Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

I read a lot of books this year, but these were my favorites. My favorite interviews were: Peter Heller, Jai Chakrabarti, Maggie Shipstead, and Klecko. You can listen to my interviews here, of course, or on WTIP Radio the fourth Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday at 6:00 am. Here’s to more good books in 2022!

In Stephen Harrigan’s big-hearted coming-of-age novel, LEOPARD IS LOOSE, five-year-old Grady’s tranquil world is upended when a leopard escapes from the nearby zoo. It’s 1952 and Grady and his 7-year-old brother Danny live with their widowed mother, Bethie, in a two-bedroom backyard apartment across a small patch of yard from her parents and siblings. For most of Grady’s life, the family compound has created a sanctuary where they could each heal from the devastating trauma of the war.

Grady’s father was a test pilot in WWII and passed away before he was born. His uncles, Emmett and Frank, are combat veterans who suffer from PTSD; but with the best intentions, they try to fill in the gap left by the boys’ father’s death. When a leopard escapes from his pen at the Oklahoma City Zoo, Grady and Danny persuade their uncles to join the throngs of gun-toting citizens trying to track it down. The new threat to the community reveals the dark underbelly of the segregated community and suddenly everything that Grady thought to be true and safe and good is imbued with a new sense of distrust.

Harrigan has an astonishing ability to embody the mind of his five-year-old protagonist. Many an author tips over into treacle when writing from a child’s perspective, but Harrigan is not one of them. He does this in part by telling the story from the perspective of seventy-year-old Grady, but we see everything through a child’s eye.

Grady is the soul of the novel, and his mother Bethie is the heart. I was moved by Grady’s untarnished love for her. His unwavering belief in her goodness is aptly conveyed when a tornado strikes the town, and a young man is hit by lightning. Bethie, a nurse who’d worked with trauma patients in the war, acts quickly to pull the young man to safety and apply life-saving measures, and Grady, Danny, and Bethie’s parents are witnesses to her heroism.

“The love of my mother was a feature of my world that I never gave a thought to. It was powerfully present but unremarkable as the ground we stood on. There was no beginning to it and no possibility that it could ever be withdrawn. But tonight, maybe for the first time, I recognized that I was privileged to be a recipient of it. I had been jealous when she had first called that stricken boy “honey,” and the fact that she had saved his life had made her seem the last hour or so oddly distant, a person who belonged not just to Danny and me anymore but threatened to belong to the whole world.”

Grady need not worry; Bethie’s embrace is big enough for all of them.

I recommend LEOPARD IS LOOSE for fans of character-driven fiction. Listen to my Superior Reads interview with Stephen Harrigan on January 27 at 7:00 pm, Saturday, January 29 at 6:00 am, or on the web at WTIP.org. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Sometimes the only way to recover from bad choices is to leave them behind, and that’s what Klecko did. His newest poetry collection, 3AM AUSTIN TEXAS, is subtitled Boy on the Run, and it’s an account of a painful time in his life – a time when he hitchhiked from Minnesota to Texas in the middle of winter in search of himself. Along the way, he experienced excruciating cold, hunger, and loneliness. The little things helped: ride, a meal, a twenty-dollar bill, a Pepsi, a book, and even a prayer. But mostly he had to muscle through it. Some of these poems will make you cry. Like when hunger becomes the only thing he feels. Sadness, fear, loneliness can mostly be pushed away, but hunger wakes him in the middle of the night and forces him to leave the safety of his sleeping bag under a bridge. Later, he counts out the Wonder Bread – twenty-four slices in case you’re wondering – enough for twelve sandwiches – which he makes by laying the bread out on his sleeping bag and spreading on the peanut butter with a piece of cardboard. Did I mention that this collection might break your heart? It might. But like me, you’ll find that the saving grace is that you know that Klecko lives. And you think about the hard stuff that formed him  . . . the chrysalis from which he emerged to become an internationally acclaimed baker and an award-winning poet. Klecko won the Midwest Book Award for his poetry collection, HITMAN-BAKER-CASKETMAKER; AFTERMATH OF AN AMERICAN’S CLASH WITH ICE.

3 AM AUSTIN TEXAS is long-listed for the 2021 Indie Best Award. It’s a worthy contender.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. You can listen to my interview with Klecko on Superior Reads on wtip.org and at www.superiorreads.blog.

I always like to end the year on a high note and Louise Erdrich’s THE SENTENCE was a fabulous way to wrap up my reading year. Compelling, propulsive, entertaining, and an important edition to Erdrich’s oeuvre, THE SENTENCE might just be my favorite book of 2021.

If you love books, if you’ve ever been in Birchbark Books, and especially if you are or have been a bookseller, you’re going to love THE SENTENCE. From the ghost that haunts the early pages to the protagonist’s recommended reading list on the last, I was enthralled. I didn’t want it to end, so I read slowly, luxuriously savoring every syllable, sentence, and scene. Am I gushing? Let me tell you why . . .

Tookie, our protagonist, is humble, conflicted, and a bibliophile who is very well read, even if she did much of her reading in solitary confinement. She’s an Ojibwe woman with a troubled past. She’s arrested by Pollux, a tribal police officer and her future husband (we’ll get to that), for transporting a dead body across state lines. It was a well-intentioned favor for a friend – retrieve her friend’s boyfriend’s body from the home of his current lover, in exchange for a load of cash that will help make Tookie’s bank account flush again. Unfortunately, it was a set up and the corpse had cocaine duck-taped to his armpits. She got sixty years but after serving ten, her sentence is commuted. Upon her release, she gets a job at Birchbark Books, the iconic Minnesota and Native American independent bookstore owned by Louise Erdrich. Louise makes an appearance or two as well, which adds to the charm of the novel.

Four years later, one of Tookie’s more annoying customers, Flora is found dead, with a handwritten manuscript splayed open next to her body. During a staff meeting, Tookie speculates about which sentence may have killed Flora – and Louise responds with a wistful, “I wish I could write a sentence like that.” Flora’s daughter brings the murderous manuscript to Tookie, and not long after that, Flora’s ghost starts showing up at the bookstore. Flora was a wannabe who claimed an unsubstantiated Native American heritage. When Tookie starts reading the manuscript, she discovers that it is the story of Native girl who falls ill, is rescued by a white farm family, and is then enslaved by them. The story haunts Tookie, and she tries unsuccessfully to burn the manuscript before finally burying it under a tree in her back yard. Flora’s presence at the bookstore is banal at first – a book knocked off a shelf – but as the weeks progress, becomes malevolent. She clearly wants something from Tookie, and it’s not the book she ordered before her death. One night, alone in the bookstore packing mail orders, Flora pushes Tookie to the floor and “unzipping her like a wet suit” tries to inhabit her.

If all this isn’t unsettling enough, there is a frightening new coronavirus killing people around the globe, and in Tookie’s own neighborhood, George Floyd is murdered by the police. In the days that follow Floyd’s murder, Tookie’s neighborhood becomes a war zone, and Hetta, Pollux’s daughter, shows up with a new baby in tow. Tookie’s closed off heart begins to crack open. She’s spent years pushing away the memory of her drug-addicted mother and keeping Pollux (though she’s crazy for him) an emotional arms length away, but now Hetta, who has previously only shown disdain for Tookie, is calling her “Mom”, and letting her hold her impossibly darling baby.

“When my feelings were too much for me I used to wrap myself in blankets and lie in my closet waiting for the feelings to pass. At one point, I decided to become a person who didn’t feel so much. I stand by that decision, though it didn’t work.”

When Flora attempted her Tookie break-in, it was as if everything in Tookie’s life broke open – fires break out in the neighborhood, tear gas hangs in the air, and the future is uncertain.

“I want to forget this year, but I’m also afraid I won’t remember this year. I want this now to be the now where we save our place, your place, on earth.” Tookie tells her beloved grandson.

Erdrich has written another masterpiece. THE SENTENCE is a compelling read that serves as a time capsule. Maybe one day we will look back and remember the Summer of 2020 – not just as a period of loss and trauma – but as the antidote to it. E.B. White famously wrote that a writer must not only reflect and interpret the world but must also sound the alarm. THE SENTENCE does just that.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews the fourth Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday morning at 6:00 am on WTIP Superior Reads.

RayAnne is back in Sarah Stonich’s REELING; in this second volume of RayAnne’s adventures, the show is going on the road – all the way to New Zealand.

As the host of public television’s first all-woman fishing talk show, RayAnne knows a thing or two about fishing. What she’s less knowledgeable about is relationships.

The same quirky, endearing cast of characters from FISHING! form the backdrop of REELING. RayAnne and her mother, Bernadette, bond briefly after her grandmother Dot’s death, but then they’re off on their disparate adventures – RayAnne to New Zealand to film the new season of Fishing and Bernadette to some far-flung location to mentor post-menopausal women on their Blood Tide Quests. Big Rick, RayAnne’s father, is married to his sixth wife, a born-again evangelical, and her brother is trying to resist the temptation of his wife’s gorgeous cousin who has the hots for him. Meanwhile, Hal, RayAnne’s sponsor and boyfriend is dog-sitting Rory (again). She could bring Rory to the DogGone Inn, but Rory’s not crazy about other dogs. “Like RayAnne, he can be awkward around his own species.” Cassi, her intrepid producer falls for a hobbit, and keeping in step with the craziness, RayAnne’s dead grandmother, Dot, keeps showing up in the most unlikely places: her Ipad, her phone, her rear-view mirror.

RayAnne’s relationship with Hal isn’t brand new, but because she travels so much of the time, she isn’t sure yet if she can trust it. With a father who’s a serial-husband and a mother who eschews commitment but not necessarily sex, no wonder RayAnne is wary. She measures every relationship in the present by those from her past.

Stonich has a gift for revealing vulnerability in the most unlikely places. RayAnne’s first interview in New Zealand is with Ellie Mann, a tough-talking, tuna trawler captain who puts her to work throwing bait out the back of the boat. Donning a helmet with a visor to protect her from the fish frenzy that follows, RayAnne feels an unfamiliar squeamishness at reaching into a pail of live bait.

“She never used to be squeamish about such things; it’s just that since Gran, she’s become so aware of the frailness of living creatures and thinks too much about skin – such a ridiculously frail membrane between life and death.”

RayAnne wonders if Dot is coming back to teach her some important lesson, or if by keeping her on the hook, her grandmother is prevented from entering the eternal rest she so deserves. Moving on, Dot tells her, is a choice. Stonich casts these words casually out on the page, but they’re layered with meaning.

Lucky for us, there will be one more book in the Fishing Trilogy. As I closed REELING with the sadness you feel when saying goodbye to a friend, even if only temporarily, I held onto Gran’s closing words:

“It’s not the end of the world, Bean. You think you’ve come to the end, but all you need to do is turn the corner and there, waiting, is the next perfect thing.”

I’ll be waiting expectantly for RayAnne’s next adventure.

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

At the dawn of summer 2020, with the world spinning from the Covid 19 pandemic, Minneapolis went into a nose dive after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. In the weeks and months that followed, Minneapolis became the epicenter of worldwide demands for justice. In a compelling new collection, WE ARE MEANT TO RISE, edited by Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura, Indigenous writers and writers of color bear witness to one of the most unsettling years in the history of the United States.

Marcie Rendon, Anishinabe author and citizen of the White Earth Nation, ends her essay describing the seven clans of the Anishinabe, fish, marten, bear, deer, crane, loon, bird, eagle, and wolf – each clan responsible for a different role – the bear clan serving as both police (protectors) and healers: “Imagine a world,” she writes, “where the police (protectors) and healers are one.”

Kao Kalia Lang, Hmong author, tells of a time when she “cleaned” her older sister Dawb’s room, selling off her beloved CDs for pennies. Admonishing her after the fact, her father says, “If you can’t get along with each other, how are you going to get along with the world?” He taught her that a person’s goodness starts in a family, then extends to a community, and grows out from there.

Shannon Gibney, African American author, quotes Baldwin “Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame . . . any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.” Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, George Floyd – all of them – Gibney writes, like Baldwin’s stars aflame, their voices shaking heaven and earth to their foundation.

WE ARE MEANT TO RISE was born of Carolyn Holbrook’s “More Than a Single Story,” a series of panel discussions and public conversations that she created to offer a platform for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color writers and arts activists. David Mura, co-editor, writes that the anthology is offered as an encouragement for each of us, no matter our ethnicity, to speak out, tell our story, and own our power.

WE ARE MEANT TO RISE is a testimony to the strength, power, and resilience of a community, and inspires all of humanity to rise up higher to serve a greater good.

I recommend WE ARE MEANT TO RISE for readers interested in political and community action, for activists and artists and people of all races and ethnicities. Preorders are currently available. November 23, 2021 release from University of Minnesota Press.

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.

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