Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

I absolutely loved DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY by Bill Clegg, so I was thrilled to get an advanced reader copy of THE END OF THE DAY which will be available from booksellers September 29.

Clegg’s writing is luminous. In DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY, June is devastated when on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, an explosion kills her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend. She had been looking forward to the future, and in one tragic moment, that future disappeared. June embarks on a cross-country odyssey – whether she is running from the past or searching for her new future will become clear as she puts miles between her and her losses. In that book, the characters are compelling and the storyline was thought-provoking — definitely a five star review.

THE END OF THE DAY failed to evoke the same response in me. Friends and acquaintances who have not seen each other in fifty years, but who had been connected in their youth, come back together profoundly when a young man finds his father dead in his apartment.

I initially thought that two of the central protagonists, Jackie and Dana were in their eighties because of the author’s descriptions of their cognitive and physical conditions — and was surprised (and disappointed) to discover that they were only in their sixties. Several of the characters were mere caricatures and never fully developed. Without the lived experience of being a Latina, I believe that Clegg, a white, male author, may take some flack for his character Lupita.

The storyline in THE END OF THE DAY initially intrigued me — I really enjoy multiple storylines that reveal intersecting perspectives, but in the end, the character’s stories and motivations fell flat. I could not fully believe that Lupita would take the risks she took, Dana evoked a Cruella De Vil vibe, and Jackie was so utterly hapless that I could not feel any sympathy for her.

Although this book fell flat for me, I still hold Bill Clegg in high regard and will look forward to his next novel.

I recommend Bill Clegg’s DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY, which is currently available in paperback and was a finalist for the National Book Award  and the Man Booker Prize in 2016 for fans of Ann Tyler and Ann Patchett. His second novel, THE END OF THE DAY will be available September 29.

When Elisabeth Tova Bailey was struck with a debilitating illness, her friend found a snail in the woods and brought it to her in a pot of violets.

“Why, did you bring it in?” She asks her friend.

“I don’t know. I thought you might enjoy it.”

Why, she wonders, would she enjoy a snail? She was bedridden at the age of thirty-four after a trip to Europe where she contracted a mysterious viral or bacterial infection, resulting in severe neurological symptoms. But as she convalesced, she had little company but her small snail, and she began to recognize  the beauty in the snail’s slow movements and finite world. She also recognized the similarities to her own situation; the snails life in many ways was a metaphor for her own.

“Survival often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility,” Bailey writes. The snail become all those things for her. A spirit guide of sorts as she navigated through the new and unfamiliar world of living with a chronic illness.

Bailey’s lyrical prose breathes life into what, for some, could be a dry topic. Her curiosity and resilience in the face of a devastating illness make this an inspiring read for anyone who feels hobbled by their current circumstances.

Though published in 2010, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a quiet book that seems as though it was written specifically for our current quarantine. If you are feeling overwhelmed, or are having trouble concentrating on that 1,000 page epic that you started in January, take a break and spend some time with Elisabeth Tova Bailey and her snail.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reads.

In her newest novel RODHAM, Curtis Sittenfeld presents us with an alternate history of what Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political career might have been had she not married Bill Clinton. It’s not the first time Sittenfeld has mined the life of a public figure; her protagonist in American Wife was based on Laura Bush.

The trajectory of Hillary’s adult life in RODHAM begins as in real life, she graduates from Wellesley College and delivers her renowned  commencement speech. She then goes to Yale Law School where she meets Bill Clinton, a charismatic young man who is her intellectual equal. From the start, Bill is outspoken about his aspirations to be President of the United States. As they leave a party together, one of their friends quips that they shouldn’t get romantically involved because he isn’t sure it’s legal for a Supreme Court Justice to date the President of the United States.

The first part of the book details Hillary and Bill’s courtship. Hillary is drawn to Bill’s good looks and outgoing personality, as well as his intellect. Since elementary school it seemed that every  boy she’d ever been attracted to did not feel the same way about her. So when Bill pursued her, she was flattered and somewhat grateful for his attention. Early on, Bill displays his penchant for big dreams as well as his big appetite — for French fries, ice cream sundaes, and sex.

In spite of early warning signs, Hillary decides to follow Bill to Arkansas where he plans to ultimately run for governor. In real life, Bill proposed marriage to Hillary several times before she finally accepted. In RODHAM, she eventually decides to leave Arkansas and Bill and returns to Chicago where she becomes a law professor, a Senator, and ultimately runs for President of the United States.

RODHAM is a glorious mash up of the real with the imagined. Sittenfeld inserts real-life people, including Donald Trump, into her alternate history with some surprising outcomes. A satisfying read for those of us who wish that we could have a do-over of the 2016 election.

James McBride won the National Book Award for his book The Good Lord Bird, and his newest novel Deacon King Kong is a contender as well. Deacon King Kong may read as a farce, but buried in McBride’s humor and hilarity is a book about grace and second chances.

In September of 1969, Deacon Cuffy Lambkin, more commonly known as Sportcoat walked into the courtyard of the Causeway Housing Project and shot the ear off of the neighborhood’s notorious drug dealer, Deems Clemens. At the daily coffee gathering, members of the Five Ends Baptist Church speculated wildly about why he did it. Some thought it was because he’d recently lost his wife Hettie, who drowned in the harbor, others thought he was under an evil mojo spell. Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Cooking Sensation had seen everything from his bathroom window and declared, “I always knew old Sportcoat would do one great thing in life.” Sportcoat himself didn’t remember the crime, likely because he’d been enjoying his friend Rufus’s homemade moonshine, King Kong, a little too often since Hettie’s death.  His friends and fellow congregants of the Five Ends Baptist Church were more concerned for Sportcoat’s safety than he was – he was consumed with trying to find the Christmas Fund, which Hettie was in charge of and had neglected to tell anyone where she kept it before she died. Besides, Sportcoat had coached Deems, who was the best pitcher the Cause Houses ever had before he got involved in the drug business and Sportcoat was determined to get Deems back in the game.

McBride is a wordsmith, his sentences at times spool out over half the page and vibrantly color the world he’s created for us – like this one, where he describes the disparity between the black and white worlds of New York and the people who live in the Cause Houses:

. . . where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of the suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich – West Side Story, Porgy & Bess, Purlie Victorious – and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while the blacks and Latinos who cleaned the apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.”

The Causeway Housing Project in South Brooklyn was an equal opportunity employer and the Italian mob runs parallel to Deems drug trade. Elefante, aka the Elephant, who’d inherited the black market business from his father, tried to  mind his own business, but he was in search of some missing treasure of his own.

McBride shows deep affection for his characters  – whether they be the Latinx or African American residents, the congregants of the Five Ends Baptist Church, the Italian mob, the cops investigating the crime, or King Kong- addled Sportcoat – under McBride’s watchful eye, they are all redeemable.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Read all of my reviews and listen to my author interviews on www.superiorreads.blog and on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais and on the web at https://www.wtip.org/superior-reads-0

Afterlife is Julia Alvarez’s first adult novel in fifteen years and her timing lands it squarely in the conversations we’re having now about immigration and white privilege.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Antonia Vega has recently retired from her career as an English Professor when her husband suddenly dies. As she navigates through grief, she is invited to spend a weekend with her three sisters to celebrate her sixty-sixth birthday but before she leaves, her neighbor’s undocumented farmhand, Mario, asks Antonia to help him get his fiancé Estela from Colorado, where she has been abandoned by the men he hired to bring her from Mexico to the United States. Antonia is not sure she wants to get involved. She sympathizes with Mario and Estela, but she is in survivor mode. She leaves for her celebratory weekend, but trades one problem for another when one of her sisters never arrives. Izzy struggles with mental health issues and is clearly in crisis. The sisters file a missing persons report and strategize about how to get Izzy the help she needs.

Upon her return home, Antonia finds Estela sleeping in her garage. She is pregnant and needs Antonia’s help now more than ever. When she asks in Spanish when Estela is due, she receives a blank look in reply. Later, she Googles the Spanish word for giving birth and discovers that she has used a term used by the upper class, while Estela is more familiar with the working class term.

“ . . . even the beauties of language,” Alvarez writes, “of words rightly chosen, are riddled with who we are, class and race, and whatever else will keep us – so we think – safe on the narrow path.”

Afterlife is a compressed novel that expands with the lyrical voice of Alvarez. In lush language and imagery, Afterlife asks big questions – what do we owe each other and who do we have an obligation to take care of – our family, our neighbors, or perhaps a complete stranger.

I recommend Afterlife for fans of Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies and Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Read all of my reviews and listen to my author interviews on www.superiorreads.blog and on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais and on the web at https://www.wtip.org/superior-reads-0

In Night Flying Woman, Ignatia Broker recounts the life of her great-great-grandmother, Night Flying Woman, from her naming ceremony to her role as elder and teacher. Night Flying Woman, also named Oona, was born in the mid-nineteenth century and lived through one of the most culturally disruptive periods of time in Native American history. In 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act which created the Indian reservation system and moved tribes off of their land, opening up large areas of land to white settlers. Soon the Ojibway, who led a life dictated by the seasons, in harmony with the land and animals, would be cut off from the lakes where they fished and harvested wild rice, the sugar bush where they harvested sap for maple syrup, and the forests where they trapped rabbits and hunted deer. In the foreword, Patricia Fairbanks Molin quotes from a history of the White Earth Reservation, as lumber companies desired to strip the forests, “It seemed absurd (to them) that less than 2,000 people should occupy 800,000 acres of land of so great value both for agriculture and for standing pine.”

The result was the mutilation of the White Earth Reservation. Land that was held cooperatively by the tribe was allotted to individual members. Sold off or diminished in size through succeeding treaties, the area occupied by the Ojibway became only a fraction of the original.

Oona’s family adapted to the practices taught by the white settlers. Many of the Ojibway men worked for the lumber companies and the women learned to farm and raise animals. But Oona was taught to hold on to the old ways as well.

“. . . you must remember all the good our people have known and taught,” her grandparents said, “Compare it to what you are now learning. Do not be ashamed of the good that we have taught and do not be ashamed of the good to be learned. Our way of life is changing, and there is much we must accept. But let it be only the good. And we must always remember the old ways. We must pass them on to our children and grandchildren . . .”

I read Night Flying Woman after reading Staci Drouillard’s Walking the Old Road and Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman. This trifecta of books left me feeling ashamed of this part of our American history, yet in awe of the spirit and resilience of the Anishinaabe people. If you are interested in Native American history, I recommend reading these companion books for a deeper experience.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. My author interviews and reviews are also featured on WTIP, Grand Marais, MN https://www.wtip.org/superior-reads-0

 

At the heart of Louise Erdrich’s new novel The Night Watchman is the battle over Native dispossession. Thomas Wazhashk is a night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Reservation’s first factory, a jewel-bearing plant. His character is based upon Erdrich’s grandfather, whose letters and personal accounts provided insight and a valuable resource as she wrote the novel. As chairman of the Turtle Mountain band, he traveled from North Dakota to Washington DC to fight the emancipation bill of 1953, which intended to cut Native Americans off from their land, their identity, and their way of life. Sadly, it’s a battle still being fought.

Juxtaposed against Thomas’s story, is the story of his niece Patrice, who works at the jewel bearing plant. Patrice supports her mother and her brother with her wages; her alcoholic father shows up intermittently to terrorize the family and abscond with whatever money he can find. Her older sister Vera, who left Turtle Mountain for Minneapolis, has not been heard from and Patrice dreams that she is in danger. Patrice takes time off from her job to go to Minneapolis to find her, but instead she finds Vera’s infant son. While there, Patrice is coerced into working at a restaurant as an entertainer, donning a blue rubber ox suit and swimming in a tank of water. She plans to only stay long enough to find Vera and the pay is good, but she soon discovers a sinister world where Native American women are exploited and held against their will.

Other characters and their storylines offer a reprieve from the darkness. There are moments of hilarity and romance. Wood Mountain is a Chippewa boxer who falls in love with Patrice. Barnes, his boxing coach, who is also the high school math teacher, competes with him for Patrice’s affection. But Patrice has little interest in a relationship and adroitly sidesteps emotional entanglement for the most part; she is focused on finding Vera. When Thomas invites her to accompany the group of Chippewa council members to Washington DC to testify before Congress, Patrice meets a young Chippewa scholar who inspires her to a different kind of future.

Erdrich’s novels are full of heart; every character in Night Watchman is richly drawn. The heartbreak of the historic displacement of Native Americans and the shame of a government hellbent on taking their land, resources, and identities stands in sharp relief against the integrity and courage of Thomas and the Turtle Mountain council as they fight to retain rights established through treaties made in good faith “for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run.”

Night Watchman is the story of strong families and wise women, of a rich heritage and traditions rooted in the land. The characters will take up residence in your heart and mind long after you turn the last page.

I highly recommend Night Watchman for fans of Native American history, Ignatia Broker’s Night Flying Woman, and Staci Drouillard’s Walking the Old Road.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews every month on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota or online at :https://www.wtip.org/superior-reads-0

Set in the coastal town of Danvers, Massachusetts, where the accusations began that led to the 1692 Salem witch trials, We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry follows the losing 1989 Danvers High School Women’s Varsity Field Hockey Team on their spectacular rise to the state tournament. With a little help from spiritual forces, the team begins winning their games. So how does a team of losers find themselves scoring their way to the state tournament? They make a pact with the dark side.

“Our secret? Over the course of the week, alone and in pairs, each of us made the grim pilgrimage to Mel’s second floor dorm room and signed our names in her battered notebook . . . And with every new signature, Mel would cut another thin blue strip off one of her old stretched-out athletic socks and tie it around our arm just above the muscle where we could keep it hidden under our shirtsleeves, the sock a secret sign of our allegiance to what Heather Houston simply called an alternative god . . . we didn’t even have to believe.”

What could possibly go wrong?

We Ride Upon Sticks is packed full of 80’s pop culture – from big hair to sugary breakfast cereals to blockbuster movies. The humor, the historical references, the creative plot, the empowerment of teenage girls, the push back against traditional gender roles . . . these things worked for me. Quan Barry is hilarious; her comedic timing is spot on. Her cultural references are the fun ones – the Kool Aid- dyed hair and shellacked bangs that defied gravity. One of the mothers sports shoulder pads “bigger than anything the New England Patriots’ offensive line ever wore.”

What didn’t work for me was that the 80’s weren’t that great if you were adulting. And I was adulting big time. Remember scrunchies and permed hair and shoulder pads and power suits? Remember the rise of the consumer culture? Remember yuppies? Remember Reagonomics and the recession? Remember the New Right and the emergence of trickle down economics? Remember the Iran-Contra affair? Yep. I remember. So I’m sorry that I couldn’t get back into the 80’s.

But, in comparison, it was a simpler time. Barry reminds us in this description as the team arrives at prom: “That night as we the Class of 1990 filed in with our dates, the DJ was playing an assortment of instrumental songs, stuff like “Axel’s Theme” from Beverly Hills Cop 2 and the themes to Chariots of Fire and Miami Vice. At the door . . . there were no pat downs to get in, no metal detectors, no searching people’s bags, no breathalyzers.” Remember the olden days?

Maybe you have fond memories of the 80’s. Maybe you were in high school then and what you remember is watching MTV and wearing Air Jordans and parachute pants. Maybe you remember playing Atari and Rubik’s Cube, or if you were younger, a Teddy Ruxpin or a Cabbage Patch Doll. Then We Ride Upon Sticks may be for you. I’d recommend this book for . . . you.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

 

In the opening scene of Jane Harper’s, The Lost Man, two brothers stand at the grave sight of an old stockman where they have found the body of their brother, Cameron. Brothers Nathan, Cameron, and Bub Bright grew up on this remote land in the Australian outback; so flat “it seemed possible to detect the curvature of the earth.” The Bright brothers know that the terrain is rough and the sun unforgiving and that any man who dares to leave his vehicle without food and water might as well dig his own grave. What drove Cameron to leave his car nine kilometers away and walk to the stockman’s grave without the provisions he’d packed into his car that morning?

Harper describes the grave of the stockman, the stone worn so that only a one and eight and a barely legible nine could be read – 1890 something – but three words were still visible: who went stray.

“Months, up to a year, even, could slip away without a single visitor passing by, let alone stopping to read the faded inscription or squint west into the afternoon sun. Even the cattle didn’t linger. The ground was typically sandy and sparse for eleven months of the year and hidden under murky floodwater for the rest.”

Cameron was the golden boy of the Bright family, the middle son who took over the homestead after his father’s death. His mother, Liz lives with Cameron and his wife, Ilse, and their two young daughters. Nathan, the oldest, is the black sheep of the family. The three brothers own land adjacent to each other, Cameron’s being the largest swath.

Like a pack of dingoes, secrets circle Cameron’s death – an abusive childhood, a long-ago tryst that may or may not have been consensual, and Cameron’s own strange behavior in the weeks leading up to his death. The police think Cameron took his own life and find no justification for further investigation. His mother Liz is devastated. His wife Ilse is overwhelmed. Even Cameron’s daughters, Sophie and Lo seem to be hiding something. Fingers point in all directions. Nathan has his own troubles. After an ugly divorce, the town has turned against him, and he’s struggling to stay connected to his son, Xander.

Jane Harper’s secret power is character development – Nathan, Cameron, Bub, Liz and Ilse are complicated people with enigmatic pasts. The Australian outback, in all its harsh beauty, is the perfect backdrop for this family drama; I was transported there, both physically and emotionally, bereft and desolate and nearly uninhabitable. Though it’s slow to unfold, the novel comes to a surprising yet satisfying conclusion.

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

Alice Paul reshaped the suffrage landscape, changing the course of the American suffrage campaign and subsequent efforts to secure women’s rights. She was the soul and guiding spirit of the final years of the American suffrage movement. Alice Paul, Claiming Power, by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia Fry documents Alice Paul’s legacy as the President of the National Woman’s Party.

Not content to sit idly by and wait for a state-by-state ratification, Alice Paul believed that by holding Woodrow Wilson and his Democratic Party – the party in power – accountable, a constitutional amendment was attainable. Using the tactics of civil disobedience she learned from the controversial and radical Pankhurst sisters, with whom she’d spent time in England, Alice returned to the United States and initially worked with Carrie Chapman Catt under the auspices of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, but frustrated by the organizations demure and polite approach, she formed the National Woman’s Party with Lucy Burns, a colleague who had also experienced the militant defiance of the Pankhursts in their fight to win the vote for women in England.

In March of 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns staged a parade of over 5000 women who marched in a parade preceding the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, sending a clear message to Wilson throughout his presidency, that the NWP would hold the party in power accountable for denying women the right to vote. In 1918, after a remarkable campaign to boycott the Democratic party, the Republican party won control of the house.

Ultimately, under Alice Paul’s direction, the National Woman’s Party used protests and hunger strikes to sway public opinion. They ratcheted up the pressure as the United States entered World War I, arguing that it was hypocritical to defend equal rights abroad when women, who comprised half of the population of the United States, were denied equal rights. They staged daily protests outside of the White House with their self-proclaimed Silent Sentinels carrying banners that read, “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty” and “Mr. President, You say Liberty is the Fundamental Demand of the Human Spirit,” oftentimes being attacked by men who stormed their picket lines, tearing their banners from their hands and ripping them to shreds.

On Bastille Day in 1917, police arrested sixteen sentinels, including six executive committee members of the National Woman’s Party. As the protests continued, more suffragists were arrested and jailed; by September, 23 suffragists were imprisoned. The imprisonment of Alice Paul in late 1917 increased pressure on Wilson exponentially. Following repeated protests, Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months in jail. I am being imprisoned, she told the press, because I pointed out to President Wilson the fact that he is obstructing the progress of democracy and justice at home, while Americans fight for it abroad. The imprisoned suffragists staged hunger strikes and were force fed, and ultimately Alice Paul was subjected to an evaluation of her sanity and isolated in the psychiatric ward – completely unwarranted but to force her to give up her fight. Public opinion began to sway. Woodrow Wilson felt the pressure to recommend a constitutional amendment. Finally, on January 9, 1918, Wilson told visiting Democratic congressmen that the Anthony amendment was “an act of right and justice.” The suffrage amendment passed the House with exactly the two-thirds majority required.

I highly recommend Alice Paul, Claiming Power. 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of woman’s suffrage and what better way to celebrate than to learn about the woman who committed her life to the cause. Alice Paul, Claiming Power is a riveting account of Alice Paul’s life and the National Woman’s Party fight to secure the vote for women.

Join Joan Drury in a book discussion at Grand Marais Public Library soon (watch for notices for the event which has been rescheduled considering the current crisis) and listen to my interview with author J.D. Zahniser on May 28 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais and at http://www.wtip.org.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.