Superior Reads


The star of Marcie Rendon’s Murder on the Red River is Renee Blackbear, who goes by the nickname Cash. She’s nineteen years old and a survivor of numerous foster homes — one of the many Native children removed from their homes and placed with white foster parents. When Cash was three, her mother lost her parental rights after rolling her car with her three kids in it; Cash hasn’t seen her mother or her brother or sister since. The local sheriff, Wheaton, looks out for her, and in fact saved her from her last abusive foster home by signing off so she could get an apartment on her own. Cash lives in Fargo, North Dakota and drives beet truck for a living. She’s an amateur pool shark in the evening — makes enough to keep her in free beers at the Casbah where she teams up (there and back at her apartment) with a married guy. The novel is set in the 1970’s during the Vietnam War era – the nightly news playing in the background at the Casbah reports the daily body count.

When a local Native guy is murdered, Wheaton enlists Cash’s help to solve the crime. Cash has waking dreams; she can travel outside of her body to see the past or future. At first, the information doesn’t make sense to her, but as things unfold, she can see where it fits into the big picture.

“Soon she was lost in time, her body floating up and out of the truck bed and following the trail of a soul gone northeast to say good-bye to loved ones. She saw a gravel road with a stand, almost like a food stand where one would sell berries, but this one had a basket of pinecones on it. Birchbark baskets were filled with pinecones. Children, five or six of them, crowded ’round the stand.”

Cash is tough — she favors Marlboros and Budweisers — and carries a sleeping bag and a rifle in her pick up truck. She’s learned how to take care of herself the hard way. Wheaton wants her to go to college — she’s smart and there is funding available — but Cash has never trusted the establishment.

Though there is the mystery of the Native man to solve in Murder on the Red River — the mystery is not at the center of the novel — Cash is. Cash is a character that will stick with you, she’s tough, but vulnerable. Even though she can, you don’t want her to have to always take care of herself. You’ll worry about her drinking and smoking and wish you could sidle up next to her in a booth at the Casbah and give her a little advice, or buy her a meal, or introduce her to a nice, stable, single guy.

Rendon has nailed the setting — the smell of the sugar beet factories in the Red River Valley, the mud and the truck tracks from load after load of sugar beets being hauled out of the fields, the wide open vistas, the dive bars, and the diners that serve up roast beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy.

In the author notes, Rendon writes about the historical trauma of Native people. “From 1819 to 1934, Native children were systematically removed form families and put into boarding schools . . . they grew up like prisoners of war, punished for speaking their languages, punished for talking to their siblings if they crossed paths.” In the 1960’s 25-35% of Native children were taken from their families and placed in non-Indian homes or institutions. White Earth and Red Lake reservations experienced even higher removals. Finally, in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed; it set federal requirements for state child custody proceedings for Indian children who were a member of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe. The Act required state welfare agencies to work in the best interest of the child to place the child with a family member or extended family member of the tribe.

One wonders, how Cash’s story – and countless real life children’s stories — would have unfolded if the Act had been in place? Though fiction, Cash’s story is one to follow — her resilience and tenacity give this reader confidence that she will be a force for good. Fortunately, Rendon has already published the second in the Cash Blackbear series: Girl Gone Missing. I know what I’ll be reading next.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interview with Marcie Rendon on Superior Reads on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais on January 23 at 7:00 pm and online at and

As Deborah Appleman enters the maximum security prison where she teaches prisoners, she hands off her license, jewelry, shoes — all the talismans of her identity – and walks through the metal detector; one that she says puts airport security scanners to shame. Her materials are in a clear plastic book bag and her right hand is stamped with invisible ink, which will be scanned with a fluorescent light on her way out to make sure that a cross-dressing imposter is not trying to escape. This is the opening scene in Deborah Appleman’s WORDS NO BARS CAN HOLD. It is a sobering scene. You can hear the door locking behind her as she enters her classroom – locked in with her students, without a guard. All these safeguards reinforce an important dynamic of working in a prison: they are in control; she is not. In order to continue teaching she must carefully follow all the rules.

Many of the men that Appleman teaches are lifers, but when she began teaching she made a decision not to learn anything about their offenses. Though it would be easy for her to look them up on the online database, she chooses not to; she doesn’t want her teaching to be muddied by this knowledge. She has made a commitment to know them as students, not as criminals. She firmly believes that education is a vehicle for rehumanization; that it allows students to rewrite their narratives. The goal of the prison classroom is not unlike the goal at the private university where she teaches – intellectual growth, self-efficacy, and intellectual freedom. Their bodies can be incarcerated, but their minds cannot.

Appleman looks at the school to prison pipeline. Of the four students she profiles in her book, each of them demonstrate a desire to learn, yet high school failed to engage them. None of them were classified as special-needs learners, but school failed to capture their interests. School disciplinary systems in the United States, she writes, disproportionately marginalize youth of color and other underserved populations. “These policies have sent hundreds of thousands of children down life paths that lead to arrest, conviction, and incarceration resulting in the so-called pipeline that some have argued is a modern form of resegregation that echoes the Jim Crow laws of our recent past.”

Appleman shares, with permission, the writing of her students. She does not wish the focus to be on her, but on the importance of education in prison and her students’ writing. One of her students, Zeke, writes:

“Writing gave me a voice. It made me a writer, a student, a man, an individual outside statistics hidden somewhere. It made me a better son; able to replant seeds over the things I tore down a long time ago.”

Though many of Appleman’s students are serving life sentences, some are released after serving their time and education is a key factor in preventing recidivism. “If as a society, we choose to keep alive those who commit series crimes, then we need to keep them human. The humanities are well named. Through education, through reading, and through writing, the incarcerated can reclaim their humanity, learn empathy, and find creative and constructive ways of expressing and facing the pain that was a part of their journey to their crimes. They can also learn to acknowledge the pain their actions caused others and to articulate the redemption they seek. They do it through their words, words no bars can hold.”

Listen to my interview with Deborah Appleman on Superior Reads, December 26 at 7:00 pm and on the WTIP webpage. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS by Allen Eskens is a coming-of-age mystery that reads like literary fiction. Boady Sanden is a fifteen-year-old freshman at Ignatius High School in Jessup, Missouri. If you’ve read Eskens other novels, you may recognize Boady’s name from The Life We Bury and The Heavens May Fall, in those books, he is older and a law professor. NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS is a prequel; Eskens began writing it almost two decades ago. Boady is a likeable character – wise beyond his years and a genuinely decent guy. His father died when he was five years old and his widowed mother is still grieving; shy and withdrawn, she finds it difficult to connect emotionally with people. Hoke, an older man who lives next door, befriends Boady – offering him his advice and access to his library. Boady wants nothing more than to leave Jessup and has a plan and a can of money stashed away for his escape.

Boady is new to Ignatius and shortly after the first day of school, he finds trouble in the form of Jarvis, Bob and Brad. Bob and Brad (referred to as Jarvis’ boobs) take direction from Jarvis, who has a meaner streak. When Jarvis tells Bob to dump pudding on Diana, a black girl sitting near Boady, he overhears their plan and he trips him, sending him sprawling onto the floor. Boady becomes a target for the trio. Jarvis tells Boady that they won’t beat him up if he does them a favor – he is to keep his eyes and ears open to new neighbors moving into his neighborhood – the Elgins, a black family whose father Charles has been hired to manage Ryke Manufacturing, where most of the men in Jessup work. As the novel progresses, Jarvis ups the ante, putting pressure on Boady to spray paint a racial epithet on the Elgin’s house.

Boady’s friendship with Thomas Elgin, Charles’ teenage son, gets off to a rocky start; Boady must confront his own prejudice. Though he’s never considered himself prejudiced, he’s grown up steeped in it, and has a hard time recognizing the more subtle ways prejudice can keep people down. Over the course of the summer, Thomas and Boady become good friends.

Eskens is one of those rare authors who not only builds strong characters, but a suspenseful plot and a strong ending. Let’s get to the mystery: Ms. Lida Poe, a black woman who works at the factory goes missing – about the same time as $100,000. Many people believe that Lida Poe embezzled the money and left town. Eskens ratchets up the suspense with a white supremacist group known as The Corps. The tension is palpable when these players are on the scene – they will stop at nothing – threats, intimidation, violence — all part of the ethos of the Corps.

Young Broady Sanden is one of my favorite Eskens’ characters, and NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS is one of my favorite reads of 2019.

Listen to my interview with Allen Eskens on February 27 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, 90.7 WTIP Grand Marais. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

If you’ve ever sat on a therapist’s couch and thought to yourself, easy for you to say, you should read Lori Gottlieb’s MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE. Gottlieb’s mash up memoir/self help book is an intimate look at – as the subtitle states – A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed – in it, Lori Gottlieb is not only a therapist, she is also a patient.

Gottlieb had several careers before she went back to school to become a psychotherapist – she was a television writer, a freelance journalist, and she also did as a brief stint as a medical student before switching gears to psychotherapy. She is a practicing therapist and writes the weekly Dear Therapist column for the Atlantic. Her first book, Marry Him, examined how we choose our partners. In this book, Gottlieb finds herself in crisis – her boyfriend, the man that she thought she would marry, breaks up with her. This, she says, is the presenting problem – but as she acknowledges, there is usually a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. In other words, the presenting problem gets you onto the porch, therapy gets you in the house and may even help you with the remodeling.

Where does a therapist find a therapist? She solicits referrals from colleagues – for a “friend”, and begins therapy with balding, cardigan and khaki-clad Wendell. Gottlieb initially tells Wendell that she will just need a couple of sessions to get back on track – a tune-up of sorts – but the reality is that Gottlieb needs to go a little deeper and that will take more time.

To avoid too much navel-gazing, Gottlieb intersperses her own therapy with the stories of several of her patients: John, a self-absorbed Emmy award-winning television producer, Julie, a newlywed with a devastating cancer diagnosis, and Rita, a seventy-year-old domestic abuse survivor who has given herself a happiness deadline. Each of these stories is alternatingly touching and frustrating – like every good reader, you think you know the answer to their problems before the denouement. As Gottlieb google-stalks her ex-boyfriend and Wendell, you may find yourself yelling “Stop! This will not end well!” Easy for you to say. For each of them – Lori, John, Julie, and Rita – there is hard work to be done.

At one point, when Lori is obsessing about “boyfriend” Wendell stops her.

“I’m reminded, he begins, of a famous cartoon. It’s of a prisoner, shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out – but to his right and left, it’s open, no bars.”

He pauses, allowing the image to sink in.

“All the prisoner has to do is walk around. But still, he frantically shakes the bars. That’s most of us. We feel completely stuck, trapped in our emotional cells, but there’s a way out – as long as we’re willing to see it.”

Wendell’s cartoon image reminds me of a mime, pressing his hands against an invisible wall – only to cut a doorway and open it, walking onto the other side.

Gottlieb has a revelation, but it’s only the beginning. “Insight is the booby prize of therapy,” she writes. You may have a revelation in therapy but if you don’t make changes out in your world, it’s meaningless.

As a therapist, Gottlieb helps her patients navigate that space. After a revelatory moment in therapy, she helps her patients envision putting change into practice. She listens. She supports. She empathizes as one who has laid on the couch. The strangest thing about therapy, she writes, is that it’s structured around an ending. The successful outcome of therapy is that the patient will reach their goal and leave. But the reality is that in order to reach that goal, patients and therapists have formed deep attachments – a necessary part of the work.

“We grow in connection with others. Everyone needs to hear that other person’s voice saying, I believe in you. I can see possibilities that you might not see quite yet. I imagine that something different can happen, in some form or another. In therapy we say, Let’s edit your story.

MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE is a transparent, authentic, and even funny look at therapy and the human capacity for change. It’s ultimately uplifting and inspiring and helps to destigmatize therapy. The book leaves no doubt about the value of therapy; the challenge is to make it accessible to everyone.

If you are struggling, or know someone who is – there is help available. Call your local clinic, or go onto the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) website and click on “Find Support”, there is also a national suicide prevention hotline 1-800-273-8255. I’ll leave you with this quote from Victor Hugo, which opens part three of the book: What makes night within us may leave stars. Shine on.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.


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.