Superior Reads

A PLACE FOR READERS AND WRITERS

When I think about people who have changed the course of history – scientists, world leaders, and politicians come to mind – not Sylvia Beach, the American bibliophile who opened Shakespeare and Company, the first English language bookstore in Paris. Beach opened her bookstore and lending library in 1919 and it quickly became the second home to many famous expatriates: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and most importantly, James Joyce.

The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher is a novel about Beach’s famous bookstore and her impact on the book world as the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which had been serialized in America and then banned. It was no small accomplishment – partly because Joyce was famously depressed, suffered from glaucoma and problematic relationships, and had to be cajoled into finishing it, but also because once published, she had to find a way to distribute it. Prohibition, book banning, and puritanical values pushed many artists to move abroad in the 1920’s, where they could enjoy the freedom to create and live as they wished. Beach was in good company. She spent countless dollars and hours publishing Ulysses, considered a masterpiece by many, famous for its stream-of-consciousness interior monologue.

The setting and the historical characters that populate The Paris Bookseller were a big draw for me. Add to that the story behind the publication of Ulysses by a woman-owned business and I’m a fan. There were moments at the beginning of the book where I felt that more editing would have been helpful – a little too much book title dropping to establish Beach’s credentials as a bibliophile and set the historical stage, felt forced, but once I got into the story of Beach’s incredible feat – a woman in the 1920s who took on a publishing world largely run by men – I was encouraged to read to the end.

Fans of Marie Benedict’s and Paula McLain’s historical fiction will enjoy Kerri Maher’s The Paris Bookseller.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on the fourth Thursday of every month on Superior Reads on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at www.wtip.org.

When the weekly letters from Jessie Nelson’s mom stop arriving from Afghanistan, she’s worried that something terrible has happened to her. A long, anxious summer stretched before Jessie made only worse when her dad announces that they would be spending the summer with her grandfather in St. Peter, Minnesota. So begins Kristin F. Johnson’s middle grade adventure novel, FEARLESS.

Though she’s numb with worry about her mother’s welfare, she proudly wears the T-shirt her mother gave her before she was deployed, the one emblazoned with the word FEARLESS, a reminder to her that being fearless doesn’t mean you’re never afraid. Fearless will become Jessie’s mantra that summer. She will make new friends and she will become a hero in her own right.

Riding their bikes around St. Peter with her new friends, Oscar and Nicky, the three stumble upon an old barn. Inside there are dogs in small cages, whimpering and whining, and obviously neglected. The barn is the home to a puppy mill and though the kids can’t release them all, Jessie takes one that is in particularly rough shape home with her. She names the dog Dusty and she keeps him under her bed, sneaking food to him each day and letting him out when her father and grandfather are away running errands or visiting friends.

As the story progresses, Jessie learns what true courage is, and she displays a fierce commitment to helping the dogs left behind in the puppy mill. Kids who love dogs and animal stories will love FEARLESS and be inspired by Jessie’s dedication to step outside of her own troubles to help someone else. Johnson has written an adventure story with depth and heart – not too sad, but just enough tension to keep your eight- to ten-year-old (boy or girl) reading.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais or stream them from the web at www.wtip.org the fourth Thursday of the month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday morning at 6:00 am.

New York Times best-selling and Emmy Award-winning author Matt Goldman new stand-alone mystery, Carolina Moonset, examines family, memories, and long-held secrets. Like his other series, Gone to Dust featuring private detective Nils Shapiro, Carolina Moonset doesn’t waste time. At the onset, we’re introduced to protagonist Joey Green, who returns to North Carolina to care for his father, who suffers from dementia, so that his mother can have a break and participate in a weekend pickle ball tournament. Soon after his arrival, his father begins to recall long lost memories about a murdered friend – and suddenly, his father is implicated in a new murder and being questioned by the police.

Joey is a bit distracted by a matchmaking effort to hook him up with a family friend’s daughter. Joey and Leela embark on an experimental, prolonged date. Neither of them expects the date to last beyond their visit home. They live far apart and both have children. The complications are numerous.

Goldman writes a novel like he might write a script – the action is propulsive, the relationships explosive, and the complications add a twist to the story that you might not be expecting. Secrets have a way of resurfacing, relationships continue to evolve, and memory can be elusive. All these components coalesce into a mighty fine read.

Recommended for mystery Southern fiction fans intrigued by family and small town dynamics. Listen to my interview with Matt Goldman on August 25 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, WTIP Radio 90.7, or stream it from the web at wtip.org. 

Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero is a kaleidoscopic look into the impact of war and displacement and the irony of the American medical system.

For fifty years, Dr. Yungman Kwak has reported for duty at Horse’s Breath Hospital to deliver the descendants of the immigrants brought to work in the iron ore mines – Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Danes, and a handful of others. Though his name could be translated to “Evening Hero”, he was simply Dr. Kwak to his white patients, a small Korean man with a big heart, his empathy so keen that he often felt crampy as he told his patients to bear down.  As the novel opens, Dr. Kwak learns that Horse’s Breath Hospital is closing – SANUS, a company that purchased the hospital to save it from such a fate, has determined that it is no longer economically viable. Yungman, at eighty, is one of the few who will retain his pension. But he’s not quite ready to retire, so when his son, Einstein, a Harvard-trained doctor who works in a new start-up clinic (also owned by SANUS) in the Mall of America, encourages him to apply, Yungman does, and quickly discovers that he will not be delivering babies, but will be serving as a glorified aesthetician – lasering unwanted hair from the bodies of young women.

When the clinic at the Mall of America abruptly closes, Yungman’s son Einstein is left with a huge mortgage and stock options that are worth nothing. Yungman and Yung-ae decide to take the opportunity to enroll in Doctors without Borders. Young-ae, a previously trained physician who has not practiced medicine since moving to the U.S., takes a short course to become certified as a health aid, and the two embark with a group of doctors for North Korea, where Yungman and Young-ae have an alternative motive for travel.

Lee has broken the book up into five parts, moving backward and forward in time and across continents to reveal Yungman’s early life and trauma while living in Korea during the war, the division of his country and family, the collective grief of the innocent victims of war, and the secrets that Yungman has lived with since leaving Korea with his wife, Young-ae.

Lee is one of a handful of American journalists who have been granted a visa to North Korea since the Korean War. Her book is carefully researched and the sections on Yungman’s early life in Korea, as well as his return, are layered with historical truths and emotional impact. It isn’t an easy thing to sustain momentum in a four hundred plus page book, but Lee’s ending is pitch-perfect and will resonate with readers for a long time.

Listen to my reviews and author interviews on WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, and on the web at wtip.org.

I’m late to the party but I did finally arrive and I’m here to say that Hamnet by Irish novelist Maggie O’Farrell, voted one of the best books of 2020, is officially my favorite read so far of 2022. If you have not read it, the benefit of arriving late, is that it is now available in paperback.

Hamnet is an historical novel about the young son of William Shakespeare and his wife, Agnes Hathaway. You might initially think it is a love story, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but it is less about the love of a man for a woman, and more about the love of a parent for a child. O’Farrell imagines much of the novel, as so little has been written about the world’s greatest playwright, but many of her speculations are based upon facts. The boy dies at the age of eleven; he is a twin; William is off in London writing and producing his plays for much of the boy’s life; Hamnet likely died of the bubonic plague — it is 1596 – but there is no historical record of the cause.

William Shakespeare is a young man of eighteen working as a Latin tutor after his shifty father’s business dealings cause a stain on the family name and fortune. Agnes is twenty-six and something of an enigma – she is a beekeeper and an herbalist and spends long days foraging for the flowers and herbs she uses in her healing concoctions. Some think her a witch. After her mother dies in childbirth, her father remarries and so, Agnes and her brother Bartholomew have three stepsiblings. Agnes and Bartholomew look out for each other. When her father dies, he bequeaths Agnes a dowry and the farm to Bartholomew – two gifts that will provide a path forward.

Will is immediately attracted to Agnes. Looking out the window while his young charges (who just happen to be Agnes’s young stepbrothers) recite their lessons, he sees her in the field with her falcon. She is other-worldly – beautiful and beguiling. They fall in love but there are obstacles to marriage. He is too young. His family has been disgraced. Agnes’ stepmother will not allow it. Until Agnes becomes pregnant. Two years after their eldest child, Susanna is born, Will and Agnes have twins: Hamnet and Judith.

When the novel opens, William is living in London and is a successful and established playwright. His family lives in Stratford because of Judith’s frail health and William comes to visit once or twice a year. The separation is hard on the children and the marriage. O’Farrell launches the novel with a growing sense of doom – young Hamnet is looking for his mother, his grandmother, or his eldest sister. While playing, Judith has suddenly fallen ill. She has taken to her bed. His mother is off tending to her bees, they have left their hive and she must coax them back. His grandmother and sister have gone to market. Hamnet must find help but the only one at home is his grandfather, whom he has been warned to give a wide birth – particularly when he is drinking.

The story moves backward and forward in time – from Judith’s sudden illness and Hamnet’s frantic search for help, to the early passionate days of Agnes’s and Will’s courtship, forward again to the twins lying on a pallet in front of the fire, both now stricken by the plague.

O’Farrell’s novel speculates why Shakespeare would write a play and entitle it Hamlet, the two names – Hamnet and Hamlet – interchangeable during that period, but in the famous play, it is the father who dies and the son who lives. The ending of this book will take your breath away. O’Farrell allows the tension in the marriage to build until it feels as though it will implode.

O’Farrell follows Agnes into the woods, into the field, and into the depths of her despair. Her writing is lyrical and layered, her characters are complex, and their relationships are complicated. There will be no easy passageway through this grief, and dear reader, you should be forewarned to have a tissue within reach, but you will be carried along by a mother’s love and a father’s remorse. “There will be no going back,” O’Farrell writes, “Time only runs in one direction.”

Listen to my reviews and author interviews on WTIP Radio 90.7, Grand Marais, MN or on the web at wtip.org.

“Some things sneak up on you when you aren’t even looking and spread themselves out across several years’ time; other things change right away, inside the space of a single heartbeat.”

Carol Dunbar’s debut novel, The Net Beneath Us, opens with a heartbreaking tragedy. While in the forest cutting trees to build his home, there is an accident, and Silas, father of two and husband to Elsa, is mortally injured. He will survive for a time, if you can call it that; Elsa will bring him home to die. But he doesn’t die. Not immediately. He is in a persistent vegetative state – one tube leading in and another leading out. It is heart-wrenching for Elsa to see Silas in this state – this lifeless state – when he has been brimming with life and love and plans for their family. His dream was to live off-grid in the forest he loved, building their house from trees he felled.

“He was holding on for them, Elsa knew. Holding on to all the things he left undone, the house he was building and the well that wasn’t dug.”

Silas found solace in the trees. A tree never takes anything from another tree, he told Elsa. “They stretch out until their tips sense the leaves of another tree, and then they stop.” The forest was his friend; the trees spoke to him, their deep roots and branches reaching to the heavens teaching him something about staying and leaving.

Elsa couldn’t leave. After Silas dies, she is determined to continue his dream. He comes to her in dreams –whole and smiling and wearing a white shirt effervescent in the sunlight, his chest the barrel of a tree trunk. Everything is hard work here: chopping the wood that heats their home, cranking up the generator, washing clothes, caring for children – all in spite of – or maybe because of her grief. Everyday she goes after the woodpile with a vengeance, letting grief and anger fuel the chopping and splitting.

Elsa was not born of this life. Her family had lived in Switzerland. She’d gone to art school. She’d inherited money after her parents’ death and she’d planned to use it to finish school or maybe to fund a gallery exhibition. She’d had plans, but everything changed when she met and fell in love with Silas. They’d had two children and she’d gladly traded her dreams for his. And then he died. Like the heartwood that binds together two halves of a tree, she was bound to this land, to this dream. Before Silas, she’d always solved her problems by leaving. She needed to stay, to learn whatever it was that the land had to teach her.

Dunbar’s writing is evocative and as lush as the forest. Structured in four segments: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer, we watch Elsa flail and falter and then grow in strength and confidence as each season passes. THE NET BENEATH US is about the promises we make and keep – to ourselves and to others – and the profound work of grief – how it cleaves us in two and yet, we live, allowing the days and months and years that pass bind us back together, the two halves of a split trunk like the before times and the after times, joined in the middle by the heartwood.

“Grief isn’t just about the person you lost,” Dunbar writes, “it’s about losing the person who you were when you were with them, and who you go on to become.”

THE NET BENEATH US can be preordered today from your favorite bookseller. Highly recommended for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, Nichole Kraus, and Ann Patchett. Listen to my interview with Carol Dunbar September 22 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at wtip.org.

I read five books on my recent vacation – five books that came to me by different means, whether through a book club or a publisher or a friend and they ALL dealt with women fighting for autonomy within patriarchal systems. Huh. I guess it’s a hot topic.

One of the books I read was Violeta by Isabel Allende. Told in first person, Violeta is sharing the story of her life with her grandson. And it was a long life. She’s one-hundred years old at the opening of the book in 2020. That means that her life has been bookended by two world-wide pandemics; she has witnessed the rise and fall of dictators, the subjugation of women to a system designed to entrench the patriarchy, countless wars and political machinations, and the battle for equal rights for women. That’s a lot of living.

Born in 1920, Violeta is the only daughter in a family with five sons. She lives in an unnamed country in South America. The family is wealthy; they can quarantine in their mansion during outbreak of the Spanish flu that kills so many others. Her father’s business practices are questionable and when the Great Depression hits, the family loses everything, and they are forced to retreat to a remote part of the country after her father commits suicide. Accompanied by a sickly mother, her brothers, and a couple of spinster aunts, it is there that Violeta comes of age. Her sheltered life is over. And yet, hardship becomes a blessing for Violeta. She transforms from a histrionic, spoiled girl into an independent and spirited young woman.

As Violeta matures, the family wants her to marry – but Violeta is not keen on the idea – although she is being courted by Fabian Schmidt-Enger, a German veterinarian. Violeta’s brother, Jose’ Antonio forms a business to build prefab houses and she moves to Sacramento to become his assistant. Eventually, Violeta succumbs to the inevitable and marries Fabian, the youngest son of a large family of German immigrants whose family does not like Violeta. Violeta describes the three years of her marriage to Fabian as “uneventful as life in a nunnery.” Then one day, Julian Bravo, a pilot and war hero literally falls into her life and they begin a passionate affair that ends her marriage to Fabian. But, of course, heroes are not without their flaws, and Julian Bravo has more than his fair share.

Allende covers a lot of territory, and the narrative moves along at a fast pace, but we never take a deep dive into any one period. The most moving scenes in the book involve Violeta’s relationships with her children: her troubled daughter who disappears after becoming addicted to heroin, and her son, a student dissident who flees the country rather than be arrested after a military coup.

It is amazing what we endure throughout our lifetimes, and within the sweep of Allende’s novel, this is true for Violeta’s life; she experiences global pandemics, economic collapse, female subjugation, domestic abuse, political upheaval, and a feminist awakening. I admired Violeta and her resolve to live outside of the box society wanted to put her in.

During a time when laws protecting a woman’s body autonomy are being threatened, reading Allende’s book reminds me that throughout history, women have exhibited great strength and resolve, and when banded together, are a force to be reckoned with.

Listen to my author interviews on WTIP Radio 90.7 Grand Marais and on line at http://www.wtip.org on the Fourth Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday at 6:00 am.

In her provocative novel, THE OTHER EINSTEIN, Marie Benedict examines the life of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric’. Born with a congenital hip defect, Mileva’s parents considered her damaged goods and not marriage material, so they redirected her to a life of scholarship. Mileva’s brilliant mind was discovered early in her life as she easily grasped complex mathematic concepts. Her father encouraged her to pursue her education, seeing that as her path forward in the world as a single woman.

Mileva was the only woman studying physics at the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic School, where she became close friends with several other women pursuing a nontraditional path. While there, she also met Albert Einstein, who won her over with promises to treat her as an equal in love and marriage.

When Mileva became pregnant with their first child, she was forced to drop out of school before receiving her degree. Mileva first conceived the theory of relativity after the death of the couple’s first child. Albert and Mileva wrote several important papers together – one that was the basis for the Nobel Prize-winning Theory of Relativity. But soon, Albert’s promises became empty, and his ambition drove him to remove Mileva’s name from the papers, claiming sole authorship. As Mileva became more immersed in her role as a mother and Albert began receiving professional recognition for his/their work, the marriage started to fall apart.

Mileva’s role as a wife and mother at the turn of the century made it nearly impossible for her to have any agency and pursue her earlier dreams, and soon she was eclipsed by Einstein’s enormous ego and profound callousness. What started as a promising partnership, deteriorated into an abusive relationship.

THE OTHER EINSTEIN is a sad commentary on love and marriage in the early nineteenth century. In this age of two steps forward one step back in equal rights for women, THE OTHER EINSTEIN is a reminder of how quickly gains can become losses. I recommend Marie Benedict’s THE OTHER EINSTEIN for fans of Paula McLain and Melanie Benjamin.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.

Kelly Barnhill’s first adult novel, WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS is a provocative fantasy that centers around an imaginary event: the Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of wives and mothers sprouted wings and tails and took to the skies leaving a trail of fiery destruction in their wake. It was reportedly not the first Mass Dragoning, but it was the most recent, and each Mass Dragoning throughout history was subsequently followed by a Mass Forgetting. No one wanted to acknowledge what was happening; it was too frightening, too disquieting, and acknowledging what was happening threatened the stability of families and marriages throughout the land. It was better to forget.

When Alex Green’s beloved Aunt Marla transformed, she left behind an abusive husband, and unfortunately a young daughter, Beatrice. The family was not allowed to speak of it and in fact, Alex’s mother told her to forget her aunt ever existed and insisted that her cousin Beatrice was now her sister. Alex was taught to remain silent. She was taught not to upset the order of things. Alex loved her cousin/sister Beatrice more than anyone in the world, and that helped her to keep the silence, but still, she was very confused. Why did her aunt, a former airplane mechanic who married late in life, disappear and not her mother? Why was her father always working? And why was her mother, a brilliant mathematician compulsively tying knots all over the place?

When Alex entered high school, she was left alone to raise Beatrice; even after all the injustice heaped upon her, she still upheld her vow of silence. Rewriting history was invasive – starting in her home, then at her school, and eventually, within her. Fortunately for Alex, her neighborhood librarian took her under her wing and provided her with opportunities to study more than stenography and typing and envisioned a future for her that included a college degree.

As Beatrice grew, she became obsessed with dragons and the sheltered life that Alex had created for her was threatened. Alex would need to decide whether remaining silent was more dangerous to her and Beatrice’s well-being than embracing the truth.

Barnhill dedicated the book to Christine Blasey Ford, “whose testimony triggered this narrative.” It’s a propulsive read – one that begins with a slow burn and builds to a major conflagration. I could feel the women’s rage rise within me as I read until I felt that I, too, might explode, or dragon.

WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS is an evocative tale about gender, gender roles, and the politicization of history. Barnhill has written a cautionary tale about what happens when women are silenced and their human right to make their own choices is taken from them.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Kelly Barnhill on June 23 at 7:00 pm on WTIP.org 90.7 Grand Marais and on the web.

In the prologue to Staci Drouillard’s SEVEN AUNTS, she writes that her book is about the hidden lives of women: “Those who rarely speak out of turn and those who shout their truths to the sky, even though no one is paying attention.” But in truth, she says, “ … our grandmothers, mothers, and aunties have all committed great acts of heroism, devotion, and self-sacrifice so that the people they love might have a chance at being seen one day.” The aunties are a diverse group: German and English, Anishinaabe and French, born in the woods and born in farm country – but there is one thing they all have in common: a strength and resilience that was hard fought, paving the way for the next generation to make a different choice.

Drouillard gifts each of the aunts — Faye, Lila, Doreen, Gloria, Betty, Carol, and Diane – her very own chapter. Four the aunts are from her mother’s side and three are on her dad’s. Each of these remarkable women bore tragedy and hardship. They loved their families fiercely. They were a product of their time in some ways – taught to be invisible and to find self-worth through their families. Drouillard names this affliction the morbidity of motherhood, the symptoms including an insatiable desire to have children, and the belief that a woman’s value was directly proportional to the number of children she had.

Besides the stories of the aunts’ heroism and resilience, I loved Drouillard’s reference to her imaginary dictionary, in which she names various afflictions and defines them. For instance, chronic feminity is defined as a mental disorder exacerbated by 1970’s sitcoms and Olivia Newton John singalongs.  It is a noun defined as a “persistent and long-standing expectation that women look, dress, and speak consistently with society’s feminine ideal, secondarily defined as an assumption that a woman’s “primary role is to be pleasing to the masculine eye.”

Drouillard is transparent as she shares her family stories, but she is resolute in her determination to speak the truth. She likens our collective history to a river in which by speaking the truth about the past, trauma is set forever downstream. Telling the truth, she writes, is essential to our collective and long-term well-being. We no longer need to be prisoners to our past. We can live, learn, and be better.

“…every family has to learn to live with scars, both physical and emotional … we can either choose to try to hide them or we can use them as marks of courage and healing and find a way to live with them.”

Drouillard’s last chapter is entitled Coda and outlines seven lessons derived from her aunts’ lives, including the importance of empowering girls to embrace their independence, and affirming their worth as human beings.

Reading SEVEN AUNTS, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for these women and the author’s commitment to truth telling. Drouillard writes with such integrity. I cared deeply about the aunties, and I didn’t want to leave them. Extraordinary women leading ordinary lives; they lived in a world that did not recognize their contributions, but the lessons of their lives changed the world for future generations.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Staci Drouillard on August 25 at 7:00 pm on WTIP 90.7 Radio http://www.wtip.org.

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