Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle version. ISBN 978-0312429980)
Let’s be honest. I will never write a book that makes it to No. 3 on the Amazon sales list. Hilary Mantel’s tome about the English politico and adviser (Thomas Cromwell) to Henry VIII during England’s split from the Vatican is there now and likely was No. 1 on the list at some point. That disclosure having been made, I am uncertain, other than the prurient interest such historical fiction engenders (what with all the beheadings and burnings-at-the-stake and rampant coupling), why the book is such a hit (it’s now a mini-series on PBS!). Not that the story, as gruesome and titillating as written, isn’t worthy of a read. It is. But, as other critics have noted, this series about Cromwell is more Mantel’s attempt, as a protestor against Roman Catholicism, to attack Thomas More’s (he of A Man for All Seasons fame) heroic legacy, a legacy that has left Cromwell, at least in popular fiction and the public eye, as a wretched, power hungry bundle of evil corruption, than to a retelling of the tragedies of Henry’s rule with objectivity. As with many historical figures of power, neither More nor Cromwell is all saint or all sinner, though Mantel’s attempt to soften the historic Cromwell is at least somewhat successful.
I found the author’s use of the third person subjective case (“He” instead of “Thomas” or “Cromwell”) throughout the tale an odd choice for the genre. Most historical fiction is written in the third person omniscient where the narrators are described by name, not pronoun. Not so in this work. It may seem a minor point but I found the author’s choice in this regard an odd one. In addition, the plot and action are confusing and difficult to follow, though the historic details are never in doubt, making this at times, a very difficult, though well described, tale to follow.
And, as I have said in past reviews of other novels that rely solely upon the basest of human experience to propel their plots forward (e.g., No Country for Old Men), a novel that completely avoids redemption and light for the sake of story, no matter how serious the subject matter, is half a story at best.
Still, like any witness to a train wreck (I knew what grisly ends awaited Sir Thomas, Queen Ann, and even the anti-hero, Mr. Cromwell but I kept on reading despite that insight) I had little difficulty finishing this book. It was not so badly written or constructed to the point where I stopped caring (the situation I find myself in having trudged through most of James Joyce’s Ulysses). Despite the above-noted critique, and some questions as to the author’s use of historical fiction as a platform to pontificate against the modern Roman Catholic Church, I will likely read the sequels. Even critics can’t avoid being curious when heads are about to be lopped off and maidens are being led to the stake…
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Unto a Good Land by Vilhelm Moberg (1954. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0873513203)
This second novel in the “Emigrant” series written by Swedish author, Carl Artur Vilhelm Moberg continues the story of a small band of Swedes who leave their native land for the United States in the early 1850s. Whereas the first novel in the series, The Emigrants, was entirely set either in rural Sweden or aboard the brig, the Charlotta that journeyed from Europe to North America with a cargo of pig iron and humanity aboard, Unto a Good Land is firmly set on the shores of the brash and newly constituted republic of the United States of America.
Moberg does a yeoman’s job of depicting the overland journey of Karl Oskar Nilsson, his wife Kristina, their children, and the divergent band of immigrants that accompany them from Manhattan to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, an isolated lumbering town located on the wild and scenic St. Croix River. The timeframe, as I’ve said, is the 1850-1851. Wisconsin, on the eastern banks of the St. Croix, has attained statehood (1848). Minnesota, which occupies the eastern banks of the river, is part of the Minnesota Territory, created in 1849 and destined for statehood in 1858.
The author makes the plodding, tedious, harrowing journey of the émigrés aboard river packet, canal barge, railroad car, paddle wheeled riverboat, and finally, on foot from Stillwater to Taylors Falls come to life, casting the iron-willed former prostitute, Ulrika of Vastergöhl as the foil to Kristina Nilsson’s motherly virtue for the majority of the trek. The cast of characters also includes Karl Oskar’s impetuous and truth-challenged younger brother, Robert, whose dreams of California gold fields make his dedication to aiding his older brother’s homesteading ambitions problematic. There’s trouble in the wind whenever Robert takes center stage in this familial drama but the tension between Karl and Robert isn’t overt: Moberg deftly creates his characters of whole cloth, giving them real-life motivations and actions, rather than instilling his creations with stereotypical feelings and emotions. This having been said, the tension between the brothers is palpable and real despite the cleverness of Moberg’s prose: you anticipate a break and indeed, it occurs.
The details that one would expect in a fine settlers’ accounting of felling trees, grubbing soil, and building cabins are well described and historically accurate. A childbirthing scene, where Kristina demands that Karl Oscar deliver the prostitute Ulrika to the Nilsson cabin to assist with the birth of their son, is poignantly tense and tender, with the reconciliation of the two women entirely believable and well wrought.
As he did in The Emigrants, Moberg spends much time chronically the faith of the immigrants, taking the prophet-like Danjel Andreasson from the heights of evangelical zeal to the depths of despair. Danjel fled Sweden under the threat of excommunication from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the national church of Sweden, for ministering to his flock without proper education or ordination. Moberg casts the itinerant pastor as a sort of modern-day John the Baptist or Martin Luther; a man so convinced of his direct connection to God that he forswears the rigor and organization of the state church to the jeopardy of his soul. But though the preacher discovers that he is free, once in America, to speak his mind and search for his vision of heaven, Moberg portrays Danjel as dejected, fallen, and unsure: it is a marvelous change in character that is entirely believable given the pastor lost his wife on the Charlotta, her body having been buried in the cold waters of the North Atlantic after being wracked with disease.
Unlike the first novel, which seemed to be inordinately preoccupied with, well, procreation, Unto a Good Land is far less titillating in its carnality and far more educational and interesting as a piece of historical fiction. Not that sex is necessarily a bad thing in a historical novel but here, Moberg puts the desires and physical intertwining of his characters in the background and lets their work ethic, spirituality, and interpersonal connections shine through.
A well-written and insightful story of Scandinavian immigrants coming to my “neck of the woods.”
4 and ½ stars out of 5.
(This review originally appeared on the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. blogsite. Find out more about that organization’s efforts to promote and save vanishing emigrant, immigrant, and Great Plains related fiction at: http://www.rurallitrally.org)
The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (1951. Simon and Schuster. Translated by Gustaf Lannestock. ISBN 978-0873513197)
There is a lot of sex in this book. I mean it. For a novel published during the more sedate and less titillating 1950s, The Emigrants references the act of lovemaking, coitus, or, if you prefer, samlag (Swedish) innumerable times throughout the novel’s 366 pages. Now, to be clear, Moberg doesn’t toss graphic descriptions of carnal knowledge onto the printed page. Rather, as a true gentleman, the author of this initial installment in an emigration/immigration trilogy depicting the lives of a schooner full of Swedes fleeing poverty, religious persecution, and landless futures carefully alludes to sex throughout the story, never really painting a word picture of the mechanics of such physical connections. Some of the references to sexuality are humorous. A graphic description of the permanently aroused state of a dead Lutheran pastor’s manhood, which befuddles his survivors as they prepare his body for the man’s funeral, comes to mind. Another tidbits of carnality include glimpses of the sexual prowess of one the great prostitutes depicted in literature, Ulrika of Västergöhl. None of the passages depicting Man’s basest desires are offensive. But they are indeed prevalent, sprinkled by the author throughout the narrative like naughty exclamation points.
But this isn’t a story about sexual repression in mid-19th century or even mid-20th century Sweden. It is, in the end, the story of Karl Oscar Nilsson, his wife Kristina Johnsdotter, and their young children who, as the inherited family farm of Korpamoen sinks deeper and deeper into debt, leave their Swedish homeland for America. The writing in the first one-third of the novel, the section that depicts all the adversity and travails that afflict the young couple (and the other characters, including Ulrika) is crisp, descriptive, and spot-on. Moberg’s ability to weave history, geography, and character together to create believable fiction is well served in the early portion of this tale. The author also adroitly captures the fear, trepidation, and hope that must have been experienced by uneducated emigrants about to embark on a three-month voyage across a vast boiling pot of water, bound for a land that they had only the vaguest of notions about. The tension between tradition, such as Karl Oscar revealing his plan to sell the family farm to strangers, uprooting his young family, and leaving his ailing mother and father behind; Karl Oscar’s younger brother Robert deserting his laboring job, employment little better than slavery, without notice to join Karl and Kristina on their voyage; Kristina’s uncle, Daniel Andreasson, a religious zealot in danger of a prison sentence for preaching the Gospel without the blessings of the state church; is palpable and real during the first section of the novel. Based upon the beginning of The Emigrants, I had high hopes that Moberg’s writing would continue to be clever, commanding, and intriguing throughout the remainder of the novel.
The remainder of the book depicts the voyage of the brig Charlotta, a sailing vessel 124 feet long, packed with 15 crewmembers, and carrying a contingent of 78 emigrant passengers from Sweden, including Karl Oscar and Kristina. It isn’t that craft deserted Moberg during the last two-thirds of the story: It is that, in an effort to render an authentic depiction of the harrowing passage experienced by many immigrants to America during the 19th century, the author spares no detail regarding the illnesses, agony, boredom, frustration, and fear experienced below the decks of the Charlotta. What the reader is left with is nearly two hundred pages of well-written narration and dialogue limited in geographic scope to the forty-pace by eight-pace deck of the brig. Moberg’s descriptive powers are adept. His word choice is concise. He instills emotive fire in his writing. And yet, in the end, unlike the middle passage scene from Roots, the best depiction of a similar oceanic transit in all of literature, Moberg’s attempt to make the reader feel and care about the emigrants and their suffering falters. Why? Scene after scene of billowed sails, gray seas and skies, storms, sickness, and death may well mimic the reality of what the emigrants experienced. But such repetitive prose, even when well written, becomes, and became in this case, redundant. In a nutshell, Moberg didn’t provide enough variety in the last two-thirds of this novel to keep up the heady pace, the internal steam of narrative and dialogue that made the first portion of this book so compelling.
Despite the criticisms leveled above, The Emigrants has value for anyone interested in understanding the motivations and desires of Scandinavians who immigrated to North America during the last half of the 19th century. While the sections portraying the passage of the brig Charlotta across the Atlantic may be a tad overdone, the overall impact of the characters and their struggles remains powerful enough to label Moberg’s initial offering in the trilogy a “good read”.
4 stars out of 5
(This review originally appeared on the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. blogsite. Find out more about that organization’s efforts to promote and save vanishing emigrant, immigrant, and Great Plains related fiction at: http://www.rurallitrally.org)
Tuesday. April 21st. Noon. Cloquet Library. Munger and Grover. Two Denfeld kids talking writing and The Dance Boots. One Book, One Community. Free and open to the public with signed copies of the book available for purchase. Still on the fence? Read my review of the book at: http://cloquetriverpress.com/wordpress/…. You won’t find a better way to spend an hour of your time.
Vacationland by Sarah Stonich (2013. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816687664)
Cautionary note: I consider the author, Ms. Stonich, to be a literary friend. Not a close personal friend, someone who has been to my house for dinner, but someone I’ve spent time with at Ely’s Blueberry Festival in my EZ-Up selling books to Minneapolitans. Anyway, that caveat aside, here’s the scoop on Sarah’s latest.
Vacationland is a contemporary novel of life in the northwoods (Ely or Tower, MN cleverly disguised as someplace not Ely or Tower) that reads more like a collection of linked short stories than linear reportage. I picked the book up about a year ago and it has been sitting, awaiting discovery, on my reading stack ever since I purchased it at the Bookstore at Fitger’s in Duluth. Last week, while on vacation in Orlando, I finally had time to read the book cover to cover. I am happy I did.
At the center of the inter-related lives revealed in the book is Meg, the grandchild of an immigrant, who inhabits what once was a family style resort, Naledi Lodge, the place her grandfather raised her during summers when Meg wasn’t in boarding school or away perfecting her art. Don’t let the first chapter throw you off: this isn’t a Kent Krueger murder mystery wanna-be. It’s a character driven piece of fine fiction that, despite some flaws (I wasn’t too keen on the ending; it seemed a bit of a stretch and not in keeping with the pulse of the book), has the feel of warm flannel and a roaring fire on a cold October night spent considering impending winter. There were a couple of times I had to go back and re-read a passage to understand which cottage or camp or cabin or character was being depicted to ensure I understood the flow of the tale, which, as I pointed out above, is distinctly non-linear in execution and connected by thinly woven strands of friendship, vacation visits, and family ties. But, in the end, it is the writing (Stonich is nothing if not an accomplished craftswoman) that overcomes any minor flaws one encounters in completing this wonderfully told tale:
Much of the resort is pocked with neglect: a sack of mortar left leaning near a wall has hardened to its own shape, with tatters of sack flapping; a tipped wheelbarrow has a maple sapling sprung through its rusted hole. Flat stones from a run of stairs have eroded to a jumble below, and high on the plateau old cabins lean like a trio of gossips, their eaves and sills lushly bumpered with moss.
If you want more out of your reading choice than cardboard characters driven by plot, if you want to understand the pull of the northland and the people that call this part of the world home, Stonich’s latest effort is a good place to begin your journey.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
The Tattoo by Chris McKinney (2007. Soho Press (Kindle Version). ISBN 978156947450)
Last year, while vacationing in Hawai’i, I picked up one of Chris McKinney’s more recent crime fiction novels, Queen of Tears, on Kauai where we were staying. I enjoyed the read so much, I went on Amazon while still on the island and purchased the Kindle version of The Tattoo. Other books got in the way and this year, while vacationing in Florida, I was in need of something to read and remembered the book on my Kindle. My re-discovery of the lost manuscript on my eReader was indeed fortuitous.
An “as told to” story set in prison in Hawai’i, this novel chronicles the life of a small-time Japanese American gangster, Kenji, who is in prison for manslaughter. We suspect, but do not confirm until the end of the tale, who the victim of Ken’s outrage and anger might have been. In telling his life of crime, passion, drugs, familial disruption, and the Code of the Samurai, Ken speaks during tattooing sessions with Cal, a mainland haloe (white person) of his loves and losses, which, in essence, is the narrative of the book. Cal is mute from his own traumas (physical and emotional) but we learn a bit about him as well as Kenji’s life story unfolds. This is a simply told piece of genre fiction that McKinney manages to make it into a page turner. It’s a tale that would do well on the big screen. There’s romance, sex, action, and conflict (internal and external) enough for two books in The Tattoo. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn a bit more about race relations and crime on Hawai’i. You might, as I did, guess the identity of Kenji’s wrath part-way through the tale. But that doesn’t, in anyway, deter from a fine, fine ride through the Hawai’ian countryside.
4 stars out of 5.
Historical linguist Roman Kushnir of Vaasa, Finland is the latest reviewer to give my new historical novel, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, a big “thumbs up”. Here’s a portion of his kind review:
“In beautiful winter Finnish forests and on the centuries-old streets of Estonian towns the magnificent story of love and rivalry, war and peace, separation and reunion unfolds. The characters are often based on real people, and that is why a reader follows their lives with a heart trembling and with full immersion into their dramas and tragedies. This rich, detailed and easy-to-read historical fiction is a perfect book both for those who are interested in the history of Finland, Estonia, and the Finnish-American migrant diaspora from the 1930s to the 1940s, and for those who are curious to learn something about this history. Although Mark Munger is neither a Finn nor Estonian himself, he writes about Finland and Estonia with both skill, knowledge and understanding. The novel is not only a story of the Finnish and Estonian characters’ battles and hardships, but also of their feelings, strengths and weaknesses which they discover and rediscover during the hard times. An inspiring book… “ Roman Kushnir, Migration Turku, FI. (1/2015).
Read the entire review on p. 57 of the journal, Migration at http://www.migrationinstitute.fi/files/pdf/siirtolaisuus-migration/2015_1.pdf and then buy the book!
As I write this, I realize its already passe’. The cold depicted in the photograph above, chronicling a wintery scene on nearby Fish Lake, has been replaced by piles of thawing dog crap, pools of snow melt, brown grass, and puddles of water atop lake ice all caused by unseasonably warm March temperatures. But two weekends back, such was not the case in my neighborhood of the world. Two weekends back, winter was still in control. Two weekends back, an old man with a bad back, a sore tooth, and inappropriate camping gear slept out in below zero weather.
Understand, I didn’t take on the proffered assignment due to idle curiosity or some great urgency to replicate my only other winter camping excursion, two nights in a tent with Boy Scout Troop 67 (Piedmont Heights) back when I was fourteen years old. Two weekends ago, I plodded across the snow-covered, wind swept ice of Fish Lake because I am an Assistant Scoutmaster in Troop 106 (Hermantown) and the Scouts were headed for an overnight. In my role with the Scouts, I’m also the merit badge counselor for the citizenship badges (Community, Nation, World) so I understand the difference between a duty (something a person feels morally compelled to do, such as vote) versus an obligation (something a person is required by law or contract to do, such as pay one’s taxes). I had no obligation to sleep out in a tent at sixty years old with a group of Boy Scouts but, as one of their adult leaders, I certainly felt a duty to accompany them. And so I did.
The slog across the frozen lake was taxing. It was above zero, a beautiful winter day with clear skies and ample sun, but the notion that one can tote his or her belongings across ice in a plastic sled without spilling gear and packs and tents along the way, was, in retrospect, overly optimistic. Our small group (six Scouts and three adult leaders) arrived at the Beldens’ home on the shores of Fish Lake a bit after 8:30am on Saturday. Jim Belden, our former Scoutmaster and wilderness guide extraordinaire, had ventured out to the island that would be our overnight home and set up his wall tent, complete with wood stove, just in case the night became unbearable or a Scout ended up too chilled to sleep in an unheated tent. Before we began our one and a half mile journey over the ice, I handed out four walking sticks carved and decorated by my pal (and former Scout) Mike Town to the four Scouts who were present. Two more Scouts would join us during the day, bringing the total contingent of boys who slept out to six. The three adult leaders would be joined by three additional mentors, making the total on the ice six kids and six adults, the sort of supervision that would guarantee a minimum of shenanigans.
I led the boys and adult leaders across the frozen lake. After my Duluth pack repeatedly fell out of the plastic slider I was pulling behind me, the snow thin and not really suited for snowshoes but just crusty and thick enough to make walking tedious, I stopped, pulled my arms through the pack’s straps, hoisted the rucksack on my back, and, with the aid of my own wooden walking stick (one I had carved to steady my gait while trout fishing the North Shore streams I love), I soldiered on, my eyes riveted on the island that was to be our home for a bit more than twenty-four hours. After mucking around the base of a steep rise, I found the wall tent Jim had set up and began ferrying tents and equipment up the hill. In a short period of time the Scouts and the adult leaders had their tents set up, their sleeping pads and bags unrolled, and the camp set up for the night. While others sorted food, I found dead aspen and balsam limbs to build a fire in a metal fire ring we brought with. Across the ice, the roar of snowmobiles could be heard. Dale Scheer and his son Luke arrived, pulling an ice fishing house, a propane auger, and fishing gear. Holes were made in the thick ice. The ice shelter was set up. Scouts took turns dueling each other with their newly acquired walking sticks, fishing, and watching the antics of a singular wayward critter that came to the kids’ attention.
“We found a baby beaver,” one of the boys said as lunch was being prepared.
“Down by the lake.”
I scurried down the slippery path to a gaggle of boys reclined on their stomachs in the snow. The Scouts were attentively peering into brush along the base of the hillside.
“Where’s the beaver?”
“Right there,” Luke said, lifting a balsam branch to reveal the shiny coat of a small creature furiously digging frozen dirt in an attempt to escape the cold.
“That’s not a beaver,” I said quietly, watching the animal’s desperate bid for survival. “It’s a muskrat.”
The boys left the animal to its panicked work. I decided to walk around the island, a task I was warned might take some time. I knew that there was a Minnesota Power campsite on the far western tip of our island home. The campsite we were using was not officially a MP campsite though, from the paint marks on the trees around our tents, it appeared a campsite was being planned for where we were bivouacked. After a Scout-cooked meal of chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese (I downed three!), I cleaned my mess kit, donned my gloves, picked up my walking stick, and headed out on the ice to circumnavigate our island.
To say the sky was blue is an understatement. At one point, so enthralled with the brilliance of the sunlight on the snow and the openness of the heavens, I laid down on my back and snapped a picture of the azure vault with my iPhone. An hour later, after checking out the campsite on the far end of the island (and finding idiots had stripped many of the birch trees of bark as tinder for campfires, denuding the trees and leaving ugly scars), I tromped my way through thigh high bullrushes and crusted snow to arrive back in camp a sweaty, yet satisfied man.
Jim and Julie Belden arrived later in the afternoon. Once night descended, Dale and the boys worked to create a wondrous treat: fried walleye caught, not in the two feet of water below Dale’s ice house on Fish Lake, but a few weeks’ earlier on Red Lake. By 9:00pm, I was done in and left the campfire and the din of teenagers for the comfort of my tent. I’d earlier rolled out a tarp, a foam sleeping pad, and two mummy bags. I felt I was ready for what was surely going to be a below zero night on the lake but I’d failed as an Eagle Scout in one respect: I hadn’t followed the scouting motto, “Be Prepared”. I hadn’t carefully inspected the bag I’d borrowed from my son, Jack. When I stripped down, intent on scrunching my mummy bag inside Jack’s mummy bag, I learned that the zipper on Jack’s bag was broken.
No biggie, I thought, I’ll just snug into my bag and pull Jack’s around me.
That approach worked for about two hours, until the cold ground forced my sixty-year-old bladder to empty. I got up, padded outside the tent in my boot liners, did my business, and then returned, intent upon closing my bag against the chill. I pulled hard on the zipper and felt the device give way. The metal tab of my mummy bag’s zipper launched across the interior of my tent, not to be seen until morning.
Indeed. Without a working zipper for either bag, I was forced to toss and turn all night, battling my chilled urinary tract and the cold that sneaked into my bag.
Next time, I’ll check the bags.
Sleep came in fits and starts. I considered how serious a mistake my failure to “Be Prepared” could have been had we been winter camping in the BWCA. I had the luxury of knowing, first, that I was only going to suffer one night of restless sleep, and second, that, if things got really bad, I could sleep in the heated wall tent a few dozen feet away. I pondered the fact that, while I was spending one tortured night below zero on the ground, one of our Eagle Scouts, Rudy Hummel, had made national news by sleeping out of doors for an entire year. Yes, that’s right: 365 nights either in a tent, under the stars, or in a snow hut, where Rudy braved over seventy below-zero nights. Our troop has recognized Rudy’s feat in a number of ways, including instituting the “Zero Hero” patch, an award given to any Scout or adult leader who manages to survive a below-zero night sleeping outside.
At least I’ll get the patch.
Morning came. I pulled on clean undies, wool socks, insulated Carhartts, and began packing away gear. When other adults in the group, including Jim (who slept sans tent, somewhere out on the ice) asked “How did you sleep?” I didn’t fess up.
“Fine,” I lied, breaking one of the twelve points of the Scout Law.
The other leaders checked their smart phones, intent on determining whether or not the boys and the leaders who had not earned the Zero Hero patch were now entitled to the honor.
“One below,” Jim noted. “Zero Heroes for all.”
Well at least that’s something…
We cleaned up the campsite, loaded gear onto Jim’s ATV and onto sleds pulled by the two snowmobiles, and set off across windswept ice. As I trudged towards my car and a likely afternoon nap, I propped up my aching, tired old body with my walking stick and marveled at the fact that winter seemed so set, so ready to continue on. But that is not what happened: Again, I’d miscalculated.
Marrow, Muscle, Flight by Gary Boelhower (2011. Wildwood River Press. ISBN 9780984377749)
Disclosure: I have written poetry, mostly as an adjunct to courting my wife 37-plus years ago, but I am not a poet and know little, if anything, about the niceties of constructing verse or prose poems. As a novelist, book reviewer, and essayist, I tend to read fiction and disregard poetry. But lately, I’ve been intrigued by the patterns and lyrical quality of poems and so, I’ve been reading a few slim volumes of verse acquired from local writers. Marrow, Muscle, Flight is one of those collections. I bought the book at a recent arts and crafts fair held at Peace Church in Duluth where the book’s author and I were selling our wares. It took a while for me to retrieve the book from my reading stack but I’m glad that I did.
Boelhower is a tremendously gifted storyteller. His poems run the gamut from detailing his youth and family, to personal relationships, to his son’s military service. The author is at his best when he doesn’t hold his punches, as in this terrific bit of writing:
Neither the father nor the son asks
the question that burns behind their eyes.
What do you do after you fight a war,
pull the trigger, see the blood run, feel
bits of shrapnel bite into your face a fraction
from your eyes, tighten a tourniquet around
your dying friend’s stumps of legs?
(“Asking the Question” (c) Gary Boelhower)
I’ll be candid. It’s not easy for a heterosexual male (me) to dive into love poems reflecting homosexual love ( there are some in this collection). I’m pretty outspoken about my support for gay marriage and equality regardless of orientation, but, like straight women who feel uncomfortable with cinematic depictions of lesbian coupling, I have to admit I began reading the poet’s revelations of physical love between two men with some trepidation. But part-way through this collection, it hit me: Love is love. Gender, in the expression of the emotion, doesn’t matter. Content and heart do. Boelhower captures these truths with a keen eye and pen:
did you know then
how the river would carry us
how the light would fall
on the pink peonies in the garden
how we would drink wine on the deck
and watch their satin gowns
tremor in the breeze
(“Did You Know” (c) Gary Boelhower)
Now, I’m not sure that the above passage directly reflects the poet’s orientation. I have no idea if the poem depicts a same-sex or opposite-sex scene from the author’s life. But that’s just the point: Boelhower crafts his words into universally fine pieces of art that stand up to scrutiny as works of poetry, not political commentary. Even old fiction writers like me need to learn a lesson or two about the lives led by our friends, family, and neighbors who have a different outlook, a different experience, than our own. This fine collection is a gentle and consistently astute teacher in this regard, using subtle situational narratives to invoke universal emotions and reactions from a reader’s basic humanity.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015. St. Martin’s Press/MacMillan Audio. ISBN 9781427212672)
I am deadly serious. By the time I was on the final disc of this terrific audio novel, I was crying so hard, I had a difficult time keeping my blue Pacifica on I94 coming back from a ski trip to Montana. This is a deeply loving, touching, tragic, and heroic story that, well, is just too damn emotional to listen to while trying to drive.
Stripped to the barest of plot essence, this novel is the story of two sisters, the staid, married, stable Vianne (Vee-en) and her younger, impetuous, beautiful sibling, Isabelle (Iso-bell) during the Nazi invasion of France during WW II. Both girls have grown to womanhood without the loving touch of their mother. Their father, Julian, slipped into a coma of alcohol and despondency after the death of their mother, and, in hopes of curbing Isabelle’s emotional instability, sent her off to a series of convents, boarding schools, and finishing schools, all of which she ran from in search of freedom and her own path. By the dawn of the story arc, Isabelle has run again: this time, to join the French Resistance (the partisans) in Paris, where she falls in love with Gaton, a lanky, brooding, older compatriot who takes her under his protection and teaches her the rules of insurgency. Vianne’s husband leaves for the war, is captured when France falls swiftly to the Nazi onslaught, while Vianne remains behind on her father’s farm, raising her daughter. The title of the story comes from the code name the Germans give to Isabelle’s clandestine efforts, through a partisan network she forms, to save downed Allied airmen: Brits, and Yanks, and Canadians, who she escorts time and again across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and to freedom. Vianne is left to contend with the subtle danger of having German officers billet in her home. First, a well-mannered Wehrmacht (German Army) officer moves in and serves as her protector against the mounting brutality of the occupation. The army officer is replaced by an SS officer who, in stereotypical cruelty, degrades, abuses, and dismisses Vianne all the while denying that the Allies are making headway towards the liberation of France. With each concealed Allied triumph, Vianne faces greater and greater demands upon her mind and body from the SS officer, demands that make her question whether she or her younger sister has made the wiser choice in dealing with the Nazi occupation. But Vianne too has a secret, a secret that, while not as complex or involved as the work Isabelle is engaged in, places Vianne and her daughter in the gravest of danger as well.
I’ve never read anything by Ms. Hannah but as a reader who loves lush, character driven, historical fiction, I was sincerely impressed with not only the details of the dual lives Ms Hannah created in telling this dynamic tale of familial love, but also the depths of character and plot that she wove together in a seamless cloth of believability. There is nothing that rings false in this novel. No dissonant chords are struck over the 17 hours of audio (unabridged) that make up this fine, fine piece of work.
What is also striking is that, having not compared notes with Ms. Hannah before writing my own story of war and the Holocaust, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, there are many, many parallels between the two novels: Sisters seeking reunion against a backdrop of conflict; traumatic assaults on fleeing civilians by enemy aircraft; depictions of inexplicable cruelty by conquering forces; and the like. Both novels have scenes drawn from the horrific confusion and abuse heaped upon the civilians of Europe during WW II. And yet, the books are, in the end, different stories told in different styles, each worthy of a read in their own way.
This is one of my favorite novels of the past decade. I can’t express enough my support of the concisely drawn plot, the historically accurate detail, and the wonderfully complex characters that the author has gifted us with. A stellar read.
5 stars out of 5.
The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali by Yahya Frederickson (2014. Lost Horse Press. 9780991146529)
A chance meeting with the author of this volume of English language poems set in Yemen led me to buy a signed copy of The Gold Shop. Dr. Frederickson and I were situated next to each other at a local authors gathering at the Duluth Public Library. We didn’t exchange books; we actually paid over hard-earned cash to each other (though a trade would have made more economic sense!). Not usually a devotee of poetry, my purchase sat on my bedside table for a bit. Needing a “read” for lunchtime at work, I brought The Gold Shop to the courthouse where it again waited its turn. I picked the book up earlier this week and found I couldn’t put it down.
Frederickson, a professor at Minnesota State-Moorhead, has spent considerable time in the Middle East, first in Yemen and then later, in Syria and Saudi Arabia. This slender volume depicts the turmoil, grit, atmosphere, and Islamic faith of Yemen in subtle, and, at times, direct ways. There is a mystical quality to Frederickson’s writing that is both touchingly sentimental and hardened by the reality of eternal war and conflict. Here’s a sample from “Revolution Day”:
On the roof of Bayat Abu-Talib, I’m eating grapes
and reading the explosions over Tahrir Square.
Liars, they proclaim, this is yours. But there is something
about their sounds, so distant, so muffled.
A few floors below, my friends light a candle
in the blackout, whisper the latest gossip
into the lapping light…
(2014 (c). Yahya Fredrickson)
This is just one example of the power and brilliance of Yahya’s minimalist approach to evoking a region of the world, a culture, and a religion that few Westerners understand with any sort of depth or appreciation. I was so enthralled with the lyrical quality of these poems that I immediately went to the Bookstore at Fitger’s and purchased a translation of the Koran so I could begin to understand the point of religious view and culture expressed in these fine, fine vignettes.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.