Affirming Antidotes: Best Books to Save Your (Literary) Soul Following (Literary) Fiascos

What’s this? Two book reviews in a row? What’s Wing’s World morphing into now?

Don’t worry. This post is entirely situational. As in, given the SITUATION I was in, last post, of having read a book as godawfully depressing as it was brilliant, the moroseness of which is now a distant memory due to the book that fell into my hands just after I wrote that post.

A HEARTWARMING book. A laugh-and-cry, go-ahead-and-recommend-this-book-to-everyone book (but especially to sisters, Minnesotans, and lovers of pie and beer–that is to say, Minnesotans).

And more importantly (to me): a book which is all those things AND excellently written.

I’m talking about The Lager Queen of Minnesota, by J. Ryan Stradal.

I was mentally bookmarking all kinds of passages even before I knew I wanted to blog about this book. Right off the bat, I was impressed with the intuitiveness of Stradal’s similes:

She looked at money like how a motorcycle driver looks at asphalt. The more of it you see, the farther you can go, but a single mistake with it can finish you. (p. 17)

…he didn’t crumple in the grass like someone wrestling with death, he lay still like someone waiting to be kissed. (p. 82)

Together they could pass the time like a couple of empty boats tied to a fenced-off pier, and it was beautiful. (p. 91)

The LOL parts were really too frequent to capture, but here’s one of my faves:

He glanced at her and pursed his lips. “On second thought, I don’t know. You white Minnesotans sure like things bland. I like the ramen there the way it is now. You start eating there, it’s gonna mess things up.”

“That’s probably true,” Diana said. “But I like spicy things.

He seemed mildly impressed. “Oh yeah? What’s your favorite spice?

“Butter,” she said.  (p. 205)

Hahahahaha. Here’s another gem, featuring one of the protagonists, pregnant:

“I’ll like it when it’s over,” ___ said, watching their pizza arrive, suddenly wanting it all for herself.

Their waitress, who was younger than them, and had the careless vibe of someone merely working for extra spending money, somehow couldn’t help herself. “You’re not supposed to say that,” she said. “Pregnancy is a miracle.”

“This pizza’s a miracle,” ___ said. “Pregnancy can suck it.”  (p. 242)

Stradal’s ease with implicit metaphors is even more impressive in its lack of impressiveness. I mean, he throws stuff out there which simply sounds NATURAL:

She dog-paddled through the rest of the day. (p. 185)

Before she could pour a glass of her own beer, or even order a bag of malt, there was a long, shallow puddle of bureaucracy she had to wade through. (p. 240)

But what gets me the most about this author is the fact that he’s a man writing in the perspective of women–three different main characters, all female–and he doesn’t eff it up. Scenes having to do with sex or childbirth he doesn’t dwell on, as if paying tribute to his own lack of understanding, but in other scenes, having to do with the psyche of women in a man’s trade? He NAILS it. Here, he describes the effect on the least sympathetic of the main characters, rendering her…sympathetic.

The men at or near her level across the industry were often exhausting. Very early she’d been spiritually and emotionally corroded by the roomfuls of them at various industry gatherings, men who talked over her, explained to her, asked her to fetch them lunch or coffee, planted and reaped her self-doubt. In the underpopulated women’s restrooms at brewers’ conventions, she’d sometimes hear of industry women experiencing far worse, but ___ quit attending these caustic functions before she personally experienced anything horrifying. (p. 335)

Even closer to the emotional bones:

The car accident that killed ___’s parents last June revealed a lot to her, especially the fact that every adult and almost every other person her age didn’t understand her, no matter what they’d been through. As a new kid in a new town, living with her kind but exhausted grandma ___, she had to set herself to a frequency that no one could tune in, just to make every day tolerable. (p. 90)

Or simply:

He laughed again… “Need anything from the kitchen?”
“No,” she said. “I have everything I need.”

As her husband vanished upstairs, she lay on the couch, took a deep breath, and almost believed it.  (p. 155)

Without giving anything away, I can divulge that the book’s main plot derives from a lifelong rift between two sisters. I’m not saying anything about the ending. But these two characterizations, one for each sister, epitomize the author’s deftness with character. When you read the book for yourself, they will speak even louder:

She halted in the doorway between those rooms, her blood full of sparks. (p. 347)


She was as calm as a small town on Christmas morning. (p. 348)

Is it true that I’ve just written a book review consisting almost entirely of quotes? And with one single lousy picture? Yes. Yes, it is. Because sometimes the words are enough.

So thank you, Mr. J. Ryan Stradal, for renewing my faith in good, positive-energy lit. And for the rest of y’all: What other novels would you put in this category? Got any more hidden gems for me?

10 thoughts on “Affirming Antidotes: Best Books to Save Your (Literary) Soul Following (Literary) Fiascos

  1. It’s not a hidden gem, but perhaps because of the passage of time, it is not as well-known as 30-40 years ago. But every time I read it, I laugh as hard as the last god-only-knows-how-many-times:

    “It was love at first sight.

    The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”

    Sorry to go all jejune on you. 😉

    Eudora Welty writes heart-warming stuff, but it’s not funny, just uniquely and richly expressed. What an observer she is.

    • Hahaha, that opening quote brings to mind when I used to teach C-22 to high schoolers. I learned I had to warn them about that first line: “It’s not exactly what you think. Keep reading.” Interesting that a book about PTSD and the horrors of war could be so damn funny. I’m not sure I agree that it’s in the same exact category of total affirmation, due to some of its nightmarish scenes, but humanity does win in the end.

  2. I love this book and J Ryan’s first one, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest.” Again, J Ryan nails the woman’s perspective in this one. I met him when I moderated a panel about food writing at the Orcas Island Lit Fest. He’s as genuine in person as in his writing. He credits his mom for his understanding of women. He paid attention.

  3. Lucky you, to meet him! Funny, I remember that panel, but I don’t remember him particularly, probably because I was distracted by the people I DID know. But I’m adding his next book to my queue.

  4. I’m putting this on my list! “She dog paddled through the rest of the day, ” LOL!!! It is amazing to me that a man can write from a woman’s perspective. I remember how impressed I was reading “She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb. I kept thinking, “A man wrote this??”

    Anyway, I love books with good dialogue and interesting characters. I have dozens that I’ve read in the last year and enjoyed…here are three that come to mind: “Nothing To See Here” by Kevin Wilson, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” by Maria Semple, and “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman. So many more, but I’ll stop here. 🙂 Oh, I just finished “Circe” by Madeline Miller and it was unique and excellent.

  5. Oooh, thank you for these! I’ve read Backman’s novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and have heard that the “Ove” book is even better. Will try. Also the Bernadette one. Aaaahh! Fare thee well, bookpression!

  6. this is my first time on your blog (to tell the truth, the first time on any blog!) and I really am looking forward to getting the book. You ask for gems, and I got one from a good friend – Mink River. Different style of writing that took getting used to, but then couldn’t put it down.

  7. Great to “see” you here, Tim! I LOVED Mink River. It became kind of the unofficial Lopez Reads Together novel back when it first came out in paper, and Brian Doyle came & did a reading to a packed auditorium. I’ll never forget how wonderfully emotional it was. When he died of a brain tumor, it felt like losing a friend. I’d put into that “gems” category his novel The Plover–not quite as wildly poetical as Mink River, but every bit as packed with humanity, particularly joy. Thank you for bringing up Brian’s name!

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