. The men left the women and the women went on working and the kids were left alone . . . They would not stay in the house after school because they were afraid in the empty, silent, dark rooms. And they should have been playing in wide stretches of green park and instead they were in the street. And the street reached out and sucked them up . . . the women work because the white folks give them jobs . . . the women work because for years now the white folks haven’t liked to give black men jobs that paid enough for them to support their families.”

Petry’s voice is distinctive and the motivation of her characters is intelligible. The street is the real antagonist in the novel – a living thing hellbent on destroying its inhabitants through deprivation or exploitation. The street takes mothers away from their children as they go to and from their domestic jobs. The street is a playground for their unattended children, leaving them vulnerable to nefarious people and schemes.

“Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lynch mobs.” Petry writes.

For Lutie, there is no escape. She is hemmed in on every side by predatory men and exploitive employers, by lack of opportunity and entrenched bias. There will be no happy endings for Lutie Johnson. She will leave Harlem, but not in the way that she had imagined.

I recommend THE STREET for fans of Richard Wright’s NATIVE SON and Colson Whitehead’s THE NICKEL BOYS. Add THE STREET to your antiracism library and discuss it with your book club.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Once a pregnant sixteen-year-old incarcerated in the Minnesota juvenile justice system, Carolyn Holbrook went on to found SASE: The Write Place, and now leads More Than a Single Story, a series of panel discussions and community conversations for people of color, indigenous writers, and art activists. In a series of essays both heartrending and inspiring, TELL ME YOUR NAMES AND I WILL TESTIFY traces her path from her troubled youth to her leadership positions in the Twin Cities literary community.

Throughout these essays, Carolyn’s indomitable spirit shines through, lighting the way for others to follow. As the executive director of SASE, Carolyn made space for others to discover the incredibly healing power of a life lived in the arts; a place for remembering and telling stories that might have been lost; a place for acknowledging how important our stories are to who and how we become; a place to learn that stories can serve as both a bridge and a ladder.

As a young mother of five, Holbrook found the courage to flee an abusive relationship and raise her children on her own. Living in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis, she found community and a sense of purpose. She rented a typewriter, put an ad in the Minnesota Daily, and started a secretarial service. She taught her two oldest children, only in elementary school at the time, how to answer her business line and proofread. From this humble starting place, she went on to establish writer’s workshops, earned a PhD at the age of fifty-eight, and became a college professor and art activist.

Confronted by racism, both subtle and audacious, she persevered. She inspired students, regardless of their race, class, or age to write their own stories. As a mother, she helped her daughter leave an abusive relationship, stood by her son through his own years of incarceration, and as a grandmother envisioned a world where her granddaughters could develop a strong sense of self and personal freedom.

In her prologue, Holbrook tells of her early forays into writing her story. As is often the case, she faced the critic and the muse. They are the voices of her maternal aunts, she writes. One sitting on her left shoulder, shaking her finger and saying, “Now don’t you go stirring things up,” and the other on her right shoulder, who says, “Don’t hold back, child. Someone out there needs to hear what you have to say.” Fortunately for us, she listened to her muse.

TELL ME YOUR NAMES AND I WILL TESTIFY will be released in August by University of Minnesota Press and is available now for preorders. It is a timely read as we examine systemic racism and work for change. The book is available to read for free online through August 31 as part of University of Minnesota Press’s just released Reading for Racial Justice Collection. More information about that collection and how to access it can be found here: https://manifold.umn.edu/projects/project-collection/racial-justice.

Carolyn will host a virtual launch on August 12, register at https://www.eventbrite.com/o/university-of-minnesota-press-10685993984. She can be found at www.carolynleeholbrook.com.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interview with Carolyn on Thursday, July 23 at 7:00 pm on www.wtip.org.

Holly George-Warren is a seasoned journalist and biographer and her biography of Janis Joplin, JANIS, HER LIFE AND MUSIC is one of the best rock and roll biographies I’ve read in years. Through interviews with friends, family, former band members, and other musicians George-Warren helps us to understand the enormously talented, but deeply conflicted, Janis Joplin.

Spanning her early years in Port Arthur, Texas, where as a bright student she skipped a grade and endured relentless bullying from her fellow students, to the birth of Big Brother and the Holding Company and the painful break with them as she outgrew them musically, to the eventual launch of the Kozmic Blues Band, George-Warren gives us a glimpse of the inner life of the tormented artist through letters home to her family and diary entries.

“I never seemed to be able to control my feelings, to keep them down . . . when you feel that much, you have super-horrible downs. I’d run away, freak out, go crazy . . . “ Janis wrote.

More than anything, except perhaps fame, Janis desired the love and acceptance of her family. Her father, an engineer, took Janis to the library weekly as a youngster and engaged with her intellectually, but after her brother was born, he spent less time with her. Her mother, a deeply religious former church soloist, didn’t approve of Janis’s art, clothing, or music. Her parents’ and classmates’ rejection left deep wounds, but also fueled her rebellion. Openly bi-sexual, , Janis had difficulty forming any lasting relationship and soon developed a drug and alcohol addiction. After leaving Texas for California with a summer in New York, her musical career started to take off, but she returned home to kick an addiction to methamphetamine. Once home she enrolled in college and became engaged to her boyfriend Peter de Blanc, writing him letters filled with dreams of domesticity. But de Blanc turned out to be a conman and a liar and after months of being put off, she finally broke it off him, refocusing on her music. Her parents wanted her to finish college and have a more reliable career.

“ . . . although I envy many aspects of being a student and living at home, I guess I have to keep trying to be a singer,” she wrote in a letter home. “Weak as it is, I apologize for being so just plain bad to the family. I realize that my shifting values don’t make me very reliable and that I’m a disappointment and, well, I’m just sorry.”

A huge fan of Bessie Smith and Otis Redding, Janis studied their voices and techniques and worked hard to develop her own, finally hitting it big at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967. As Janis developed her talent, learning to produce as well, she began to outgrow her band Big Brother. But her loyalties ran deep; the band was a surrogate family and she resisted leaving them. As Janis was recognized more and more as a star, and the main attraction when band performed, resentments started to build within the group. By the summer of 1968 there was so much animosity among the band members, that Janis left and formed the Kozmic Blues Band.

Janis continued to grow as a musician, but was plagued by anxiety – something her father referred to as the Saturday Night Swindle – if she got out of Port Arthur, things would get better; if she got married, things would get better; if she became a famous singer, things would get better – but things never got better. Nothing seemed to bring lasting happiness. She became increasingly dependent on alcohol and drugs to numb her pain, eventually shooting up heroin.

She met David Niehaus on a beach in Brazil during a three-month hiatus after trying to come clean, and they fell in love. But Janis wasn’t willing to give up her career and he wanted to travel the world, so the two parted, hoping that eventually they would find their way back to each other. On October 4, at the age of 27 years old, Janis died of a heroin overdose. In her mailbox at the hotel, was a letter from Niehaus, “Sure would dig it if you were here . . . if you can come for a few weeks or a few years . . . really miss ya. Things aren’t the same alone . . . Love ya, Mama, more than you know.”

Janis had finally succumbed to the Saturday Night Swindle.

Holly George-Warren’s JANIS HER LIFE AND MUSIC, was particularly enjoyable as an audiobook. Nina Arianda does a masterful job of capturing Janis’s Texas twang, as well as her cackling laugh. When she reads Janis’s letters home, her longing is palpable. I highly recommend JANIS HER LIFE AND MUSIC for fans of Patty Smith’s JUST KIDS.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota http://www.wtip.