Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

I read five books on my recent vacation – five books that came to me by different means, whether through a book club or a publisher or a friend and they ALL dealt with women fighting for autonomy within patriarchal systems. Huh. I guess it’s a hot topic.

One of the books I read was Violeta by Isabel Allende. Told in first person, Violeta is sharing the story of her life with her grandson. And it was a long life. She’s one-hundred years old at the opening of the book in 2020. That means that her life has been bookended by two world-wide pandemics; she has witnessed the rise and fall of dictators, the subjugation of women to a system designed to entrench the patriarchy, countless wars and political machinations, and the battle for equal rights for women. That’s a lot of living.

Born in 1920, Violeta is the only daughter in a family with five sons. She lives in an unnamed country in South America. The family is wealthy; they can quarantine in their mansion during outbreak of the Spanish flu that kills so many others. Her father’s business practices are questionable and when the Great Depression hits, the family loses everything, and they are forced to retreat to a remote part of the country after her father commits suicide. Accompanied by a sickly mother, her brothers, and a couple of spinster aunts, it is there that Violeta comes of age. Her sheltered life is over. And yet, hardship becomes a blessing for Violeta. She transforms from a histrionic, spoiled girl into an independent and spirited young woman.

As Violeta matures, the family wants her to marry – but Violeta is not keen on the idea – although she is being courted by Fabian Schmidt-Enger, a German veterinarian. Violeta’s brother, Jose’ Antonio forms a business to build prefab houses and she moves to Sacramento to become his assistant. Eventually, Violeta succumbs to the inevitable and marries Fabian, the youngest son of a large family of German immigrants whose family does not like Violeta. Violeta describes the three years of her marriage to Fabian as “uneventful as life in a nunnery.” Then one day, Julian Bravo, a pilot and war hero literally falls into her life and they begin a passionate affair that ends her marriage to Fabian. But, of course, heroes are not without their flaws, and Julian Bravo has more than his fair share.

Allende covers a lot of territory, and the narrative moves along at a fast pace, but we never take a deep dive into any one period. The most moving scenes in the book involve Violeta’s relationships with her children: her troubled daughter who disappears after becoming addicted to heroin, and her son, a student dissident who flees the country rather than be arrested after a military coup.

It is amazing what we endure throughout our lifetimes, and within the sweep of Allende’s novel, this is true for Violeta’s life; she experiences global pandemics, economic collapse, female subjugation, domestic abuse, political upheaval, and a feminist awakening. I admired Violeta and her resolve to live outside of the box society wanted to put her in.

During a time when laws protecting a woman’s body autonomy are being threatened, reading Allende’s book reminds me that throughout history, women have exhibited great strength and resolve, and when banded together, are a force to be reckoned with.

Listen to my author interviews on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais and on line at http://www.wtip.org on the Fourth Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday at 6:00 am.

In her provocative novel, THE OTHER EINSTEIN, Marie Benedict examines the life of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric’. Born with a congenital hip defect, Mileva’s parents considered her damaged goods and not marriage material, so they redirected her to a life of scholarship. Mileva’s brilliant mind was discovered early in her life as she easily grasped complex mathematic concepts. Her father encouraged her to pursue her education, seeing that as her path forward in the world as a single woman.

Mileva was the only woman studying physics at the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic School, where she became close friends with several other women pursuing a nontraditional path. While there, she also met Albert Einstein, who won her over with promises to treat her as an equal in love and marriage.

When Mileva became pregnant with their first child, she was forced to drop out of school before receiving her degree. Mileva first conceived the theory of relativity after the death of the couple’s first child. Albert and Mileva wrote several important papers together – one that was the basis for the Nobel Prize-winning Theory of Relativity. But soon, Albert’s promises became empty, and his ambition drove him to remove Mileva’s name from the papers, claiming sole authorship. As Mileva became more immersed in her role as a mother and Albert began receiving professional recognition for his/their work, the marriage started to fall apart.

Mileva’s role as a wife and mother at the turn of the century made it nearly impossible for her to have any agency and pursue her earlier dreams, and soon she was eclipsed by Einstein’s enormous ego and profound callousness. What started as a promising partnership, deteriorated into an abusive relationship.

THE OTHER EINSTEIN is a sad commentary on love and marriage in the early nineteenth century. In this age of two steps forward one step back in equal rights for women, THE OTHER EINSTEIN is a reminder of how quickly gains can become losses. I recommend Marie Benedict’s THE OTHER EINSTEIN for fans of Paula McLain and Melanie Benjamin.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Kelly Barnhill’s first adult novel, WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS is a provocative fantasy that centers around an imaginary event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of wives and mothers sprouted wings and tails and took to the skies leaving a trail of fiery destruction in their wake. It was reportedly not the first Mass Dragoning, but it was the most recent, and each Mass Dragoning throughout history was subsequently followed by a Mass Forgetting. No one wanted to acknowledge what was happening; it was too frightening, too disquieting, and acknowledging what was happening threatened the stability of families and marriages throughout the land. It was better to forget.

When Alex Green’s beloved Aunt Marla transformed, she left behind an abusive husband, and unfortunately a young daughter, Beatrice. The family was not allowed to speak of it and in fact, Alex’s mother told her to forget her aunt ever existed and insisted that her cousin Beatrice was now her sister. Alex was taught to remain silent. She was taught not to upset the order of things. Alex loved her cousin/sister Beatrice more than anyone in the world, and that helped her to keep the silence, but still, she was very confused. Why did her aunt, a former airplane mechanic who married late in life, disappear and not her mother? Why was her father always working? And why was her mother, a brilliant mathematician compulsively tying knots all over the place?

When Alex entered high school, she was left alone to raise Beatrice; even after all the injustice heaped upon her, she still upheld her vow of silence. Rewriting history was invasive – starting in her home, then at her school, and eventually, within her. Fortunately for Alex, her neighborhood librarian took her under her wing and provided her with opportunities to study more than stenography and typing and envisioned a future for her that included a college degree.

As Beatrice grew, she became obsessed with dragons and the sheltered life that Alex had created for her was threatened. Alex would need to decide whether remaining silent was more dangerous to her and Beatrice’s well-being than embracing the truth.

Barnhill dedicated the book to Christine Blasey Ford, “whose testimony triggered this narrative.” It’s a propulsive read – one that begins with a slow burn and builds to a major conflagration. I could feel the women’s rage rise within me as I read until I felt that I, too, might explode, or dragon.

WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS is an evocative tale about gender, gender roles, and the politicization of history. Barnhill has written a cautionary tale about what happens when women are silenced and their human right to make their own choices is taken from them.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Kelly Barnhill on June 23 at 7:00 pm on WTIP.org 90.7 Grand Marais and on the web.

In the prologue to Staci Drouillard’s SEVEN AUNTS, she writes that her book is about the hidden lives of women: “Those who rarely speak out of turn and those who shout their truths to the sky, even though no one is paying attention.” But in truth, she says, “ … our grandmothers, mothers, and aunties have all committed great acts of heroism, devotion, and self-sacrifice so that the people they love might have a chance at being seen one day.” The aunties are a diverse group: German and English, Anishinaabe and French, born in the woods and born in farm country – but there is one thing they all have in common: a strength and resilience that was hard fought, paving the way for the next generation to make a different choice.

Drouillard gifts each of the aunts — Faye, Lila, Doreen, Gloria, Betty, Carol, and Diane – her very own chapter. Four the aunts are from her mother’s side and three are on her dad’s. Each of these remarkable women bore tragedy and hardship. They loved their families fiercely. They were a product of their time in some ways – taught to be invisible and to find self-worth through their families. Drouillard names this affliction the morbidity of motherhood, the symptoms including an insatiable desire to have children, and the belief that a woman’s value was directly proportional to the number of children she had.

Besides the stories of the aunts’ heroism and resilience, I loved Drouillard’s reference to her imaginary dictionary, in which she names various afflictions and defines them. For instance, chronic feminity is defined as a mental disorder exacerbated by 1970’s sitcoms and Olivia Newton John singalongs.  It is a noun defined as a “persistent and long-standing expectation that women look, dress, and speak consistently with society’s feminine ideal, secondarily defined as an assumption that a woman’s “primary role is to be pleasing to the masculine eye.”

Drouillard is transparent as she shares her family stories, but she is resolute in her determination to speak the truth. She likens our collective history to a river in which by speaking the truth about the past, trauma is set forever downstream. Telling the truth, she writes, is essential to our collective and long-term well-being. We no longer need to be prisoners to our past. We can live, learn, and be better.

“…every family has to learn to live with scars, both physical and emotional … we can either choose to try to hide them or we can use them as marks of courage and healing and find a way to live with them.”

Drouillard’s last chapter is entitled Coda and outlines seven lessons derived from her aunts’ lives, including the importance of empowering girls to embrace their independence, and affirming their worth as human beings.

Reading SEVEN AUNTS, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for these women and the author’s commitment to truth telling. Drouillard writes with such integrity. I cared deeply about the aunties, and I didn’t want to leave them. Extraordinary women leading ordinary lives; they lived in a world that did not recognize their contributions, but the lessons of their lives changed the world for future generations.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Staci Drouillard on August 25 at 7:00 pm on WTIP 90.7 Radio http://www.wtip.org.

There is a time in early adulthood when all you want to do is leave the familiar, boring, sheltered life of your parents and launch out into the world to make your own way. There is also a time, maybe when you realize that your childish dreams are just that, when you long to return to the familiar comforts of home. Jennifer Close, bestselling author of GIRLS IN WHITE DRESSES, THE SMART ONE, AND THE HOPEFULS, is a master at bringing her characters home, and does so with aplomb in her latest novel, MARRYING THE KETCHUPS.

Bud and Rose Sullivan founded the family restaurant, JP Sullivans (the most famous restaurant in Oak Park) in 1979, and in 2016, on the cusp of a great upheaval in American politics and in the midst of another angst-ridden go at the World Series by their beloved Chicago Cubs, Sullivan’s could still be depended upon to serve up comfort – sometimes in the form of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

In the span of two weeks, three astounding things happened: Bud died, the Cubs won the World Series, and Trump won the election.

“The world was a strange and heartbreaking place, and it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.”

Bud’s grandchildren, Gretchen, Jane, and Teddy were all in their thirties and settled into their adult lives. Teddy was the manager of The Cuckoo’s Nest Restaurant across town, a trendy bar/restaurant in the West Loop. Gretchen lived in New York and was the lead singer in a 90’s cover band, and her sister, Jane was living in Lake Forest with her husband and two small children. But just as the world tipped askew, so did the lives of Gretchen, Jane, and Teddy.

In the wake of Bud’s death, Teddy returned to manage Sullivan’s. He’d recently suffered through a breakup with his boyfriend, who was now engaged to another man.

When Gretchen discovered her boyfriend was having an affair with another bandmate, she used their breakup as an excuse to jump ship. The band was her dream, but they’d traded fame for fortune by becoming a wedding band. The worst part was the band was getting older, but their audience was getting younger. She needed to regroup, so she returned to Chicago and moved into the family apartment over the restaurant.

Her sister, Jane was outgrowing her suburban life in Lake Forest, where she found herself increasingly at odds with her conservative neighbors. When her husband, who had recently become obsessed with fitness and his phone, suggested they separate, Jane decided to move back to Oak Park, too.

The Sullivans were a close family, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into happily ever after. The apartment belonged to all the Sullivan’s equally. Bud and Rose intended it to be a landing pad for anyone who needed it – “a halfway house for messy lives.” Gretchen knew she had no right to be annoyed when Jane and her kids moved in with her, but she was.

Close’s characters are conflicted and complicated. That year, their lives were broken and their dreams dashed. Everything they knew to be true, suddenly wasn’t.

Teddy felt unappreciated – his family’s opinions about the restaurant were so big that sometimes he forgot that he had his own opinions. Gretchen felt like a failure – the boomerang child who returned to the family nest, dreams crushed, and as broke as when she left. Jane felt invisible, she’d been making herself small her entire adult life to accommodate everyone else’s overwhelming needs.

“Growing old isn’t the same as growing up,” Gretchen admitted. But having a safe place to land while you’re figuring out what your next gig is going to be, is pretty sweet, and recognizing the privilege that comes with that makes you grateful, and understanding that everything is always in a state of flux is comforting in its own way – especially when you’re in the downward rotation. For now, they were all safely tucked into the Sullivan armpit, but soon, they would embark on their next adventure.

As Close writes, it wasn’t the best year the Sullivan’s had ever had . . . but maybe it wouldn’t be their worst. Close writes about families with great humor and grace. Anyone who has worked in restaurants will relate to the “family meal” at the beginning of each shift, the messy process of combining half-empty bottles of ketchup to make something new and palatable for the next day’s customers, and the relationships that coalesce and dissolve in the frantic pace of restaurant culture.

I recommend MARRYING THE KETCHUPS for fans of character driven fiction, coming-of-age stories, and family dramas. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Debut novelist, Bonnie Garmus’s LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY is set in the early 1960’s – a period not particularly friendly or advantageous for women in the workplace. Protagonist Elizabeth Zott is the only female chemist on an all-male team at Hastings Research Lab. Hastings is not an equal-opportunity employer and her boss would rather relegate her to the secretarial pool or have her demoted to a lab tech, but first, he needs to learn more about her research.

There is one fellow scientist on staff who recognizes Elizabeth’s immense intelligence — her soul-supporter and lover, Calvin Evans. Everyone at Hastings is jealous of the unique bond between them and for a time everything seems to be going Elizabeth’s way. And then suddenly, nothing is going her way. She’s a single mother without a job.

Serendipitously, she is invited to host a cooking show on television. But like all things Elizabeth — it’s no ordinary cooking show – and women are eating it up because for the first time, no one is talking down to them. “Combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride,” she advises the women. Elizabeth is not just teaching them to cook – she’s teaching them to push the boundaries of convention, shake off the shackles of domesticity, and learn to understand the science behind cooking. It’s easily within their grasp. As she teaches them about chemical bonds (ionic, covalent, and hydrogen) she’s not just teaching them how to make their cakes rise – she’s teaching them how to rise up. Her fans are taking notes, and the men, especially the executive producer at KCTV, don’t like it. When he tries to assert his authority by sexually assaulting her in his office, Zott doesn’t miss a beat when he asks, “Who the hell do you think you are?” She calmly withdraws a freshly sharpened fourteen-inch chef’s knife from her purse and answers, “I’m Elizabeth Zott.” But he never hears her answer because he faints dead away.

Bonnie Garmus has created characters that mock convention. Elizabeth Zott defies authority, not on principal, but on practicality. She sees the world through safety goggles while her male counterparts just wish she’d put on the rose-colored glasses, form-fitting Donna-Reed dress, and sell the canned soup on Supper at Six. But everything in Elizabeth’s world boils down to science – including making her coffee at home with a Bunsen burner and turning her home kitchen into a lab. You’ll fall in love with her dog, Six-Thirty, one of the most astute and intelligent four-legged narrators in fiction today; Mad, her precocious daughter, who reads Nabokov at the age of five, and interrupts show and tell to ask her kindergarten teacher how she can join the Freedom Fighters in Nashville; and her friend and neighbor Harriet, whom after watching Elizabeth stand up to injustice, finds the courage to leave her alcoholic and abusive husband.

LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY was bought by Doubleday in a 16-bid auction, and production is in the works for an Apple TV series. If you love rooting for the underdog, are a defender of equal opportunity, and enjoy a laughable, highly readable, intelligent story to boot, you should run to your nearest bookstore for LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY. I highly recommend it for fans of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE and fans of literary fiction with strong female characters.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interview with Bonnie Garmus on April 28 on Superior Reads at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio, 9.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota or on the web at http://www.wtip.org.

Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility and a Gentleman in Moscow, is back with a blockbuster of a novel, The Lincoln Highway.

Eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson has been released early from the work house where he served time for involuntary manslaughter after punching a bully who fell and died. Emmett’s father has recently died and the family farm has been foreclosed. His eight-year-old brother Billy, a precocious lad of astounding intelligence, has been cared for by a neighbor until his return. Their mother abandoned the family long ago and Billy is keen to track her down in California after finding some postcards that she’d sent shortly after she left.

After a neighbor advises him to seek a fresh start, Emmett decides that he and Billy will travel to California in his Studebaker where he plans to build houses for an exploding population. Much to his chagrin, two of Emmett’s bunkmates from the workhouse show up and upend his best-laid plans. Duchess, a likeable and persuasive young man, albeit one with a shifting moral center, is the son of a vaudevillian who abandoned him at an orphanage after his mother’s death. Wooly, sweet and affable, though addicted to “little pink pills” is from a wealthy New York family that has taken charge of his trust … in his best interest.

Duchess, ever the inventor of dreams and spinner of tales, decides that they should travel east instead of west — to the Adirondacks where Woolly’s family compound on a remote lake holds a safe with $150,000. They will, Duchess insists, liberate Woolly from the controlling claws of his brother-in-law “Dennis” and for their effort, split the money three ways.

Emmett agrees to drive Woolly and Duchess to the bus station so they can go on their own quest after which he and Billy will travel to California, the land of dreams – both broken and promised.

But Duchess, seeming to agree, then “borrows” Emmett’s car along with the $3,000 legacy from his father hidden under the spare tire in the trunk, assuring Wooly that they will be reunited with Emmett and reward him with his $50,000 for the use of his car and the continued promise of his friendship, for which, Duchess seems to assume, is undying. And so the adventure begins.

In shifting points of view, for the next ten days, readers will meet clowns, actors, madams, circus entertainers, hoboes, and a certain Professor Abacus Abernathy, who has written a compendium of heroes and myths that has become Billy’s bible. The first chapter starts at 10 and works down to the climax, where justice will reign and fools will suffer.

The ride is wild, and the characters are crafty, and the dialogue is laced with Shakespearean references. And Billy, oh Billy, is the smartest one of the bunch.

I highly recommend The Lincoln Highway for fans of adventure stories and unreliable narrators. The shifting points of view keep the plot swiftly moving and the fluid morality of the characters will keep you guessing. One thing is certain. A hero’s journey, like Zeno’s arrow, never moves in a straight line.

Listen to my author interviews the fourth Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio, Grand Marias, Minnesota, or stream from the web at http://www.wtip.org.

The summer after graduating from college, Kinari Webb traveled to Indonesia Borneo to study orangutans but after witnessing the devastating effects of deforestation in the region and realizing that it was negatively effecting the health of the community, she enrolled at Yale School of Medicine to become a doctor. Guardians of the Trees: A Journey of Hope Through Healing the Planet, is Webb’s memoir about her efforts to mitigate climate change and provide affordable health care to the people of Indonesia Borneo.

Forming two nonprofits, Health in Harmony in the U.S. and ASRI in Indonesia, Webb worked with her team to establish a health care clinic to heal both the people and the planet. With the realization that the people of Borneo were harvesting trees to pay for expensive health care treatments, Webb opened a free clinic, but after a patient threw away his antibiotic outside their door because he said that if something was free, it probably wouldn’t work, Webb and her team developed a barter system. Community members who needed health care could work on their organic farm or pay with vegetables or seedlings to replant the rainforest. Partnership was integral to her approach — calling together members of the community for listening sessions to brainstorm problems and solutions.

Webb lays bare some of her most intimate experiences in the process: her marriage to her husband, Cam, whom she met in Borneo, her early parentification by her divorced parents, and a devastating sting by a box jellyfish that derailed her plans for four years as she recovered. Guardians of the Trees is a moving account of one woman’s drive to heal the planet and its people. I highly recommend it for readers interested in climate change, health care, and humanity.

Listen to my author interviews the fourth Thursday of every month on Superior Reads at 7:00 pm on WTIP Radio, Grand Marais, Minnesota, or stream them from the web at http://www.wtip.org.

Drawing on her own life experience, her patient’s stories, and her expertise as a psychoanalyist in private practice in New York City specializing in relational psychology,  Dr. Galit Atlas’s Emotional Inheritance; A Therapist, Her Patients, and the Legacy of Trauma, is about how secrets can hobble people from living up to their full potential.

“Everything we don’t consciously know about ourselves has the power to control and run our lives, in the same way that the riptides below the surface of the ocean are its most powerful forces.”

She acknowledges that family secrets are often well intentioned – parents wish to protect their children from any experience that would traumatize them.

There are two forces at work. One in which children experience their parents’ fears and learn to perceive the world the way their parents did, defending themselves in similar ways. The second is genetics, research shows that stress hormones alter brain chemistry and development and can be passed on to future generations through altered DNA. Nature and nurture intermingle, Atlas writes, and genes have a memory that can be passed from one generation to the next.

The book is divided into three parts: our grandparents, our parents, and ourselves. Atlas gives examples in each section from her life and the lives of her patients. It’s far from a dry read. As each of her patients learns to create a future from the puzzles of their past, theories take on a human form.

“Not remembering allows us to keep things ‘far from home’ and to avoid wading into territory that might otherwise be too dangerous,” Atlas writes.

Galit’s empathic and compassionate book ends with this encouragement:

“We realize that trauma can be transmitted to the next generation but also that psychological work can alter and modify the biological effects of trauma.”

I highly recommend EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE for readers interested in epigenetics, psychology, and family trauma. For anyone who has experienced trauma or felt the pain of family secrets long buried, Atlas’s book will give you hope that there is a path forward.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on Superior Reads on WTIP Radio the fourth Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday at 6:00 am or stream them at http://www.wtip.org.

Ingrid Andersson is a midwife and a poet and her debut poetry collection, Jordemoder, Poems of a Midwife will be released in April from Holy Cow! Press. Divided into sections: Daughter, Midwife, Mother, Immigrant, and Home, Andersson’s poems give voice to a life lived with open hands.

Some poems are born of heartache and despair; Ingrid Andersson’s poems are born of reverence and wonder. Whether she’s delivering a baby, traveling the world, or sitting in a garden, Andersson looks wide eyed at her subjects knowing that life is fragile and not one of us can predict the outcome, though we shouldn’t despair. Hope is not for the fainthearted.

Her opening poem, “Maw”, revisits the image of her mother listening to Verdi’s opera. As Violetta is revived by Alfredo’s love just before dying, her mother’s head lifts from her farm-woman’s hands, and Andersson understands that life turns on passion, as much as breath. It is this capability, this lesson learned at her mother’s elbow and reinforced at the dovetail of delivery, that makes Andersson’s tender poems linger. Memories of love and nature intermingle with a mother’s worries about gun control and global warming. How do we hold such disparate things in one hand? Perhaps the answer comes at the end of Andersson’s, “On Becoming a Midwife”:

              WIth poems, poems that plumb

              The sweet-salt-metal mess

              To climax, over and over, howling love.

For the poets, dreamers, lovers, and believers, I recommend Jordemoder: Poems of a Midwife by Ingrid Andersson.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to author interviews and book reviews on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota.

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