Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

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.

In 1951, three brothers left their family home one afternoon to go to Farview Park in North Minneapolis and disappeared: Kenneth was eight, David was six, and Danny was four. Their older brother, Gordon had stayed behind that afternoon to fix a broken knife sheath and intended to meet up with them later. When he went to the park, the boys were gone. Their parents, Betty and Kenneth Klein, never gave up hope that someday they would find out what had happened to their children.

In 1998, author Jack El-Hai called a phone number in a classified ad pleading for information on the missing children, an ad the Kleins placed every year. Betty and Kenneth invited Jack to meet with them at their home in rural Monticello, Minnesota, where they had moved in the years since their sons’ disappearance. Betty was seventy-three and Kenneth was eighty-one and undergoing cancer treatment at the time, but they agreed to share their story with Jack El-Hai for a piece he was writing for Minnesota Monthly. The Kleins had a large family – five remaining sons, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, and though they were devoted to their family, they could not stop thinking about the part of their family that remained missing.

In 1999, bones were discovered in a Wright County gravel pit not far from where the Kleins had relocated. They were later identified as century-old remains of Native American origin, but years later, a Wright County Detective uncovered the files while organizing old department records and turned them over to the Criminal Investigation Division of the sheriff’s office. Deputy Lance Salls remembered the case of the three boys who had gone missing in Minneapolis and was curious about the case. He assigned another deputy to collect a DNA sample from Betty Klein to add to the registry maintained by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Her husband had since died, but Betty told the deputy that she thought the case had been improperly investigated by the Minneapolis Police and pleaded with her to look through the clippings, photographs, and records that she had collected over the years. Deputy Jessica Miller found Betty’s story compelling and she and Deputy Salls agreed to examine the Klein case on their own time to see what they could do.

The Lost Brothers tells the story of the missing Klein brothers, the Minneapolis police investigation, and the Wright County Sherriff’s office re-investigation – including new leads and possible suspects discovered in the process. Jack El-Hai drew upon a wide range of sources for the book: interviews with the family and Wright County deputies, newspaper and magazine articles from the 1940s through the 2000s, as well as case files of the Minneapolis Police Department and the FBI.

It is a heart-breaking and compelling read, part family story, true crime, and investigative journalism. Jack El-Hai’s effort to reconstruct the case of the missing Klein brothers, the initial investigation, the family interviews, and the new evidence and leads discovered by Wright County detectives is admirable. He has followed the case for over twenty years and he hopes that someday, the remaining Klein family will have the answers their parents so desperately sought.

The Lost Brothers is available for pre-order from your local bookstore or online bookseller and will be published in October 2019. Twin Cities Public Television will produce a podcast for release this fall – Long Lost – a special investigative history series that will explore what history can reveal about what went wrong in the case, where we go from here, and what the public can do to help.

Special thanks to the University of Minnesota Press for providing me with an advance review copy.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Read all my reviews and listen to my author interview with Jack El Hai on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota  on August 22 at 7:00 pm and after airing on line at www.wtip.org/superior-reads and www.superiorreads.blog.

It’s not often that I review a book with these two disparate comments: I loved this book, but I disliked the ending. Typically, if I don’t like the ending of a book, it ruins the entire thing for me. Not the case for Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Let’s back track.

The book’s prologue is set in 1969. A dead man, Chase Andrews, has been found in the marsh. The police suspect he has been murdered and alternating chapters deal with the investigation.

Kya’s story opens in 1952 when she is six years old. Kya Clark is abandoned piecemeal by her family — first her mother, then her siblings, and finally her father leaves and never returns. Kya is only ten years old when she has to learn to make her own way.  She lives in a dilapidated shack in the marshland on the North Carolina coast.

 She learns to fish and forage for clams and sells what she doesn’t eat to her friend Jumpin’, a black man who runs a convenience store and gas station, and is able to buy grits and other staples to survive. Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel look out for Kya, providing her with boxes of used clothing as she grows, and making sure she always has enough to eat. It’s a lonely existence, until Kya meets Tate Walker, a local boy who befriends her and teaches her to read. Over the years, she successfully evades the truant officers who stop by to occasionally check on her. She prefers to learn by reading the books that Tate loans her and becomes an expert on the flowers, fauna, and fowl of the coastland. As she grows, Kya longs for companionship and love and for a time falls for Tate, until college tears him away. Vulnerable and alone, she meets Chase, the town golden boy and jock, and though her better instincts tell her not to trust him, her years of loneliness leave her defenseless and exposed.  Kya is no match for Chase’s treachery.  She mourns each of her losses, and the gulls become her only constant companions. She collects feathers, shells, and wildflowers and categorizes them by order, genus, and species in her shack, studying old college textbooks and eventually writing her own field guides. To the townies, she’s gained the reputation of a wild child — the Marsh Girl — mysterious and maligned — and for the most part they leave her to herself, until Chase turns up dead in the marsh and she becomes the key suspect.

Author Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who has published three nonfiction books, winning the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing. Where the Crawdads Sing is her debut novel. Her prose is poetic and her lush descriptions of the marsh and its animal inhabitants render the landscape a character. Kya’s story of abandonment and longing broke my heart. It was Kya’s coming-of-age story that I found the most compelling, and the murder mystery woven throughout the book in alternating chapters, fell flat for me at the end. Still, I found Where the Crawdads Sing to be a ravishing debut that touched on contemporary environmental and social issues.

I recommend Where the Crawdads Sing for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Kaye Gibbons.

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

 

 

At the age of 23, author Shannon Gibney was awarded a prestigious Carnegie Mellon fellowship and traveled to Ghana to research the connections between African Americans and continental Africans. While there, she stumbled upon the history of Liberia—colonized in the 19th century by freed African American slaves only to recreate the conditions of oppression they had fled from in America. It was a story that held her captive for twenty years, wrestling with whether or not she had the right to tell the story and wondering whether she had the writing chops to honor it.

Dream Country is the result of many drafts and narrative threads that finally coalesced into a novel that spans four generations of an African American family with ties to Liberia.

Kollie is a young Liberian refugee attending high school at Brooklyn Park High School. There, he becomes the target of discrimination by African American students who harass him for being too African. There is a distinction made between the two groups and Kollie tires of the constant fights and slurs thrown his way. He fights back and is expelled and his once promising life in America is gutted when his father sends him back to Liberia. Though he will return many years later, he and his family will never be the same.

Yasmine is a young widow, mother of four, who through the efforts of the American Colonization Society is convinced that she can provide a better life for her children in Liberia. Once there, the family must learn to farm through droughts and drenching rains and flooding. They are not welcomed by the indigenous tribes and life is not only difficult but dangerous. Through the years of loss and toil, she becomes head of the most prosperous farms in Monrovia and soon has indigenous servants that she mistreats as she had been mistreated.

Each story as compelling as the last, Gibney writes back and forth through time and continents. Togar flees into the bush in 1926 to escape the militia determined to force him to work the plantations of the African American slaves who colonized Liberia decades earlier. Ujay an Evelyn fall in love on the cusp of the 1980 revolution. Angel, Kollie’s sister, tries to tell the story of her broken family while creating a new kind of family of her own.

Gibney is a master story-teller. Her research is thorough and she expertly weaves together the stories of her characters. More importantly, Gibney is a writer who is careful not to misrepresent the truth or inflate it for the sake of propelling the story forward. Dream Country introduced me to a history that I’d not been taught, shocking in its profundity and compelling in its implications over the generations. Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the back of the book – it tells the story behind the story. Dream Country, Shannon writes, “is for all those on the continent and in the diaspora who feel they have no home due to the relentless violence of colonialism and enduring systems of white supremacy . . . It is for anyone anywhere who has tried to make themselves whole through small pieces of a larger story they could cobble together. It is for everything we have forgotten, and what we dream.”

I recommend Dream Country for fans of Homegoing and Behold the Dreamers.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews and reviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, MN and on the web at www.wtip.org and my blog http://www.superiorreads.blog.

In 2016, Dani Shapiro, like so many others, submitted her DNA to Ancestry.com on a whim. What she found out would change her life forever – her father was not her father. Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love is the story of Dani Shapiro’s search for her biological father.

Whenever Dani told people that she’d grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family, she got a strange look – the blond haired, blue eyed Dani didn’t look Jewish. She spoke fluid Hebrew. She’d gone to Hebrew school. She remembers playing with the fringe of her father’s tallis during services. Her father was the oldest son born into a family “obsessed with recording itself – a family conscious of its own legacy.” Her ancestors were the foundation upon which she built her life – the ballast during the stormier times in her life – the compass when she didn’t know what to do next.

It was surreal. She called her half-sister, Susie, a New York City psychoanalyst, to see if she had done any genetic testing. Susie was her father’s daughter from an earlier marriage. They weren’t close, but they were both part of a large Orthodox Jewish clan. Their grandfather had been a founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue. Their uncle had been president of the Orthodox Union. Their grandparents had been pillars of an observant Jewish community both in America and in Israel. Dani and Susie had a shared history . . . and then suddenly, they didn’t.

Dani was 54 years old. Her father had died when she was 23 in a car accident that had also left her mother badly injured. Now it seemed, Dani was losing her father again. She’d been very close to her father and had a contentious relationship with her mother. She remembered a conversation she’d had with her mother on the second anniversary of her father’s death. A conversation about a fertility clinic in Philadelphia. Her parents had had difficulty conceiving. Her mother told her: “I would go to Philadelphia, and they would monitor where I was in my cycle and when it was time, they would call your father down for the procedure.” Artificial insemination. What Dani found out later was that because of the shame of infertility, doctors often mixed the father’s semen with donor semen, and sometimes the father was told simply that his semen would be mixed with a treatment. In 1962, ancestry.com did not exist. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that it was even possible to test for DNA.

The results of Dani’s test set her on a quest. Would she be able to find an anonymous sperm donor all these years later? If she did, would he want to meet her? Did she have siblings? There were a million questions running through her mind. With the help of her husband, a journalist and screenwriter, she eventually learned the identity of her biological father.

Inheritance is a memoir about identity, about what makes a family and what it takes to be a father. In the last chapter of the book, Dani Shapiro stands at the podium during a reading, gazing out at the family she has only recently met, and searches the room for the father who “loved her into being” the father she lost and found again, the father she knows is not there physically, but is ever-present.

I recommend Inheritance for fans of Glitter and Glue and The Best We Could Do. Listen to my author interviews and read all my reviews on http://www.superiorreads.blog and on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais www.wtip.org.

As the only child of a devoted Orthodox Jew and an agnostic, often critical mother, Dani Shapiro found herself searching for a spiritual practice of her own. Her father had died in a car accident, her son had survived a potentially life-threatening illness, and she struggled in her relationship with a narcissistic mother. There were the usual demands on her as a wife, mother, daughter, and successful writer – endless deadlines, meetings, errands, and obligations – and she wanted more. With a devout father and an ambivalent mother, where did she fit in? She wanted a faith to pass on to her son, but she didn’t know what she believed, so she began a spiritual quest. She consulted rabbis, yogis, and Buddhists. Ultimately, she found herself asking the questions: who am I, why am I here, and how shall I live.

At her Uncle Moe’s orthodox funeral she finds herself explaining to her son, “They believe in God differently than I do.” As she watched her relatives performing the prescribed rituals of their faith, she felt conflicted. They believed without question. They had certainty – as if they had a “lock on God.” She would always have doubt.
She continued to seek. She read. In her acknowledgements she notes the books she found inspiring during this period: For the Time Being by Annie Dillard; The Bhudda by Karen Armstrong; A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis; and many more, including the poetry of Jane Kenyon.

Shapiro and her husband joined a synagogue. Their son attended Hebrew school. She went to therapy with her mother. “Whenever I took an action – yoga or meditation practice, trying a new shul, reading a bit from the Buddhist wisdom book to Jacob in the morning, expressing gratitude at the dinner table – I felt . . . better.”

The best memoirs use the personal to connect with the universal, and Dani Shapiro does it well. She ends Devotion with this: “Each of us human, full of longing, reaching out with our whole selves for something impossible to touch. Still, we are reaching, reaching.”
I recommend Devotion for fans of Annie Dillard and Karen Armstrong.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Read all of my reviews and listen to my author interviews here and on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais and on the web at http://www.wtip.org.

Erin Carr is a documentary filmmaker who just happens to be the daughter of former New York Times journalist David Carr. Erin and her twin sister were born prematurely to their cocaine-addicted parents. After leaving his infant daughters in a car while he went into a crack house to score a hit, David Carr straightened out his life. The girls mother abandoned them for her addiction. David famously wrote about his struggle with addiction in his memoir Night of the Gun.  He became a single parent at a time when most people wouldn’t trust him with a fiscus plant, he said. Later he remarried and had a third daughter.

In 2015, after moderating a panel, David Carr was found unconscious at The Times and rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Erin’s memoir recounts her relationship with her father and her own struggle with alcoholism.

Shattered by grief, Erin begins sorting through almost 2000 email exchanges between father and daughter. “Always remember to update me on your tiny victories in addition to your persistent challenges. I am so, so proud of you.” But how will she do that now that he is gone? Her father was her greatest champion, offering her career and life advice that was sometimes acerbic, often challenging, but always inspirational. “Ask people what mistakes they’ve made so you can get their shortcuts,” he told her.

Trying to build a career as a documentary film maker, she gets a job at VICE and continues to drink hard, denying that she has a problem. At one point David tells Erin that looking at her is like looking in a dirty mirror, a compliment of sorts, but more than anything a call to action. Erin tries and fails to be sober on numerous occasions. She loses jobs. She loses friends. But her father never abandons her. Instead, he continues to mentor and challenge her to rise above her circumstances. “What will set you apart is not talent but will and a certain kind of humility, a willingness to let the world show you things that you play back as you grow as an artist.”

Erin’s memoir is a heartbreaking account of grief and loss and her relationship with a father who is also her mentor. She grapples with her extraordinary privilege — her father opened many doors for her, and she wonders whether she can make it on her own.

All that You Leave Behind, is the bold and brave story of an extraordinary father and the daughter who loved him.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reads. Read all my reviews and listen to my author interviews on www.superiorreads.blog and on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota, www.wtip.org.

 

 

 

 

The City Always Wins opens in January 2011 during the Egyptian revolution with the massacre of protestors outside Maspero. Khalil is an American-born Palestinian with sympathies for the revolutionaries, but his girlfriend – Mariam – is the novel’s heartbeat. While Khalil founds Chaos, a podcast that broadcasts news and information for the revolutionaries – ‘the cerebral cortex at the center of the information war’ – Mariam is on the frontlines, providing medical care to the wounded, compassion for the families who have lost loved ones, and legal services to the imprisoned revolutionaries. She is a true revolutionary, willing to die for the cause, sacrificing sleep and her own health to keep the spirit of the revolution alive. After Mubarak is overthrown, the Muslim Brotherhood steps in and creates an equally corrupt and oppressive system where citizens are thrown in jail at the will of the police and tortured and killed. There is no justice here. Survivors’ guilt abounds. Khalil questions the legitimacy of his convictions when he runs instead of stands his ground during a protest while one of his friends is captured, tortured, and ultimately murdered for the cause. Mariam questions Khalil’s commitment to the cause as well and their commitment to each other falters. Mariam never wavers or considers her own safety even as women are subjected to virginity tests and raped in Tahrir Square by the corrupt military police. Ultimately, the army overthrows the Muslim Brotherhood and General Sisi rises to power. The revolutionaries splinter, the movement loses steam, and dreams of a new Egypt are dashed.

The City Always Wins is Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut novel, and his writing reflects his first calling, film-making. His vivid descriptions of the protests and the violence rocket the novel forward . . . his language is lyrical, his pacing frenetic, and his imagery brutal. It is the story of corrupt power and the dashed dreams of a young generation of revolutionaries. Hamilton’s debut gives the rest of the world a glimpse of the Egyptian revolution from the inside. While The City Always Wins is a fictional narrative of the revolution, the novel is punctuated by actual tweets and news headlines; Hamilton applies a more journalistic approach to the story.

I recommend The City Always Wins for fans of historical fiction, global politics, and Middle-Eastern studies.