He was all ready to go. And then, he wasn’t.

Forty years ago, when my wife Rene’ and I were on the cusp of marriage, my dad approached me with a suggestion. No, Harry wasn’t trying to buy me off, to offer me hard cash if I’d stiff the woman I’d fallen in love with.

“Mom and I are taking your brother and sister to Canada. Jack Litman’s place. It’s a fly in. The Litmans and Mondales will be there.”

“OK…?”

“Well, are you doing anything for your honeymoon?”

I shook my head. Dad knew I was about to enter my third year, the toughest year, of law school. I was working full time at the Dorsey Law Firm as a legal assistant, making peanuts, paying my own way through school. Rene’ was finishing up her degree at the Main U. There’s no money for a honeymoon, I thought, though pride kept me quiet.

“Well, I’ll pay for you and Rene’ to come along.”

That was it. After a sleepless wedding night in a stuffy hotel room in Proctor (and not sleepless for the reasons you might think; shame on you!), Rene’ and I loaded ourselves into an already stuffed- to-the-ceiling Munger Family Suburban, crowding into the back seat with my brother and sister. Off we went. We had a grand time, spending five nights in a tent, my new bride and I sleeping on separate folding lawn chairs in separate sleeping bags. That bit of information aside, what other couple do you know can say they spent their honeymoon with the Vice President of the United States, protected by Secret Service, Canadian Mounties, and the Ontario Provincial Police?

The year was 1978. 30 years later, my dad approached me with a similar proposal.

“You want to go fishing with Fritz?”, “Fritz” being Mr. Mondale, now retired from public life.

“Sure.”

That trip renewed my acquaintance with the former Ambassador to Japan, Vice President, United States Senator, and Minnesota Attorney General. Thanks to that gracious invitation from Ross and Jay Litman, I was able to meet George Millard (a buddy of Mondale’s), Sam Perrella, III and his son Tony, Sam Litman (Jay’s son), and reconnect with old friends Doc Donley and Bruce Meyer. It’s a trip I’ve made every year since being invited except one. It’s a trip that’s heavy on laughter, great food, political bickering, and great fishing. This year, Harry was set to go; to, at nearly 91 years old, climb in and out of a de Havilland Otter and in and out of Sheriff Ross Litman’s fishing boat. He was eager to make the journey from his condo in Port Charolette to Duluth and have his eldest kid drive him and Mondale and George Millard to Ignace, Ontario and make the short flight to Elsie Lake. But fate intervened. Harry died on April 28th. His heart simply gave out. His memorial was held on June 1st. True to the strong ties such annual fishing trips create, everyone from the Litman trip attended the memorial to swap Harry stories, eat, share a toast, and remember.

For the past few years, I’d toyed with the idea of asking Ross if one of my four sons could make the trip but I never had the courage to ask. It’s not my trip; it’s Harry’s. So I kept my thoughts to myself until Harry’s passing. I emailed Ross not long after Dad’s memorial and broached the idea of seeing if Matt, my eldest and Harry’s oldest grandchild (and not insignificantly, a kid the Vice President managed to see baptized in 1980), couldn’t take Harry’s place. Not literally, of course, since there’s no way ANYONE could take Dad’s place. Ross and Jay approved the idea. Matt was able to sell it to his overburdened wife, Lisa, who would be stuck home with a new baby and two boys under the age of seven while Matt traipsed off to Canada. Matt must have promised Lisa the moon because she let him go. And so, we did. To say I’ve shed a few tears since Harry’s passing is to reveal that, despite nearly cancelling out of last year’s trip (Harry and I were in a spat, one that Sheriff Litman ordered me to “fix”, so I did), and many, many other disputes and disagreements Harry and I had since I was old enough to form opinions, I sincerely loved the craggy faced, gruff mannered, intimidating old litigator. Imagine being a little boy and being questioned by the most skilled cross examiner in the Duluth Bar. Every day of your life. That was our relationship, one that was, at times adversarial and contentious but was always, in a weird sort of a way, permeated by love and mutual respect. So asking Matt to “fill in” for Harry was not an easy thing to do. And yet, it felt so right to have Harry’s oldest grandchild sitting in the back seat of my Grand Cherokee with George, while Fritz reprised his familiar role of being my co-pilot on the drive from Duluth to Ignace.

George, Fritz, Jay, and Ross.

Like most years, we spent our time at Elsie returning to the routine of camp life in the bush. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We don’t rough it on Elsie Lake. Not even close. Jay is an exceptional chef. Sammy, the third generation of Perrellas to own and run Sammy’s Pizza, always does his Italian heritage proud in the kitchen. Ross usually contributes, in addition to near constant movement and upgrading around camp, a fish fry. This year’s menu didn’t disappoint. We slept on comfortable mattresses in sleeping bags, drifting off-in my case since I bunked with the old guys- to sounds of C-Pap machines whirling away in the night. Sure, there were times where chores were mandatory. I’m the designated camp dishwasher, though this year, with the addition of a solar pump and a propane water heater, I no longer heated kettles of water on the propane cook stove for dishes. I simply turned on the tap and, shazam, hot water! George served, as he always does, as my assistant. Every meal, we cleaned and dried and stacked dishes, pots, pans, and utensils. This year, due to an unfortunate shoe incident (it’s top secret; ask the sheriff!), Ross and Jay determined that the sauna needed refurbishing. Actually, rebuilding would be a better term. I need to stop here to explain something about camp logistics. There are no roads leading to the Litman Camp.Whenever building materials or supplies or food or propane or gasoline or boats or motors are needed, those items must be loaded into or strapped to the floats of an Otter and flown in. Hell, that’s how Judge Jack Litman managed to bring a brand new pontoon boat into the Canadian wilderness years ago, a boat that’s still in use. The boat was flown in disassembled, the pontoons tied to the Otter’s floats, and rebuilt on site.

Jay and Matt fishing from the pontoon.

The sauna construction crew included Jay ( who once made his living in the carpentry trade), Ross, Tony, and me. It was hot and humid inside the little steam room as Tony and I measured and nailed cedar cut by Jay, sometimes getting the measurements spot on, other times, not so much. We had the advantage of a generator providing power for a table saw; and battery powered skill saws and nailers and drills; tools that didn’t exist back in the 1960s when the original cabin was built.

Mark and Tony fitting cedar planking in the sauna.

In between raindrops and chores and fishing and feasting, there were, of course, quiet moments when we each did our own thing. I spent much time, when not in the boat with Jay or Sammy or Ross devouring Jim Harrison’s last effort (see my review of The Ancient Minstrel elsewhere on this blog), and discussing writing with Fritz and George and Sammy. 

Reading on the dock.

Of course, the reason for us being in the middle of the Ontario wilderness, miles from roads and civilization, was to fish. And fish we did! The walleyes were somewhat cooperative; the small mouth bass-lively; the whitefish (pound for pound the fightingest fish in the lake) were completely absent; and the lake trout, scarce. Still, we found enough fish to keep our anticipation high and our expectations higher. There were no trophies landed; no eight pound lakers or twenty pound pike or 28″ walleyes. But that’s OK: had we landed such monsters, the slot limits on the lake (or the Litman ethic) would have required a quick photo and a release, allowing big fish the chance to grow bigger.

Elsie lake trout.

 

Tony and Sammy and Elsie walleye.

We humans weren’t the only ones missing Harry. The camp dogs, especially the two yellow labs Jada and Lilly, seemed out of sorts without my dad around.

“Why so?” you ask.

Those of you who know Harry, know he always had a Lab by his side until he left Minnesota for retirement in Florida. The list of Labradors that lived with Harry over his long life is endless. His affinity for the breed knew no bounds. Wherever he was, whether pheasant hunting in North Dakota or steelhead fishing on the Betsy River in Michigan, he found a Labrador to adopt and spoil. This was true at Elsie as well and I’m certain Jada’s and Lilly’s constant nudging our legs and hands beneath the kitchen table in Harry’s absence was a learned response: Dad always had a treat to share with his canine pals.

Lilly waiting for Harry.

But this year, their pal didn’t make the trip and the yellow dogs (thanks, Sam Cook!) shared the human contingent’s unsettled state. So many memories. So many thoughts. As the patriarch of the Munger Family now that Harry has passed, I found myself tearing up in, of all places, the outhouse, for chrissakes! I don’t want to leave you with the impression I was overcome with morose longing for the old man. I’ve learned, with the passing of both my stepfather and my father in the same year, that grief doesn’t work that way: at least not for me. No, the sadness didn’t hit me full on, in the face, like I’d expect losing a child or a spouse does. I suppose because death is an expected part of life, and as our parents age, we come to anticipate the inevitable, grief sneaks up and pinches you on the cheek, making you cry over the smallest remembrance. I had some of those moments at Elsie. I’m sure Fritz and George and Matt and the rest of the boys did too. We all missed Harry on this year’s trip, and will go on missing the old guy, in our own ways, as long as we’re around.

That’s just how it is.

Peace.

Mark

Harry and Fritz, Elsie Lake 2017.

 

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks (2017. Knopf. ISBN 978-1-101-94615-2)

A few years ago, I chanced upon a copy of actor Gene Hackman’s Western, Payback at Morning Peak, in the bargain bin at a local bookstore. Unfortunately, that’s where Mr. Hackman’s misguided foray into literature belonged. Not so this debut short story collection from Forrest Gump’s smarter brother. Turns out, despite my initial skepticism when handed this book as a Christmas present, Hanks can write.

The themes of these stories include quite a few tales centered around typewriters (hence the title) but don’t let that seemingly mundane topic turn you off. Hanks uses the ancient tool of Hemingway and Stein and Fitzgerald as an anchor for some nicely crafted prose. Thing is, those tales are only the beginning glimpses of everyday, ordinary life and the occasional space oddity (as in science fiction) that make this volume intimate and readable.

True enough, Hanks never really digs too deep beneath the surface in terms of angst or turmoil or sexual passion. His fiction is what you’d expect from our generation’s Jimmy Stewart: vignettes of small town and city life brought to the page with honesty and integrity.  By drawing upon his experiences as an actor (“Christmas 1953” echoes Saving Private Ryan; “Alan Bean Plus Four” shares Hank’s affinity for space exploration, solidified by his portrayal of astronaut James Lovell in Apollo 13) Hanks shares the knowledge and insight he gained while researching and portraying those roles with his readers.

Here’s a slice of a nicely crafted effort:

The outfit marched in roads and across ice-solid fields, along trails dragged out in the gathered snow, hauling ammo and supplies for themselves as well as for other who were already ahead in the fighting, which Virgil could see in the distance like Fourth of July fireworks. They fought along with the paratroopers who had taken heavy casualties, moving forward in s show of arms meant to convince the Germans that an entire division was at the ready to take them on. The ruse worked. But lives were lost.

(“Christmas 1953”)

There aren’t any real clunkers in this mix, only some stories that rise above others and make the reader sit up and concentrate so as not to miss the show. The more pedestrian, less clever, less emotive tales still have merit and keep the reader’s eye engaged and his or her mind churning.

My favorites in the collection include “Christmas Eve 1953”, “Go See Costas”, and “These are the Meditations of My Heart.” All of these short stories are quality fiction, making you marvel at Hanks’s craftsmanship and ask the question (like Steve Martin seems to postulate on the back cover blurb):

“Is there nothing this man can’t do?” 

Apparently not.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

The Madman and the Assassin by Scott Martelle (2015. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-61373-018-8)

It all started for me, my obsession with Thomas “Boston” Corbett, when I read a menu at Tobie’s Restaurant in Hinckley, Minnesota. How so, you ask? Well there, buried in the stories about the Hinckley Fire (circa 1894) was a very short speculation that the killer of John Wilkes Booth, Boston Corbett, had met a tragic end in Minnesota during the fire. The proof was supposedly some burial or other records related to the fire’s aftermath. Just like the historical figure, Olli Kinkkonen, whose tragic lynching in Duluth propelled my historical novel, Suomalaiset, I thought Maybe Corbett’s story is the beginning of a book…But in the end, that didn’t happen. Instead, I read a bit about Corbett and used his nasty self-castration (a known fact!) as part of The Tyler’s backstory in Laman’s River and pretty much put Boston out of my mind. Until I couldn’t. When you’re OCD, things never truly are forgotten or placed on the shelves of your mind. So in looking at his tale as a potential novel unto itself, I stumbled across an actual biography of the man written by journalist Scott Martelle. The book, finely written and complete, convinced me that Corbett’s story has been told and I need to move on.

Martelle does a marvelous job of giving readers as much factual history as possible about a man who had a tortured and difficult life. In truth, there isn’t a whole lot out there about Corbett that a biographer can grab hold of and turn into a character study. But what is there, this author has woven into a story of Booth and Corbett and their tragic intersection in a rural Washington D.C. barn on that fateful night. Corbett, a cavalryman with the Union during the war, was charged with accompanying a group of soldiers and detectives in their hot pursuit of Booth and his accomplices. Martelle gives us the background-historical and personal-regarding the two main protagonists in that chase. He also explains Corbett’s actions (shooting the assassin when his orders were clearly to take the man into custody) such that there is little doubt the diminutive eunuch was simply doing his duty when he shot Booth.

Additionally, Martelle paints a compelling portrait of the later years of Boston Corbett’s life, highlighting the significant ordeal the former soldier went through to obtain his pension for his years of service during the war and his incarceration as a POW in the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville. Resisting the opportunity to embellish and speculate regarding Corbett’s reported demise in the Hinckley Fire, Martelle sticks to the facts until this very well done examination of a fascinating character reaches its conclusion.

I’d highly recommend this biography of a compelling, if somewhat demonstrably odd minor figure, in American history to anyone interested in the Civil War, Booth, or their times.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A great book club read!

Peace.

Mark

The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison (2016. Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-2456-2)

I stand corrected. After reading two of Harrison’s better known works, Dalva and True North and finding both books far less satisfactory in story and character when compared to his masterpiece novella, Legends of the Fall, I was pretty well convinced that the hype regarding this author’s creative powers was overblown. But, after reading this collection of two novellas and a long short story (the third piece, “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” is billed as a novella but it’s too short for that moniker) on a recent Canadian fishing trip, I must edit my prior remarks. Harrison, who died in 2016 at the age of 78, after having lived a life of literary acclaim, maintained his skills right up until the bitter end.

First in the line-up is the title piece, a quirky novella/memoir of an aging writer based upon the author’s own history. “The Ancient Minstrel” is engaging, humorous, touching, and thought provoking; exploring the life of a hard drinking, hard charging literary icon ala Hemingway but with a touch of foreboding and longing to give the portraiture a sense of bitter angst and reality. I only wish the novella had actually been spun into a full blown memoir of the author’s life.

“Eggs” is probably my favorite piece in this brief collection. Catherine, the protagonist, is drawn carefully and lovingly by Harrison and is as good as it gets. Set in the writer’s second home, Montana, this novella fully displays the crisp, brief, yet descriptive and lively writing style that made Harrison such a darling of the literary world. Hemingwayesque and yet, not, Harrison’s prose in this wonderfully conceived piece of fiction proves that, as with “Legends of the Fall”, this writer is the master of the novella form, a form not easily sold in today’s marketplace of words where agents clamor for full length, big spined, epic novels from their literary fold.

Finally, Harrison, who spent much time in Upper Peninsula Michigan escaping the hurly burly world of publishing, gives us his take on Nabokov. The author’s version of a forbidden sexual relationship between an aging private investigator and a neighborhood high school girl is, from the very outset, one of danger and foreboding and yet, the protagonist is unable to resist the lure of innocence:

There had to be an escape route from this obsession. He loathed his mind’s starling capacity to raise up an image of Barbara naked below the waist…He remembered the name of the mind doctor that Diane (his ex-wife) had given him. It might be time to bite the bullet and go., but would the man hold his information in confidence?…What was it about our sexual impulses that demolished us and how did he end up with his ass in this sling?

This was Jim Harrison’s last effort for his readers. I won’t claim I was a fan of his work before this slender volume came out. I am now.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

Red Jacket by Joseph Heywood (2012. Lyons Press. ISBN978-0-7627-8859-0)

Great, I thought, when I stumbled across this novel set in UP Michigan during the Copper Strike of 1913, maybe the author can give me some additional insight into what happened. Sorry to say, this isn’t the case. Here’s why.

This book, in many ways, reminds me of the Western penned by actor Gene Hackman (Payback at Morning Peak), which can be reviewed in the archives of this site by using the search bar. Hackman, a wonderful actor, is a lousy writer. I don’t know about Mr. Heywood’s acting ability but, as a writer, his style, at least as displayed in this 472 page tome, is puzzling. Puzzling in the sense that it doesn’t measure up to the blurb hype on the back jacket of the book or what one would expect to come from the fingertips of an author who reportedly has (according to the Amazon reviews of his work) a pretty loyal regional fan base for his fiction. What’s the problem, you ask?

Well, for starters, traditionally historical novels (and that’s what this book purports to be: heck, Teddy Roosevelt even appears as a character, though a bit unfulfilled as such, in my estimation) are big on narrative and use bits of dialogue to expose the inner thoughts and demons of the book’s characters, both real and imagined. Here, the reader is forced to read page after page after page of flat, uninteresting, and mundane dialogue that far exceeds what one would find even in the most stripped-down genre novels, where action and plot and dialogue are the keys to the story, and where narration and character usually take a back seat.

Then there is the protagonist himself, Lute Bapcat, and the details surrounding him. Let’s start with the fact that, as a 1910 era game warden, it would be unusual for Bapcat to carry a firearm or have arrest powers. My grandfather was a game warden in Minnesota a decade or so after this story takes place and he carried no weapon, had no powers of arrest, and at best, issued written citations to fish and game violators that resulted in small fines. Now, I’m not saying Heywood got the details of Bapcat’s profession wrong. I haven’t done the research to make that claim. But I am suspicious of the details inserted into this fictional story, especially when Bapcat’s weapon of choice is the rifle he carried with him during the Spanish American War. Logistically, a rifle makes a poor law enforcement tool. A handgun, such as the .45 that Heywood introduces later in the story, makes abundantly more sense if the officer is to be armed.

Add to this the plot, which involves mining executives scheming to disrupt the strike by poisoning streams (to eliminate trout as a source of food) and slaughtering the Keewenaw deer herd (for the same reason), and my suspension of disbelief’s radar was placed on high alert as I struggled through this very long and not so interesting read. Again, I don’t know if the mining companies in the UP hired out such nasty work in an effort to starve the strikers. But the language used by the author and the settings depicted gave me reason to doubt this major plot point throughout the book.

Heywood’s use of the UP as a setting also gets shorted. Oh sure, the author writes intelligently about his “neck of the woods” as you would expect from a regional author. But there is no depth, no soul to the depictions of place strewn about this story like solitary boulders in a mine dump. This failure to grab hold of the Keewenaw’s unique and compelling landscape and make it real, an additional character in the work, is perhaps the book’s greatest disappointment to me as a fellow regional novelist.

Finally, the complexities of plot and character seem artificial and forced. Take the relationship between Bapcat and Jaquelle Frei, a UP business woman who’s predilection for sex on demand comes off as immature and cartoonish: a connection without soul, meaning, or context. It’s pretty clear the author meant the scenes shared by Bapcat and his love interest to be titillating and naughty. But as written, the romantic connection falls hard on the frozen Keewenaw ground such that it is incapable of redemption by the remainder of the plot.

All in all, a severely disappointing read, so much so, I convinced myself that this book had to be self-published; unedited by professionals who would have read the manuscript and urged either rejection or a complete overhaul. Checking both the Lyons Press site and it’s parent company, Globe Pequot, I was unable to confirm my suspicion. So perhaps, like Hackman’s misguided journey into journalism, this one simply slipped through the cracks.

2 stars out of 5. Not a book I’d recommend.

Peace.

Mark

 

HUMOROUS

When I was 12, two neighbor boys, both a couple of years older than me, got the bright idea we should go hunting for squirrels in the woods above Skyline between Piedmont Avenue and 40th. John Durfee, one of the kids, didn’t have access to a gun but Ricky Plys, the other kid, did. A .22. But Ricky’s dad had locked up all the ammunition. So, we had a gun, but no bullets. I solved the problem by digging into my dad’s closet and liberating a box of .22 long rifle rounds. Off we went.

            After plinking at stuff for a couple of hours, we decided it was time to head home. John led the way and I walked behind him. Ricky followed with the .22. Somewhere on the trail, my gun safety training kicked in. I’m not supposed to be walking in front of the kid with the gun, I thought. I peeled off and walked behind Ricky. But Durfee was still ahead of Ricky and the .22. Somehow, Ricky stumbled, the gun went off, and a bullet hit John Durfee in his leg and traveled up into his back, near his spine. Ricky’s response? He took off, leaving the smallest kid behind to try and help the biggest kid make it home. As we limped along, John came up with a story. His dad, who was a hunting buddy of Harry’s, was the Chief Public Defender. Represented some nasty dudes in serious cases. “Here’s what we’ll tell ‘em,” John said between bouts of crying and pain. “Some guys were across the valley, on the ridge. One of them said, ‘Hey, isn’t that Durfee’s kid?’ The other said, “That’s him, alright. Let’s get ‘em.’ They shot me and took off.” Durfee looked at me, his eyes defiant. “Got that?”

            So, when I managed to drag John into his living room, where his dad, a seasoned trial lawyer interrogated us, that’s the story we told. Before Jack could rattle me, I skedaddled up the hill. My house was only a ½ block away. And I had a problem to be rid of: I still had a bandolier of .22 rounds tucked inside my sweatshirt. Between when I left Durfee’s and stopped at my shack, opened the door, and tossed the bandolier inside, Jack smelled a rat and called Harry. I didn’t know it but my dad was standing in the picture window of our house, phone in hand, getting the low down from Jack, while watching me hide evidence.

            I came in the back door and there was Harry. Dad was, when his dander was up, a very scary guy. I took one look at his face and I knew he knew.

            “What were you doing?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Where have you been?’

            “Nowhere.”

            “What did you throw in your shack?”

            “I wasn’t at the…”

            I never finished the lie. Harry had me by an ear, out the door, across the lawn, and standing next to the shack in mere seconds.

            “Get it”, he said.

Dad was silent during the walk to Durfee’s, but held my neck in a firm grip. The ambulance, its red lights flashing, its siren blaring, was just pulling away from the Durfee house when we stopped in front of Jack and two cops.

“Boy’s got somethin’ to say…” Harry said, shoving me towards The Law.

They found Ricky Plys hiding under his bed with the .22. The cops put the two of us in handcuffs, drove us downtown, fingerprinted us, interrogated us, and scared the shit out of us at the request of Jack Durfee and Harry Munger. I won’t say I never strayed after that. I can say I was never again a guest in the back of a squad car.

My sister Annie recently made this observation: Our dad was a tough, ornery, cranky, opinionated son of a gun who came down hard on us when we messed up. But just as quickly, he had the ability to move on without ever throwing our sins back in our faces. He never dwelled on history when it came to our missteps. In the fifty-three years since John Durfee got shot, Harry Munger never once told that story.

TOUCHING

If you know the Mungers, you know that there are times when one Munger refuses to speak to another of the clan. Such impasses occurred between Dad and me over the years. The reasons behind these silences aren’t important, never were. They just happened. But during the last six months or so, Harry and I didn’t have any spats. Our truce, such as it was, saw us calling each other 2-3 times a week. He loved it when, during this past winter, I repeatedly bemoaned that it was below zero or snowing, to which he would reply: “Well, it’s 85 and sunny here and I just got out of the pool.”

Mom and I have always said, “I love you” to each other. Not so Harry and I. We’re guys. We just don’t do that. An occasional hug, sure. A firm handshake? Always. A kiss or an “I love you”; not in the cards. So when, over the past five or six years, Harry began ending our long distance phone calls with, “I love you,” it caught me off guard. Something had changed in him, making him more sentimental, more affectionate. He never hung up the phone without saying, “I love you, Son.” That phrase, quite frankly, was rarely reciprocated. It just wasn’t in my wheelhouse to repeat those words to my old man. I did on occasion. But those occasions were few and far between.

Friday, April 27th. I called Harry. We had a nice talk. He’d just come from the pool. He didn’t tell me, as Pauline later revealed, that he’d been unusually tired, having slept nearly 20 hours before making his way to the pool. In any event, Dad and I came to a logical place to end our conversation. There was a second or two of silence. Before he could say anything, driven by whatever foresight or grace or intuition was granted me, I said, “I love you, Dad,” and I hung up the phone.

            I said those words because Harry had brought about a positive change in our relationship. It was the last time we spoke. And it was a gift.

            Thank you, Dad.

 

Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden (2017. Flatiron Books. ISBN 978-1-250-17167-2)

Part campaign-memoir-that-never-was, part eulogy to a dead son, part intimate depiction of a bond between president and vice-president, this book was billed by some who knew I was reading it as a “tear jerker”. I shed a few tears, alright, but not so much over the story of Beau Biden, the vice president’s son who died far too young from the same brain cancer that is taking its toll on Senator John McCain (incidentally, a great friend of Joe Biden’s), as I did over the ultimate end of the story: Biden’s decision, despite promising his dying son otherwise, to not run for president. That decision cleared the way for Hillary Clinton, which, as we all know, didn’t go so well. Not just for the Democrats. But for America and the world. As I write this, new revelations of misconduct by Donald Trump, Jr. during the campaign (wiretaps were just revealed that have him meeting with Russian money launderers during the campaign), the collapse of The Orange Headed One’s misguided attempt to best Rocket Man at nuclear poker, and the upset created by America’s defiance of decades of diplomacy in the Middle East by moving its embassy to Jerusalem, all weigh heavily on my mind. But enough of that. On to the book.

Biden is a concise, accurate writer whose prose is easily accessed and whose points are easily understood. This is a precise portrait of the gut-wrenching decision making process that Joe and his family endured in determining that, in the end, he just didn’t have it in him to run. The numbers, as it were, with Clinton securing so many early endorsements, including the tacit support of Barack Obama, made the man from Delaware’s path to a convention win unlikely. That coupled with the devastatingly brutal chemo and surgery and hospice that Beu was forced to endure, yielding, in the end, not only his own lofty political aspirations but his life, make the story readable, compelling, and heart breaking. I didn’t shed so many tears as I found myself angry at God and circumstance for blocking a good, decent, and caring man from becoming our president. The result? We all know what we’ve got, and as Joe Biden would say, “It ain’t pretty.”

4 stars out of 5. A good, quick read that would get book clubs chattering.

 

On Writing  by Stephen King. (2000. Scribner. ISBN 0-684-85352-3)

I bought this book years ago for my teenage writer-to-be-son, Christian. He told me, after reading it, that it was a helpful guide for aspiring authors. That was in 2001 or 2002. The book then went on the shelf until a few weeks ago when, in a funk over my own writing career (don’t get me started!), I decided to take a peek. I’m glad I did.

Part instructional “how to” for would-be novelists, part memoir of King’s early life, writing career, and the horrific accident that nearly killed him, there’s a lot to this fairly slender volume. In the section of the book entitled “Toolbox”, King lays it all out in simple and direct terms, identifying those attributes, from vocabulary to grammar to reading other authors to narration to dialogue to description, that make good writing work, and set great writing (he doesn’t believe he’s there yet, he’s still striving to be great at his craft) apart from the merely good. Using sources as diverse as folksinger John Prine and Steinbeck and his own work, King guides neophyte and experienced scribblers through the process of developing fiction, from idea to polished story.

I have to admit, I’ve never read a King book from beginning to end. I’m a fan of his novellas Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, and his novels, The Green Mile and Dolores Claiborne in their cinematic versions but the only one of his books I tried and failed to read was It. Clowns killing children? No thanks. But then I listened to King’s interview with Terry Gross on NPR, heard her talk about that experience live when she came to Duluth, and ended up buying a collection of Gross’s interviews from Fresh Air that included King’s spot because his story is so genuine and compelling. Having now read what the master storyteller has to share with those of us still trying achieve the label of “good writer”, I may just pick up some of his work and challenge myself to see it through.

4 out of 5. Not Bird by Bird but worthy of consideration and study by all writers.

Peace.

Mark

Collected Stories by Wallace Stegner (2006. Penguin Classics. 978-0-14-303979-2)

As I am typing this, I am finishing up Steven King’s writing memoir/tutorial On Writing. Like all good writers (I’ll confess, I am taking the word of others on this as I’ve never successfully completed a King novel), King admonishes folks who have the “writing bug” to “read, read, and read”. And he is particular in his declaration: read the classic as well as the contemporary. Why? Reading the giants of literature, alongside today’s gifted storytellers, gives a wanna-be writer a clear understanding of craft. King doesn’t mention Wallace Stegner by name in his book or in the book’s bibliography but he should have.

Here, Penguin gives us true genius in the short and not-so-short story form. I’ll admit I am a Stegner fan, having fallen in love with his prose after reading Angel of Repose, Beyond the 100th Meridian, and other longer works. I was searching for a western author to read while visiting Books on Broadway in Williston, ND and this collection caught my eye. It took me months to get to it, methodically working down my stack of “books to be read” in OCD fashion, but in the end, I started reading Stegner’s shorter work and of course, could not put it down. Like seeing my wife dolled up for an evening out, I fell in love with Wallace all over again.

Stegner’s stories are not linked in the manner of many modern collections. Oh, there are two or three stories that share characters and settings; continuing a previous piece in the book in some fashion, digging deeper into familiar literary soil. But by and large, the snippets of fiction that make up this catalog of a great writer’s “lesser” (in terms of length only) work are stand-alone pieces, something abhorrent to today’s publishers. I’ve written a similar collection, without the skill and polish evidenced in Stegner’s Collected Works; short tales that are intended to be read one at a time, like grapes sucked off the vine. And it’s pretty clear from studying today’s marketplace that both Stegner’s short story collection and my own would not find a home with a traditional publisher in our contemporary world. Publishers want collections that connect and continue themes, characters, and place. Here, Stegner ranges from the Canadian Plains, to the Midwest, to California, writing in styles as varied as Annie Proulx and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though known primarily as a “Western” writer, two of my favorite pieces in the book are “party scenes”: one set on the campus of an unnamed Indiana college (“The View from the Balcony”), the other, “A Field Guide to Western Birds”, set in the hills above LA. This last exists admirably as a time capsule of a certain age and class of people in a manner very akin to Fitzgerald:

“Maybe it’s something you did for ten percent,” she whispers, and that tickles me. I was the poor one when we were married. Her father’s money kept us going for the first five or six years. She laughs and rubs her cheek against mine and her cheek is soft and smells of powder. For the merest instant it feels old, too soft, limp, and used and without tension and resilience, and I think what it means to be all through. But Ruth is looking across the violet valleys and the sunstruck ridges, and she says is her whispery voice,” Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it really perfectly beautiful?”

For those readers who cherish Stegner’s writings about the Plains and the mountain country of the American and Canadian West, there is “Genius” a novella length depiction of a doomed cattle drive in Saskatchewan, with elements of place, style, and dialog that will make McMurtry lovers swoon.

All in all, a fine reflection of genius.

5 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

The Fighting Frenchman by Paul Levy (2016. University of Minnesota Press. 978-08166-9719-9)

It’s been called the Sweet Science. The term was coined by English sporting writer, Pierce Egan in the early 1800s (see http://boxing.isport.com/boxing-guides/why-boxing-is-called-the-sweet-science). I wouldn’t say I was necessarily a fan. Having grown up watching the greats of the modern era, Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Norton, and Tyson, to name a few heavyweight professional boxers I watched on television in my childhood, adolescence, and into my early adulthood, I paid attention to who was the heavy weight champion until the game became a carnival in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the title of “World Champion” was not unified and was held by various boxers at the same time, each title sponsored by a different promoting organization. But even though I wasn’t a fan, certain memories stand out for me with respect to my connection to boxing. Watching Cassius Clay demolish Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. Being intrigued by the notion that a famous person, Clay, would change his name simply because he changed his faith. Considering whether Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War was genuine or a publicity stunt. Watching George Foreman in the Olympics. Marveling at the chiseled body of Ken Norton and the insane, tractor like insistence of Joe Frazier in the ring. And then, of course, as a white kid growing up in the suburbs, wondering if any white man could ever really stand up in the ring and win the title. 

Here’s the story of a poor white kid from Crosby, Minnesota, who, though he never won a title, was someone I followed. Why? Well, Scott LeDoux was unorthodox and intriguing in so many ways, beginning with the fact he played college football at my alma mater, UMD. Then there was the son-of-a-miner connection (my maternal grandfather was an iron miner). And of course, the fact he was white. Paul Levy delves into all aspects of LeDoux’s troubled life, including the story of the boxer’s molestation at the hands of a neighborhood teem when he was only six. That incident scarred LeDoux, caused him to want to lash out in the ring, to purify himself, driving him, if not to greatness, then at least to notoriety. You get it all. The love story. The pain. The wins. The losses. The fixed fights. The hard luck. The fight that I watched on pirated pay-for-view in my Inver Grove Heights apartment as a law student (relax: I simply strung an extended wire around the room and captured the signal) where LeDoux, pummeled by Ken Norton for the entirety of the fight, came off the ropes in the last rounds and stood toe to toe with Kenny, bashing him with blow after blow after blow. He didn’t win but had the fight gone one more minute, he would have. During LeDoux’s career, the movie Rocky was released and became a hit. Though the hardscrabble fighter in Stalone’s epic shares the grit and tenacity of the boy from Crosby, the film wasn’t a fictionalized version of Scott LeDoux’s life. Unlike what’s depicted on the screen, the boxer from Crosby didn’t fare well after he left the ring. There’s much sadness, a touch of redemption, and even a bit of reconciliation at the end of the book, making the tale so much richer than an imagined story of a celluloid hero.

Levy’s touching portrayal of a man, his times, his demons, and the disgustingly brutal world of heavy weight prize fighting is better than a draw but not quite a knock out.

4 out of 5. There’s some repetitive writing that could have used a heavier edit but, overall, a fast, good read.

How Fiction Works by James Wood (2008. Pickadore. ISBN 978-0312428471)

Wood, the literary critic for The New Yorker is a bit high-brow for my comprehension and taste. His diminutive volume dissects elements of fiction writing, particularly novel writing, by comparison. He draws upon segments of well-known pieces of literature, both classical and modern, augmented with occasional references to genre fiction, to inspect, discuss, and explain how great writers build their fictional worlds in terms of tense, point of view, plot, character, and setting. His work is curt, precise, and engaging despite the overall atmosphere of suffyness one would expect in reading something written by a legendary critic. He tends, in choosing his exemplars, to draw upon Flaubert, Austen, Joyce, James, Checkov, and Tolstoy and other haughty types. But that’s okay for in the end, will it be writers such as those listed and relied upon by Wood who remain relevant a century from now, or will it be Grisham and Patterson and Flynn and their ilk, the storytellers of today who, in general, sacrifice quality and literary excellence for quantity and cash?

As a writer who has been accused of spending an inordinate amount of time providing details in my work about minor characters, folks who might appear in one brief scene and then never take the stage again, I thoroughly enjoyed Wood’s discussion of “flat” (superficial) and “round” (detailed and developed) characters. He reminds us all that, in the end, writing fiction is a bit of a card trick, an invented reality that is subject to numerous viewpoints and divergent analysis when the curtain is withdrawn and we can see the writer’s hands:

In Aspects of the Novel, Forster used the now-famous term “flat” to describe the kind of character who is awarded a single, essential attribute., which is repeated without change as the person appears and reappears in the novel…Forster is generally snobbish about flat characters, and wants to demote them, reserving the highest category for rounder or fuller characters. Flat characters cannot be tragic, he asserts; they need to be comic. Round characters “surprise” us each time they reappear; they are not flimsily theatrical; they combine well with other characters in conversation; “and draw one another out without seeming to do so.”

I picked up this little primer of writing tutelage at Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books in St. Paul on a whim. As I wandered the store, looking at the uruly crowd of hard cover and soft cover tomes for something to read, I wasn’t really intending to embark on yet another course of learning in my writerly career. And yet, that’s what transpired. In the end, I’m thoroughly happy I slid my little plastic card to the clerk and bought this book.

4 stars out of 5. A quick read that gives even an experienced fiction writer pause and causes necessary contemplation over the word, “Why?”

Peace.

Mark

 

Blue Window by Deborah Gordon Cooper (2017. Clover Valley Press. ISBN 978-0-9973643-2-3)

I am remiss. I bought a signed, personalized copy of Deb Cooper’s latest poetry collection last fall, at her book launch at Peace Church in Duluth. Not normally attracted to poetry readings, I went to the event with my 89 year old mother because it sounded therapeutic. Mom had recently lost her husband and I, my stepfather. We needed something to get us out of the house and back into the stream of life. Plus, I know Deb. I know her compassion, her faith, her kindness, and her poetry. I figured that an afternoon listening to her work would be palliative. It was.

There are many jewels in this slender volume. I marveled, as I read and re-read the book (3 times so far!), at Deb’s crisp, concise, unfailingly honest look at life in all its joys and sorrows. It also helps that the title of the collection is taken from my favorite Neil Young song, “Helpless”. You know the lyrics: Blue, blue moon behind the stars, yellow moon on the rise…Taking her cue from what is likely the best Canadian folk song ever written, the poet uses Young’s expression of longing and angst and the past to launch a very, very well conceived expression of similar feelings, thoughts, and circumstances.

My personal favorites include the lengthy work, “Central Hillside”, an episodic poem that chronicles the lives of disparate folks, young and old, as they go about their lives on Duluth’s hillside. One can picture the neighborhood she depicts, spreading out on the steeps just below the church where she held her book launch, each life chronicled as important and complex as the next.

Another of the poems that touched a nerve is “If I Could Take it Back”, wherein the narrator considers actions that cause her regret and shame:

If I could take back

every snide remark

                                                                                 the way I terrorized

                                                                                my brothers…

This exemplar lamentation should whet your appetite and cause you to pick up a copy of this fine volume of home-grown verse from Zenith Bookstore or The Bookstore at Fitger’s. Anyone with siblings or who grew up in the rough and tumble times of post-war suburban life will appreciate the images manifested in this listing of regrets.

There’s also a section completed (hinted at but not expressly confirmed) by the poet when on a retreat in Ireland. This second chapter, if you will, bears the book’s title, as does my favorite poem from Cooper’s Irish-influenced verse:

In the wee hours,

I dream another woman’s dreams

the dreams of a boat;

the dream of the garden,

sweet peas and cabbages.

Wake with her story

rotting in my mouth

potatoes rotting

in the ground…

Well done, Ms. Cooper. Well done. Thanks for helping us heal.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

 

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