OK. The title to this blog is a bit of a misnomer. When one thinks of endless summer visions of June’s greening, July’s shimmering, and August’s oppressive sweltering come to mind. Well, that’s not quite what this summer has been up here in the Northland. We had an intolerably wet spring and early summer, the June rains and lack of light making our vegetable garden a whisper of what it could have or should have been. And July and August? Hardly ideal for growing edible things. Our carrots, potatoes, onions, raspberries, Russian berries, green beans and now, the sweet corn have done tolerably well. But the cucumbers, squash and pumpkins? Puny to non-existent. But for some reason, the late start to the growing season and the continued moderation of summer here along the banks of the Cloquet River has been a boon, an absolute godsend, to my wife’s flower gardens.
Beyond wheeling away an occasional load of debris from my wife’s constant weeding and tinkering in her flowery realms, I don’t contribute much in the way of labor to her efforts to beautify our place. Early on I helped a bit by moving rocks and topsoil. And whenever Rene’ hauls pea rock or landscaping materials home in her car, I help her unload. But to say that I’ve assisted Rene’ with the flower gardens would be to stretch the truth: the gardens and their ponds are my wife’s love and her creation. I’ve been mostly a bystander and naysayer bemoaning the fact that Rene’s gardens grow larger over time.
“I thought you were going to downsize” is a phrase I’ve muttered more than once as my wife sat on her plastic garden stool, pulling offending weeds, piling vegetative debris on my cleanly mown lawn.
Two summers ago, I contributed some actual labor to my wife’s beautification effort. When we moved into the new house, there were no shrubs or bushes of any kind surrounding our place at the top of a small rise located smack dab in the middle of a hay field. Rene’ went to work adding the flower gardens, her ponds, various shade trees, and an extensive rose garden. Over the years, the roses grew out of control until they became an ugly, angry mass of stalks and thorns. At my wife’s behest, I spent the better part of a weekend dismantling the landscape stones surrounding the rose garden so a local contractor could come in with a bobcat and dig out the offending plants. Then, again at my wife’s urging, I helped revise the plot into a line of shrubs surrounded by the same landscape stones. But beyond this singular effort, I haven’t had much to do with the flower gardens that surround our home with color during the height of summer.
Last July, a Japanese lilac gracing our front yard attracted hundreds of swallowtails to its flowers. The branches of the tall bush were crowded with fluttering yellow butterflies bent on sucking nectar
from the plant’s blossoms. But, despite this year’s endless summer, the plethora of swallowtails didn’t return this year. Oh, I spotted the occasional stray yellow butterfly flying around the place
but the great invasion of 2013 was not repeated. Also noticeably absent have been our bluebirds. For the past fifteen years, two pair of these colorful members of the thrush family have called wooden bird houses affixed to fence posts surrounding our vegetable garden their home. The birds were here, along with tree swallows (who also help themselves to our bird houses) in May. But the weather did them in. When I rebuilt the fence surrounding the vegetable garden earlier this summer, I found a clutch of abandoned bluebird eggs inside one of the birdhouses. I haven’t seen a bluebird or a swallow around the place since June. I’m unsure if the presence of flowers in Rene’s gardens into September makes up for the loss of the birds.
It’s 5:00am on a Wednesday. I’m sitting at the family computer, staring at early morning’s inky blackness, listening to rain patter against the steel siding of our house, as I type this piece. Every so often the wind-driven rain thrashes the windows of my writing space. There’s an end-of-the-summer sound to the storm. Maybe it’s just my imagination but it feels as if Rene’s flowers are about to fade.
The West Wing: The Complete Series (2006. Warner Brothers DVD)
All summer. My wife Rene’ and I spent all summer with President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his constantly evolving staff. 154 episodes spanning the years 1999-2006. A popular culture time capsule of American political thought as seen from the left of center. From the opening sequences of the pilot, where the POTUS (President of the United States) slams into a tree riding a bicycle, to the ending show, when another man is sworn in to replace Jed in the White House, this was and is one amazing television series. Watching it serially, without commercial interruption, is a rich viewing experience, a reminder of just how good some of our best network television can be.
According to IMDB, the independent gatekeeper for all things media, only four actors graced every episode of the series:
Allison Janney, who played White House Press Secretary (and later Chief of Staff) C.J. Cregg;
John Spencer, who played the original Chief of Staff and Bartlet’s right hand man, Leo McGarry*;
Bradley Whitford, who played Deputy Chief of Staff and chief politico, Josh Lyman (and who ends up running Matt Santos’s campaign for president); and
Martin Sheen, who played former New Hampshire Governor and President Bartlet.
Other actors you might recognize who had major roles over the course of the series include Stockard Channing, Alan Alda, Jimmy Smits, Richard Schiff, Dule’ Hill, Mark Harmon, John Amos, and Rob Lowe. From top to bottom, the acting, directing, and screenwriting of virtually every episode of this titanic effort, led by screenwriters including Aaron Sorkin, Lawrence O’Donnell and Bradley Whitford, with technical assistance from former Clinton staffer Dee Dee Myers, is very simply the best you will see in a network series. Regardless of your political affiliation, the players in this series, from the every day household staff to the folks who play the secret service agents, bring it home every episode, whether the topic is domestic or international. The President’s failure to disclose his MS. A near assassination attempt. Terrorist acts, foreign and domestic. They are all intricate panels in the tapestry of a fictional presidency brought to life against the backdrop of Islamist Jihad and 9/11. Sheen simply is the president: no other actor could have played the part with such grace, nuance, style, and honesty. He is the core of the troupe and sets an example of excellence which compels those around him to elevate their games.
The candidacy of Democratic Congressman Matt Santos for the presidency takes up a good deal of the last two years of the series. Santos, played by Jimmy Smits (of NYPD Blue fame), is a forty-something Hispanic father, husband, and FDR Liberal from Texas. His electoral foe is Arnold Vinick, a middle-of-the road, pro-choice Republican battling not only Santos but the right wing of his own party. Played admirably by Alan Alda, the aging, weary Vinick seems a not-so-subtle symbol for the present-day GOP. In a splendidly realistic turn, Smits and Alda were asked to do an entire hour show live, as if their debate before a national television audience was the real deal. It is one of the highlights of the seven seasons of the show. To see two great actors go toe to toe in front a live audience in one take, well, that’s simply a remarkable piece of film that should be studied by television directors and actors for years to come.
Rene’ and I were saddened when our time with the Bartlets and the other characters in this fine dramatic series came to an end. Given the atmosphere in our politics and the trend to air quality dramatic shows on cable channels, it’s doubtful anything like West Wing will ever air on commercial television again.
5 stars out of 5.
* The McGarry character suffered a heart attack during season six and that’s what prompted the Cregg character to be elevated to Chief of Staff. In real life, actor John Spencer had a fatal heart attack during the show’s final season, life mimicking art in a tragic way. The nature of how the series dealt with the passing of Leo McGarry was both nuanced and caring, displaying the obvious love the other actors had for their fallen comrade. If you want to see Spencer at his best on the big screen, check out his role in Presumed Innocent with Harrison Ford.
Another summer shot to hell. Another season of lament.
Sounds like the opening line to a depressing folk song. What put me in such a black mood? Well, it’s the fact that I’ve failed to keep my summertime agenda. So far, I haven’t plopped a canoe into the black water of the Cloquet River. Not a once. I’ve fished the local lakes by boat and motor one time. One time. I’ve taken a boat out sightseeing twice. Once on Island Lake, once on Fish.Three trips on the water over the entire summer. Pathetic.
Where the hell did the time go?
It’s Sunday morning. I’m sitting playing hooky from church on a windy end-of-summer-day (the weather forecast calls for a 65% chance of a thunderstorm by tonight and a wet morning to put a damper on Labor Day). I’m thinking about what I could have accomplished this summer.
A canoe trip to the BWCA.
A better, more vibrant vegetable garden (should have dumped in manure like Rene’ suggested).
A long road trip to Yosemite (never been) or Yellowstone (haven’t been since I was 6 years old) or some other such place.
Construction projects that need doing around the house.
Trail clearing and cutting.
More bike rides, more walks in the woods, more quality time with Jack and Rene’.
The list goes on and on and on as Dylan’s Planet Waves plays softly over the computer behind these words.
That’s another thing undone, uncompleted. I was going to transfer more of my vinyl, including the new Trampled By Turtles (bought vinyl as an ambitious bow to the past), into digital. Got three or four albums done and then the effort petered out.
The great writer Tony Hillerman (he passed away in 2008) penned a memoir entitled Seldom Disappointed. I’ve often thought that, when and if I write a memoir, the working title should be Always Disappointed. But that title is such utter bullshit, my wife, kids, friends, and other family would slap me upside the head if I ever deigned to pen such a piece of selfish crap. I know I’m a blessed man. I’ve lived a wonderful, wonderful life. I know this when I see my grandson, A.J., and he lights up as he shrieks “Grandpa.” I know this whenever my four sons are together and I can appreciate what fine young men they’ve become. I know this even before my beautiful and pragmatic wife says, “lighten up.” So enough with the dirge already. Seasons come and seasons go. I’ll never be able, no matter how I try, to manipulate every thought in my head into action. Things will be left undone. Trips will be left untaken. Stories will be left untold. But the life I’m living is damned blessed. This I know.
If you look really, really close at the photo to the left, you’ll see two cranes strutting across our pasture. The sandhills know that change is coming. They can feel it in the early morning dew and the late evening air. They can hear it in the chatter of drying leaves. They can sense it in the shifting wind. I wonder: Have these graceful birds left any tasks for tomorrow? Have they missed out on any amusement they were looking forward to? I doubt it.
I should be more optimistic. For the first time since we’ve had blueberry bushes in our garden, I actually picked more than a handful to eat. It’s true birds found the ripe berries before I did. Still, there were enough berries left behind for me to have a week’s worth of cereal and fresh blueberries. That treat alone should have been enough to declare summer a success. But remember the title of my faux memoir. I am not a man easily satisfied. Give me a quart of fresh berries, I’ll ask, “Why can’t I have a gallon?” Wrong, you say? No question. A controllable personality quirk? I’m working on it.
Other pluses for the garden have been the Russian berries, the red raspberries, the green beans, the onions, the carrots, the potatoes, and the tomatoes. The photo to the left shows the first of the tomatoes Rene’ will conjure into her famous spaghetti sauce and salsa. There will be more. Not as many as last year. But enough. And that’s a definite plus. A positive.
Thinking my pre-autumnal malaise through, I believe there’s an age component to my steely resistance to appreciating what’s right in front of my eyes. Very soon, I’ll be entering my seventh decade of life. I don’t want to cross over that threshold with trepidation or alarm or regret. I want my next decade of life to be exciting and educational and full of family and friends and new adventures and experiences. To get there, I need to figure out a better way to curb my inclination to expect perfection from others, from the world, from the seasons of the year, but mostly from myself. Maybe the spur-of-the-moment trip Rene’ and I took yesterday is the beginning of my attempt to break free of an unsustainable pattern.
On a whim, we jumped in the car and motored off to St. Paul to take in the Minnesota State Fair. Usually, I plan such excursions months in advance. Yesterday, we simply woke up, took our showers, got dressed, and headed out. Sort of a prelude, a practice session to being empty-nesters. That’s a transition that’s some years away, what with Jack still in high school. But it’s coming. And maybe, just maybe, what we did yesterday, what I did yesterday, is a sample of how things might be if only I let go a bit.
Parking was a bitch because we arrived in St. Paul after 1:00pm on the busiest day at the fair. There were a few tense moments, a few untoward comments between us, until I found a place on a side street and parked my wife’s Rogue.
“I’ll walk back after we’re done and get the car. You can wait by the entrance. I’ll pick you up.”
My wife (who suffered a horrific ankle fracture a few years’ back) isn’t up for walking long distances on pavement. Just ambling around the fair for a few hours would tax the metal-and screw-reinforced joint. I didn’t think of it at the time but my not insisting on Rene’s limping back to the car was a bow, a recognition, that things don’t always have to be done according to the Gospel of Mark. Adaptability: That’s what I need to somehow acquire in my toolbox of attributes. Maybe I took a step towards that goal yesterday.
With our late arrival to the fair, we missed seeing our sons (Matt, Chris, and Jack), our daughter-in-law Lisa, Lisa’s mother Judy, Chris’s significant other, Rachel, and our beloved grandson, AJ. We also missed completing my annual checklist of booths and exhibits that are “Mark must sees”: the DNR display, the livestock barns, and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion live broadcast from the grandstand. We did manage visits to some of our usual suspects: the tractor vendors, the screenhouse builders, the pole building contractors, the travel trailer lots, and the boat and motor outlets. But these were minor distractions. The locations we failed to visit are at the very essence of why I love the fair. And yet, substituting the quilting exhibit, the art exhibit, and the 4H building for the main attractions was more than satisfying. I could have stayed in the art building, studying the talents of Minnesotans working in pen, pencil, clay, metal, paint, and wood for days.
It was pitch dark when we pulled into the Adolph General Store in Hermantown. I listened to Springsteen’s The Rising while Rene’ went into the store to buy fresh pork chops, burger, and a roast. It’s true that the album has moments of regret and angst. But in the end, The Boss included lyrics of hope and redemption in the composition. Sitting in the car, in the dark, the title song drifting over me, I had this thought:
Maybe there’s hope for an old man to learn a new way of appreciating the world and the folks who grace it.
I read with interest the three part series profiling former Hibbing tennis star, California prosecutor, and renowned author, Vincent Bugliosi, that recently appeared in the Duluth News Tribune. My first reaction to the series was Wow, journalism is once again alive and well in NE Minnesota! My second reaction was Maybe I can add a little something to the story.
Understand: I am not a personal friend of Mr. Bugliosi’s. I have only met the man once, back in the mid-1990s, when he appeared as a guest speaker at a lawyers’ gathering I was attending. Prior to giving his speech, he’d taken up the gauntlet to litigate the case against Lee Harvey Oswald (as the alleged lone gunman who assassinated President Kennedy). In a mock trial tried before an actual jury, Vincent functioned as the prosecutor and noted criminal defense attorney, Gerry Spence, defended Oswald. Mr. Bugliosi related during his talk that, in addition to participating in the trial (which ended in a conviction of Oswald and resulted in a British television documentary) he was heavily involved in combing the Warren Report and other historical evidence with an eye towards writing the definitive book decrying the conspiracy theories behind the President’s murder. I was enthralled by his dedication to task and research. As a fiction writer, I wanted to meet the man.
At the time, Vincent was hawking his latest book, And the Sea Will Tell, a true crime story that chronicled his defense of an alleged accomplice to the brutal murder of a wealthy couple by an envious drifter (the guy wanted a new yacht and saw homicide as the best means to acquire it) on the remote Pacific island of Palmyra. After Mr. Bugliosi concluded his remarks, I walked up, bought a signed copy of the book, and chatted, ever-so-briefly with the author about my writerly aspirations. The man couldn’t have been more gracious, more encouraging, more kind. Having become a published author (albeit in the minor leagues) since that encounter, I’ve had many folks approach me to talk about writing and publishing. I’ve learned that it’s not an easy task to ground would-be authors in reality, but, at the same time, encourage their aspirations. Vincent accomplished this dual task during our brief interaction: He emboldened me to keep fingers to keyboard. And so I did.
When my first novel, The Legacy, was ready to be published by Savage Press, Mike Savage asked if there were any folks of note who might review my book and supply complimentary cover blurbs. I thought of Senator Paul Wellstone, former Vice President Walter Mondale, Boston author Barry Reed (author of the great legal novel, The Verdict, who I’d also met at a lawyers’ function), MPR commentator Mary VanEvera, and Vincent Bugliosi. I sent review copies of the novel to all five requesting that they read the book and supply blurbs if they thought the effort worthy. I received prompt, favorable responses from the first four individuals but I didn’t hear back from Mr. Bugliosi.
He hated the book.
That’s how authors, even established authors, think. There’s always a seed of doubt lingering behind a writer’s effort. I was convinced that, despite recounting our brief connection at his speech in my cover letter, Vincent was either too busy to read The Legacy, or, like so many literary agents, read the first paragraph and tossed the book in the slush pile for recycling. Then, just before the book to be printed, a delicately scripted envelope from California found its way into my rural mailbox.
As a native of northern Minnesota, I was intrigued by Judge Munger’s captivating depiction of the links between the present and the past. Part historical novel, part contemporary thriller, The Legacy is a very impressive first novel, which readers of this genre will enjoy immensely. Vincent Bugliosi.
Unlike the other folks I’d contacted (who sent blurbs typewritten and vetted by personal assistants) Vincent’s response was written in ink and elegant cursive, the sort of reply you’d expect to receive from a luminary from a long-past era. The man who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson, one of the most famous attorneys of 20th century America, hadn’t written me off: He was just being deliberate and thoughtful before responding to my brazen request.
I’ll cherish that handwritten letter and accolade from Vincent Bugliosi no matter the course my fiction writing takes.
(This piece, edited by Chuck Frederick, originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune)
Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose (1996. Simon and Schuster. ISBN9780684826974)
On a recent trip to visit my son Dylan and his wife-to-be Shelly out on the prairie (Williston, ND), my wife and my son Jack and I toured Fort Union, a reconstructed fur trading post located on the Missouri River straddling the North Dakota/Montana border. I bought Undaunted Courage in the fur post’s gift shop on the recommendation of one of the park rangers. I was intent on learning more about a topic that I didn’t know much about beyond elementary school history: Lewis and Clark’s Expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. After finishing the book between customers this past weekend at the Northwoods Art and Book Festival, I am glad the young ranger made the recommendation.
First, the author. Stephen Ambrose passed away in 2002 but he left us a rich legacy of history and biography. The man who pieced together the combat exploits and personal lives of the soldiers of Easy Company into a moving portrayal of ordinary men doing extraordinary things (Band of Brothers) didn’t craft a linear history of the Corps of Discovery, as Merriweather Lewis labeled the famed expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific in 1803. Rather, the author created a travel biography featuring Lewis and including a cast of equal (Clark and Thomas Jefferson) and lesser characters (Sacagawea). There’s ample background material here regarding Lewis’s early life (especially well researched is the period Lewis spent working as Jefferson’s personal assistant) but the heart and soul of the narrative is the arduous and sometimes precarious journey by boat, foot, and horseback across the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the open spaces of Washington and Oregon. Ambrose does an excellent job of explaining the reasons behind the trek and the intricacies of the politics, both national and international, that led President Jefferson to first buy the parcel known as Louisiana from Napoleon, and then send a small rag tag band of soldiers, citizens, and Native guides to explore the vastness of that newly acquired territory. The author writes in clear and concise terms, draws from historical dialogue and narrative when needed, and paints a vivid retrospection of what the men on this ordeal went through. His detailed examination of the friendship between Lewis and Jefferson and Lewis and Clark are worth the read alone.
But this isn’t a great book, merely and impressive and noteworthy book. Why? At times I found myself distracted by Ambrose’s scholarly attention to detail. There were moments while reading reading when the author diverted my attention from the human drama of the expedition down a path built upon Lewis’s fastidious naturalism. Sometimes these detailed excursions into the flora and fauna left me a bit befuddled from, and tired of, facts and scholarship. The ending of the story, which I didn’t recall (I must have been napping during that hour of history in 5th grade) is sad, tragic, and mysterious in the context of the larger narrative. Though the story, as I’ve critiqued, tends to meander a bit in the middle, the beginning and ending make this an excellent place for a reader to begin his or her own voyage of discovery into this well-known, but oft misunderstood, part of the American historical tapestry.
If you find yourself in the vicinity of Williston, I’d highly recommend a side trip to the interpretative center at the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri Rivers as well as Fort Union to put this fine historical story in perspective.
4 stars out of 5.
Saturday. 5:00am comes early after a long and difficult week behind the bench. As I get older, I find that my stamina, my ability to process the multitude of cases that come before me during criminal arraignment week is affected by age and fatigue. Hearing hundreds of cases over the course of arraignment week leaves my low back stiff, my neck sore. Hot baths seem to have lost their healing powers. It’s with reluctance and trepidation that I move from the cozy confines of the bed I share with my wife of 36 years into the bathroom to shower. Miraculously, the hot water rejuvenates me. After dressing in the stillness of early morning, dawn’s light obscured by fog and thick pewter clouds outside, I load books into my trusty Chrysler and head down the road. My destination is Hackensack, Minnesota where the 19th annual Northwoods Art and Book Festival is being held. It’s a two-plus hour drive so I haul ass through more fog, mist, and gray.
I fill up my van’s fuel tank and my tummy at the Pike Lake Holiday station. I also fill my travel mug with coffee. I need caffeine to keep my eyes open and my wits about me as I drive west on US 2. The sky threatens rain but, other than occasional mist and a few drops, the land remains relatively dry. I arrive in Hackensack by 8:15. I stop by the festival’s registration table, pick up my packet, park the Pacifica, and commence unloading boxes and bins.
Most years I turn in my application form on time, which means my table space is in the UCC church with dozens of other authors. But this year I was late sending in my registration. So I find myself selling next to J.B. Hove (an author I recently met at Finn Fest) in the community center surrounded by jewelry makers, artists, and crafters. I say my hellos to the Hoves while setting up my display. Once the rented table is filled with Munger books, I park the van and wander over to the church to say hello to writers I know.
I love doing this event. Year after year, customers who’ve bought books from me want other titles. Towards noon, a lady stops by, picks up Sukulaiset: The Kindred (a book not even in bookstores because it’s so new) and says words any author would cherish:
“I just love the way you write. I have a stack of books to read but, whenever I find a new one of yours, the others can wait. I love that you try new genres, plot new and different stories, and introduce me to things I hadn’t thought of. You’re a gifted writer.”
Now, this woman’s not affiliated with an agent. Her acclaim will do nothing to advance publicity for my work. And yet, her statement, unsolicited and spontaneous, is like balm on a burn patient’s wounds. I smile, thank her for buying my latest novel, sign a copy of the book, place it in a biodegradable bag, and shake her hand. “Keep writing,” the woman adds as she walks away, the bag and book tucked under an arm.
Sales are brisk. Despite standing on bare concrete for most of the day (occasionally sitting on a metal folding chair, reading Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose’s mammoth book about Merriweather Lewis) I make it through the day none the worse for the wear.
Maybe its the good vibes and well wishes of my customers that acts as tonic for my ills.
I call my wife a few times during lulls in the action to find out what’s happening back home. I’m told my grandson AJ and his parents, my eldest son Matt and his wife Lisa, are coming for dinner. I offer to pick up ice cream for dessert. My wife doesn’t object. By 3:00pm, the end of the festival, I’m satisfied and happy. I’ve sold books, received encouragement from readers, and renewed my friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Hove. I pile cartons and bins into the Pacifica and by 3:15, I’m on the road. The sky remains ominous. The air holds water like a saturated sponge but the clouds never open up. I stop at Leech Lake just to study the slate colored water.
I really need to fish this lake.
I pull up to the house a few minutes before six, mint chocolate chip ice cream in tow. When I open the door and plop cartons of unsold books on the landing, AJ greets me with a yelp and a smile. I pick up my grandson, give him a big hug and a kiss, and greet my wife and Matt and Lisa.
“You got a pretty good review in the Budgeteer,” Matt says.
“Rene’, why didn’t you tell me there was a review in today’s paper? I’ve been waiting for someone to give me feedback on the new book.”
My wife continues her work in the kitchen.
“I didn’t know there was a review in the paper,” she says matter-of-factually.
I wander over to the couch, find the paper, and locate the review.
“Matt, this review is better than pretty good…”
Indeed. The headline is more than enough to soothe my authorial fears.
Ms. Maloney’s commentary is the perfect end to a very good day in the life of a regional writer.
Sukulaiset: The Kindred by Mark Munger (2014. Cloquet River Press. ISBN 9780979217562.
Yesterday, a few weeks in advance of the “official” release date of my new historical novel of Finnish and Estonian diaspora set against the background of the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and WW II, I delivered copies of the book to the Bookstore at Fitger’s. Why? Sally Anderson of the store will be promoting the launch of the book with a reading and signing of the book in Fitger’s Theater of the North on 10/9/2014 at 7:00pm. Music will be provided by the great Finnish American folksinger and songwriter, Diane Jarvi. So, to give our last little independent bookstore a “leg up” on the competition, I delivered a box of books to Sally. You can buy the book there or on the eStore of my website. Other outlets, including eBook availability, to follow.
Kiitos, Sally, for helping out all the local authors.
Stella Baine by Anita Shreve (2013. Hachette (audiobook). ISBN 9781478953647)
Unfortunately for fans of Shreve’s fiction her latest effort is no Pilot’s Wife or The Weight of Water, both well written, thoroughly engaging literary novels depicting human relationships and emotions. The premise of Stella Baine, that a woman loses her memory working as a nurse on a battlefield during the Great War, is an intriguing concept. And, for the first third of the book, Shreve had me engaged as the author uncovers Stella’s identity and past. But once the true name of the wounded woman is discovered (after a diagnosis of shell shock by a local physician dabbling in the newly minted specialty of psychiatry), the plot becomes less driven by mystery and passion and more driven by the author’s need to find a story arc that comes to plausible resolution. In a word, Shreve is working too hard at her writing and it shows.
This book doesn’t stand at the apex of Shreve’s work, like the two titles mentioned above. It is more a middling effort, one akin to Sea of Glass. I don’t think the author is “phoning it in”. I think she has simply exhausted her storytelling catalog. Time to rest, recharged, and begin anew. Of course, a middling Shreve effort beats most contemporary genre fiction in terms of dialogue, writing style, and character establishment. It’s just that the plot kind of petered out long before the last word was typed. That having been said, my wife and my son Jack and I listened to this book in our blue Pacifica on the way to visit our second eldest son in Williston, ND. The story had enough going for it that it kept us entertained during the long drive. I’d listen to it again if I run out of other options. But I don’t think that’s the sort of acceptance Ms. Shreve was aiming for when she penned this novel.
3 stars out of 5.
Barefoot by Elin Hilderbrand. (2008. Hachette (audiobook). ISBN 101600242340)
I really do think that Elin Hilderbrand has assorted copies of Beaches, the quintessential “girl with cancer” film starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey (the girl, unfortunately, with the cancer), tucked away in her Nantucket home. There’s a tone to Hilderbrand’s novel that reminds me of the sad, sad story told in the 1988 movie, a movie which stands the test of time with repeated viewing (mostly because of the spot on acting of Midler and Hershey). This is the first of Hildebrand’s work that I have listened to (or read) and, as with the above effort from the better known Anita Shreve, I followed this story on a family drive from Williston, ND to our home in Duluth. I was impressed.
The three main characters, sisters Vicki (the cancer girl) and Brenda ( a college prof who slept with a student and got fired), and their friend Melanie (who just found out is pregnant and her husband is having an affair) all come to Nantucket to stay at a family beach house for a well-needed vacation. A young local man, Josh, with future dreams of his own after enduring a languid summer on the island, becomes entwined in the relationships between the three women. The interesting feature to the tale is that the three women are all considerably older than Josh. There’s a certain “take that, guys, older women can successfully negotiate the world of passion with a younger lover” aspect to Hildebrand’s tale that is refreshing, believable, and compelling.
This is not feminine fiction of the same depth or sweep of say, Jane Hamilton’s finest (Map of the World or A Short History of a Prince). (Notice I didn’t call these books “chic lit”. I view that label as pejorative and judgmental.) But there’s enough here that my wife and I were eager, after potty, lunch, and gas stops, to get back to the story to find out what happens next. Well crafted in its plot, characters, and dialogue, this book isn’t going to rock your world but it will certainly entertain you on a long, long drive over very boring country.
A final thought. This is the first of Hilderbrand’s titles I’ve read and looking at Amazon, it appears all of her published work is set on Nantucket and all the books share beach themes. She’s a good enough writer that it’d be interesting to see what she can do with a story set, say, in Taos or Helena. Bravery, my fellow authoress, bravery.
4 stars out of 5.
Grasp: Making Sense of Science and Spirituality by Jim Trainor (2010. UpNorth Press. ISBN 9781456354084)
This is second of three books given to me by my evangelical friend, Vicky. All of the books, two novels and this nonfiction treatise examining the intersection of faith and fact, were written by physicist-turned-Episcopal-priest, James Trainor. My review of Trainor’s relationship novel, The Sand People, may be found under the “Reviews” tab above as an archived item.
Trainor is a good writer. His prose is succinct and to the point. It’s never flat and it certainly isn’t flowery, which, given the subject matter, hits just the right mark. Structurally, the author concentrates on the history of the “battle” between science and the church, recalling for us the conflict between Galileo and Roman Catholicism concerning the meaning of the orbital movements of planets, including Earth, around the sun. Remember that the science of Galileo’s day supported the notion that, due to humankind’s uniqueness in God’s universe, the Earth was stationary, the center of it all. This notion was disputed heatedly by Galileo and later proven false but, at one time, this human-centric “fact” was indeed not only faith, it was the science of the day. Trainor uses this example to launch a discussion of key modern day principles of physics, including the theory of relativity, the big bang theory, and quantum mechanics to reinforce his thesis that science, rather than being rooted in ultimate, inflexible truth, is sometimes a moving target. Changes in scientific theory and principles happen over time and thinking people of faith, regardless of their belief system, need to understand the relationship between science and religion as the two disciplines, are not, according to Trainor, necessarily mutually exclusive.
I found the writing and editing very nicely done for a Create Space (Amazon.com) book. The cover is a bit simple yet eye catching and Trainor’s approach, to gently prod the reader towards God (and the author’s own Christian beliefs) was spot on. It was an enjoyable and enlightening read that, while it doesn’t walk any new ground or solve any old riddles, is a book every seeker should read and keep on his or her shelf for reflection.
4 stars out of 5.
Inherit the Wind a Play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (1955. Ballantine. ISBN 9780345466273)
Loosely based in the court case of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (usually denoted as the Scopes Trial), this play-turned-novella was the authors’ attempt to call attention to the purges of the McCarthy era by harkening back to an infamous courtroom drama from the 1920s. The authors (and all websites I consulted) make it clear that Inherit the Wind has many elements of fiction embedded in its storytelling but is indeed loosely based upon a trial that featured fundamentalist Christian and perennial presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, against Clarence Darrow. The basic plot of the play is true to the underlying events: A teacher (Scopes in real life, Bert Cates in the play) is charged with a crime, teaching evolution in a public school in violation of Tennessee law. Bryan (Matthew Harrison Brady in the play) takes on the role of state’s attorney to prosecute the teacher. Darrow (Henry Drummond) is hired by the ACLU to defend the accused. But while much of the theory and tension behind the original dispute rings true in the stage and movie version of the Scopes dispute, web resources are quick to point out that very little of the detail in the play, including major portions of the characters’ lives, is based on reality. Such slight-of-hand, resorting to fiction when the transcripts of the actual trial are available to support a fictionalized telling of an important tale, seems misguided.
Still, even burdened by archaic language and a somewhat grandiose style, Inherit the Wind reminds readers (and play and movie audiences: the cinematic version of the tale, starring Frederic Marsh in the Bryan role and Spencer Tracy as Darrow/Drummond, was nominated for four Oscars, including Tracy for best actor) of the tension between religious fundamentalism and science in a way that is enlightening and entertaining. (See review above for more on this topic!) An important, if dated, reminder of the fragility of our freedoms both religious and intellectual.
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
The blue Pacifica chugged. Our gas mileage went from a paltry 18mpg towing a 6′x12′ Uhaul trailer over relatively flat terrain to a dismal 15mpg once we hit the hills outside Minot, North Dakota. I tried to keep the speedometer at a steady 60mph but some of the climbs reduced our forward progress to little more than a crawl. We made Williston, ND, where our son Dylan and his wife-to-be Shelly Helgesen make their home, after a two day journey from Duluth towing a trailer full of dressers, a king sized bed, mirrors, and a china hutch. We broke up the trip by staying over in Minot rather than taxing my patience. It was a wise decision.
As we came into Williston, Shelly gave us directions which, it turned out, were really misdirections. We were ten miles past Williston and headed towards the Montana state line when Rene’ and Shelly “recalculated”. By the time Dylan got off of work at Highland Crude where he’s a supervisor over fifteen other guys, Jack and I had the trailer unloaded and most of the furniture situated where Shelly wanted it. The bedroom set, two heavy cherrywood dressers, a mirror, and a king sized bed, box spring, and mattress were gifts from my dad to the kids. He recently sold the family home and downsized. Given that the furniture is in great condition, I called the kids to see if they wanted it. They said “yes” so Jack and I loaded the bedroom set into our open trailer on a sunny day and unloaded the furniture at our house, storing it in the garage until we made this trip. Jack has been a trooper, giving up four days of work at Dairy Queen and his summer vacation to help tote the bedroom set and the china hutch out to his brother’s place for no pay. The china hutch was one of our first purchases as a young couple so giving it to our son and his wife-to-be makes perfect sense. Plus, it looks great in their living room!
To an outsider, Williston appears consistent with everything written about the place. It sits along the Little Muddy River in a shallow bowl surrounded by naked hills, the victim or the benefactor (I’ll leave it for you to decide) of the oil boom in the Bakken formation. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bakken_formation for more information on the Bakken.) As you enter the valley just east of town, you pass hastily erected trailer parks and man camps, where thousands of invading workers extracting crude through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are being temporarily housed. US Highway 2, the main thoroughfare in and out of Williston, is clogged with industrial equipment, tractor trailers, a few cars, and an ocean of pick up trucks bearing license plates from nearly every state in the union. According to Dylan, the North Dakota employment folks he deals with say they’ve assisted job applicants from every state of the union save Hawai’i. One look at the traffic clogged, monochromatic, dust choked valley of the Little Muddy and you’d understand why anyone from Hawai’i has yet to seek their fortune in the Bakken. But we love our fossil fuels (myself included) and so, at least in the Bakken, Sarah Palin’s cry of “drill, baby, drill” has been heard.
The photo at the left shows the UHaul after Jack and I unloaded it. The trailer is sitting in Dylan and Shelly’s driveway. If you look really close, you can see a brand new oil well behind the house across the street. That’s Williston. Every square inch of the landscape has some sort of tie to the new boom, whether it be new gravel roads cut across pastures or grain fields to access sites, or new oil wells plopped down in the same fields and pastures, or new pipeline routes or tank farms strategically located to move the oil and, to a lesser extent, the natural gas being sucked out of the prairie. Everything about the place feels temporary. The roads, the housing, the Walmart. All of the building and construction seems like a massive slight-of-hand that, once the oil dries up, or the EPA steps in, or the price per barrel for crude dips below what’s economically viable for fracking, will be left behind like a modern day version of the ghost towns of the historic West. Whether the end comes in two years or twenty, it will come. And what will be left behind will not be aesthetically pleasing, to say the least.
Saturday. We all climbed into the Pacifica and drove through town with Dylan and Shelly as backseat guides. Outside Williston, we checked out the Little Muddy and noted that, away from the noise, and bustle, and grime of the boom, the landscape here, just as Lewis and Clark noted on their journey west, has its own quiet dignity and beauty.
We stopped at the interpretive center where the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers meet. It’s a location featured prominently in Lewis and Clark’s journals. At the confluence, I observe that, despite the landscape’s unfamiliarity to those of us who grew up surrounded by trout streams, lakes, and tall pines, there is much to be admired in the serenity and sloping grace of the Great Plains.
We drove a few more miles to the west and toured historic Fort Union, a place secured, not by our government for military purposes, but by various fur trading companies as a place to exchange goods with the First People. Our collective experience at Fort Union was fascinating, a remarkable step back in time. You’d expect crowds at such a well maintained attraction on a cool Saturday in July. Not so. Perhaps few of the workers who’ve infiltrated the Bakken are interested in history. Or perhaps, they’re just too tired from working 12 hour days to make the short trip out to see the fort on their days off. Whatever the reason, there were only a few dozen folks wandering the grounds, looking at the site and listening to the staff members (appropriately dressed in period costumes) provide insight into what life was like in the early 1800s.
Sunday. We tumbled back into the Pacifica for another road trip to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Every year, on our annual ski sojourn to Bridger Bowl in Bozeman, MT, we pass by the south unit of the park and I lust after memory.
I remember going to the park with my mom and dad when I was 7, on our trip out to Seattle.
Until this trip to the Bakken to deliver furniture, to see my son’s home, and to visit with him and his wife-to-be, I’d never taken the time to return to the park. But everyone in our crew was up for the adventure. After a long drive from Williston, made all the longer by crawling tankers, road construction, and lines of unexpectedly slow traffic, we made the turn out of Watford City and entered the park. Admission was only ten dollars per car. The experience? Well, take a look at these photos to make your own judgment but I’d say it was priceless.
We only spent a few hours at Teddy Roosevelt but the vote, I am quite certain, was unanimous: Even though Fort Union was well done and impressive in its own right, the natural beauty and the wildlife of TRNP eclipsed all of our expectations. Did I recall being in the same places, seeing the same awe inspiring wonders when I was seven years old? Hardly. But that didn’t really matter. Being in the midst of such grandeur, such spectacular beauty, and experiencing it with my sons and family, well, that’s a new memory that outshines anything I could dredge up from the past. One thing I do remember from my trip here in ’62 is that we were warned, before descending to the valley of the Little Missouri, to be wary of rattlesnakes. Specifically, prairie rattlesnakes. I didn’t encounter any reptiles when I visited with my parents. But on this trip, I saw three varieties of reptile. First, I saw a sagebrush lizard sunning itself on the rocks. Then, thanks to the sharp eyes and ears of another visiting couple, I was able to see both a bull snake and a prairie rattlesnake hiding in the stones of an old CCC shelter at one of the park’s overlooks.
The couple had seen the tail of the bull snake extending from its cool hiding place. When they started walking away, the woman jumped back in fright. She heard the incessant rattle of a prairie rattlesnake also hidden in the rocks. The noise scaried the beejeebers out of her but she recovered nicely and moved on, none the worse for the surprise. The rattler and the bull snake stayed put and I was able to take a long, long look at them.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” Rene’ asked from the inside of the pavilion.
“There’s a rattle snake and a bull snake down here in the rocks,” I answered.
Rene’, Jack, Dylan, and Shelly all joined me in hopes of seeing the snakes. The bull snake had enough and crawled deeper into its hiding spot. I pointed out the rattlesnake to Jack before starting back to the parking lot.
I turned just in time to see Shelly leap and turn in the air. Dylan and Jack, who were standing a few feet away from Shelly, laughed at her antics. Apparently, the prairie rattlesnake decided it wanted to get a closer look at the tourists and, unbeknownst to Shelly, had crawled out of its lair. The rattler was sunning itself in broad daylight (but hidden by its camouflaged pattern) when Shelly nearly stepped on it.
“Good thing you heard the rattles,” I said from a safe distance. “He really doesn’t want to have to bite you.”
The dance Shelly did at TRNP will rival, I am sure, anything that goes on at the forthcoming wedding.
Monday morning, the Uhaul trailer returned to a scruffy lot in Williston, we packed the Pacifica and began the long drive home. As we rolled past man camps and new apartment buildings and travel trailers clustered like prairie schooners and oil rigs and new access roads and new wells and new drilling platforms, I recalled a piece I’d read in a brochure from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The article noted that the park comprises 1% of the land forming the Bakken oil field, the vast underground reservoir of crude oil and natural gas extending beneath much of western ND, northeastern Montana, and southern Saskatchewan. The piece described Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign to preserve wild places and natural resources, juxtaposing TR’s conservation ethic against the explosive growth that is Williston’s present-day reality. The author of the article expressed concern for the fragile ecosystem of the Little Missouri given that fracking will likely take place on every plot of land surrounding this national treasure. What will our desire for American oil, oil produced to avoid foreign intrigue, mean to the valley that once housed Teddy’s ranch? I have no idea but, for the sake of our children and our grandchildren, to enable them to experience what my family experienced, I suggest we all keep diligent watch.