Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

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.

The romance of living in the North Woods is a siren song for many. In 1969, Joan Crosby and her husband Dick left the bright lights of a Minneapolis suburb to live in a one-room plywood cabin on Tucker Lake, armed with a canoe, a motor, $1100, and a malamute puppy named Nooky.

They’d been ready to chuck their jobs and their apartment in Plymouth for the Northern Lights and clear waters of the Boundary Waters, but nothing could have prepared them for the drastic change of lifestyle and environment they were about to experience. They lived without electricity and running water, but happily chopped wood each day for the Franklin stove and hauled water up from the lake. They debated putting walls around their outdoor biffy, but it seemed such a waste of good lumber when it was rarely more than the two of them. They decided to add on a separate kitchen to the cabin instead. Most of the time, their friends and family didn’t mind, except for perhaps one or two who cut their weekend visits short.

The story of Dick and Joan’s excellent adventure lasted thirteen months, until they ran out of money and were pressed to find jobs and a place to live that wouldn’t require a two hour commute. During those thirteen months, they learned a lot about themselves, their little cabin, the lake and the changing seasons and what it took to survive with nothing more than the work of their hands and the help of a few nearby friends for company.

If you’re a local, you should read Tucker Lake Chronicle because it’s chuck full of lore and tales of living in the wilderness. It will make you long for the Grand Marais and Gunflint Trail of the past. If you’re not a local, you should read it as a cautionary tale. Not everyone is made of the same stuff as Dick and Joan Crosby. Chopping wood, blazing trails, and encountering moose during rut is not for the faint of heart and may be best enjoyed by the armchair adventurer.

Kristin Hannah’s newest novel, The Great Alone (St. Martins Press, 2018) is set in Alaska and the landscape is a metaphor for the treacherous and very dangerous lives lived by Ernt Allbright and his wife Cora and daughter Leni. The book opens in 1974. Ernt Allbright is a survivor – a Vietnam POW who has returned from war broken. His nightmares wake the family, his rages frighten them into compliance, and his paranoia can only be placated by wide, empty,  open spaces. Ernt has trouble holding a job. His drinking doesn’t help. After losing yet another job, he learns that he has inherited a cabin and 40 acres in a small town in Alaska, a place still wild in 1974, though tourists and cruise ships are beginning to encroach on the peace, quiet, and reclusiveness that Ernt craves.

Fans of Hannah’s 2015 Nightingale  will find this a different read. Told from the perspective of Leni, who matures into a 17-year-old by the middle of the book, The Great Alone reads much like a young adult novel – full of the longings, love stories, and loyalties of a teen. Cora, Leni’s mother lacks maturity – though she tries to be a good mother – she is a terrible role model for Leni in labors of love. Cora describes her relationship with Ernt like an addiction – saying they are each other’s heroin. And that is the only way to describe her dependency and inability to leave Ernt – even after he begins beating her, even after, in his paranoia, he forces Leni to get up in the middle of the night to test her, forcing her to assemble her rifle and load it, over and over, insisting she be able to complete the task faster or she will die.

The Alaskan landscape is beautifully rendered: its summer days of endless light, its frozen winters that can take a life in a matter of minutes, its glistening waters swimming with salmon and halibut. Hannah realistically portrays the danger of living in such a wild place. Large Marge, formerly a Washington DC lawyer who now runs the general store warns them, “There’s a saying. Up here, you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.” Large Marge is one of several endearing characters who recognize Cora and Leni’s abusive situation and try to help them. Tom Walker, whose family founded the town, and whose wealth and influence infuriates Ernt, gets Ernt a job on the pipeline and thus provides a temporary safety net for the women while Ernt is away during the week earning a paycheck. But like all the other jobs, it doesn’t last and Ernt returns home angrier and more resentful than ever at “the man.” Eventually, most of the community turns away from Ernt because of his escalating violence. Only Mad Earl, a white supremacist survivalist drunk is on Ernt’s side, and as you can imagine, that does not go well.

To make matters worse, Leni falls in love with Matthew, Tom Walker’s son. Ernt forbids her to see him, but the couple sneaks away when they can, eventually getting caught with nearly murderous results. The love story between Leni and Matthew is at the heart of the novel. Leni recognizes the fatal attraction between her parents, and desires a different kind of relationship. She discovers a strength that belies her age through the hardships she encounters in the Alaskan wild, as well as through her relationship with Matthew.

“In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness,” Hannah writes, “you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone.”

Even with 20 novels under her belt, it’s hard to follow The Nightingale, which sold four million copies. But Hannah’s fans will likely follow her anywhere – not even the wilds of Alaska will turn them away. My advice: just don’t expect another Nightingale, hunker down by the fire with The Great Alone, or take it with you on your next backpacking trip, you’ll be in good company.

 It’s not hard to  like Lorna Landvik’s characters – they’re familiar – like your curmudgeonly uncle, your lovable sister, your best friend, your nosy neighbor – they are funny and sad and flawed. In Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes) Landvik introduces us to Haze Evans whose column has run for over fifty years in the Granite Creek Gazette. Now, the beloved columnist is comatose after suffering a massive stroke. While friends rally to her side to hold her hand and encourage her to continue the good fight, publisher Susan McGrath decides to reprint some of Haze’s early columns, along with responses from her readers. The columns convey intimate moments and historical events all from the perspective of the witty and wonderful Haze, sometimes accompanied by recipes. Through each column, Haze reminds us that there is always a small story within the big story.

In the midst of her own crisis and separated from her husband, Susan McGrath enlists her sullen teenage son, Sam to cull through the thousands of columns and select the most poignant ones for reprint. In the beginning, Sam is sulky and resentful, but as he begins reading – and getting to know Haze through her columns – he discovers that stories can bridge the spaces between people. Sam’s English teacher incorporates the reprinted columns into her journalism curriculum and “Radical Hag Wednesdays” inspire passionate debate among the students and lead them to write pithy columns of their own. Even from her hospital bed it seems that Haze is doing what Haze does best – she’s bringing people together.  

Lorna Landvik’s gift is creating quirky characters; they make lots of mistakes and sometimes behave badly, but Landvik slowly spools out the  back stories that explain their choices.  Balancing some of the more weighty issues — the AIDS epidemic, war, abortion, equal rights, same-sex relationships, and politics — with comic relief (and recipes!) Landvik does what Landvik does best. Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes) will warm your heart (and your kitchen!)

 

Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life and A God in Ruins, is back with another blockbuster, Transcription. Protagonist Juliet Armstrong is only eighteen, and recently orphaned, when she is recruited by an MI5, the United Kingdom’s counter-intelligence and security agency. Her task is to transcribe the recordings taken from a bugged flat, though she is quickly promoted to spy. The inhabitants of the flat are Nazi sympathizers who believe they are giving information to a Gestapo agent, Godfrey Toby who is actually an English spy.

Like her other books, Transcription has a complicated structure – bouncing back and forth in time, bookended by a scene in 1981 after Juliet has been hit by a car, then flashing backwards to the 1940’s when she served as a spy, and then jumping to the post-war 1950’s where she is a producer of history shows for children on the BBC. Godfrey Toby appears in each segment, a shadowy figure that trails off into the crowd leaving Juliet to wonder if she’s actually conjured him up.

“He had been coming out of a bank. That used to be his cover—bank clerk. It was clever really, no one wanted to engage a bank clerk in conversation about his job. Juliet used to think that someone who seemed as ordinary as Godfrey Toby must be harboring a secret . . . but as time had gone by she’d realized that being ordinary was his secret. It was the best disguise of all really, wasn’t it?”

During her time as a spy, Juliet takes on so many aliases that she has difficulty remembering the details of each life as she’s relayed them. Her transformation from innocent school girl to liar and thief seems a necessary part of her job, all for a higher good, but is it, really?  “People always said they wanted the truth, but really they were perfectly content with a facsimile,” Julia thinks.

It is clear early on, that Juliet is an unreliable narrator, emotionally detached and lacking a moral center; perhaps the required attributes for a spy. In the scenes from the 1950s her past is catching up with her. She receives threatening notes, “You will pay for what you did.” She is paranoid – or is she – was that? Were they following her?

Her lack of compassion, left this reader with a sense of uneasiness, an almost-wish that she would in the end get what she deserved. After the threat, she revisits former informants and spies, one of whom, Trude Hedstrom, is in the hospital. Juliet claims to be her goddaughter in order to visit and after seeing that she clearly is in no shape to have threatened her, she wishes to leave but the ward matron encourages her to stay so that Trude doesn’t die alone. When Trude’s struggle escalates to a death rattle, Juliet decides to leave.

“It would have taken the hardest heart—harder even then Juliet’s—not to feel a little sorry for Trude, but then Juliet thought of Fraulein Rosenfeld, who had lost all her prettier sisters to the camps. She stood and said, ‘Well this is goodbye, Trude,’ and left her to die on her own.”

Hard-hearted or a loyalist at heart?

In her author’s note, Kate Atkinson admits that “for everything that could be considered a historical fact in this book, I made something up – and I’d like to think that a lot of the time readers won’t be able to tell the difference.” She calls the novel an “imaginative reconstruction” – though the book was inspired by the true life story of spy “Jack King” whose real identity, after years of speculation, was revealed to be Eric Roberts, a “seemingly ordinary bank clerk.”

Transcription will require your attention, a careful reading and perhaps re-reading, but you will be rewarded. The writing, as in all of Atkinson’s novels, is superb. Juliet’s internal dialogue has a satirical bite.  Kate Atkinson has delivered a novel laced with intrigue and history, and characters that you won’t readily discard after you turn the last page.

 

Matt Goldman’s third book in the Nils Shapiro series, The Shallows will be released in June and like the others it is set in Minnesota, this time he and partner Ellegaard of Stone Arch Investigations have been hired to investigate the murder of attorney Todd Rabinowitz, whose body is found in Christmas Lake secured to a pier with a fish stringer through his mouth. The widow, Robin, admits she’s having an affair with sculptor Arndt Kjellgren, but assures Nils that that she and her husband were going to be soon filing for an amicable divorce. She is certain that the murder is somehow tied to her husband’s law firm, who supports far-right political candidate, Karen Tressler.

While Nils and Ellegaard are in the offices of Rabinowitz’s firm, there is a bomb threat and Arndt Kjellgren is arrested as a suspect. Mysteriously, he breaks out of jail and is found later that day with Robin in an apparent murder suicide.

 As the bodies begin to stack up, there is no shortage of suspects. Shapiro and his partners reveal a web of intrigue surrounding the law firm and the suspects. Suddenly, everyone wants to hire Nils – the Minnetonka Police Department, the FBI, and the law firm itself.

Favorite characters from the last book reappear, including Jameson, the former football player turned nurse practitioner from Broken Ice. Nils is still in love with his ex-wife, Micaela, and there is a surprising turn in his personal life in this installment.

 As an Emmy-award winning writer for Seinfeld and the Ellen Show, Goldman has an ear for dialogue. His comedic roots are showcased in Nils Shapiro and in this installment, we get to know Nils on a deeper, more personal level. Goldman shines more light on the relationship between Nils and Micaela, which ups the ante for the next installment.

 Listen to my interview with Matt on WTIP’s Superior Reads website or on my blog at superiorreads.blog. Watch the Grand Marais Art Colony’s website for registration to open in June for the November 7-10 North Shore Readers and Writers Festival where Matt will be presenting.

 

There There by Tommy Orange won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for best debut novel of 2018. It was heralded as one of the Best Books of 2018 by some of the leading news organizations and magazines for good reason. This book wrecked me. If you want a greater understanding of the plight of urban Native Americans, this is a must-read.

The novel opens with an essay by Orange and segues into chapters that follow the seemingly disparate lives of 12 characters from Native communities as they travel to the Big Oakland Powwow, where they come together for the books devastating climax.

The title comes from a Gertrude Stein quote about Oakland, “There is no there there.” Orange understands that for Native people in America this is true — America “has been developed over, ancestral lands have been buried in glass and concrete, wire and steel” – there is no way to recover what has been lost. There is no there there. And this is a central theme of Orange’s: the loss of identity and culture. It is an ugly story, a shameful story that Orange addresses in his opening essay: the broken promises, the massacres, the pillaged land, the usurped culture, the loss of understanding of what it means to be Indian.

Dene Oxendene is Native, born and raised in Oakland. He goes to the Powwow to record the stories of other urban natives.

Jacquie Red Feather, recently sober, mourns the loss of one daughter to suicide and another to adoption. Her half sister, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is raising Jacquie’s three grandsons, Orvil, Loother, and Lony. Opal has not raised them as Cheyenne, in fact has been openly against any of them doing anything “Indian,” too many risks she said. “Cheyenne way, we let you learn for yourself, then teach you when you’re ready.” Of the three, Orvil is the most curious, trying on regalia he finds in Opal’s closet and watching YouTube videos of dancers, he vows that he will dance at the Big Oakland Powwow.

Tony Loneman was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which he refers to as the Drome. His eyes, mouth, and nose are set too far apart on his face. “Like a drunk slapped it on reaching for another drink,” Orange writes. His IQ hangs at the lower end of the scale. The Drome, he says, is “the way history lands on a face.”

Daniel Gonzalez learns to code from YouTube, buys a 3D printer and starts making guns as a way to support himself and his mother, who is depressed after the death of his brother and rarely gets out of bed. His guns will play largely into the devastating climax of the novel.

Most of the characters in There There are estranged from their heritage in one way or another, but perhaps none more completely than Blue, who was adopted at birth by a white family, referred to by Orange as “an apple – red on the outside and white on the inside.” Through a series of serendipitous career moves, she finds herself as the event planner for the Big Oakland Powwow, a place where her past and future collide.

There There is a novel that requires your attention, for many reasons – historically, culturally, and aesthetically. You won’t be able to read it through without doubling back to make the connections between characters, but this careful reading will pay off in the end.

I recommend There There for fans of Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdich, Linda LeGarde Grover, and Susan Powers.

 

Julie Schumacher is the first woman to win the Thurber Prize for American Humor for Dear Committee Members. Jason Fitger is back in the sequel, The Shakespeare Requirement. The hapless Professor Fitger is now chairman of the English Department at Payne University. Sounds like a promotion, right? Think again. He has no budget and won’t until he can get his team to unanimously agree to a Statement of Vision for the department. Professor Dennis Cassavan insists that a semester of Shakespeare be a requirement for every English major, while Professor Zander Hesseldine declares that suggesting that Shakespeare study was in jeopardy was like declaring the cockroach an “endangered species.” If Shakespeare is required then why not Postcolonial Literature, Feminist Studies and on and on. It’s one thing to get the department to agree, but once that is accomplished he must get approval from the dean, who just happens to be sleeping with his ex-wife, Janet.

The course of true love never did run smooth, and so it goes for Fitger, who still happens to be in love with Janet, whose feelings for him slide on the scale between disdain and indifference. But there’s a new girl in town. Mary Eland is the new chair of the Department of Consolidated Languages, and she appears in Fitger’s office toting a bottle of wine and some advice. You must play the game, it’s a “blood sport . . . you will see,” she says, “When we go upstairs to the party: on the table with the food, they will give us spoons and forks, but no knives. This is so we do not slit each other’s throats.”

Janet, though deflecting his desire to get back together, has advice for Fitger as well. He must seek the support of a wealthy donor, he must invite a well-known author to speak at the University, he must she seems to agree, play the game. The game is something that Professor Gladwell, chair of the Economics Department knows well. His department has taken over almost all of Willard Hall, pushing the English Department down, down, down into the basement, with the hopes that eventually he will push them all the way out, ultimately eliminating the liberal arts program entirely.

Though sometimes playing the fool, Fitger is a good man. He takes in a convalescing colleague after his surgery, making him toast and soft-boiled eggs and helping him to the toilet. He dog sits his rather obnoxious and slightly unhelpful administrative assistant’s foster dog, Rogaine. He helps a timid but promising student find a job in Janet’s department and serves as a pseudo father figure when the student gets pregnant.

While Fitger struggles to put together his Statement of Vision, Gladwell announces that two very wealthy donors will make a large donation to the Economics Department. Fitger tries to step up his game by inviting an author friend of his convalescing professor to give a presentation at the University. But alas, Fitger doesn’t do his research. It turns out the author is very popular . . . with the preschool crowd.

Not to worry, the Bard always said that a fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. In the end, Fitger proves himself the wiser man.

Julie Schumacher will be teaching at the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival November 7-10. Watch the Grand Marais Art Colony website for registration to open in June.

Fans of Allen Eskens have waited five years for the sequel to Edgar-nominated The Life We Bury.  The Shadows We Hide came out in November 2018.  In Eskens first Edgar-nominated novel, The Life We Bury, Joe Talbert was a college student trying to finish school while taking care of Jeremy, his autistic brother. His mother is an addict who is on and off again in jail and enmeshed with various abusive men. As a college student, Joe must interview someone and write a biography. He interviews an elderly convicted murderer recently released to a nursing home to die. As Joe gathers the information for his assignment, he discovers many holes in the prosecution’s arguments at trial and as he probes further, becomes a target for a myriad of other shady characters.

In the second book, Joe Talbert is a cub reporter for the Associated Press. He has recently written a damning story about a state Senator accused of domestic abuse and the paper is getting sued. He is put on leave while the paper sorts out the damage. Joe stumbles across the story of a Joe “Toke” Talbert recently murdered in a small town in Southern Minnesota though he has never met his namesake. He leaves his girlfriend Lila in charge of Jeremy while she studies for the bar exam and heads to Buckley to investigate whether this man might be his father. When he arrives, he learns that no one has anything good to say about Toke. His wife committed suicide shortly before his death, and his daughter, Angel is in the hospital after a recent suspected suicide attempt. Prior to his death, Toke was involved in a dispute over his deceased wife’s inheritance.  If Joe proves to be Toke’s son, he could be a millionaire. He could also have another sibling to care for — if Angel survives. Joe unwittingly becomes the target of Toke’s brother, Charlie, who has his eyes on the inheritance and custody of Angel so that he can get his hands on her money.

All of these elements make for a great mystery – but what makes Eskens work stand apart is his language, character development, and deeper themes, elevating his work to the literary level.  In the Talbert novels, Eskens delves into Joe’s struggle with guilt – guilt over leaving his brother with his girlfriend while she studies for the bar, guilt over suing his neglectful mother for custody of his brother, and guilt over his attraction to a local waitress who seems to have more information than anyone about his father’s death and his sister’s attempted suicide.

Allen Esken’s next book, Nothing More Dangerous is scheduled to be released  November 12 and he tells me that the title comes from a Martin Luther King quote, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Listen to my interview with Allen on WTIP’s Superior Reads on May 23 at 7:00 pm and watch for registration to open up in June for the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival November 7-10 on the Grand Marais Art Colony website. Allen will be presenting two sessions at Readers and Writers Festival this year.

 

 

all the wild hungers

When Karen Babine’s mother was diagnosed with a form of cancer that usually strikes children under the age of ten, her doctors surgically removed a tumor the size of a cabbage from her abdomen and recommended a regimen of chemotherapy to guard against a recurrence. Karen moved in with her collection of vintage cast iron skillets, a rainbow collection of Le Creuset, gathered from thrift stores, restored, and lovingly named as if each was a precious child to cook her mother back to wellness. In each of the vignettes in this collection, All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer, the most important ingredient is love.

Karen’s family gathers together to support her mother and share a dinners of homemade chicken soup, boeuf bourguignon, and their favorite, breakfast for dinner. They gather to celebrate birthdays with aebleskiver, a buttery and golden-brown perfection achieved eventually through the family’s encouragement to “keep practicing.”

“’Keep practicing,’ we’d say with our mouths full, because in our house, Keep Practicing is the best compliment a cook can receive; even if the cake or the pot roast or the tomato soup is the best you’ve ever eaten, you always tell the cook to Keep Practicing, so they’ll keep making it. Keep Practicing, because once perfection is achieved, there is no point in repeating it. We make our own philosophy. Every family does.”

During the season of her mother’s illness, Karen and her family learn to slow down. She cooks stock from scratch. She cooks for her family of carnivores, though she herself is a vegetarian. She learns to make the protein-rich broth that helps strengthen and restore her mother after sessions of chemotherapy. She entices her with comfort foods when she experiences the “dead belly” of chemotherapy’s after effects.

Babine is a poet and a scholar, and her essays are laced with lyricism, as well as scientific facts. When her mother experiences neuropathy from the chemo she writes: “A lack of B12 can damage the nervous system as well as affect the brain functions.” Returning home after a doctor visit, she puts her pot named Phyllis on the stove to simmer soup for dinner, “that gorgeous cheerful shade of cobalt blue – Co – and I think about how cobalt is part of B12. I wonder if I could form an entire alphabet of neuropathy if I tried, if this is a new language I can create and put on the table.”

Babine comes from a family of cooks. Her grandmother’s rice pudding was the highlight of many potluck Sundays at Bethany Lutheran Church in Nevis, and woe to the poor soul at the back of the line who would miss out. Her grandmother would share her recipe as well as her advice: “Don’t rush it and don’t try to substitute ingredients.” Babine learned well.

I recommend All the Wild Hungers for fans of Water and What We Know, Girl with a Knife, and In Winter’s Kitchen.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.