The Fall of Moscow Station by Mark Henshaw (2016. Touchstone. ISBN 978-1-5011-0031-4)

Kyra Stryker is not Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne. There. I’ve put that ugly rumor to rest. The protagonist of Henshaw’s spy thriller is an analyst, someone working within the bowels of Langley for the CIA. But she was once a field agent, dodging bullets, outrunning speeding cars, and taking on America’s enemies, primarily the damnable Russians post-Putin. Circumstances, namely the capture of her partner Jon, require her to go back under cover. This was a quick summer read, the kind of page turner that’s easy on the brain and just plain entertaining, with two exceptions.

First, Hemshaw’s character studies, even for a contemporary page turner, leave one wanting. After finishing the book, I knew very little about Stryker, the woman around whom this tale of international espionage is constructed. I know she’s middle aged. A pretty fair runner (she has to be to evade those damnable Russians!) and that she grew up in rural Virginia. That’s about it. We learn so little about Kyra the person, as she dodge’s bullets and delivers blows to the enemy, one wonders, What makes her tick? What gives her the energy and drive to continue against all odds? We never really learn the inner workings of Stryker’s psyche, her loves, her laments, her faith, her thoughts on being a single woman (gay or straight, I couldn’t really tell) and childless as she edges closer to menopause. There’s plenty of rock em’ sock em’ action. Lots of bad guys (mostly those damnable Russians again, though there’s also an American traitor to contend with) but precious little of Kyra’s internal motivation is revealed.

My second criticism is that Henshaw, a somewhat simplistic and limited writer, while adept at constructing action scenes and dialogue, uses acronyms and CIA short hand from time to time without explaining these shortcuts to the reader. Given his lengthy career as a CIA analyst, there’s no question the author has the spy game down cold. And he shares much of it with his readers in a way that we see the bigger picture and understand the conflicts, policies, and inner workings of the NSA and the CIA. And given the present state of affairs between The Orange Headed One, our intelligence agencies, Russia, Putin, and the current investigations (more to come, I am sure!), this story of international intrigue, which includes a detailed look inside Russia’s security agencies as well, there’s no question that this story has a timely feel to it. That’s all to the good. I just wish Henshaw would have played a little less inside baseball and explained some of his passages with more clarity.

All in all, a respectable summer read. It won’t make you forget Bourne but it will make you want to read more about Kyra Stryker.

3 and 1/2 Stars out of 5. Readable and entertaining.

Peace.

Mark

Isadora by Amelia Gray (2017. Audible. com. Audio book. ISBN 978-0374279981)

I picked up this audio version of Ms. Gray’s debut novel because of an excerpt and interview I read about the book on Lit Hub. Knowing nothing about the subject of the story’s focus, Isadora Duncan, a famed dancer from the early 20th century, and loving good literary fiction, I loaded the audio file into my phone and, over the course of several weeks, listened to the novel as I drove to and from work.

Here’s my take on the story arc. The tale starts off with steam: the deaths of Gray’s two young children and their nanny by drowning in Paris. The car they are in, having just left Isadora and her paramour, Paris Singer (yes, from the Singer sewing machine lineage and a wealthy man with a wife and daughters waiting for him back in the States) plunged into the Seine. All inside perished. The loss of the children, Deirdre (with Gordon Craig) and Patrick (with Singer) and the engaging personality of Isadora sets the stage for an intriguing exploration of this thoroughly independent and modern artist. Bisexual, impulsive, crass, and demanding, Gray’s Isadora has all the hallmarks of being the linchpin of an engaging historical novel. And yet…

After the deaths of the children, not much happens. There is no intensity, no drama, no conflict other than the internal discord Gray examines over and over and over again with respect to her muse. Instead of tension and intrigue and excitement, we follow the grief stricken Isadora in her first-person narrative, and three other supporting characters, including Isadora’s long-suffering sister and fellow dance teacher, Elizabeth (in third-person) throughout the year following the tragedy. Additionally, the endless discussions about, and descriptions of, various dance styles and routines and exercises and performances is just plain boring. Replicating dance in prose is difficult; perhaps impossible. Here, repetition of the modern dance theme, a key component of the narrative, becomes tired and pedestrian. The lengthy passages (page after page after page, it seemed!) detailing Isadora and Elizabeth’s artistry caused me to stare out the windshield of my Jeep and study the passing landscape rather than focus my attention on the story being told.

As the title to this review indicates, the writing, while reminiscent of Jane Austin at her best, and the author’s considerable intellect and love for the English language, were unable to overcome the structure of the book and the lack of any real conflict compelling a reader to remain engaged. I came away from listening to the book having little regard for any of the self-centered, spoiled, brats who populate Gray’s fictional landscape. The beginning was extremely promising. The ending? Equally so. The middle. Muddled and without purpose. I found, in the end, I just didn’t give a damn about what happened to Isadora or anyone else in the tale.

This is one of those revered modern literary novels that leaves me wondering whether reviewers actually read the entire book.

2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

It began a few years ago. Uncle Wayne, my maternal aunt’s husband, started acted strangely. For awhile, I had the Sheriff of Lake County keeping tabs on Wayne and my aunt, Susanne. Then, about two years ago, things took a turn for a worse. Wayne went to a doctor to check on his behaviors and some physical issues. He was diagnosed with both cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease. Because of a precarious circulatory system, Susanne, whom I call “Auntie Sukie”, and the doctors agreed: No surgery. Wayne went to live out his days at a facility near his lovely, pastoral home just outside Two Harbors, Minnesota. That meant Sukie, at nearly eighty-five years old, lived alone in the old farmhouse with her two cats, trying to fend for herself against the harshness of Minnesota’s winter. Her daughters, my cousins, Julie and Heidi live a ways away. Selling the farm: thirty-plus acres of beautiful rolling pasture, a quaint, well-built house, a large garage, and Wayne’s beloved workshop was an option. Wayne and Sukie had tried to sell the place but the price had been set so high, only dreamers and charlatans stopped in and expressed interest. But even with Wayne in a facility, despite the difficulties of getting to and from town as a very short, hearing-challenged, elderly woman, Aunt Sukie stubbornly, steadfastly, and lovingly refused entreaties to move closer to Julie, her eldest. The Slovenian inside my aunt, coupled with her love for Wayne, was just too strong.

I saw Wayne from time to time at the facility whenever I was on the North Shore for work. While he continued to display the typical paranoia associated with Alzheimer’s, he always knew me and took great pride in introducing me to the new friends he’d made. “This is my nephew, The Judge,” he’d proclaim. But in the end, Wayne passed on. After the funeral, Julie and Heidi again postulated to Sukie that maybe a move closer to them made sense. Auntie would have none of it. “I have my church and my friends,” she’d say, “and the library,” adding that her role on the board of the Friends of the Two Harbors Library was something she cherished. As a fellow writer, I understood her connection to place and people. But, as summer turned to fall, it became clear that Auntie Sukie would be unable to sustain her independence no matter how strong her spirit and resistance.

A series of health issues ended my aunt’s ability to drive. Robbed of mobility, she relied on others to get into town for groceries and supplies, or to her medical appointments in Duluth, which as a heart condition manifested, became more and more frequent. Finally, her daughters convinced Auntie to see a heart specialist. She was diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis, a condition that, if untreated, would see her lose more and more stamina. But because of other physical issues, no surgeon in Duluth would do the surgery. Fine physicians at the U of M agreed to do the work. She came through the operation with flying colors and after a brief stay in the hospital, went to Alexandria for rehabilitation. Just before her heart surgery, Auntie finally said, “I can’t go back to the farm.” And yet, she still clung to hope; hope that she could remain in the Two Harbors-Duluth area. That desire to remain close to her beloved North Shore evolved until she recognized the importance of being closer to her girls. Julie found her an apartment in Alexandria, where Julie lives, a place also much closer to Heidi.

Julie and her devoted husband Brad made countless trips to the farm to get things moving. Susanne visited the proposed apartment and, after many, many debates and discussions, agreed it was for the best. As Sukie’s Power of Attorney, I set about finding a realtor to help sell the farm. With her daughters’ permission, I settled on a realtor who attended Knife River Lutheran Church, Sukie’s church; Steve Carlson, a smiling, gregarious, big-hearted man who, having lived his whole life in the area, knew the market well. But before the place could be put up for sale, it needed to be cleaned, rubbish and trash removed, and made ready. It took elbow grease and many hours of dedication but, eventually, the little white farmhouse was ready for potential buyers to view. I signed a listing agreement for a price that I thought was fair. Sukie, of course, having been mislead by charlatans and hangers-on who gave her a false sense of the place’s value, thought I was selling her legacy for a song. But despite our differences on this point, Susanne moved into her new apartment in Alexandria, many of her beloved “treasures” packed in boxes and sent to auction. Reluctant to depart with furniture and dishware and books despite moving from a three-bedroom home into a one-bedroom apartment, my aunt kept telling Julie and I that, “it’s all great stuff!” We’d placate her by nodding our heads, saying things like, “We know but you can’t take it all with you.” Between Julie and Brad and Heidi and Nick and I, the farmhouse was cleaned, her stuff sorted, and Sukie installed in her new apartment closer to family.

Steve listed the farmhouse for sale. It sold in two days. There were issues with the septic (let’s just say it hadn’t met code in decades!) that needed correcting. After escrowing money for a new system, the sale went through. Steve and I attended a closing in Duluth. The only remaining problem was Sukie’s car, a Buick that Uncle Wayne, in the early stages of dementia, had paid way too much for. The lender was a bank someplace in Ohio. With only Wayne’s name on the title and loan, and with the car having a value of about one-third what was owed, and with Susanne no longer able to drive, the car had to go. No one had paid on the loan since Wayne’s passing. The smart choice was to call the bank and have them come get their car. It took numerous calls and a final threat by a very pissed off nephew threatening, “if you don’t come get this car, I’ll have it towed to Fredenberg and you’ll have to come visit me to get the keys,” to persuade the bank we were serious. The car gone, the closing done, all that was left for me to do was deliver the check from the sale of the house to Auntie Sukie.

It was a beautiful Minnesota spring morning when I set out in my Grand Cherokee, cashier’s check in hand, for Alexandria. Passing through Mora on 23, I found I was ahead of schedule (I was meeting Julie and Sukie to tour my aunt’s apartment, go to lunch, hand over the check, and set up a bank account for Sukie) so I ended up diverting into downtown St. Joseph’s, home to St. Benedict’s College. I intended to say hello to Jeff Velline, son of legendary rock and roller, Bobby Vee, at the family recording studio in St. Joe’s, Rockhouse Records. I arrived a half hour before the studio opened, parked the Jeep, and took a stroll around the St. Ben’s campus, When I finally entered the studio, I was greeted by Tom Velline, Jeff’s brother. I explained who I was, that I’d met Jeff at Høstfest in Minot, and that Jeff was a fan of my Finn books. Tom gave me a tour of the place (formerly a bank). Later, Tom and Jeff and I stood in the studio’s control room and talked music and books and Finns (Bobby was half Finnish) and life. The Velline brothers were gracious hosts even though I’d arrived unannounced and uninvited.

I was still ahead of schedule. I detoured off I-94 into Sauk Center, the hometown of Nobel Laureate, Sinclair Lewis. My only quest was to drive around town to get a sense of the place, find Lewis’s birthplace, take a quick photo, and get back on the road. Unfortunately, I relied on GPS. It took twice as long as it should have but eventually I found the writer’s home, took a few photos, and headed north on the freeway.

In Alexandria, I dropped my Jeep off at the Cenex station. Brad, Julie’s husband, manages the tire center and, because my car needed new tires, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone. Julie showed up at the Cenex. I grabbed the envelope with Sukie’s check, hugged my cousin, and we sped off to visit Auntie. More hugs, a quick tour of the apartment, a nice lunch at a local eatery, some time spent with a very thoughtful lady at the local bank setting up accounts, brief goodbyes, and the it was back to Cenex to pay for the tires and hit the road.

The weather held. The ride home was uneventful. I took the scenic route, following two lanes from Alexandria to Duluth through farmland, over rivers, and around lakes, content in the knowledge that my aunt was safe, well cared for, healthy, and back to enjoying life.

Before we parted, I suggested that she write another book, a follow-up to her great little memoir, Back of Beyond.

“Maybe,” was all she said.

Peace.

Mark

 

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935. Reprinted 2014. Signet. ISBN 978-0-451-46564-1)

I finished this book while on a fishing trip with my 89 year old father and one of my favorite Minnesota legends, Former Vice President Walter Mondale. To say the two old men were interested in what I thought of Lewis’s novel, a story which essentially foretells the coming of a narcissistic, narrow minded, unprincipled populist into the United States Presidency, foreshadowing the ultimate collapse of American democracy, would be an understatement. And I have to say, after enduring a three month bout of writer’s block caused by the completely unexpected (by me and every major pollster) arrival of The Orange Headed One on Pennsylvania Avenue, I was a bit hesitant to dive into a novel so close to home, politically speaking. But I read the book, a book handed to me by my son Chris, whose presentation included this caveat, “Let me know what you think.” Well, Chris, here goes.

Lewis chronicles the mercurial rise of Senator Buzz Windrip from U.S. Senator to the Democratic nominee for the presidency, a man so absent morality and principles and intellect and political acumen beyond speechifying and simplifying that one would think, “No way in hell is this morally corrupt, empty-headed windbag (I see the connection, don’t you!) can win the presidency”. Well, just as it couldn’t happen in 2016 and it did, so too it goes in the novel. Here’s a scene from the Democratic convention as depicted by Lewis that seems eerily familiar to me:

In honor of Senator Robinson, the University of Arkansas brass band marched in behind a leader riding in an old horse-drawn buggy which is plastered with great placards…The name of Miss Perkins had been cheered for two hours while the delegates marched in their state banners and President Roosevelt’s name had been cheered…(But) every delegate knew that Mr. Roosevelt and Miss Perkins were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.

Sound familiar? I think it’s spot on. But then, like I said, I am no fan of The Orange Headed One, a man so devoid of morality and experience and patience and grammatical skills that he makes my skin crawl. So it’s easy for me to see the current situation in Sinclair’s fiction. But I think the connections are multiple and inescapable.

The author sets up a regional, small town journalist, Vermont newspaper owner and editor Doremus Jessup, as Windrip’s foil. The scribe’s opposition to the new president’s Hitler-like power grab earns him beatings, the death of loved ones and friends, and ultimately, confinement in a concentration camp alongside Communists, labor leaders, religious objectors, and Jews. Yes, Jews. Lewis is writing, in 1935, a time when America and much of the West deny the mechanized destruction of the Jews by the Nazis, universally claiming, “Oh, Adolf can’t be that bad!”, when in fact, he is inherently murderously evil. Jessup calls Windrip out, recognizing the man’s inherent intellectual and moral failings early on in the game:

Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Bœotia could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor, the sly cynicism of a country store.

On many levels, the author’s prediction of our current estrangement from reality as a nation, is unsettling. Where is the hope? Where is the promise of the Founders? Where is the leader that children look up to and respect? The connections between fact and fiction are numerous and ominous despite Lewis’s penchant for resorting to cartoonish lampooning and sarcasm to make his point:

Windrip had redeemed himself, no doubt, by ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing…in front of a microphone.

At times, Lewis’s writing is literary in the vein of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, two of his contemporaries and rivals for public attention. But in the background, there always lurks the author’s somewhat dated need to resort to wit and tomfoolery with words to lambast Windrip, America’s fictional Mussolini (the character is far too simple minded and too easily manipulated by his shadowy handler, Lee Sarason-a dead ringer for Stephen K. Bannon-to be equated to Hitler’s evil mastery). It’s as if the author couldn’t decide whether he was writing a serious novel exposing the dangers of Fascism and racism and false prophets, or writing satire. The book contains both and the fact Lewis couldn’t settle on one approach makes the book feel uneven and perhaps a bit hastily written so as to attain publication before it’s subject matter became passe. But the truth is,  even after eighty years, the evolution of Buzz Windrip is so compelling, when judged against current events, that the story continues to have validity whatever editorial or stylistic faults one cares to find with the book. The title, however, is a misnomer. The title really should be changed to It Has Already Happened Here…

4 star out of 5. Well worth the read.

Peace.

Mark

 

The Fourth Night Watch by John Falkberget. Translated from the Norwegian by Ronald G. Popperwell (1968. University of Wisconsin Press. Unknown ISBN)

I ordered a hardcover, used copy of this Norwegian novel because its author, Johan Falkberget, wrote fiction in and around the town of Rørøs (Bergstadten) Norway. Why would I do such a thing, you ask? Well, my current writerly project involves chronicling my Finnish everyman (from Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh) Anders Ahlomaki’s migration from his birth in Finland to Duluth, where Suomalaiset is set in 1908. Encouraged by my Finnish friends Gerry Henkel (former editor of the New World Finn) and Jim Kurtti (editor of the Finnish American Reporter) to complete my trilogy, I found myself with Anders in Rørøs working a copper mine. So, I thought What better way to learn about the area and the people than to read a novel from a local author? And while part of me was disappointed in Falkberget’s subject matter (I was hoping that he’d detail the mines and mining in his backstory and he said little about that industry), I found the book, albeit stereo typically dark and gloomy (hallmarks of the best of Scandinavian fiction, right?), the novel held my interest and was well worth the effort.

It’s an age old story, one that I adapted to my first lawerly novel, Pigs. A married man, with kids and a career, risks it all for a tumble in the hay with a woman other than his wife. Here, the tortured existence of Rev. Benjamin Sigismund, newly arrived with his children and his consumptive wife, Katheryn to Rørøs, becomes immediately smitten with Gunhild Finne, a younger woman betrothed to a local copper miner. Worse yet, the good reverend is called upon to perform the couple’s marriage ceremony all the while knowing Gunhild has no love in her heart for the groom. Conflicted by his own interest in the woman and his duty to God, Sigismund performs the marriage and the rest is fairly predictable in terms of the tragedies and troubles that befall everyone in the book. One shining light is amidst all the gloom is Gunhild’s uncle, Ol-Kanelesa, a defrocked teacher who is reduced to begging for jobs, including that of the pastor’s assistant. Wise and self-educated, Oll-Kanelsa is the moral linchpin of the tale and is a memorable actor on a fairly narrow and limited stage.

All in all, an interesting excursion into early 20th century Norwegian literature.

4 star out of 5.

A History of Finland by Henrik Meinander. Translater from the Swedish by Tom Geddes. (2013. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-9333351-6)

I was in need of a concise, easily readable, history of Finland. Why? Well, as indicated above in my review of The Fourth Night Watch, I’m deeply immersed in crafting the third and final installment to my Finnish trilogy. The working title of the book is Kotimaa: Homeland, and the tale spans fictional everyman Anders Ahlomaki’s life from birth to immigration to Duluth in 1908 and also touches upon present-day issues of nationalism, Xenophobia, immigration, and terrorism related to Islamic extremism and Finnish politics. A big plate? You bet? And I needed a quick reference in Finnish history to add depth to my Internet and other reading. I found Meinander’s book was the perfect fit for my needs.

The author gives us, in a very short, well written history, all the essentials. Granted, given the cursory nature of the volume, Meinander can only skim over many of the larger episodes in Finnish history, including the War of Independence, the Winter War, and the like. But, all in all, the author gives non-Finnish readers a flavor for the complex and relatively short story of Finland as an independent nation. Given that Finland celebrates its centennial this December and given my need for a primer on all things Finnish, the book was a perfect fit. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Finland or heading out for a visit.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

The Innocent by David Baldacci (2012. Grand Central. ISBN 978-1-4555-1900-2)

After I closed the cover on this paperback for the last time, this was my final thought: At least I didn’t pay for it.  My Aunt Susanne, a fellow writer, handed this book to me a year or so ago and said, “You might like this.” She was wrong.

I’ve never read Baldacci, a mass market paperback guru of the action/suspense/thriller genre. After forcing myself to finish The Innocent, I will never waste my time on his work again. There is so much to say about the  messed up, nonsensical plot, the characters, the improbabilities, the awkward mandatory sex scene (intimated, not directly depicted), and the clunky dialogue of a teenage damsel in distress that I’d exhaust myself working through it all. I won’t. I’ll just give you my basic thought: I don’t use an outline when I write fiction but this guy needs one. It’s that simple. I found the meandering plot, which begins with Will Robie, a U.S. government sanctioned hit-man taking out a Middle Eastern type, and ends with a furious shoot-out at the White House, so disjointed and tactically implausible (really, a guy (Robie) wanders into a state dinner where the President and the Saudi Crown Prince are about to dine carrying two loaded handguns, fires off a round to save them both, and he isn’t immediately taken out by the Secret Service despite their having no knowledge he’s a friend, not a foe?). The would be assassin (spoiler alert) is a slight, petite, secretary and she is able to cold cock a Secret Service agent and steal his weapon and smuggle it into the dinner with impunity? In the White House? And this kind of suspension of reality permeates the plot until you are thinking, Maybe Superman will suddenly appear too!

I found the Robie character boring. No class, no sophistication, no nothin’. Definitely no James Bond or Jason Bourne. He’s a cardboard hero with no depth, soul, or meaning, like the rest of the book. To me, this novel is all about the payday, not in terms of the plot’s climax but in terms of the author’s wallet. I’m not so high minded that I can’t enjoy a good mystery or potboiler or legal thriller or mass market love story. I was a huge fan of Grisham until he too started phoning it in. And no, Mr. Baldacci, this isn’t a semi-famous novelist searching for a reason to denigrate a master. The only thing that this book masters is lining up words into sentences into paragraphs into pages into chapters. Beyond that, it’s pretty much stale, unimaginative, and confused.

422 pages of drivel. That’s my take. About the only positive thing I have to say is that I didn’t toss the novel into the trash in disgust like I did John Irving’s worst work, Until I Find You, or give up 1/4 into the mess, as I did when trying to get through Stephen King’s horrible take on killer clowns, It. We can agree to disagree on this one, folks. But with millions of good books being written, I’ll not waste my precious time on another Balducci. If I want something along these lines, I’ll ask my five year old grandson to tell me a story.

2 stars out of 5. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s about all I can say.

Peace,

Mark

 

 

I read with some interest a recent letter to the editor concerning my alma mater, Duluth Denfeld High School. The writer seemed to advocate returning Denfeld to its “roots” as a training ground for the trades, back to a Smith-Hughes-style curriculum to re-emphasize blue-collar trades and de-emphasize careers in education, the law, engineering, medicine, or other professions. As I write this response, it’s no secret that parents and educators and administrators and school board members are discussing ways to restore population and opportunity equity between Duluth’s two public high schools. I have no skin in that game. All my children went to Hermantown schools. My wife Rene’ and I made a choice 34 years ago to live in the country, a choice that had nothing to do with the Duluth school system and everything to do with lifestyle. We didn’t leave St. Marie Street in Duluth because of educational turmoil. But it seems given the recent, passionate debate concerning the disparities between Denfeld and East, some Duluth parents might be making choices for their kids based upon the lack of opportunities available for kids living on the Hillside and out West. If that’s the case, I think calls for changing Denfeld’s educational mission and focus would be a serious mistake.

I was never the smartest kid at Piedmont, Lincoln, or Denfeld. But Gary Ames (my 4th grade teacher) apparently saw something in me. My perceived abilities were limited to reading, writing, English, and the social sciences. Though I took accelerated science classes later in my public school education, my math skills remain rudimentary. No calculus for this guy! But thanks to Mr. Ames, I spent an hour a day in 4th grade concentrating on reading and writing with Mrs. Zakula. Because of my participation in Mrs. Zakula’s workshop, I found myself plucked from Mr. Child’s sixth grade class at Piedmont to spend mornings at Lincoln Elementary with kids from Stowe, Morgan Park, Riverside, Irving, Laura MaCarthur, Merritt, Bryant, Ensign, and Lincoln: elementary schools located in the Western half of the city. Two kids were named from each school to spend time with Miss Hollingsworth; a dedicated, smart, no-nonsense teacher who tried to keep twenty or so gifted students engaged. My partner in crime from Piedmont was Jan Erickson (now Larson). Our moms took turns driving us to and from Lincoln. We’d work on English, writing, spelling, reading, drama, and history/geography at Lincoln, eat our lunch, and then head back up the hill for math, science, art, and gym at Piedmont. We weren’t teased or ostracized or ridiculed by our Piedmont classmates. It was an accepted part of the day that Jan and I would wander back after lunch and resume our seats at Piedmont for the afternoon session. And the kids who spent time with Miss Hollingsworth? What became of them, these children of ironworkers and steel plant employees and electricians and custodians and nurses and railroaders? You already know my story. Jan became a pharmacist. Other “special” class members became engineers, professors, chemists, teachers, and school administrators. Some, its true, migrated towards blue-collar jobs, working in construction and the mines and the like. But so far as I know, all went on to lead productive, enlightened, engaging adult lives.

Personally, I carried with me a singular skill from my time with Miss Hollingsworth, a skill that served me well throughout junior high, high school, college, and law school. One of the most important components of mornings spent under Miss Hollingsworth’s tutelage was the requirement that we write, edit, and compile three massive written reports during the year. One had to be a biography. One had to be a historical and geographical review of a foreign country. And the third? We were allowed to choose any topic we wanted to write about. In addition to meeting certain size, illustration, and editorial limitations set by Miss Hollingsworth, we were also required to give an oral presentation of our reports to the class. The fact that Miss Hollingsworth required us to produce documents that, quite frankly, went beyond any writing assignment I encountered until college, and then get up and talk about our work, well, that experience alone was enough to ensure we were successful as we entered adulthood and went off to college, the trades, or the military.

The bottom line is, had Mr. Ames or Mrs. Zakula or Miss Hollingsworth not seen something in this Piedmont kid, or if the other teachers in all those other Western elementary schools not seen similar attributes in their students, who knows where we would have ended up in life. There’s certainly no shame in being an electrician, a welder, a bank teller, or a caregiver in an assisted living facility. All trades, jobs, and professions have their own sense of duty and honor and dignity attached to them. But to suggest, as the recent letter writer did, that kids from the Hillside and the Western half of Duluth should somehow be limited in their aspirations seems to me to be shortsighted and ignores the history of what kids from those neighborhoods are capable of achieving.

( (c) Mark Munger 2017. This essay originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune. Mark is the young fella, fourth from the left in the first row. Ms. Erickson Larson is in the middle row, second from the left.)

 

 

 

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy (Audible. 2009 ISBN 978-0553381559)

I was given a copy of Conroy’s last book, A Low Country Heart by a friend for Christmas. I wasn’t too kind to the old guy in my review (use the search function above to find what I had to say) but, having loved the movie version of Prince of Tides and having heard nothing but raves about The Great Santini and Conroy’s other, autobiographical novels, well, I had to try another book written by this Boy of the South. I chose Santini as my selection and listened to the Audible version of the novel on my rides to and from the courthouse. Here’s my take.

Conroy knew himself, his family dynamics, the fear and loathing, and yes, love, he felt for his father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot who served in three wars. It’s a difficult thing, I think, for sons to write about fathers. At least, I know that will be true for me when I finally sit down to put my life with my old man on the page. The warts. The celebrations. The wisdom. The anger. The tender moments. The praise. The chastisement. They all have to be there, whether you’re writing an autobiographical novel or a memoir. Here, at times, I think Conroy’s venting of his teenage-self’s hatred of The Great Santini, who, like the author’s own father, is a no-holds–barred disciplinarian and asshole, gets in the way of the protagonist’s story. And yet, in the end, Conroy is such a masterful storyteller, for 3/4 of the novel, he had me spellbound. It’s the other 1/4 of the book, where Bull Meecham is an unbearable brute, who, despite the ending (spoiler alert) eventually does get his comeuppance, and several extended narrative passages  chronicling the details of the Meecham family’s domestic life, that leads me to give this less than a 5 star or even a 4 and 1/2 star review. Conroy knows how to write for the male half of American society. His depictions of boyhood bullying and sports and flirtations with girls becoming young women is all spot on. I enjoyed the story except for those rare passages that dragged or became so brutal and horrific (in terms of Bull’s behaviors) that I nearly wanted to scream at Ben, the son, the oldest child, and the Conroy stand-in, to find Bull’s .45, put a bullet in the old man’s noggin and end it all. But, after finishing this marathon of family dysfunction, I have to admit: Pat Conroy knew how to spin a yarn.

4 stars out of 5. I need to see how Duvall played Bull in the movie. On to NetFlix…

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance (Audible. Harper Audio. 2016. 978-0062300553)

Weird, huh? I follow up reading one Southern writer’s bestselling novel by diving into a memoir/social science dissertation concerning mountain folk, poverty, welfare, and yes, just like The Great Santini, family violence and dysfunction. J. D. Vance is a survivor. No doubt about that. When one reads (or in my case, listens to) his life story as depicted in this tale, it’s remarkable that the boy made it to becoming a man. That much is clear. Vance makes it readily apparent that he managed to become an Ivy League-educated lawyer and writer, not because of his immediate family (his parents) but because of extended family, friends, and teachers filling in the void, protecting him, nurturing him. The autobiographical portions of the book are outstanding. It’s when Vance switches from telling his life story and educating the reader/listener indirectly about the effects of poverty and familial discord upon children though his prose to lecturing us on social policy that the memoir loses steam.

It’s a worthy read, a read that fits in well with our current political impasse but Vance’s pronouncement that he remains a “Conservative Republican” begs the question: How can that be possible? I mean, is he not reading the newspapers, listening to the radio, watching the news (including Fox)? I’m not talking about the Orange Headed One and his accelerating disintegration. I’m talking about what the leaders of the Republican Party are proposing in terms of social engineering with the dismantling of the ACA, defunding birth control services provided by Planned Parenthood, tax breaks for the wealthiest segment of society, increased military spending at the expense of Medicaid, and the like. Take Vance’s experience as the grandson of Kentucky hillbillies as an example. He writes poignantly and lovingly, but with a distinct hint of irony and angst, about his mother, his sister and other young women becoming pregnant months after they have their first menses. Where does these young women turn for birth control if Planned Parenthood is defunded? Surely, a man as smart as Vance knows that simply because some old white dudes in Washington stop making birth control available for poor teenaged girls, they won’t stop having sex and making babies.

I enjoyed hearing Vance’s story. And he’s right: more folks, white, black, rich, poor all need to take responsibility for their own actions. But sometimes, despite all the rhetoric coming from The Right, folks do need a helping hand. Despite having been able to take advantage of Pell grants and scholarships and other programs directed at serving the author and others in his situation, Vance’s “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” mantra, though eloquent and without the harshness of Rush or Hannity’s vitriol, rang a bit false to me. Still, overall, this memoir is a well-crafted, valuable read.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
Jean Rhys

Thanks to Lake Superior Writers for asking me to speak today at the annual meeting of this robust, determined, fine organization. Also, I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s writing contest. It’s a privilege to share the podium with you folks and applaud your hard work and dedicated creativity. On to the talk. Lawyers have a hard time saying their names, much less giving a speech, in fifteen minutes.

It was suggested that you might want to hear about my writing journey and the creative process I engage in every morning when I fire up the coffee pot, spend a few moments of contemplation in the john, and wander sleepy eyed into my writing studio overlooking the wild and scenic Cloquet River. But as proud as I am of my routine and the prodigious number of words my pens and word processors—from that first Tandy 286 we bought in 1984 to the 27” iMac that’s been my writerly tool for the past seven years—have produced over the course of twenty-six years, I’m not interested in rehashing the unique process I engage in to craft books. I’m here to talk about the universal flow of words in keeping with the theme of this year’s contest. And while, in a physical sense, we’ve had more than enough rain to fill my beloved Cloquet River to the brim, it’s Ms. Rhys’s metaphorical river, a river in danger of being dammed and eliminated by current events, that concerns me today. What do I mean?

First off, what I’m about to say might come off as overtly political. I don’t intend my remarks to offend or alienate anyone who might have a different take on the world than I do. We’re all entitled to our opinions and beliefs. That’s, as George W. Bush might say, “the beauty of Amerika.” But, having been given this short snippet of time to speak to you, rather than regurgitate old truisms about writing and process, I want to candidly speak about my own struggles with where we are as a people and a culture since November of 2016 in the context of being poets, essayists, and fiction writers. Here goes.

I was devastated. There’s no other way to describe what I felt waking up on that Wednesday morning. I’d pulled all-niters before (I never did go to bed in 2000, believing that Al Gore had won and then slowly learning, as night became morning, that he had not). I’ve found myself on the losing side of the electoral ledger many times (beginning in 1972 with George McGovern) so when the reality of The Donald being elected our president sank in, there was disappointment, yes. There was a bit of anger, sure. But I was not ready for the impact November 8th had on my writing.

Those of you who‘ve followed my hectic, toss-everything-at-the-wall and see what sticks, go it alone approach to building a writerly portfolio can attest to this simple truth: In nearly three decades, having written and published seven novels, one massive biography, a collection of essays, and a volume of short fiction, I’ve never been slowed by that dreaded curse, writer’s block. After having sought the assistance of literary agents and failed, having published my first novel, The Legacy, in 2000 on a cooperative basis with Mike Savage, I’ve made my mark, pun intended, as a self-published writer by sticking to my guns, by writing what I’m interested in and what I think readers might want to read. Knowing who you are as an artist, knowing what you value in you work, is the key to surviving. Here’s what that sage of Texas wisdom, Willie Nelson, once wrote about such things:

When it came time to record, I think Columbia expected me to fly to Nashville, New York, or L.A., and cut the songs in a state-of-the-art studio with triple-scale sidemen…I used my own band…The arrangements were lean. The accompaniment behind me was sparse. We cut every song in just a few takes…The feeling couldn’t have been more relaxed…But when the chief Columbia bigwig heard the tracks, he said, “Why are you turning in a demo?”

“Ain’t no demo”, I explained. “This is the finished product”.

“Can’t be. It’s too rough. It’s too raw. It doesn’t sound like a finished record. “

“What’s a finished record sound like?”

“Anything but this…You need to go back in and polish it.”

That ain’t gonna happen…”

“You’re making our job impossible.”

“Well, let’s see what the public says.”

The public said yes, we like this Red Headed Stranger. We like this sparse sound. We like this sad story…”Blue Eyes Cryin in the Rain” (sent) the album to the top of the charts. One week the execs were calling the record my ruination; a week later, it was my breakthrough.

I use this snippet from Nelson’s memoir, It’s a Long Story to illustrate that I’m not the only stubborn SOB who thinks he knows what he’s doing when it comes to his or her art. But that stubbornness, or fortitude, or sisu if you will, took a big hit on November 8th. So much of what I believed in as an American, so much of what I thought our nation stood for, at least in my left-leaning, certifiably Liberal with a big “L” mind, was placed at risk by The Donald’s election as our president, I found, for the first time in nearly thirty years, I had no will, no impetus, no ability to sit down and begin.

I say “begin” because my 10th book, Boomtown, was finished in early 2016 and published later that year. Between writing short essays and book reviews and putting them on my blog, posting writerly events and family news on Facebook, writing a short story here and there, I was searching for another novel. It dawned on me in late 2015, as Boomtown went through its final edit, that the Finns have been my best and most loyal readers. It intrigued me that the story I told in my first Finnish American historical novel, Suomalaiset, the tale of Finnish immigrant Anders Ahlomaki, had a temporal relationship to the debates that raged during the Presidential campaign concerning The Other: folks with dark faces and a belief in God filtered through The Prophet. As I thought of a new project I recalled that, as depicted in Suomalaiset, it was here in Duluth, in the very courthouse where I work, that Judge William Cant was asked to apply the Oriental Exclusion Act to Finns; declaring them to be descendents of Genghis Kahn and thus, ineligible under federal law to become American citizens. As I watched and listened to the talk of walls and exclusion and theocratic bans, the idea for Kotimaa: Homeland, the story of why Anders Ahlomaki left Finland for America juxtaposed against the angst and turmoil and upset occurring both here and in Europe due to the influx of The Other, percolated in my head. Thinking about the topic of my work-in-progress brings to mind another Jean Rhys quote:

Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important it finds homes for us everywhere.”

I’d started researching and writing the first chapter of Kotimaa before the election. Things seemed to be, as is usual once I get into a writing project, moving comfortably ahead. And then that damned election happened. It stopped me cold, dead in my tracks. I could not write.

Truthfully, things haven’t gotten that much easier for me now that The Donald is in office. I won’t go all political here and rant about the latest revelations of deception, falsehood, self-dealing, hypocrisy (though I do chuckle now, when watching the news, as I recall those nasty chants of “Lock her up”, and think ”yeah, ain’t Karma a bitch?”). But I will say this: reading the most recent issue of Poets and Writers magazine gives me a deeper appreciation for how serious, how dire the situation for the arts has become.

Predictably, the new regime is focusing its laser sharp budgetary pen on the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and anything remotely tied to promoting and sponsoring art and literature in this country. Of course, these gestures are wholly symbolic: the total cost of all federal arts programs doesn’t equal the cost of one submarine, one aircraft carrier, or likely, one year’s worth of secret service protection for The Donald’s entourage. But the bull’s eye is there, on the back of every poet, writer, painter, sculptor, and musician who benefits from such programs. Here’s a sampling of what some folks, folks much smarter and more respected than me, say about this assault on the arts.

Indeed, too often these days it feels like we are swept along by negative forces beyond our control. We need to resist that feeling. We need to remind ourselves that…we are creators. Let’s not underestimate or diminish the energy of that creative potential…

Kevin Larimar, Editor in Chief, Poets and Writers.

Poet Erin Belieu…an organizer of Writer Resist rallies, which brought out thousands of writers and citizens in cities all across the United States on January 15, five days before the…inauguration, asserts that such rallies are essential to defend free expression, reject hatred, and uphold truth in the face of lies and misinformation.

 Remembering poet Elizabeth Alexander’s recitation of “Praise Song for the Day” at Obama’s 2008 inauguration, Nicole Sealey, the executive director of Cave Canem, and a woman of color, had this take on things: “So much has changed” is a very gracious way to describe the political climate in which we now find ourselves. In “Praise Song for the Day”, the speaker asks, “What if the mightiest word is love?” I have no doubt it is love, but the new administration would have me believe that the mightiest word is fear…

 Sharon Rab, founder of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize weighs into the discussion by quoting author Barbara Kingsolver as to the importance of literature: Writer after writer has remarked that literature helps readers empathize with others, an experience that can shift the tide from violence, aggression, fear, injustice, and love of power that leads to war—to the tolerance and understanding that leads to peace. Barbara Kingsolver describes empathy as “developing like a muscle—it strengthens with use.” Literature makes us realize our shared humanity, a realization essential to any genuine pursuit of peace.

 Poets and Writers devotes more than ten pages of the current issue to profile writers and poets who’ve received NEA grants to launch careers. Most of the folks included are of limited means and of color: NEA grants awarded to those writers ensure diversity of thought and genre beyond the James Patterson and Vince Flynn novels crowding the shelves of our bookstores. One young Asian American novelist, Peter Ho Davies, has a unique perspective on the current situation. He happened to be in Washington D.C., on 9/11 working at the NEA, sifting through applications, having been previously awarded two NEA grants himself. The NEA was housed in an old federal building not too far from the White House. Here’s his story:

We saw smoke rising from the Pentagon…(and) we were evacuated. That afternoon, back at the hotel, we decided to continue our work… There’s been much talk of patriotism in the years between then and now. The NEA, representing as it does, a nation’s faith in the arts, seemed to me that day and ever since, an institution any country could and should be proud of. The federal building where the NEA was based on 9/11 was, incidentally, the Old Post Office Pavilion, now the Trump International Hotel. The cost for a night in its largest suite on 9/11/2017? $25,000 per night.”

 Against this backdrop of turmoil and unrest and dissonance, have I been able to fire up my iMac and begin? Sort of. I’ve managed to research and write a rough draft of the first one-third of Kotimaa: Homeland, the portion of the tale where Anders Ahlomaki, like many other Finnish males of his time, migrates from Finland to the copper mines of Norway. But things have again slowed down. Anders and I, at least for now, are stranded in Røros, Norway. The year is 1905. I’m attempting to work on a contemporary section of the novel set in the States and Finland in 2017: a time when the world is coming to grips with nationalism, racism, and The Donald’s rise to power. Some might ask, “Why? Why do you write about such things? Why pick the scab from the wound?” Here’s the thing.

First, I write about topics and people and circumstances that interest me. My novels have covered a wide range of human experience and history. I’ve written about horrific suffering in the Balkans (The Legacy); about infidelity and its impact on family (Pigs: A Trial Lawyer’s Story); race, addiction, Catholicism, and redemption (Esther’s Race); religious fundamentalism (Laman’s River); the turbulent politics and labor relations of the early 1900s in Duluth (Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh); the holocaust and the terrible choices Finland and Estonia were forced to make during WW II (Sukulaiset: The Kindred); and concerns raised by the proposed mining of copper/nickel in northern Minnesota (Boomtown). In the end, I view my role as an author as an entertainer but one who also attempts to educate (not indoctrinate) his readers by requiring them to use their critical thinking skills. In terms of style, I write somewhere in the nether world between genre fiction and literary fiction, which may be why I’m here, talking to your folks, instead of accepting a Pulitzer. But that’s who I am. That’s what I do.

In the same recent issue of Poets and Writers, author Laura Walter, musing about writers and publishing and success and fame, related how she deals with her writing students when they ask, “But my manuscript—do you think it’s any good?” Her take is that what the student is really asking is, “If I spend all these painful, terrifying, uncertain hours working on this book, can I expect a payoff, or is there a chance I’ll do all this work and be left with nothing in the end?” Here’s her take:

 The difficult answer is yes, you really can do that work and not receive the kind of payoff you probably dream about—literary agents, book deals, starred Kirkus reviews…In an effort to be transparent, I (tell folks) about novels I’ve written that didn’t secure an agent, much less a contract. Even so, completing those manuscripts made me a better, stronger, writer…I frame my answer this way because I worry that writers might be seeking shortcuts—if one can’t ensure the work will lead to a payout, then maybe it’s not worth devoting time to the project at all. But the publishing industry offers no shortcuts or guarantees. The only variable writers can control is how hard they work.

I guess, in the end, I’ll rely upon my fortitude, my sisu, and my work ethic to sustain me through these next two or four or six or eight years. God, it hurts to say that! But I’ll pluck along on my keyboard, searching for those goofy Finnish and Norwegian umlauts, trying to bring a story together that is, for me, true.

(This essay was given as a speech on 05/21/2017 to the Lake Superior Writers. (c) 2017, Mark Munger)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home Sweet Jerome by Diane Rapaport (2014. Johnson Books. ISBN 978-1-55566-454-1)

Most folks who travel to Arizona for vacation (or to spend the winter as “snow birds”) eventually end up taking the long, snaking road out of the valley up to the old copper mining town of Jerome located between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Rene’ and I bypassed that side trip last April, our first visit to The Grand Canyon State, in favor of, well Sedona and the Grand Canyon. This year, with Rene’s sister and brother-in-law along for the ride (actually, come to think of it, Al rented the car and drove!), we made time to stop in Jerome on our way to Sedona. While wandering the crooked, narrow, steep, slanty streets of Jerome, I stopped in at the local museum and bought this short history of Jerome’s people and the place. I’m sure glad I did.

More of a collection of short vignettes about the rise and fall of copper mining, pot growing, the arts, the characters, and the buildings of Jerome than a cover-to-cover narrative history, I found Rapaport’s choice of inserting the personal alongside the factual a solid editing choice. It made the book read much like you’re taking a stroll down one of the town’s rugged thoroughfares. The four of us spent a couple of hours wandering around this fascinating village in the sky, the snows of the San Franciscan Peaks still visible in the distance despite the 90 degree weather in the valley. High in the sloping neighborhoods of Jerome, the temperature was more moderate, 65 degrees, a welcome respite for northerners vacationing in the desert, and the perfect climate for discovery. I only wished I’d read Rapaport’s chronicle of the rise and fall of Jerome before we hit the streets, slid into a cozy little eatery a cup of coffee and a snack, and talked about the town’s vistas and beauty. I would’ve liked to have known about details of the village’s illegal, pot cultivating heritage-the income producing industry that replaced mining when the Douglas family pulled the plug on the copper mines-as I wandered the streets, gazing down at the nearby state park where the old underground mine is preserved for tourists. But I didn’t. And that’s a shame. I didn’t have the narrative backdrop of the exciting times that roared into Jerome in the late 1950s and into the 1980s when pot was king. Rapaport’s discussion of the end of the backyard drug trade reveals the sort of simple, matter-of-fact reportage that makes the book imminently readable and memorable.

The police raid was like an explosion. It shattered lives and caused immense turmoil. Those arrested were friends and neighbors. They were an integral part of the community. Six of them owned homes and worked hard to restore them. They helped fill volunteer positions. Our kids played with theirs. We smoked and partied with them; went camping and rafting. The fallout wrapped us in collective mourning, guilt, and anger.

When mining ceased in the 1950s and the town’s population plummeted from 15,000 to 400, leaving behind sagging streets, broken water mains, leaking sewers, and a demolished economy, the slow influx of artists and musicians and seekers and writers and dreamers was the impetus for the town’s salvation. With few financial resources and a devastated infrastructure to rebuild, the beatniks and hippies and the few natives who hung one reclaimed the once proud town, much of the reclamation being funded by illegal marijuana growing and selling. Not everything was easy. In fact, reading Rapaport’s account of the town’s resurrection, nothing was easy. And yet, today, the place is visited by over one million tourists, whose credit cards and currency keep the dream of Jerome alive, all thanks to a handful of tough, ornery cusses whose vision of an artists’ and thinkers’ paradise, at least when the hubbub of tourism dies down, isn’t far from the reality of the place.

A worthy exploration of a unique backwater town.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

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