Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

In 1982, Gary Goodman wandered into a used bookstore in St. Paul as a psychiatric counselor and walked out as a bookseller. THE LAST BOOKSELLER; A LIFE IN THE RARE BOOK TRADE by Gary Goodman tells the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious story of his life in books.

The quote that introduces Goodman’s first chapter is from Dante’s Divine Comedy … “In the middle of my life, I found myself in a dark wood …” It is fitting. Frank, the original owner, wore a rumpled suit and smelled like he’d had a few Bloody Mary’s for breakfast, claimed he was closing the store because of a questionable heart condition. His asking price of $25,000 was gradually whittled to $2,000 – on a contract for deed with nothing down.

Goodman was thirty-one years old, married, and the father of two children. He’d been working the night shift in a hospital unit that treated violent, mentally ill adolescents. Two nights before, a nurse had thwarted a plan by his young wards to kill him by hitting him over the head with a sock filled with belt buckles. He decided it might be the right time to consider a new profession.

Life in the rare book trade had potential in 1982, before the internet and online sales gutted the bookstore business. THE LAST BOOKSTORE chronicles the seismic shifts in the rare book business from 1982 to the early 2000’s. Over the course of Goodman’s illustrious career he met con men, criminals, and collectors – booksellers who were in search of the elusive golden egg of the rare book trade. Thievery and forgery abounded among some of the more infamous of the trade. Stephen Blumberg, known as the Book Bandit, stole almost 24,000 books valued at $20 million over the course of his criminal career. He’d wandered into Goodman’s shop one day looking like Fagin from Oliver Twist, but Goodman’s books were beneath him. John Jenkins was once president of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association – and a notorious gambler. He experienced a massive fall from grace after dealing in stolen books and forged documents and died from a gunshot wound to the head.

The apex of Goodman’s career occurred in Stillwater where he opened St. Croix Antiquarian Books, one of the regions most venerable bookshops and where he was credited with making Stillwater the first book town in North America. Alas, those days and bookstores are gone, thanks to online sales of both new, used, and rare books.

“As long as new books are printed and become used, second-hand, and rare books,” Goodman writes, “someone is going to sell them. It is the process and the people that have changed.”

One of the most delightful aspects of Goodman’s book is the footnotes. If you buy the book for nothing but the footnotes, it’s a dollar well spent. They’re hilarious and snarky and reveal more about the author than the subject. For both bibliophiles and booksellers, THE LAST BOOKSELLER is a must read. With humor and great affection, Goodman invites us in for a look behind the curtain before it closes for the last time.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews and read all my book reviews at http://www.superiorreads.blog and stream them from the web at wtip.org.

Ken Follett is the massively successful author of 36 books – selling over 178 million copies worldwide. He writes thrillers and mysteries but his most popular books are the Pillars of the Earth Trilogy. That first book, PILLARS OF THE EARTH, was published in 1989 was about the building of a medieval cathedral. It was number one on best-seller lists everywhere and turned into a major television series in 2010. Full disclosure: I have not read the trilogy – HOWEVER, I did just read the prequel to the Pillars of the Earth that came out in September 2021: THE EVENING AND THE MORNING. The prequel is set in the Dark Ages, which may explain my following comments.

Let me preface these comments by saying that I typically enjoy historical fiction. But perhaps I am a fickle historical fiction fan. To be more precise, I may be a fan of more contemporary historical fiction . . . as in anything from the seventeenth century forward. The Dark Ages are just that . . . very, very, dark. And they were even worse if you were a woman, or a slave, or a woman who was a slave.

Let me tell you what I liked about THE EVENING AND THE MORNING: some of the characters, particularly Ragna and Edgar. Ragna is a noblewoman from Normandy who marries and moves to the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. Edgar is a boatbuilder whose love interest is killed during a Vikings raid in the first pages of the novel. The plot is fast paced . . . which made it a quick read for an 800-page book . . . and it is not without intrigue. The bad guys are really, really bad. And the good guys are really, really good.

Ragna soon discovers that the customs in England are shockingly different than in Normandy, as in: slavery, polygamy, castration and blinding as punishments for crimes or even alleged crimes, corrupt leaders of the church, kidnapping, enslavement, and murder. Did I mention that it was dark? If you are a sensitive soul, you may want to pass. Or, as one of my book club members said, read it twice – the second time you won’t be as traumatized and you may actually enjoy The Evening and the Morning, from an historical perspective.

Can I recommend THE EVENING AND THE MORNING? Let me just say, it’s not for everyone, but no book really is – right? If you are a stalwart fan of the Pillars of the Earth Trilogy, it’s a must-read. And if you have not read the trilogy, like me, you can certainly read The Evening and the Morning as a stand-alone novel. Overall, I’m glad I read it. It’s good to read outside of your lane from time to time. And, now when someone waxes poetic about the series, I can join in the conversation, or listen politely and nod my head.

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

Lee Cole’s debut novel, GROUNDSKEEPING, is a coming-of-age story about two lovers trying to navigate social and cultural differences during a time of great upheaval in American politics.

Twenty-eight-year-old Owen returns home to rural Kentucky after a failed launch in Colorado and gets a job as a groundskeeper at a local college in exchange for taking one class free each semester. In a writing workshop, much to his surprise, he discovers that he is a writer. He meets and falls in love with Alma, the daughter of Bosnian immigrants. Alma has recently published a collection of short stories and is a writer-in-residence at the college. Alma has everything Owen does not – a promising career, an Ivy-league education, and an intact family.

Owen is living in his grandfather’s basement, a WWII veteran with a penchant for Western movies. His uncle Cort lives there too after an accident that left him unable to work. Cort has a MAGA sign in his bedroom window and spends most of his time playing video games. Owen’s parents are divorced. They are Republican, evangelical Christian, working-class people who have never gone to college. They love Owen, but they don’t understand him.

Alma’s parents are Muslim, and after fleeing Bosnia for America, they settled in Washington D.C. where they both had successful careers. They live in a tudor, in a tidy neighborhood, with a bookshelf boasting the Great Works of the Western Canon.

GROUNDSKEEPING is about that messy time in young adulthood when you are deciding what to pack up from your old life to bring into your new life. Cole’s writing belies that of a debut novelist. His characters are complicated and nuanced; their relationships are messy and there are no easy answers. Just like in real life.

I recommend GROUNDSKEEPING for fans of coming-of-age stories and character-driven fiction.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Lee Cole on Superior Reads on March 24 at 7:00 pm and March 26 at 6:00 am CT on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais or on the web at www.wtip.org.

From the award-winning author of WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE and THE BHUDDA IN THE ATTIC, comes a slim, powerhouse of a novel about loss of identity. In shifting points of view, Julie Otsuka gives us an intuitive look at what it means to lose someone you love to dementia. Brilliant, reflective, compressed, nuanced, empathetic, and global yet intimate, THE SWIMMERS tells the story of a group of obsessed recreational swimmers and what happens to them when a crack appears at the bottom of their local pool.

Otsuka begins the novel in first person plural: we (the swimmers) are overeaters, underachievers, former welter-weight champions, second-rate fashion designers, convicted felons, cross-dressers, compulsive knitters – “but down below, at the pool, we are only one of three things: fast-lane people, medium-lane people or the slow.”

They know each other practically, but not intimately.

“One of us – Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia – comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do.”

They swim for an hour in their lanes and then they return to their lives above ground, every day, until one day, a crack appears in the bottom of the pool and their routines, and their lives, are upended.

After the pool is closed, the story moves from the collective, to the personal. Otsuka tells Alice’s story in the third person, from the point-of-view of her daughter, an Asian American author. Alice still remembers who is president, she remembers what season it is, she remembers the day on which her daughter is born, but she does not remember what she had for dinner or when she last took her medicine or how she got that bruise on her arm.

As Alice is moved into a memory care facility, the story shifts perspective once again. In the narrative “you”, we learn of the daily schedules, tracking systems (you’ll never have to worry about losing your way again, because even if you don’t know where you are, we know where you are), and rules (you will wake when we decide you will wake. You will sleep when we put you down and turn off the lights.)

And finally, as Alice fades into the background, the perspective shifts again back to the daughter, and through her microscopic lens, we experience the intimacy of loss. THE SWIMMERS is a heartrending examination of love and loss, a story of mothers and daughters and the complex but intimate ties that bind them. I highly recommend THE SWIMMERS for fans of STILL ALICE.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Julie Otsuka on Superior Reads (90.7 Grand Marais, or on the web at http://www.wtip.com) February 24 at 7:00 pm and February 26 at 6:00 am CT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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