Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

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.

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.

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