Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

Author Stephanie Watson asked herself: what if everything you had ever drawn, from doodles to sketches came to life and went to live in a magical world? That, she says, is the big idea behind her newest middle grade novel, PENCILVANIA, illustrated by Sofia Moore. In this modern take on THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH meets HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, Watson explores a child’s grief through a fantasy world of the child’s own creation.

Since she was little, Zora has liked to draw. Whenever she puts a marker, or a crayon, or a pencil to the page, something inside her takes over – her Voom – it starts as a single spark and grows to countless balls of light zooming around inside of her. Her mother, also an artist, recognizes her daughter’s gift and encourages her need to create. Art is the thing that most connects Zora to her mother . . . until she is diagnosed with leukemia. When she dies, Zora and her sister Frankie leave their beloved Lake Superior behind and move to Pittsburg to live with their Grandmother Wren. Though loving and well-intentioned, Grandmother Wren is ill-equipped to deal with the depth of Zora’s grief. In a fit of rage, Zora scribbles out her artwork and she and Frankie fall through the pages into a world comprised of all the animals and creatures Zora has ever drawn. Viscardi – a scribbled out horse – is determined to finish the destruction that Zora began. He kidnaps Frankie and Zora is challenged by her determination never to draw again – when drawing is the only thing left to save them.

Watson has a keen understanding of childhood grief. Her shimmering descriptions of Zora’s artful world and the animals that inhabit it are brought to life by Moore’s illustrations. Zora’s pain is palpable and may be overwhelming for sensitive readers, but her fierce devotion to her sister Frankie, coupled with her courage in the face of grief, will inspire young artists and encourage readers who have faced similar losses and challenges. The message of the power of love and art to heal the brokenhearted will transcend all generations.

I recommend Pencilvania for fans of Sheila O’Connor’s Sparrow Road and Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on WTIP Radio, 90.7, Grand Marais, Minnesota and on the web at wtip.org.

#ump #sarahstonich #womensfiction #humor #literaryfiction #heatherskinner

Loved this book and honored to have my blurb included!

Nearly everyone in the United States has been touched in some way by the opioid epidemic, including Dr. Amy Sullivan and her family. Her book, Opioid Reckoning – Love, Loss, and Redemption in the Rehab State presents first hand accounts of the families battling to keep their children alive, in spite of a system that has held fast to the tenets of traditional addiction treatment programs.

The author notes that opioid related deaths have become so prevalent in the United States that the overall life expectancy for all Americans has decreased as a result. Between 1999 and 2019, more than 500,000 Americans died from drug overdoses involving opioids.

Dr. Sullivan collected 60 interviews over a four year period for her Minnesota Opioid Project – speaking with embattled mothers like herself, medical and social work professionals, and activists — for their insights and potential solutions.

Opioid Reckoning questions current treatment models, healthcare inequities, and the criminal justice system. In gathering these personal stories, Sullivan confronts the stigma of opioid addiction and offers hope and empathy for anyone affected by this devastating addiction.
Spencer Johnson struggled with his addiction for years before ultimately dying from a heroin overdose in a bathroom at his halfway house. His parents, devastated by the stigma and shame, did everything in their power to help their son.

“Spencer Johnson had a secure and happy childhood. He was born to loving attentive parents . . . the stereotype of illegal drug users being from broken homes, having absent or abusive parents, and raised in abject poverty still exists, but the recent predominance of white, male opioid users with social and economic privilege, loving parents, and ample access to resources has added a new dimension to the history of drug addiction in the United States,” Sullivan writes.

Spencer had initially been prescribed Percocet after a sore throat, and later opiate painkillers after a bout of appendicitis, eventually resorting to heroin which was cheaper, stronger, and readily available. He found success in treatment only when he was finally prescribed Suboxone, but his halfway house would not allow the use of medication to control opioid cravings, in spite of the fact that drugs like Suboxone and Methadone have been very effective at treating heroin and opioid addiction.

“Even if a person wants to quit, the physical and mental cravings, combined with intense and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, are often too difficult to handle without significant medical and psychological help,” Sullivan writes. “Using medications for opioid use disorders was somehow a lesser and morally weaker achievement than complete abstinence.”

Many of the mothers that Sullivan interviewed worked to change the system and Sullivan stood with them. Judy and Bill Rummler, formed the Steve Rummler Hope Network, following their son’s overdose death in 2011. Eventually, they were able to pass legislation for Steve’s Law, the purpose of which was to increase training and access to the opioid antidote Narcan for law enforcement, EMTs, and the general public.

In 2016, Sullivan began teaching “Uses and Abuses: Drugs, Addiction, and Recovery” at Macalaster College. She wanted to change the perception of harm reduction as “bad” in her classroom by bringing in a local harm-reduction professional to train her students to use naloxone, providing each of them with a kit. During the pandemic, she taught the class on line and delivered kits to her students through the mail. In November 2020, she received an email from a student living on campus:

“Thought you would be interested to know that I just revived a guy on the bus with the two vials of naloxone you gave me. It was pretty crazy; he was blue and I just drew up the vials and gave it to him! He revived after the second dose and was up and gone before the paramedics arrived. I just wanted to say thanks for handing out the naloxone in your class.”

Dr. Sullivan’s work on behalf of addiction and treatment is remarkable and Opioid Reckoning offers a glimpse into the faces of the epidemic. With heart and soul and considerable scholarship, Sullivan has written a book that offers hope and help for anyone affected by addiction.

Listen to my interview with Dr. Amy Sullivan about her book Opioid Reckoning on November 25 at 7:00 pm and Saturday, November 27 at 6:00 am on Superior Reads, WTIP 90.7 in Grand Marais, and on the web at wtip.org.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Ashley C. Ford’s debut memoir, SOMEBODY’S DAUGHTER is a moving portrait of a girl longing for a relationship with a father who is incarcerated. Ashley grew up not knowing the crime for which her father was imprisoned, but that didn’t stop her from imagining him as the father of her dreams.

Raised by a single mother who was volatile and unpredictable, Ashley looked to her father’s letters for encouragement and love.

“Letter upon letter filled with “I love you,” “I’m proud of you,” “Smile,” “You’re beautiful,” “You’re so smart,” and a host of other things every young girl wants to hear from her dad.”

There were no other reliable father figures in Ashley’s life. The closest she would come to fatherly love and guidance would be through her dad’s letters from prison. Her mother had numerous boyfriends and Ashley had several half-siblings, but none of those men were loving or kind to Ashley and they were often absent, leaving her mother to raise her children alone.

Ashley’s grandmother was the most reliable adult in her life and in fact, she moved in with her grandmother for a time when her mother suffered the loss of an infant. She felt loved by her grandmother, and they enjoyed spending time together, but after a year away, Ashley’s mother wanted her to return home.

In adolescence, as her body began to change, Ashley became uncomfortable with the looks of older men. She hooked up with a boy that her mother disliked, who professed his love for her too soon and too enthusiastically, and when she ended the relationship, he raped her. For years, she did not tell anyone, but it left her feeling unworthy and unloved.

The question that preoccupied her the most was what her father would think of her when she met him in person. When she finally visited him in prison, he did not disappoint. She’d started writing about her family, her mother, her grandmother, and her father. It took courage to look at her family honestly, but she continued to write her truth. As she visited her father in prison, she told him about her writing, concerned that it would fracture their fragile relationship. But his response was genuine and encouraging.

“When you sent me one of your stories, I thought, damn. I must be the luckiest fool in the world. I got me a daughter who’s smart, beautiful, and she’s a writer. A real one. A good one. I’m so proud of you, Ashley.”

SOMEBODY’S DAUGHTER is a heartbreaking story about a girl growing up in poverty, famished for love and acceptance, searching for an identity outside of the broken family she’d grown up in. But rather than remaining a victim, Ashley C. Ford becomes the heroine of her story, and the only one she needed to save her, was herself.

I recommend SOMEBODY’S DAUGHTER for fans of The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls and The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Read all my reviews and listen to my author interviews on www.superiorreads.blog.

RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson was born of one question — What happened to black people’s wealth? In Woodson’s attempt to answer that question, she writes in her author’s note, characters were born, events were remembered, and lives in all their beauty and despair are lived on the page. RED AT THE BONE is a compact novel of trauma and recovery, and all the messiness in between.

The novel opens with the coming-of-age party for Melody, sixteen and wearing a dress originally intended for her mother, Iris. An unexpected teenage pregnancy changed everything for Iris and her boyfriend Aubrey, who at fifteen years old became parents before they became anything else. From there, Woodson moves us flawlessly backward and forward in time to tell the story of a family whose dreams were once burned, yet they rose from the ashes.

“You remember your parents living, wrap the ancient photos of Lucille’s Hair Heaven and Papa Joe’s Supper Club pulled from the flames . . . and you rise. You rise. You rise.”

A multigenerational tale, RED AT THE BONE is remarkable in its brevity. Woodson pokes gingerly at race, class, gentrification, sexual orientation, parenting, and loss. Spanning nearly a hundred years from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to the tragedy of 9/11, Woodson has a keen understanding of the human condition.

Sabe, Melody’s grandmother and Iris’ mother,  knows a thing or two, and Woodson’s lyrical touch makes her wisdom sing. She’s shared the stories of how they burned her grandmama’s beauty shop to the ground, and her daddy’s restaurant, and how her own mama carries a scar in the shape of a heart, because they tried to burn her too. “History tries to call it a riot,” Woodson writes, “but it was a massacre.”  The whites came with the intention of erasing their businesses, their schools, and their lives, and even though it happened before Sabe was born, she carried the memory of it. It was important to her to teach her child and her grandchild about what happened. Sabe is the thread that stitches the past to the present.

I recommend RED AT THE BONE for fans of Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING and Toni Morrison’s SULA.

This is Lin Salibury with Superior Reviews. Read all my reviews and listen to my author interviews at http://www.superiorreads.blog.

Midwest Book Award-winning poet and baker Klecko is back with LINCOLNLAND, subtitled as his Pandemic Diary. You’ll remember Klecko from his award-winning HITMAN, BAKER, CASKETMAKER, Aftermath of an American’s Clash with ICE chronicling the fall of St. Agnes Bakery and the failure of our immigration system.

Inspired by a dream, Klecko travels the country in search of Lincoln’s ghost in LINCOLNLAND, asks the legendary George Saunders for writing advice, flies kites with another literary hero Leif Enger, and pays homage to the Beatles in a tribute to his late friend Michael Finley. While the rest of us learned to bake bread during the pandemic, Klecko, already a master in that department, applied his unflappable energy and curious mind to poetry, something that he’s also very accomplished at, but feels fresh with this newest volume of his work.

LINCOLNLAND reads more like a diary than a poem. Klecko’s mind impresses. One discovery, leads to another discovery, to another state, phone call, book, or letter.  

Klecko was a self-professed hater of the Beatles – old people’s music – but the loss of his friend Michael Finley drove him to do a deep-dive into their music and their history. Chronicled in “Intermission” — he does it like Klecko does these things – down the rabbit hole, reading, books, magazines, articles on the internet—all the way to the bottom where he found a story about John Lennon’s killer and his wife, Gloria. So he contacted her. And May Pang, Lennon’s former lover. He contacted her, too. Of course he did. Of course.

Klecko still bakes. I interviewed him for Superior Reads during a break in his day. He’s a poet, and a baker, and a fascinating human. Read LINCOLNLAND, you won’t regret it.

Listen to my interview with Klecko on October 28 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, WTIP, 90.7 Grand Marais and on the web at http://www.wtip.org.

Jai Chakrabarti’s A PLAY FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is a moving novel about survival guilt and the emotional cost of war, as well as the power of art and love to heal.

In New York City 1972, Jaryk Smith, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Lucy Gardener, a free-spirited southerner newly arrived to the city, fall in love and are just opening up to each other when Jaryk’s oldest childhood friend unexpectedly dies in India. Jaryk travels there to retrieve his ashes and soon finds himself enmeshed in the political turmoil of the newly arrived refugees from Bangladesh. His friend, Misha had gone there to help produce a play in protest of the government – a play that Jaryk and Misha had performed as children in the ghetto – and one that Jaryk feels compelled to stay in India to produce in memory of his friend. Lucy knows little of Jaryk’s past and feels the sting of rejection when he refuses to return home to her. Stuck between his past and his future, Jaryk must make a courageous decision.

At the center of the novel is a play written by Tagore, Dak Ghar, performed by the children in the ghetto, and directed by their loving caregiver as a way to prepare the children for a future they could not comprehend, while in India, the children performing the play are a pawn in the hands of a professor with political motivations.

Chakrabarti has a keen sense of timing – oscillating the storyline backward and forward to reveal Jaryk’s motivation, his heart-wrenching past, and his fear of moving into a future as a sole survivor of the orphanage where his story began.

A PLAY FOR THE END OF THE WORLD is a provocative meditation on love, war, politics, and art. I highly recommend it for fans of historical fiction. Listen to my interview with Jai Chakrabarti on September 23 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, 90.7 Grand Marais, or on the web at www.wtip.org.

In her profoundly moving first novel, THE SEED KEEPER, Diane Wilson tells the story of Rosalie Iron Wing and her family’s struggle to preserve their cultural heritage. Flashing back and forth in time from Rosalie’s present day, to her early childhood, to the lives of her ancestors, Wilson reveals the devastation wreaked by white settlers on the family’s way of life.

Abandoned by her mother at the age of four, and orphaned at the age of twelve after her father’s death, Rosalie was sent to live with a white foster family, where her soul withered as her native beliefs and practices were disparaged. When a white farmer asks her to marry him, Rosalie is hesitant – her father had warned her about such unions, but Rosalie had few options and John seemed to mirror her own sense of loneliness. At eighteen, she knows little of her family or her cultural heritage.

As the book opens, Rosalie, recently widowed, returns to the cabin from which she was taken as a child.  She is broken. Her husband is dead, and she is estranged from their only child, a son, who wishes to continue the farming practices that most likely contributed to the death of his father. At the cabin, Rosalie comes slowly back to life, nurtured by the woods, the river, and her childhood memories, as well as the kindness of a neighbor.

Woven throughout, are chapters told from the perspective of Rosalie’s ancestors who had been stripped of their land and their way of life – Marie Blackbird and her family were scattered when the fighting broke out in 1862, hiding from soldiers who were rounding up the men and imprisoning them, stealing their dried meat and trampling their carefully planted gardens of beans and corn. The women, recognizing that their future depended on their store of seeds, carried them sewn into their skirt hems into the future.

These stories, juxtaposed against Rosalie’s, as she witnesses the destructive farming practices on her husband’s farm and the harm it causes to the environment and the people who currently live on the land, hone the story’s message: the imperative to return to more sustainable practices, and to a place of reverence and respect for the land, the plants, the animals, and the lives that depend upon them.

In her Author’s Note, Diane Wilson writes that the book was inspired by a story she’d heard while participating in the Dakhota Commemorative March, a 150 mile walk to honor the Dakhota people who were forcibly removed from Minnesota in 1863, in the aftermath of the US-Dakhota War. The women on that original march had little time to prepare for their removal, but knew they would have to find a way to feed their families in whatever place they were being sent, so they sewed seeds into the hems of their skirts and hid more in their pockets.

“The strength these women demonstrated, the profound love they showed for their children, and their willingness to make sacrifices so the people would survive became the heart of this book.” She writes, “These women are the reason why we have Dakhota corn today.”

THE SEED KEEPERS is a lyrical love song written for those Dakhota women. I highly recommend it for fans of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s BRAIDING SWEETGRASS.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Diane Wilson on Superior Reads this September and register to take a class with Diane at the Grand Marais Art Colony in November.

Peter Heller, best-selling author of THE RIVER is back with a gripping eco-action adventure, THE GUIDE, featuring protagonist Jack from his previous novel. Jack comes to Kingfisher Lodge as a fishing guide to recover from a recent loss. The lodge is nestled in a canyon on a pristine river and serves an elite clientele. Jack is assigned to guide Alison, a famous singer who knows how to cast a line. But soon after his arrival, he realizes that there is more going on at the lodge than fishing.

Heller’s lyrical prose reveals an author who knows how to fish, keeping the storyline taut at times, and letting it run as the action plays out and the secret of Kingfisher Lodge is revealed.

This passage illustrates the author’s appreciation for the natural world and the symbolism and symmetry imbued throughout the novel:

“. . . the fish caught her second wind, if she’d ever lost the first. Jack had begun to think of her as female, because to fight this hard she must have been full of roe and protecting her eggs. The riffle was not long and the trout lunged up it and swam into the quiet pool at the top, right at the edge of the meadow. Then, with must have been the last shreds of her strength she fought the pull and went deep and stopped . . . Few humans had this much heart. Jack could not have measured his admiration. He loved the fish right then as much as anything in the world.”

The natural beauty depicted in THE GUIDE is a sharp contrast to the depravity of the characters who run the Lodge. The time period is post pandemic, although new strains continue to emerge. And while the lodge doesn’t restrict Jack and Alison from going into town, they keep a close eye on them when they venture out. More troubling are the signs that warn guests and guides to keep off of the property next door, where Jack finds a boot buried in the brush.

Heller has a heart for his two main characters – Jack is a complex character who finds solace in the woods and the water. Alison, in spite of her fame, is fierce and funny and not afraid to get her hands dirty – whether catching fish or criminals. The pacing ratchets up the last third of the book, as Jack and Alison discover the mystery of the property adjacent to the lodge.

I would describe THE GUIDE as a mash up of A River Runs Through It and Deliverance. If you love trout fishing, heart-stopping action, engaging characters, and mystery, THE GUIDE is the book for you.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Peter Heller on August 26 at 7:00 pm and August 28 at 6:00 am on WTIP, 90.7 Grand Marais, and on the web and wtip.org.

THERE’S A REVOLUTION OUTSIDE, MY LOVE should be essential reading for all Americans. Edited by Tracy Smith and John Freeman, the anthology gives us a glimpse into the beating heart of some of our most esteemed writers during a time of great unrest. Tracy Smith likens the Summer of 2020 to the Freedom Summer of 1964. In 2021, there is still a battle to ensure the voting rights of black Americans. Though the murder of George Floyd caused many white Americans to acknowledge that the reign of white supremacy must end, many are floundering with what action to take. Others, zealously holding onto their power will do anything, it seems, to continue disenfranchising people of color.

The stories, poems, essays, and letters in this collection are a battle cry — beaten down by a pandemic, police brutality, political divisiveness, and an armed insurrection – the writers question whether America has the stuff it takes to make the changes required. “As long as socio-racial segregation and discrimination persist, and as long as the presence of the state is limited to the increasingly armed police force, then neither the biggest smile nor the use of any hollow expressions of “American Nice” is going to remedy what for a very long time most people of color have lived as a daily experience of injustice in this country,” writes Sofian Merabet.

Drawing its title from a letter to her son by journalist Kirsten West Savali, the book includes writing by Edwidge Danticat, Layli Long Soldier, Julia Alvarez, and Minnesota’s own Su Hwang and Michael Kleber Diggs.

It’s been a year since George Floyd’s murder, and Michael Kleber Diggs laments:
“I wonder if I can love my white friends without being candid with them. I wonder if they can love me if I hold them at a distance, if race and racism function as a veneer, a layer between us obscuring any substance underneath. When I don’t answer fully, am I not saying I don’t trust you to do anything about it? What I wanted to say and didn’t say was this: “I’m fine today, the hard part will begin soon. The hard part for me starts when things get comfortable for you again. The hard part begins the day you return to your normal routines.”

As Su Hwang points out in her essay in the anthology:
“Many are claiming this an ‘inflection point’ in American history, myself included, but the more I think about it, the less this sentiment holds water. Inflection implies singularity, of one musculature or a single stream of consciousness, when there have been multiple inflections since the looting of this land from Native Americans to the founding of the country on the backs of Black lives. I believe we are at a point of convergence. Convergence denotes multiplicity and cumulativeness – a cacophony of voices and perspectives. In this semantic distinction, we honor the lingering ghosts of all our ancestors. We can no longer afford to pivot from one point to another and call it progress or justice; the weight of our collective histories can no longer support these blatant disparities between what is deemed progress and justice versus the lived realities of marginalized peoples. What we’re seeing and experiencing is a cavalcade of centuries of protest, of deaths and rebirths, the final heave for human decency for all.”

A revolution implies a sudden and complete change in something, but it also can be defined as a cycling of events. The murders of Daunte Wright, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Breonna Taylor, Stephon Clark, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and on and on – are a seemingly endless cycle of violence against people of color in this country.

“If there is unrest in America today,” Tracy Smith writes in the preface, “It is not because we cannot agree upon a definition of racism, as many who have argued against antiracist policies have suggested, but rather because power – especially contested power – will go to nearly any lengths to confuse, distort and render muddily abstract terms that, when power is not called into question, remain as legible and distinct as black and white.”

I recommend There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love for all Americans. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

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