Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

In 2011 George Hodgman left Manhattan after a notable career as an editor for various magazines and publishing houses, including Houghton Mifflin and Vanity Fair, to return to Paris, Missouri to care for his aging mother. He had recently lost his job and was working freelance, feeling at loose ends alone in his apartment all day, and she had recently lost her drivers license after a minor mishap. Betty was in her late 80s and experiencing dementia. It was time to go home.

But going home was complicated. George Hodgman was gay. He’d struggled with addiction. He’d never felt completely accepted in Paris. He found his home and the support he needed in New York, and yet, Paris, Missouri would always be home.

At a wedding, he recognizes it:

“All around that night at the wedding were people I had grown up with . . . all my childhood was gathered around me. This was not just a collection of the elders of Paris, Missouri, it was more to me. It was Bettyville, my mother’s home, her place, with most of its surviving souls, those who had known her as a girl and who had been kind to me and watched me grow . . . all I wanted, all of a sudden, was to stay with them forever. I love my town. I love my home.”

Bettyville was billed as a remarkable, laugh-out-loud book by the New York Times, and there are many, many funny lines and moments. Like when George tells an old high school friend that he can’t go to Branson with him and his family to see Kenny Chesney because he cannot forgive Kenny for what he did to Renee Zellweger. When he visits the homes of friends and neighbors, he enjoys hiding their copies of books by Glen Beck and Ann Coulter in bags of peat moss in their garages. He wears a Cardinals cap, but can’t always remember what it is that they play. He brings dessert to a sick friend of his mother and fears that after eating his sludgelike pudding, she’ll need life support.

Bettyville was published in 2015, and I came to the party late. George Hodgman committed suicide this past summer and I read it with that new knowledge — not as a voyeur, but as someone who has lost family members to suicide – as a seeker, an empath, someone struggling to understand.

Perhaps there were clues in Bettyville. As a high school kid, his father wanted him to play football. “Can I go to boarding school?” he asks his dad after a particularly grueling practice, one where he is kicked by an older player and called a faggot. He tried, but something changed for him on that field.

“On the football field, I thought I was going to cry, but I told myself that whatever came, whatever happened, I could not do that. Not there. I didn’t. I swallowed my tears; I pulled them in. And they never came back. I cannot cry. Not since that day . . . I don’t think a coming together will happen to me in this lifetime. I am not sure I will ever again connect up – the watcher and the other unfiltered part of me—in the way other people do. There has been a rupture, and here, in this house, on these days when the sounds my mother makes seem especially loud I feel it, see the cost of long-lasting silences.”

George Hodgman remembers as a child saying his prayers at night with his mother. He also recalls the night that he decided it was time to say them alone. His mother was having a surgery and he was scared for her. He didn’t want her to worry by praying for her. But it changed something in their relationship. After telling her he wanted to pray alone, his mother abruptly leaves the room.

“I wanted to take it back, but it was too late, she was gone. She left so fast. She didn’t bring it up, but the next night she did not come to my room. Never again would we have our special time. She would not risk being sent away again. I grew up to be just like her. Like my mother, I flee at the slightest suggestion I am unwanted.”

If you’ve read Bettyville, maybe it’s time to read it again. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it for its insight as well as its humor.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

 

Swede Hollow by Ola Larsmo, translated by Tiina Nunnally, is a family saga that follows Gustaf and Anna Klar and their three children from Sweden to New York and eventually to Swede Hollow in St. Paul in the early twentieth century.

Gustaf and Anna leave Sweden in 1897 under a shroud of fog and a devastating secret. As their ship pulls in to Ellis Island, Anna grabs her daughters’ hands and rushes to the rail to see the Statue of Liberty.

“She had thought the statue would be white, but Lady Liberty was a green hue that reminded her of an old two-ore coin, the way it might look when emerging from the melting ice on the street in the springtime.”

Not the image of a bright shiny future that Anna had envisioned. Worse, that night their dreams are nearly dashed when a fire erupts on the island and the family narrowly escapes from the dorms where the immigrants are housed until they can be dispatched to other locations.

Once settled in New York, Gustaf is unable to secure a job to support his family, so eventually the family moves to the Midwest and a place called Swede Hollow. The Hollow is nothing more than a cluster of shacks in a ravine on the edge of St. Paul, Minnesota populated by Irish, Italian, and Swedish immigrants who mostly keep to themselves, although the occasional fight will break out when someone has too much to drink, or one group disparages another. Most of the men work for the railroads and the women clean houses, or work at laundries or in factories. The living conditions in the Hollow are unsanitary and the immigrants are subject to widespread discrimination. But the Klar family has many friends from the Old Country there and they help each other out.

The Klar daughters, Ellen and Elisabet find work cleaning houses, through a referral from their good neighbor, Inga, who is a font of knowledge on nearly every subject. Though Gustaf hoped to find work as a shoemaker, his trade in Sweden, those factories will only hire Germans. Elisabet loses her job at the sewing factory when her hand is injured and fires abound in factories with shoddy ventilation – a true history of factory life in the early twentieth century before the establishment of OSHA and labor unions. Ellen is the only family member who rises out of poverty and leaves the Hollow. She teaches herself to type after hours in the factory and gets a job as a typist and translator at a law firm, eventually marrying the owner’s son.

Swede Hollow is bleak, but an accurate account of the immigrant experience. It takes many generations for the Klar family to realize the “American Dream” but at the end of the novel, an unnamed descendent returns to the place his ancestors had called their home, the Hollow.

“Nowhere in the Hollow was there any remaining trace of human habitation.” But he clears his throat and shouts into the ravine, “Ancestors of mine! I’m here to tell you something important: I want you to know that Judy and I are going to have our first child in September . . . and we want you to know . . that without you we wouldn’t be here.”

Indeed, without them — the immigrants, the exiles, the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to be free – none of us non-native Americans would be here.

I recommend Swede Hollow for fans of O.E. Rollvaag’s Giants in the Earth, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

There are lots of places I would gladly return to, but the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead is not one that I would relish to revisit in real life. But in fiction? Sign me up. Especially, if the regime is about to come down at the hands of a woman.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, THE TESTAMENTS, was a joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. Written thirty plus years after The Handmaid’s Tale, and preempted by a Hulu series, The Testaments tries to traverse the space between the original novel and the new series – though the publisher insists that it is a separate story and is not connected to the television series. Where the two intersect, however, is with a character named June – a handmaid that escapes Gilead and gives birth to a second daughter, Nicole.

The story is told through three narrators: Aunt Lydia, and two young women – one, Agnes, raised in Gilead and the other, Daisy, raised in Canada by two operatives for the subversive Mayday operation. Aunt Lydia’s segments are the most satisfying. We learn about her early history and how she became the most powerful woman in the patriarchal society, so much so that a statue is erected in her honor – while she is still alive (unheard of! But you’ll have to read the book to find out why). Lydia subscribes and teaches the tenants of Gilead in her role as a most revered Aunt, but in the evenings she plots and records her traitorous intentions in a hidden notebook. “I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it — formless and shape-shifting. How can I regain myself? How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?” she wonders. Aunt Lydia is acerbic, sardonic, and witty. Her sections are a delight to read and immensely satisfying in contrast to the more passive character of Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale.

Some readers are disappointed in The Testaments, thinking it does not rise to the level of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the horrors of Gilead were already revealed to us in that book and I found Lydia’s backstory and the story of the fall of Gilead to be a long-delayed gratification. I relished in Lydia’s power and the subversive way in which she used it. “How quickly a hand becomes a fist,” she writes.

Why resurrect the story of Gilead all these years later? At her book launch of The Testaments, Atwood said that societies throughout the world resemble Gilead more so now than they did 34 years ago. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Atwood writes. How important it is to remember the past so that we can change the future.

I recommend The Testaments for fans of George Orwell’s 1984, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and of course, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Case Histories is the first in the Jackson Brodie detective series written by author Kate Atkinson, and I only recently discovered it. Lucky me, Big Sky, the fifth book in the series was released in June. If you’re looking for a series to fall in love with, this may be your ticket.

Jackson Brodie is a former policeman turned private detective who is mostly called upon to find lost things: cats, sisters, nieces, and killers. In Case Histories, he is hired by three separate families to solve cold cases.

  • Amelia and Julia are looking for their sister Olivia, who disappeared in 1970 at the age of three on a hot summer night while sleeping out in a tent in the backyard.
  • Theo’s daughter Laura was brutally attacked and murdered in the board room of his law firm in 1994 and he wants to find the murderer.
  • Shirley’s sister Michelle, was an infamous ax murderess. Shirley had promised to take care of Michelle’s infant child, but was too young to gain custody and she’d lost track of her after she’d been adopted.

At the beginning, it seems his client’s faith in his ability is misguided. He is preoccupied by his recent divorce and concerned that his ex-wife and her new boyfriend are turning his eight-year-old daughter Marlee in to a tramp. He isn’t even capable of finding a lost cat for godssakes, much less tracking a 35-year missing persons case, a 10-year murder case gone cold, or an infant who would now be an adult. And to make matters worse, it seems someone is out to kill him.

In Atkinson’s hands, we need not worry. Her plot is complex, though masterfully woven. Her characters are peculiar yet provocative. And her protagonist, Jackson Brodie, is a broken man with a debt to pay, or so he thinks, which makes for some interesting choices.

I recommend Case Histories for fans of P.D. James, Lee Child, and Matt Goldman.

In 2016, Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his novel, Underground Railroad. At the apex of his career, it could be a downhill slide from there – but Colson Whitehead just keeps getting better. In the midst of writing a crime novel, Whitehead read the story of the Arthur G. Dozier school, a juvenile detention facility in Florida where dozens of brutalized and murdered bodies of young African American men were found in unmarked graves. He immediately set aside his crime novel and began research for his new novel, The Nickel Boys.

Elwood Curtis is a brainy, hard-working high school student living with his grandmother during the 1960’s at the height of the civil rights movement. He listens relentlessly to an LP of Martin Luther King’s speeches and is a fervent believer in King’s philosophy of non-violent protest and believes that he is living on the cusp of a big change; a good change; a turn toward justice for all. He is given the opportunity to take college classes at a local “colored college” across town, but his bike is in disrepair so he decides to hitchhike his first day of class. He accepts a ride from a black man driving a shiny, new Plymouth Fury, which just happens to be stolen. Guilty by association, Elwood is sent to serve time at the Nickel Academy.

Soon after arriving, Elwood meets Turner, a street-wise young man who does not share Elwood’s belief that justice will prevail. He has seen things at the academy that give him nightmares. He warns Elwood about the White House, a building on the property where boys are taken and never seen from again.

“Your family asks what happened and they tell them you ran away,” Turner said.
“It’s not how it’s supposed to be.” Elwood replies.
“Don’t no one care about supposed to.”

But as Elwood tries to stay under the radar, he feels himself fading away and he decides to take one last chance to report what’s happening at the Nickel Academy to the authorities. “It was not enough to survive. You have to live.”

Colson Whitehead has written just the right book at the right time. The Nickel Boys is a harrowing and heartbreaking novel about a broken criminal justice system and the continuing battle for equality. I highly recommend it for fans of Lord of the Flies, Invisible Man, and The New Jim Crow.

Ocean Vuong won the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize for his critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. His debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is lyrical and crushing, framed as a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read. Little Dog lives with his volatile and abusive mother, Rose, and his schizophrenic grandmother, Lan. During the war, Lan served as a sex worker and his mother was fathered by an anonymous American G.I. The stories of the trauma Lan and Rose endured in Vietnam are woven throughout Little Dog’s narrative; he has grown up with them. In his letter he tries to explain the truth of his own existence to a mother not always able to step outside of her own pain.

“In a previous draft of this letter,” he writes, “one I’ve since deleted, I told you how I came to be a writer. How I, the first in our family to go to college, squandered it on a degree in English. How I fled my shitty high school to spend my days in New York lost in library stacks, reading obscure texts by dead people, most of whom never dreamed a face like mine floating over their sentences – and least of all that those sentences would save me. But none of that matters now. What matters is that all of it, even if I didn’t know it then, brought me here, to this page, to tell you everything you’ll never know.”

Vuong addresses a wide swath of issues: race, class, prejudice, sexuality, and addiction. The novel reads like a memoir and in fact, borrows much from the author’s life, which lends authenticity to the writing. Perhaps some of the more difficult chapters are those that deal with Little Dog’s sexuality. His sexual relationship with Trevor, the grandson of the owner of a tobacco farm where he works, is graphically depicted, not for the faint of heart, yet reveals Little Dog’s intense desire to be seen and understood by another human being. Trevor is wild and tender, the product of a motherless existence and an addiction to opioids prescribed to him after a broken ankle.

Little Dog, Trevor, Lan, and Rose, all of them are looking for freedom and connection, a safe place to be and be known.

But “All freedom is relative,” Vuong writes, “and sometimes it’s no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there, as when they “free” wild animals into nature preserves only to contain them yet again by larger borders. But I took it anyway, that widening. Because sometimes not seeing the bars is enough.”

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous isn’t a comfortable read. Its poetic style makes it feel stream-of-conscious and the plot does not march forward in a linear fashion. If you are a fan of “fade to black” moments in the area of sexuality, you will most likely be uncomfortable reading the raw scenes between Trevor and Little Dog. But if you are a fan of lyrical language, of the essay, a fan of the struggle – as in understanding oneself and others outside of your experience, you should give it a read.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Finally, a book that embraces women of a certain age for their talent, tenacity, and can-do spirit (who actually like beer!) Helen and Edith are sisters who have a falling out after their father leaves his entire inheritance to younger sister Helen.

“His heirs were two daughters, neither of whom wanted to farm, nor married men who did. And now one of these daughters was asking him to leave it all, every cent, to her. Not out of malice or anger to the other, but just because one had a plan and the other didn’t.”

Helen’s plan was to refashion her husband’s family’s failing soda-pop business into a brewery. She wanted to brew something new — something for the times, light beer. Their motto? Drink lots. It’s Blotz. Helen became a successful brewer and a savvy business woman and she wished she could reach out to Edith, but she knew she had done something unforgiveable.

Edith struggled to make a living. She worked in a nursing home and café baking pies that brought her some acclaim, but little income. When her daughter and son-in-law were killed in a car accident, her teen-aged granddaughter Diana came to live with her. Diana recognized the precariousness of their financial situation and wanted to help her grandmother — but her methods could’ve landed her in juvie jail. Fate was on her side and through the benevolence of a local brewmaster, Diana learned how to brew an IPA that could stand head-to-head with the best of them. Could she save their family from financial ruin? Not without the help of Edith and her compadre of granny friends who learned to brew craft beers with catchy names and ingredients.

“Along with the beers that Diana had brewed, the Artemis lineup now included Grandma Betsy’s Strawberry Gose, Grandma Linda’s Chocolate Stout, and Grandma Lucy’s Pale Ale . . . they’d also made a label for Grandma Edith’s Rhubarb Pie-In-A Bottle Ale.”

After years of successfully brewing Blotz’s light beer, Helen’s luck had run out. Beer palates were changing, micro-breweries were popping up everywhere, and it seemed that Helen’s comeuppance might come at the hand of her sister’s granddaughter. But that wouldn’t be very Minnesota-nice, would it?

J. Ryan Stradal was born and raised in Minnesota and his affection for the quirky characters of Nicollet Falls  and Artemis Brewery is apparent. The women are strong, smart, sassy, and hard-working. And while the narrative is not linear, this reader never felt lost. I highly recommend J. Ryan Stradal’s THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA for fans of Lorna Landvik and Sarah Stonich.

Listen to my interview with J. Ryan Stradal on November 28 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais.

In the winter of 2001, Sheila O’Connor accompanied her mother, June to the Gale Family Library at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul  in search of information on her mother’s birth and adoption, armed with a letter from the court granting her mother’s access to her own history.  O’Connor’s mother was born in 1935 at the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre, MN. She was the daughter of a fifteen-year-old inmate, referred to as V, who was serving a six-year sentence for incorrigibility.

 For the next decade, O’Connor studied texts and academic articles on the history of female incarceration and the criminalization of female sexuality. What she discovered was the systemic institutionalization of girls who had been deemed immoral or in danger of becoming immoral – some of them as young as six years old. In actuality, many of these girls were victims of physical or sexual abuse prior to their commitments — victims blamed for the actions of their perpetrators.

At the center of the novel is the question: who was V and what happened to her? V had a gift for dancing and singing and aspirations for Hollywood, leaving her vulnerable, a target for unscrupulous men who wished to take advantage of her youth and naivety. Her father was dead and her mother remarried and was often working and inattentive. When V became pregnant by the much older manager of the club where she performed, she was incarcerated  at the Home School, an institution whose motive was to socially readjust girls and make them decent wives, mothers, and home-makers. The girls worked in the fields and learned to cook, clean and sew; all emphasized as aspects necessary for keeping a proper home. After their babies were born, the young mothers were required to nurse their infants for the first three months before the child was put up for adoption as a “kind of reparation for having brought him into the world so handicapped.” V was not released immediately, in fact most of the young girls were put on probation for a period of several years after their children were born and sent to work for families as domestic servants.

Evidence of V, A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions is a hybrid novel; without access to much of V’s story, O’Connor wrote a fictional one based upon the facts she was able to glean from documents, records, and observations of experts in the juvenile justice system. She filled in the gaps with poetry and fiction in an attempt to piece together the life of her grandmother, a life she hoped would explain the familial trauma that had been passed down through the generations. Evidence of V is a compelling read –  the story of V and all that was stolen from her, the criminalization of female sexuality, the forced adoptions and servitude and morality. In an era of turning back a woman’s right to choose, Evidence of V is a manifesto for women; a poignant reminder of the importance of female autonomy during a time when the rights of women are becoming increasingly politicized.

Evidence of V will be published in October and is available for pre-order from your favorite bookstore.

Listen to my interview with Sheila O’Connor on Superior Reads September 26 at 7:00 pm. Sheila will be presenting at the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival November 7-10. Watch the Grand Marais Art Colony website for registration information.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger is a big-hearted novel that doesn’t disappoint.

Four orphans form an unlikely family in 1932 Minnesota: Motherless Odie O’Banion and his brother Albert, are the only Caucasians at the Lincoln Indian Training School, committed there after their father’s death; their friend Mose, a Native American boy whose tongue was cut out in an attack that left his mother dead; and Emmy, orphaned at six after a crushing tornado kills her mother. The Lincoln School is a dark place — DiMarco, a groundskeeper-cum-sadistic enforcer for the school superintendent, Thelma Brickman, also known as the Black Witch enjoys giving the children the belt for infractions large and small, but even more he enjoys isolating them in the “quiet room” where he can do with them as he wishes.

Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy eventually escape the Black Witch and her sadistic minions under the cover of darkness in a canoe, each of them searching for something; home, identity, and safety. They are running from the Black Witch, who claims that the older boys kidnapped Emmy. The police are after them, and they must hide their identities. 

Krueger has a stethoscope to the heart of each of his characters — he knows what makes each of them tick, the longings buried deep in their broken and empty chambers, he also knows what each of them needs to become whole. The orphans travel the Gilead to the Mississippi hoping to eventually reach St. Louis where Odie and Albert remember having an aunt — their mother’s sister, Julia.

The cast is filled with remarkable characters: One-Eyed Jack, a hard-drinking farmer who has lost his family and is about to lose his farm; Sister Eve,  a kind-hearted faith healer who may or may not be running a scam; and Aunt Julia who harbors more than one dangerous secret.

 The novel is framed by an aging Odie, looking back on his early years:

“Our former selves are never dead. We speak to them, arguing against decisions we know will bring only unhappiness, offering consolation and hope, even though they cannot hear. “Albert,” I whisper, “stay clearheaded. Mose, stay strong. Emmy hold to the truth of your visions. And, Odie, Odie, do not be afraid.”

William Kent Krueger’s super power is creating characters with real depth and placing them in stories that reveal truths about what it is to be human in this world. This Tender Land is a novel in the tradition of the Great American Novel. Highly recommended for fans of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck, as well as contemporary author Leif Enger.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster and Netgalley for providing me with a digital advanced reading copy for review.

Lin Salisbury is host and producer of Superior Reads and Superior Reviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota and on the web at http://www.wtip.org and http://www.superiorreads.blog. Listen to her author interviews and reviews on http://www.wtip.org and http://www.superiorreads.blog.

Dessa is a rapper, singer, and member of the Doomtree hip-hop crew – she’s also a brilliant essayist with a philosophy degree and a keen interest in science. In her new collection of essays, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science and Senseless Love,  she examines love, science, and language.

In “The Fool That Bets Against Me,” she writes to Geico asking if they will insure  her broken heart:

“I am a songwriter who makes her living writing torch songs. I’m able to do that well because I’m naturally melancholic and also because of unresolved feelings for a former romantic partner. If I were to find myself in a state of unchecked, protracted joy, I’d either have to re-career or take a lengthy sabbatical to acquire the skill set necessary for a new mode of self-expression.” Within twenty-four hours she got a rejection call from Geico.

In “Congratulations” she considers whether she will be able to make it in New York City. She finds herself traveling back to Minneapolis where she has an established network and reputation two or three times a month to play a show or give a lecture. “Making money in the Midwest to spend in Manhattan,” she writes, “Is like hustling backward. The exchange rate is against you; it’s like getting paid in pesos to pay rent in yen.” She needed to find a way to make money in New York, but it was slow going. Then someone picked up her chapbook and invited her to  appear as a guest performer at a showcase in Brooklyn and read one of her poems. Someone else invited her to rap an eight-bar verse at a fancy hotel party where Jon Bastiste, the musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert heard her. And then she hit the big time – she got a call from Lin-Manuel Miranda asking her to cover a song for The Hamilton Mixtape.  The mixtape hit number one on the Billboard charts the first week. It was streamed over a million times and though it wasn’t a rocket ship to stardom, it helped open doors to other opportunities.

Easily the most fascinating essay in the collection – and the one that reveals her amazing intellect and scientific curiosity, is “Call Off Your Ghost.” In it, she chronicles a project she undertook with a team of neuroscientists to try to clinically excise her romantic feelings for her on-again off-again boyfriend. “I was trying to change my brain to change my mind. If I could successfully modify the hand,” she writes, “Maybe the fist would let go.” She undergoes an fMRI and works with a neuroscientist, wired up in her father’s kitchen, to measure her brain activity to see if it was successful.

I recommend Dessa’s My Own Devices for fans of Patty Smith’s Just Kids. You don’t have to be a fan of Doomtree’s or Dessa’s music to get into her collection. If you appreciate intellectual curiosity, scientific theory, and philosophy, you should check it out.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews and other reviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota or on the web at www.wtip.org/superior-reads and www.superiorreads.blog.