Readers and Writers: A trio of good reads — a mystery, a memoir and a piece of women’s history

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Readers and Writers: A trio of good reads — a mystery, a memoir and a piece of women’s history
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As daylight stays with us longer this month, we can rush through our lives’ boring duties — laundry, etc. — so we have more time to read. And we have three good ones for you this week. A new thriller, a beautiful memoir and a piece of women’s history. Toss those clothes in the washing machine, forget about them, and open the first page.

Desolation Canyon” by P.J. Tracy (Minotaur Books, $27.99)

A mysterious retreat in the desert that draws celebrities to the fervor of the saintly founder, Father Paul, is at the heart of P.J. Tracy’s second thriller featuring LAPD Detective Margaret Nolan and the biggest cast of characters of any of Tracy’s novels.

In this peak-excitement story, Nolan is still grieving for her brother, who died in military service. She’s recovering from having to shoot someone in the line of duty, and her relationship with her dad, who’s ex-military, is growing distant. Most of all, she’s concerned that her mother is going on a retreat at Father Paul’s Children of the Desert.

When Nolan and her sexy colleague Remy are having a drink at the fancy Hotel Bel-Air, they find a body in the famous Swan Lake. Why would anyone kill a lawyer and dump the body in such a public place? Even more odd, the coroner says the man was killed with a method used by Russian criminals.

Meanwhile, Nolan’s friend Sam Easton, whose face was melted on one side from a road bomb in Afghanistan, is helping his friend Lenny figure out how to protect a terrified woman and her little daughter, who Lenny picked up on the road and hid on his boat.

Back at Children of Desert, we learn Father Paul might not be who he seems. Half the people in this book are not who they say they are, including Ivan, a businessman who Nolan investigates and immediately dislikes when she looks into his cold eyes. And there’s Mike, a mentally-challenged young man who works at the grocery store nearest to the Children of the Desert compound and knows a lot about what goes on there because he spends time in the night desert searching for aliens.

In the last chapters, Sam needs all his military training to infiltrate Children of the Desert,  which brings Nolan and Remy into his plans. Can they save the woman and her child, who are being held at the compound, as well as Nolan’s mother? And who is the mysterious Irina everyone is looking for?

Tracy’s plots are growing more intricate and her characters more layered. Nolan doesn’t like many people, but she aches for her family. Easton is finally learning to live again after his injury. Remy seems to want a relationship with Nolan that may or may not happen.

P.J. Tracy is the pen name of Traci Lambrecht, who wrote the St. Paul-based Monkeewrench series featuring computer whizzes, with her late mother, P.J. Traci lived in Los Angeles for 10 years, and her sense of place gives a special feel to this new novel, especially the heat and desolation of the desert..

“After Effects: A Memoir Complicated Grief” by Andrea Gilats (University of Minnesota Press, $19.95)

After Effects: A Memoir Complicated Grief Book Cover“All my life I had relied on three saving graces: music, painting, and reading. Now, without so much as a second thought, I had abandoned two of them at a time when I most needed saving. And the third was in danger. I could not focus my mind enough to read a chapter, let alone an entire book … I could not bear life. I wanted to fall into a deep sleep …”

That’s Andrea Gilats writing about the years after her husband, Thomas Dayton, died at 52 after a five-month battle with cancer.

In this illuminating, thoughtful and beautifully-written memoir, Gilats takes us on her journey as she experienced, for 10 years, prolonged or “complicated” grief. Although everyone who loses a loved one grieves, complicated grief is long-lasting.

Although this type of grief affects as many as one in seven of those stricken by the loss of a close loved one, it is little known outside professional circles.

For Gilats, it was 10 years of what she describes as “constant, unbearable grieving.” She was so in her “cocoon of grief” it never occurred to her to seek help.

What makes this book more than “this happened to me” is the author’s now clear-eyed realization of what she was experiencing. She not only tells us what happened, but how her husband’s death affected every area of her life for years.

Gilats was founder and director of the University of Minnesota’s Split Rock Arts Program, a nationally renowned series of residential workshops in visual art and creative writing in Duluth. When the program ended, Gilats turned to other pursuits, including yoga, which she taught for years. When she had major surgery, the nurses were amazed at how soon she could walk and her strength. All thanks to yoga.

Slowly, Gilats awakened from her years of sorrow when she returned to music, painting and reading.

“In life and death, Tom had always been an unforgettable presence in my life, and now I was beginning to imagine myself reentering the world without leaving him behind,” she writes. “It was this fragile, partial reconciliation that would help me pave a path to healing, however long and winding.”

“After Effects” is partly self-help for those with prolonged grief who don’t know what is wrong with them when people tell them to “move on.” It’s also a story of a strong, educated woman who is willing to share her experiences to help others. And it’s a meditation on eternal love.

When you finish the last paragraph you are going to think: “I’d like to meet this woman.”

Gilatis will virtually launch her book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, moderated by Cathy Madison, author of “The War Came Home with Him,” presented by SubText Bookstore. Go to: subtextbooks.com.

“Poems from the Asylum” edited and arranged by Janelle Molony, introduction by Jodi Nasch Decker (Molony&Nash, $35 hardcover, $25 paperback)

Poems From The Asylum Book CoverWhy did Martha Hedwig Gruening Nasch spend seven years in the St. Peter Hospital for the Insane?

That’s the question her granddaughter, Jodi Decker, and Jodi’s daughter, Janelle Molony, explore in this family’s story told through rhymed poetry written by Martha during her years of confinement in St. Peter in the 1920s and ’30s, beginning when her son Ralph was 6 years old.

Martha’s poems about Ralph are loving and those about her husband, Louis Nasch Jr. (who may have been an adulterer), reveal her heartache (“Why was your God so cruel to us to let you go and stray?/Instead of binding love for us, he took that gift away.”) She writes of her home, Christmases and other happy events as well as those she has lost.

In chilling poems (“Here I Rot,”) Martha reveals the suffering she and others underwent at the institution, including cold water baths that were nearly torture, forced feeding and lobotomies. She reveals that patients were sometimes kept against their will, even though there was nothing wrong with them. In her poem “Suffering” she writes:

“I stand at the bar of justice,
A creature wan and wild.
I’m formed as if a woman,
But helpless as a child.”

After Martha’s release, she became a national sensation in the press when she alleged she hadn’t drunk, eaten or slept in seven years. Was she delusional or lying?

In the end, the authors lay out a good case for Martha having had difficulty with her sons’ birth that left her weak and tired, and that she was damaged during an operation. These physical difficulties led to her St. Peter confinement. She married Bill Lehman after her husband’s death and died herself in 1970.

Martha’s story, and poetry that is painful to read, is an example of how women were treated (“a case of nerves”) in those years.

There are a lot of family photos in this book, which could have been slimmed down by eliminating some of the families’ histories long before Martha comes on the scene. But people who lived on the Upper West Side will probably remember them because the family home was at 642 Hall Ave. Ralph was baptized at the West Side Old Emmanuel Lutheran Church and his parents courted on the steps of the old Jefferson School.

Throughout the book the editor uses footnotes to explain what Martha meant in certain poems, and the significance of the poems in relation to Martha’s life.

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