Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

V.V. Ganeshananthan’s debut novel, LOVE MARRIAGE, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize and named as one of the best books of the year by THE WASHINGTON POST. Her sophomore novel, BROTHERLESS NIGHT was released this month and is most certainly going to be on my list of favorite books of 2023.

Set during the early years of Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war, and based on sixteen years of research, BROTHERLESS NIGHT is an unflinching look at the cost of war to civilians caught in the middle.

The book opens in 1981 in Jaffa; Sixteen-year-old Shashi wants to become a doctor but her plans are upended as a vicious civil war overtakes Sri Lanka. The political becomes personal as Sashi’s family and friends are split apart by warring loyalties. When two of her brothers and a childhood friend join the Tamil Tigers, whose violent ideology has dire consequences for her family and community, Sashi is recruited to work in their field hospital at night, while continuing her studies by day. After the Tigers murder one of her favorite teachers, and Indian “peacekeepers” enter the conflict, Sashi joins another professor and her husband to document human rights violations as a mode of civil disobedience. It is a dangerous endeavor that launches Sashi down a path from which she cannot return.

“The story is already unbearable, but now you must shift how you see. Widen your lens, stand farther away, and see who the Tigers have left out of the picture, see who profits from the deaths of the ordinary people,” Sashi tells us.

There are plenty of villains in BROTHERLESS NIGHT, but as all fiction writers understand, both villain and hero can co-exist in one being. Though the Tamil Tigers were born of discrimination and persecution, they wrought their own violent justice, and the Indian “peacekeepers” perpetrated rapes and massacres on civilians. But out of the rubble, as is so often the case in war, there is a faithful remnant of civilians, like Sashi and her professor, who risk their lives to document injustice and give voice to the voiceless.

BROTHERLESS NIGHTS is an engrossing and heartrending read, and Sashi is a heroine for the ages. Ganeshananthan writes brilliantly about a complex subject, casting a spotlight on the forgotten heroes and victims of war.

Listen to my interview with V.V. Ganeshananthan on Superior Reads on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais on February 23 at 7:00 pm and February 25 at 6:00 am, or stream it from the web at www.wtip.org.

I first became aware of author Rachael Hanel when I read her memoir, We’ll be the Last Ones to Let You Down, Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter. Her newest project, out this month from University of Minnesota Press is a biography of Camilla Hall – NOT THE CAMILLA WE KNEW, ONE WOMAN’S PATH FROM SMALL-TOWN AMERICA TO THE SYMBIONESE LIBERATION ARMY. It’s a shocking portrait of a pastor’s daughter from St. Peter, Minnesota, whose life took a radical turn when she joined the SLA, ultimately dying in a shootout with the Los Angeles Police in May 1974.

Hanel spent a decade researching Camilla’s life – reading letters written home to her parents, interviewing friends and family members, and consulting psychologists who gave her insight into Camilla’s radicalization. Born the second child of four to a Lutheran pastor and his wife, the family tragically lost three children to separate illnesses or disease, leaving Camilla an only child.

After serving as missionaries in Africa, the family, at this point with Camilla and one sister still living, moved back to Minnesota. Camilla attended college at Gustavus Adolphus and the University of Minnesota and started her professional life as a social worker in the Twin Cities and Duluth, before ultimately leaving for California to pursue life as an artist. There, she met her lover and the woman who introduced her to the mission of the SLA as it was just beginning.

When Camilla’s prospects of supporting herself with her art began to flag, she went to work for the park system as one of a small handful of women, eventually organizing with other women to force the system into more equitable hiring and compensation practices. But Camilla and the other women were hired as temporary workers and found that they had little bargaining power. When that job ended, Camilla, rootless and looking for a meaningful cause to put her energy toward, joined the SLA. When the SLA kidnapped Patricia Hearst, and robbed a bank, Camilla’s face appeared on wanted posters all over the US.

Hanel’s research is robust – and gives her enough information to speculate about Camilla’s motivation to become involved with the SLA. A compelling read about domestic terrorism and how individuals are radicalized.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on Superior Reads the fourth Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at http://www.wtip.org.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is perhaps one of her finest books – and most certainly one of my favorite books of 2022. Though it’s not an easy read – think abuse, neglect, orphans, a corrupt foster care system, and the Opiod Crisis – it is an important one.

In an interview, Barbara Kingsolver said that she wanted to call attention to the people in her community, in Appalachia – a flyover place associated with hillbillies, mining, despondency, and more recently, targets for the drug industry in the Opiod crisis. She wanted to put faces to the caricatures and real stories to the stereotypes that have provided fodder for the media. She has a worthy character in Demon Copperhead. He’s likable – a character who has all the best intentions to live the best life, but none of the opportunities. To say that Demon Copperhead is down-on-his luck is akin to saying that David Copperfield was having a bad day. And Kingsolver’s novel was inspired by that Dickens’ masterpiece. In fact, she notes that while touring Dickens’ home, she felt his encouragement to write the book – one that had been percolating in her head since the beginning of the Opiod crisis. And she began that day, penning the opening sentences while sitting at Dickens’ desk.

Born to a drug-addicted sixteen-year-old mother, Demon is cursed from birth – born onto the kitchen floor of his mother’s trailer with the amniotic sack still intact – he at least is assured by old wives tales, to not have to suffer the fate of drowning, as his father has before his birth. Small consolation for Demon, who experiences abuse at the hands of a stepfather, eventually being placed in a series of nightmarish foster homes that are in the system for either the money or free labor.

But Kingsolver likes her readers – and she wanted to end the book on a hopeful note. In a final transition to a dream foster home with the coach of the high school football team, Demon excels at football, until an injury and an incompetent doctor usher him into an addiction to Opiods. But the hope lies therein – what didn’t kill him, made him stronger.  By this point in the book, dear reader, we know that Demon is resilient, he’s Teflon, he’s going to suffer, and the people he loves are not all going to make it out alive, but Demon, Demon is going to be all right.

Demon Copperhead is a propulsive read – an unflagging and intense gaze into the heart of the people victimized by big Pharma and the Opiod Crisis. Kingsolver never disappoints.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews the fourth Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais, MN or stream them from the web at http://www.wtip.org.

In The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself: Racial Myths and Our American Narratives, David Mura lays bare the historical and fictional narratives that white America tells itself to justify and maintain white supremacy. Beginning with the birth of the nation and spanning the murders of black men and women by police officers, Mura weaves together history, literature, and his own personal experiences to show the ugly underbelly of America … where myth replaced true history and whites propagated false narratives.

Some whites, including some of our elected officials, are so invested in this false narrative that they try to influence what can and cannot be taught in our schools. As an example, he cites Arkansas Tom Cotton responding to curriculum based on the 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, and legislation he introduced prohibiting federal funds from being made available to teach the curriculum in elementary and secondary schools.

We often associate racism with conservative views – idolizing Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Robert E. Lee, for example, and Sarah Palin’s view that “our founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery” – when in fact they were slave holders themselves. Mura points out that liberals are guilty as well – many have difficulty recognizing the racism of Abraham Lincoln through their myopic view of the slave-emancipating Lincoln.

“When a society (but for a few dissident members) decides that it does not feel troubled, how can healing even begin?” Mura asks.

Mura also examines racism through the lens of literature, which is one of the ways that racist views are propagated. As both a writer and a critic, his examples are thoughtful and convincing. He references White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination, by Jess Row who contends that white agency and privilege lead to the deracination of history and literature. White novelists Marilynne Robinson and Don DeLillo, and memoirist Annie Dillard, omit historical elements that involve race and ethnicity, sidestepping those narratives for ones that are more comfortable, he says. Not including BIPOC narratives is a “fantasy of deracination” and eliminates BIPOC individuals from the national narrative. Instead of writing white, authors of all colors should include the diversity of our actual existence, rather than remaining comfortable with their distorted world. Mura contrasts white writers against writers of color who, in order to succeed, must “always be aware of white people, their presence and power, however much these people of color might wish otherwise”.

The central theme of all the essays in The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself, is that white America has until recently been the only voice representing our past – in literature, in education, and in politics. Because of that, BIPOC stories have remained nonexistent for many white Americans, who continue to propagate false narratives to maintain a flattering portrait of themselves.

Mura ends his book with two essays one on the murder of George Floyd and the other on the murder of Daunte Wright by white police officers, as well as an appendix entitled, “A Brief Guide to Structural Racism.” Why does the murder of Black men (and women) by police keep happening? No amount of remorse will change that – only a concerted effort by white people to dissolve the myths and false narratives of their creation and fully acknowledge the stories and experiences of our BIPOC citizens.

The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself: Racial Myths and our American Narratives by David Mura should be required reading in all high school and college classrooms – and for all Americans. Mura presents a cohesive, comprehensive, and uncompromising look into how white stories about race erase our true historical narrative and foster racism in the present.

Shannon Gibney is an award-winning author of books of all kinds — from novels to anthologies to essays to picture books. She writes for adults, children, and everyone in-between. The through-line in all her work is stories that may have previously gone untold. What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color, an anthology published by the University of Minnesota Press, exemplifies this approach, as does Gibney’s most recent novel, Dream Country, which was published by Dutton in 2018. Her newest book, released by Dutton this month, is billed as a speculative memoir, the provocative title is THE GIRL I AM, WAS, AND NEVER WILL BE, A SPECULATIVE MEMOIR OF TRANSRACIAL ADOPTION.

Gibney writes that the only way for an adoptee to tell her story, is to embrace that there are no singular truths. There are, she says, no stories without holes. For Gibney, there were many holes. Adopted by a white family at birth, Gibney’s birth mother was Irish-American and she’d had a brief and tumultuous relationship with her African American birth father. As a mixed-Black transracial adoptee, Gibney decided that the best vehicle to tell her story was with two different timelines bridged by a mysterious portal. In one timeline, she is Erin Powers, the name her birth mother gave her. In another, she is Shannon Gibney, a transracial adoptee in search of information about her birth parents and her identity. The portal between these two lives is where Gibney meets her birth father, who passed away before she could meet him, when she was six years old.

The memoir is interspersed with letters, documents, photographs, medical records, and interviews. The facts of these are juxtaposed against a time-traveling Erin/Shannon who meets her father in the portal, if every so briefly. It is a longing made more real through facts provided by family members and her own ingenious imagination.         

Along the way, Gibney reads books, listens to podcasts, watches films, and discovers websites and organizations that support adoptees and she shares these in a list of resources at the end of the book.

Transracial adoption is never tidy, and cannot be encapsulated in an individual story, but Gibney does a masterful job of helping the reader understand the complexities of identity and the machinations of the adoption industrial complex. A writer with courage and heart, Gibney lays bare her experience for the benefit of us all.

Listen to my interview with Shannon Gibney on January 26 at 7:00 pm and January 28 at 6:00 am on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at www.wtip.org.

I read so many great books this year, but these were among my favorites. My favorite interviews were with Dani Shapiro (I’m a big fan!), Jane Smiley (can you say Pulitzer Prize!), and Staci Lola Drouillard (because I love her book and her aunts and her perspective!) Check out my blog (a new webpage coming soon!) http://www.superiorreads.blog where my reviews and interviews live, as well as the WTIP archives for the recorded interviews and reviews.

Looking forward to a new year of reading — I already have a favorite for 2023 (so far!) — listen to my interview with V.V. Ganeshananthan on February 23 at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais (or stream it at http://www.wtip.org) about her novel, Brotherless Night, coming soon (February) to a bookstore near you!

In a guest blog post for Barnes & Noble’s BN Reads, Marcie Rendon wrote that the idea for her newest mystery Sinister Graves, was born in the late 1990s at a small cemetery plot in Idaho. On a road trip, she pulled over to see the graves of three children and their parents – the children all dying before they were two years old, and she wondered about how the children might have died. Her newest mystery in the Cash Blackbear series, Sinister Graves, places Cash smack dab in the middle of such a mystery.

On the dedication page to Sinister Graves, Rendon has included the #stolenchildren and #mmiw. The book was conceived long before the mass graves of children were discovered at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada in 2021, but she has dedicated the book to the memory of the children as well as the countless missing and murdered indigenous women.

In 1970 in the Red River Valley of Minnesota, a snowmelt has sent floodwaters down to the fields of the valley, dragging the body of an unidentified Native woman into the town of Ada. Cash Blackbear, Rendon’s 19-year-old Ojibwe protagonist has been enlisted on several cases to assist Sheriff Wheaton, her guardian, on his cases. Her sixth sense – the ability to see spirits and situations in the past and the future – come in handy when there are few physical clues. In this newest case, the only clue is a hymn written in English and Ojibwe tucked inside the bra of a dead woman. Following her gut and this lead, Cash returns to the White Earth Reservation, a place she called home before being placed in white foster homes off the reservation. There, she finds two small graves in the yard of a rural Pentecostal church, and she suspects that the pastor and his wife may be able to tell her more about the young souls buried there.

Cash is one of my favorite anti-heroes – she’s a brash, beer-drinking, pool-playing Ojibwe woman who has aged out of the foster care system. In this newest installment, Cash is still attending junior college. She still smokes like a stack, but she’s less hell-bent on her own destruction. Wheaton’s newest young charge, Geno, introduces her to Jonesy, a Native woman who I hope will show up in future installments. Jonesy knows a lot about Cash, though she’s never met her before. She gives Cash a bag of Indian tobacco and counsels her to put some out from time to time. For someone who was removed from her culture and the elders who could have taught her, Jonesy may provide Cash with a bridge back to her Native roots.

“Keep the pouch in your glove box. Put some tobacco out when you’re gonna take off some place. You’ll be fine.”

Sinister Graves confronts the clash between Christianity and the misuse of power against Native Americans. It’s another heart-pounding mystery in the Cash Blackbear series from Marcie Rendon – there was not going to be any sleep for me until I turned the last page – but it’s more than just an engrossing read.

As Marcie Rendon writes, “Sometimes reality is too heavy to comprehend, but by using our creative energy, our creative life source, stories can be told in ways that are more palatable to the soul. Sometimes what is incomprehensible can be understood when it is fictionalized. In this way, not only can creative writing be a form of activism to create awareness and bring about change, but it can also be a form of healing. It can be a way for individuals to touch the flame, feel the heat, but not become burned.”

THE RELATIONSHIP BOOK by Rachel Awes, MA, LP, is billed as a soulful, transformational, and artistic inventory of your connective life — and it does not disappoint. I came to this book from a place of deep loss, my mother had just died, and I could not imagine what my life could or would look like without my life’s most significant and influential relationship.

Rachel Awes is a psychologist whose therapeutic practice focuses on self-esteem, affirmation, and creative play. As I worked my way through THE RELATIONSHIP BOOK, chapter by chapter, I felt a warm blanket of love envelope me. Rachel delves into all the facets of our relationships – the difficult ones and the carefree ones – our relationships with other people, yes, but also with community, with divinity, with animals, and with ourselves. Gratitude and acceptance are at the core of all these relationships, as well as living with intention and authenticity.

This page in particular hit hard, written from the perspective of a daughter sitting in that sacred moment with her mother before her death:

“I will wonder if my words have been kind enough, if I have conveyed enough empathy, listened enough, was present enough. I will hope to forgive myself generously for when I have fallen short and feel a peace wash over me for the moments my love has found a way forward. My (own) ending will be a nod to my beginning, when nearby loved ones searched for my ten fingers and toes. Only later it is I who will be doing the looking, for a beloved hand to hold and essential eyes to gaze into, and it is all that will matter.”

The Relationship Book is full of vibrant colors and images, thought-provoking quotes from Rachel’s clients (with permission, of course) and an invitation, always, always to “become the person you want to be with” so that all your relationships can flow from that place. Most of the time the faces she has drawn throughout the book don’t include eyes, noses, or mouths – they are “listening faces – drawn for you to see your own life in them.”

THE RELATIONSHIP BOOK is Rachel Awes’ fourth book and like the other three, it is an inspiring and whimsical look at all the possibilities of life, an illustrated personal inventory book that uses positive psychology to bring more love and joy into life.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews the fourth Thursday of every month on Superior Reads, WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream them from the web at http://www.wtip.org.

When author Anne-Marie Oomen’s mother was diagnosed with dementia and in need of more care, she was forced to confront her angst-ridden relationship with a mother whom she hadn’t much liked for most of her life. AS LONG AS I KNOW YOU; THE MOM BOOK recounts the struggle to help a mother who doesn’t want help by a daughter who would rather not. The result is a poetic, emotionally charged reckoning between mother and daughter, a year in which both women come to terms with their short-comings and resentments and develop a new kind of relationship.

When Oomen’s mother breaks her foot and it doesn’t heal properly, it sets the family on a new path – they must place their mother in a nursing home. On top of the physical issues, her mother also has Alzheimer’s. Her needs have become too overwhelming for the assisted living facility where she has lived. Oomen, as the eldest daughter, along with a sister Marijo, have power-of-attorney over their mother’s health care and she has signed an advanced directive that she should be given comfort care only. But what does that really mean to her mother, Oomen wonders? She asks her “Can you tell me what makes life worth living for you?” And her mother answers, “As long as I know you.” Her mother expresses that the most important thing to her is her relationship with her children and that if she ever got to a place where she did not recognize them, life would not be worth living.

Oomen learns as she goes. One day, in the facility where her mother lives, she witnesses another mother asking her daughter who she is – she does not recognize her own daughter any longer. But the daughter, patiently, lovingly, without regard to her own loss, asks her mother, “Who are you?” and answers for her, “You are Elizabeth and you are my mother.” Oomen writes,

“Today, I watched another adult daughter love her elder mother better than I imagined possible. I saw what a daughter could do, how a daughter might see the real question, might set aside her own need to be seen. I saw how it could be done, how a mother who had lost herself could be given back at least her name, led out of the desert of loss.”

There are many moments in AS LONG AS I KNOW YOU, that will be familiar to anyone who has been a caregiver of an elderly parent – the power struggles, the heart-wrenching decision making, and the unabashed tenderness and expressions of love that are unbound as a loved one faces the end.

As she cares for her mother, Oomen’s former anger, resentment, and frustration with her mother abate. She embraces her mother, and the time they have left, and in doing so, she saves herself.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on the fourth Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at http://www.wtip.org.

Colson Whitehead is the winner of two back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for his novels UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and THE NICKEL BOYS, both based on tragic histories – slavery and the murder of young black prisoners at a Florida reform school. His newest novel, out last year, HARLEM SHUFFLE, is the story of would-be entrepreneur, Ray Carney, who gets sidetracked into a heist or two too many. Set in 1959 during the Harlem Race Riots, HARLEM SHUFFLE is a parody of the modern crime novel. Where do you draw the line between a savvy business decision and criminal activity?

Ray is a family man with two kids and a wife and runs a furniture store in Harlem. He claims to be just a little bent, not crooked – selling a few pre-owned pieces of furniture and fencing the occasional piece of jewelry. His father was an actual criminal, and he learned the hard way what it’s like to have an absentee father. Ray and his cousin Freddie are close – raised like brothers – and someone has to keep an eye on him. Freddie pressures him into fencing jewelry from a heist at Theresa’s Hotel – the Waldorf of Harlem. From there, Ray is sucked deeper into a vortex of ambiguity. Who are the real criminals when the police are on the take? When his accountant father-in-law who disdains him, calling him a rug peddler and unworthy of his daughter, finds loopholes for his clients to avoid paying their taxes? What’s a guy to do to get ahead? Ray wants nothing more than to provide for his family, and dreams of moving to the West Side and Riverside Drive. Like the proverbial frog thrown into a cold pot, the heat under Ray rises so slowly that he has no clue until he’s cooked.

The action in HARLEM SHUFFLE is fast and furious and lends high comedy to the novel. Everyone is just trying to get by, after all, who can blame them? Whitehead has a way of making us think we’re looking through a window into another world with his novels, and then shifting the light so that we realize we’re looking in a mirror. But you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on Superior Reads the fourth Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at http://www.wtip.org.

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