Novels, Poetry, Folktales, and Lots of Beer
It’s Minnesota Alumni’s quarterly books roundup
Minneapolis author Alison McGhee (B.S. ’88, M.A. ’93) has enjoyed a long and varied career, writing novels for adults, young adults, and children, as well as picture books and at least one graphic novel. Her latest volume, an adult novel called The Opposite of Fate (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is as strong as anything she’s previously written. That’s high praise considering her past work includes such top-notch offerings as the 2003 novel Shadow Baby, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and Today Show book club pick, and the 2007 picture book for adults, Someday, a New York Times bestseller.
The Opposite of Fate focuses on 21-year-old massage therapist Mallie Williams, who is just getting her young life together when a brutal assault leaves her comatose. The rape also leads to a pregnancy, and while she is unconscious, Mallie’s family and friends fight over her future: whether the pregnancy will continue and, if so, who will raise the child that comes of it, pitting Mallie’s mother and a conservative Christian coalition against Mallie’s brother and friends.
The book, which is written in three parts, alternates among several points of view: Mallie, her stalwart 60-something friend William T, her attacker (whom she calls Darkness), and—in one particularly unexpected addition—her dog, Mister. This structure, which could be confusing in the hands of a less skilled writer, works well for McGhee here as she slowly unspools Mallie’s story.
Dramatic, sad, hopeful, and thought-provoking by turns, this powerful novel, with its well-wrought characters and challenging themes, is well worth a lingering read.
And the rest …
If you find yourself nostalgic for such late, great gathering spots as The New French Bar or Lee’s Liquor Lounge, look for Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives, and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities by Bill Lindeke and Andy Sturdevant (Minnesota Historical Society Press). This comprehensive compendium of Twin Cities bars will take you much further back than the 1990s too, to such compelling dives as Pig’s Eye Parrant’s Saloon (1839-41) and the Hollyhocks Club, a Prohibition-era speakeasy run out of a Mississippi River Boulevard mansion. Urban geographer Lindeke (M.A. ’09, Ph.D. ’15) and cultural writer Sturdevant met, fittingly enough, at a bar: Pracna on Main. Their devotion to their subject shines through all 48 watering holes that they so lovingly describe.
If you’re seeking another tippling tome, pick up (if you dare; it weighs nearly 10 pounds) The Drink That Made Wisconsin Famous: Beer and Brewing in the Badger State (University of Minnesota Press) by Doug Hoverson (B.A. ’86, M.A. ’95). This exhaustive volume doesn’t waste much ink on the well-covered recent brewpub craze. Instead, it provides a very thorough look at the colorful history of brewing in Wisconsin—a history that goes well beyond Milwaukee. In fact, the last half of this 741-page book is a listing of Badger state breweries by town, from Algoma to Yuba. Suffice it to say, there were once hundreds of them, most of which you’ve never heard of and many of which existed for only a few years. Author Hoverson also has written a shorter history of Minnesota beers called Land of Amber Waters. The colorful assortment of labels, cans, bottles, and ad posters sprinkled throughout The Drink that Made Wisconsin Famous makes it nearly as much fun to page through as to read.
It was mostly Germans who started up Midwestern breweries, and so too did Germans, unintentionally, launch the next book. The authors of The Complete and Original Norwegian Folktales of Asbjørnsen & Moe (translated by Tiina Nunnally, with a foreword by Neil Gaiman; University of Minnesota Press) were inspired by Germany’s Brothers Grimm, which led them to spend years traveling the mountainous countryside of southern Norway, collecting their own nation’s folk tales. First published in Norway in 1841, this edition is the first English translation of the collection in more than 150 years. Among the dozens of tales within its pages, readers will find such familiar stories as “Tom Thumb” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” as well as lesser known—and fascinatingly titled—ones such as “Everyone Thinks Their Own Children Are Best” and “Nothing is Needed by the One All Women Love.”
For a more visual take on Scandinavia, a good bet is the new picture book A to Zaao: Playing with History at the American Swedish Institute by Nate Christopherson and Tara Sweeney (University of Minnesota Press). This St. Paul-based mother-son duo pored through the Swedish Institute’s collection to find objects that represented an alphabet of Swedish words: for example, a traditional Swedish porcelain stove illustrates the word glod or glow; a Carl Larsson painting (the sole one in ASI’s collection) demonstrates to readers the word mala or paint. Sweeney’s delicate watercolors are enhanced by Christopherson’s whimsical pen drawings; the book ends with a photograph and an explanation of each chosen object.
For a different Midwestern book, look for Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems (University of Nebraska Press) by Joyce Sutphen (B.A. ’82, M.A. ’93, Ph.D. ’96). Sutphen, Minnesota Poet Laureate and a faculty member at Gustavus Adolphus College, grew up on a farm in Stearns County, Minnesota, and many of her lyrical, soulful poems reflect that heritage. This volume contains some of her best past work, as well as three dozen new poems—each of them clear and evocative, often moving, sometimes stunning, but never, ever drifting into sentimentality.
Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a Minneapolis writer, book reviewer, and editor.