Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

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.

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.