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Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota’

localgirls“August came to Florida every year, but it felt like the end of the world every time because of how empty the streets and sidewalks became — everyone stayed inside. It got so bad that you started to blame the heat on other things — the palm trees and the beach and the sunsets and the sand — because heat that unpleasant had to be blamed on something. It surely wasn’t benign.”

That’s from Caroline Zancan’s first novel Local Girls (Riverhead, purchased hardcover), in which she not only nails the August hothouse that is Central Florida, but also the restlessness of teenage girls, the intensity of female friendships and our culture’s obsession with celebrity. Maggie, Nina and Lindsay grew up together in a working-class town stranded between Orlando and the beach. At 19, they’ve put high school behind them, and college isn’t on the agenda. After a day working dead-end jobs at the local mall, they head for their favorite dive bar, the Shamrock, where owner Sal turns a blind eye to their underage drinking and their ongoing feud with the country club college girls across the room.

Maggie, who suspects she’s pregnant, tells the story, beginning with the August night the trio spots movie star Sam Decker alone at the Shamrock drinking away what turns out to be the last night of his life. She seamlessly splices scenes of Sam buying drinks for the girls with those from their shared past, back when Lila Tucker was part of their group before her dad struck it rich and moved the family to a classier subdivision. Nina was their leader back then, as she is now. The conversations among Sam and the girls, who test their knowledge gleaned from celebrity magazines against the real thing, provide enough material for a good stand-alone story. But thehgradual revelations of the girls’ backstories — the sleepovers, the meet-ups at abandoned real estate projects, the escalating “prank wars” involving smart prepster pal Max — turn it into something more moving and rewarding. The girls may be local, but Zancan invests them with recognizably universal emotions of loss and longing. Orlando in August — hard to tell the sweat from the tears.

KitchensMy other favorite first novel this summer is J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is not a cookbook, although it does include a few recipes. But it is the kind of book you devour, or at least I did, even as I wanted to savor every last word.

The novel is about young chef Eva Thorvald, and “about” is the operative word. Each chapter reads like a short story told from the perspective of someone linked to Eva, beginning with her chef father Lars who introduces her to the taste of a Moonglow heirloom tomato as a baby.  Poor Lars. His waitress wife Cindy leaves him and Eva, and then he collapses while lugging the hated lutefisk up the stairs for Christmas dinner.

Eva grows up in Minnesota and Iowa with her aunt and uncle, the kind of smart kid who writes her vocabulary sentences in iambic pentameter to make homework interesting. By age 11, she’s raising hydroponic chile plants in her closet, supplying local restaurants with her exotic peppers and also using them to exact revenge on the classmates who bully her because of her awkward height. Her college cousin Braque takes her in when she runs away, and the two scam chili-eating contestants at local bars. Then there’s the high school guy who falls hard for Eva, introducing her to the wonders of grilled walleye. She’s goes from restaurant intern to sous chef, arousing jealousy in a supper club member who can’t deny that Eva’s succotash is superior.

A later chapter finds Eva as a successful pop-up chef and judge at a gourmet baking contest, where county fair winner Pat Prager and her peanut butter bars are snubbed by foodies. But not by Eva, who compliments her on her bars and looks “at Pat in a strange but warm way, as if Pat were a letter from home with money inside.”

The peanut butter bars reappear in the last chapter, as do other ingredients and people from Eva’s life. It’s a satisfying ending to a delicious tale. Yum.

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I once shared a cab with several book conventioneers in Chicago after we all got tired of waiting for the shuttle bus that never came. We introduced ourselves, and the woman sitting next to me said, “I know you. You’re big in Duluth!” I looked at her in astonishment — never having been to Minnesota — and she quickly explained that my book reviews and columns, syndicated on the KRT news wire, were frequently published in the Duluth News Tribune.

I came home to Orlando and shared “Big in Duluth” with my friend Dewayne. We’ve collected odd phrases over the years that we think sound like intriguing titles for short stories. “Big in Duluth” joined such favorites as “But It Came with Extra Horsehair” and “Punch Were Served.”

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago, and I’m having a Facebook/e-mail conversation with Laurie Hertzel, books editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Turned out she’s from Duluth, so I told her my “Big in Duluth” story. Turns out she was the reason I had a rep in her hometown because she picked out the reviews that ran in the paper, where she worked for 18 years. Hertzel thought being books editor/critic must be the best job in the world and wanted to be “me” one of these days.

The newspaper world is small (and shrinking rapidly) so these kind of coincidences happen all the time. After reading Hertzel’s engaging new memoir, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, I could tell you a lot more that the two of us have in common, but suffice to say she’s really the one who is “Big in Duluth,” and a lot of other places as well, including Russia.

The narrative is chronological, beginning with Hertzel starting her own newspaper full of her large family’s activities as a preteen, to joining the smoke-filled, male-dominated newsroom as a clerk in 1976, to working her way up the reporting and editing chain while witnessing the factories closing in Duluth and the population moving away. Change threads its way through News to Me.

 Any writer/journalist, or readers with such career aspirations or interests, will learn a lot from this book about the pre-computer newspaper world of IBM Selectrics, pica poles and clattering wire machines. Those days weren’t all that far removed from hot type and “hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite,” and female reporters still had to prove themselves outside of the women’s section. Hertzel got out of coffee-making duties for the male editors by making it undrinkable. Sorry, she shrugged. I don’t drink coffee, she told them, I don’t know how it’s supposed to taste. (I’ll second that.)

But Hertzel hasn’t just compiled a bunch of “war stories” for fellow journalists to appreciate. As she writes,  she didn’t set out to be a journalist; it just sort of happened as she followed her motto, “When a door opens, walk through it.” Still, I don’t think it’s an accident she ended up having a successful and varied career. She’s a naturally gifted storyteller with an eye for the telling detail and a way with words. Not that she hasn’t made mistakes and blown deadlines. But those doors she walked through don’t slide open as effortlessly as she would have it, like those at a supermarket. Just finding them takes talent and persistence, as well as the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

Speaking of which, I’m not going to spoil for you how Hertzel found the story of a lifetime in the Soviet Union in 1986 in a small town near the Finnish border. But part of  it involves being met after an incredibly long train trip by smiling old people handing out flowers and speaking English. It’s a chapter in history that I was previously unaware of and now I want to read the book about it that Hertzel later co-authored, They Took My Father. Now there’s an intriguing title.

Open Book: The University of Minnesota Press sent me an advance reading copy of Laurie Hertzel’s News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist. I laughed at the cover picture because it looked almost exactly like the top of my old desk at The Fayetteville Times, right down to the standard blue-and-white reporter’s notebook, ashtray, press card, mug, newspaper clips, a clutch of pencils and pens. No computer in sight.

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