University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Idioms, Mysteries, and Minnesota Athletes

It's Minnesota Alumni's quarterly books roundup.

Aamina Ahmad, a brand new assistant professor of creative writing at the U of M, published her debut novel to great acclaim last spring, even scoring a glowing cover piece in the New York Times Book Review. The Return of Faraz Ali (Riverhead) tells the tale of a young police officer sent back to his birthplace in the red-light district of Lahore, Pakistan, to cover up a girl’s murder. The Times called it “stunning not only on account of the writer’s talent … but also in its humanity.” 

Prolific Minnesota writer William Kent Krueger, who once worked as a child development researcher at the University, has published his 19th mystery starring Cork O’Connor. In Fox Creek (Simon & Schuster), O’Connor and his family get mixed up with some nasty sorts who will stop at nothing to get the land and water rights they seek. Much dashing through inhospitable BWCA late-winter landscapes ensues. 

In the spring of 1972, just months before Title IX became law—making it illegal to discriminate in public schools on the basis of gender—two female Minnesota high school athletes took their own cases to federal court. Both tennis player Peg Brenden of St. Cloud and cross-country runner/skier Toni St. Pierre of Hopkins sought to compete on their schools’ boys’ teams, since no such girls’ teams then existed. Author Sheri Brenden tells this little-remembered tale in Break Point: Two Minnesota Athletes and the Road to Title IX (University of Minnesota Press). Judge Miles Lord ruled in their favor: a precedent-setting appeal that helped pave the way for Title IX, national legislation that allowed all girls to compete, thus utterly changing the landscape of women’s athletics. The author is Peggy’s younger sister, who brings a personal angle to the book. A former research librarian, Brenden is nothing if not thorough in describing how two small-town girls who just wanted to compete with the boys ended up making a federal case. 

Any aspiring fiction writer would benefit from reading Charles Baxter’s Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature (Graywolf). The noted author, best known for his 2000 National Book Award finalist novel Feast of Love, spent many years teaching writing; the last 20 as the Edelstein-Keller Professor of Writing in the University’s MFA program. Clearly Baxter has thought long and hard about his life’s work, as any reader of Wonderland will quickly learn. With chapters like “The Writer as Curator,” “Some Notes on Narrative Urgency,” and “On the Plausibility of Dreams,” Baxter’s latest book serves as a kind of single-volume master class in fiction writing. One of the most fascinating sections, contained within the chapter “All the Dark Nights—A Letter,” has to do with the particularly personal characteristics of a born fiction writer. “Probably you are a great or a good noticer,” he writes, “… full of the possibilities of characters and narrative … have a certain fanaticism … something needs to get out: not expressed but extruded.” 

The Symbionese Liberation Army is best known nationally as the group that captured and co-opted heiress Patty Heart, and locally for former member Sara Jane Olson, who lived underground as a St. Paul homemaker for 23 years before being recaptured. Far less known is the story of Camilla Hall, a pastor’s daughter from small-town Minnesota who joined the SLA before dying in a shootout with the Los Angeles Police in May 1974. In Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to the Symbionese Liberation Army (University of Minnesota Press) author Rachael Hanel, associate creative writing professor at Minneota State University-Mankato, digs into Hall’s tragic family background and later life in northern California in an attempt to understand how this young woman could start life as a missionary’s child and end it as a most-wanted domestic terrorist. 

A former ski jumper himself, Peter Geye brings authenticity and exhilaration to those sections of his new novel that concern the sport. The Ski Jumpers (University of Minnesota Press) tells the compelling story of Jon and Anton Bargaard and their father Pops, once a ski jump champion himself. The pure and breathless athletic passages, however, are overwhelmed by an ugly episode in the family’s past, which led Pops to prison and the boys’ mother to a mental hospital. The family’s decades-long emotional fallout from that horrendous experience makes up most of this dark book. 

If you’ve ever wanted to know the origins of some of the English language’s more colorful expressions (horny-handed sons of toil, anyone?) you will thoroughly enjoy paging through Anatoly Liberman’s new book, Take My Word for It: A Dictionary of English Idioms (University of Minnesota Press). Even a brief glance through its pages demonstrates how devilishly difficult the English language is to master for non-native speakers. Not only must they learn our gnarly grammar and inconsistent spellings; they must familiarize themselves with thousands of odd expressions, such as grass widow, straw man, nosy parker, and face the music—to name just a few. Arranged alphabetically, from Abraham’s bosom to zoot suit, Take My Word for It includes a definition for each idiom, as well as the history and explanation behind the expression. Some are brief and others— such as the etymology of grass widow—can run nearly a full page. 

Liberman, a longtime professor in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch at the U of M, has written more than 20 books, including several on English etymology. This may well be his funniest and most approachable for a lay audience.

Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is the author of Strokeland: My Husband’s Midlife Brainstorm and Its Ambivalent Aftermath (available at Amazon or at

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