Minnesota Alumni's Quarterly Books Roundup
Dessa's heartbreak, holiday gift books, advice for caregivers, and more
Anyone who has listened to the talented Minneapolis rapper and singer Dessa (born Margret Wander) knows two things: She is a compelling writer and her lyrics are dark.
So too her first book, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love (Dutton), an episodic memoir jumping from her south Minneapolis childhood to her early days as a rapper to her move to New York part time a few years ago.
The author herself is quick to admit her tendency toward heavy lyrics, stating about a third of the way through, “I write sad songs. . . . I thought maybe it was something I just had to get out of my system. It turned out to be the only thing in my system. It’s what I’m really good at. I’ve always run a little blue.”
Many readers might find the adjective little to be an understatement, especially as it concerns Dessa’s (B.A. ’03) tormented on-and-off love affair with a fellow Doomtree collective member, the deep blue thread running through this memoir. That relationship—tempestuous, heartbreaking, and seemingly endless—haunts Dessa, who tries meditating, moving, journal writing, international touring and, of course, songwriting, to snap that gnarly thread. Her lover is talented, charming, smart, but incapable of monogamy (he drops the Bible of polyamory—The Ethical Slut—into Dessa’s lap right before their first couples counseling session). Of their decade-long relationship she writes, “It resurrects and reasserts itself every few years, coming up between the gaps in other romances like a weed I can’t spray.”
Finally, it is the science of neurofeedback, in the form of an MRI plus a kind of clearing of the physical regions of the brain connected to romantic love, that seems to do the trick. Experts at the U analyzed Dessa’s brain when she thought about her ex in order to pinpoint where the heartache lived and, presumably, how to get rid of it. By the end of the chapter, Dessa is feeling more positive, conceding that “maybe this little experiment had actually worked,” and hoping that she had unwound this particularly tangled love knot.
But My Own Devices reaches far beyond wrenching relationships and sad lyrics. Dessa writes fascinating chapters on her mother, who takes to raising and slaughtering her own cattle; her father, who designed, built, and flew his own glider; and her younger brother Max, who sells legal marijuana edibles in Seattle. She also provides a helpful glossary of hip hop/Doomtree touring terms.
Then there’s the chapter on trying to make it in New York, a classic artistic struggle that ends with the resounding success of Dessa’s recording of “Congratulations” by composer Lin-Manuel Miranda for The Hamilton Mixtape. That song finally put Dessa, long a hometown hero, on the national musical map.
With this compelling memoir, she is firmly on the literary one as well.
And … the roundup
Given that this is a winter books column, I would risk being drummed out of the reviewer corps if I didn’t mention at least a few gift books. The first selection you might even want to buy for yourself: The Great Minnesota Cookie Book (University of Minnesota Press), a collection of winners from the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s annual holiday cookie contest. It’s compiled, tested, and edited by long-time Strib food writers Lee Svitak Dean (M.A. ’89) and Rick Nelson (B.S. ’85). I’m gearing up to bake Orange Kisses and Almond Ricotta Bars.
For a volume useful to locals year round, pick up A Field Guide to the Natural World of the Twin Cities (University of Minnesota Press) by John J. Moriarty, with photography by Siah L. St. Clair. Beautifully photographed and clearly organized by ecosystem (prairie, savanna, woods, wetland, etc.), with park examples of each, this guidebook will prove helpful to the serious naturalist and casual day hiker alike. As for me, I found the “Urban and Suburban” section most useful (though I’m already sadly familiar with one its flora picks, Common Ragweed).
If you’re up for a political tome on a national scale—but with heavy Minnesota overtones—grab a copy of The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America’s Soul (University of Minnesota Press) by Michael Schumacher. It starts with chapters on each of the major candidates for president in that hopeful, electric year, moves on to the seesawing primary races of Oregon, New Hampshire, and California, and then covers the tumultuous conventions in Miami and Chicago. The book ends, as the election did, with the dispiriting thud of Richard Nixon becoming the country’s 37th president.
The next one isn’t fun, but if you’re of a certain vintage it may be the most important book you read all year, Peace of Mind for Your Aging Parents: A Financial, Legal, and Psychological Toolkit for Adult Children, Advisors, and Caregivers (Praeger). The title pretty much sums it up, so I’ll just add that the authors—Kenneth Doyle (Ph.D. ’72), a retired financial planner, and Larry Houk (J.D. ’69), a retired attorney with an expertise in estate planning—cover everything from art therapy to urns, with a lot on annuities, trusts, and insurance in between.
For a lighter read, look for Scott F. Parker’s (M.F.A. ’14) minimemoir A Way Home: Oregon Essays (Kelson Books). Just five inches square, this tiny book, with delicate illustrations by Alex Hirsch, is a sustained love letter to Parker’s native state. Although he has lived in Minnesota and Montana for years, Parker is haunted by “the lush verdant Willamette Valley I still stubbornly call home.”
Last, some fiction worth mentioning: two books of short stories and a novel told through stories. The Patron Saint of Lost Girls (Southeastern Missouri State University Press), by University of Minnesota writing instructor Maureen Aitken (M.F.A. ’97), is set mostly in Detroit, the stories as gritty as the city; Oranges (New Rivers Press), by U professor Gary Eldon Peter, is a quietly compelling collection of stories about Minneapolitan Michael, a gay man who grew up in Iowa; and The Fifth Woman (Sarabande Books) by Nona Caspers (B.A. ’85) has at its breaking heart the bicycle accident death of the narrator’s partner.