Dead Wake by Erik Larson (2017. Black Swan. ISBN978-0-77934-0)

We all know that the sinking of the Lusitania prompted President Woodrow Wilson to enter WW I, right? I mean, when I picked up this book, delivered to me by a friend, and began to read, the first thought that popped into my brain was I know this stuff. I can’t imagine it will be anything close to riveting. I was wrong. Larson’s use of novelistic prose makes this back and forth revelation of the Cunard Line’s flagship’s final voyage a fascinating read.

Larson builds the suspense and his story by exchanging scenes between Captain Turner, the skipper of the doomed ocean liner, and Captain Schweiger, the commander of U-20, the German submarine that ultimately strikes the fatal blow, as well as interspersed perspectives from Winston Churchill (head of Britain’s admiralty at the time) and other players, including love-struck widower, Woodrow Wilson. The callousness of both Cunard officials (decreeing that Turner could not run his ship at full speed, thereby saving coal but diminishing his ability to outrun sluggish submarines) and the admiralty (who had ample warning U-20 was in the area and on the hunt) leads to the death of over a thousand passengers and crew. Larson builds and builds the suspense of the last voyage of the Lusitania until this scene, a moment of happenstance and luck (good for the Germans, bad for Turner and his crew), brings the sub and the liner together:

U-20 moved through a blue-on-blue morning. The fog was gone, the sky was empty of clouds, the sea was still. Schwieger trained his binoculars-his Zweiss “godseyes”-on a smudge at the horizon and was startled to see “a forest of masts and stacks,” as he later described…”Then I saw it was a great steamer coming over the horizon. It was coming our way. I dived at once, hoping to get a shot at it.”

What is missing from this cinematic depiction is the backstory, how Germany made the bold and lethal decision to allow its submarines to target non-military and non-cargo ships; passenger ships that, as an aside may or may not carry military cargo but decidedly did carry women, children, and non-combatant men. It was, according to Larson, Germany which determined both to use sub warfare against civilians traveling on passenger vessels and poison gas in the trenches against enemy soldiers “upping the ante” of inhumanity occurring in the Great War. As I read about Germany’s decisions to sink passenger ships and use chlorine gas (tortuously deadly in its application), I could not help but hear echoes of Hitler’s cruelness towards an entire ethnicity that would foment and erupt two decades later. War was always hell. But Germany, by engaging in “no rules” engagement in WW I changed the face of warfare forever.

In the end, Larson’s skill as a writer and researcher makes the story flow and sing. Not quite a novel, not quite the revelatory prose one would find in historical fiction, this is still a fine piece of writing.

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

Peace.

Mark

Mark and Harry waiting for the kid to get hitched.

Duluth attorney Harry Munger passed away peacefully in his home in Port Charlotte, FL on 04/28/2018.

            The youngest of five children, Harry was born in Fergus Falls on October 29, 1927, attended the Fergus Falls schools, moved to Duluth at the beginning of WW II, and lived on Raleigh Street. A child of poverty and the Great Depression, Harry valued education and graduated from Denfeld in 1945.

After serving two years in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a weatherman, Harry was determined to go to college. Law school intrigued him. Harry enrolled in the University of Minnesota where he met his longtime partner and close friend, A. Blake MacDonald. But even using the GI Bill, Harry could not afford school. He returned to Duluth and worked on the railroad to earn money for college. He used his savings and the GI Bill to attend UMD. Too undersized to play sports at Denfeld, Harry grew enough during his military service to join the Bulldog football team.  While at UMD, Harry lettered in football (as a quarterback and punter) and student-taught at Lincoln Junior, intending to become a teacher. Harry also began courting Barbara Kobe. Harry proposed marriage but Barbara insisted that Harry earn his degree before she’d say “yes”, which meant that Harry was the first Munger to graduate from college!

After marrying Barbara in 1951, Harry entered the St. Paul College of Law. He worked fulltime as an insurance adjuster while attending night school. Son Mark was born in St. Paul and after Harry graduated with his JD in 1956, the Munger family returned to Duluth, settling in Piedmont Heights where son David and daughter Ann joined the family.

Harry was raised by parents who were members of the Farmer-Labor Party. He was steeped in politics from an early age. When Harry’s brother Willard was elected to the Minnesota House in 1954, he lived with Harry and Barbara in St. Paul during the legislative session. This interaction heightened Harry’s passion for Liberal politics. After returning to Duluth, Harry became the St. Louis County Chair of the DFL. He was a delegate to the 1968 National Convention in Chicago where he proudly supported Hubert Humphrey. He was also active in the Presidential Campaigns of ‘76, ‘80, and ’84, supporting his close friend and fishing buddy Walter “Fritz” Mondale as a Vice Presidential and Presidential candidate.

Harry established a personal injury and general practice law firm in Duluth, partnering with Blake MacDonald and Tim Downs and his son Mark to form MacDonald, Munger, Downs, and Munger. He also served as a Special Municipal Court Judge and as a judge on the Minnesota Tax Court. During his legal career, Harry also served as the President of the MTLA, and was active in ATLA, the ABA, the 11th District Bar Assoc., and the DTLA.

An avid outdoorsman, Harry traveled to fish char in the arctic, salmon in Alaska, and saltwater fish in Florida. He hunted grouse, ducks, geese, sharptail, huns, and pheasants in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Harry fished the Knife in Minnesota, the Brule in Wisconsin, and the Betsy in Michigan for steelhead. He instilled in his children and grandchildren a respect for nature and a love of the outdoors. Harry worked tirelessly on conservation issues with his brother Willard, including a failed effort to block the expansion of the Miller Hill Mall because the shopping center’s runoff was degrading Miller Creek, an urban trout stream.

Harry coached youth sports and served as the President of the Skyline Little League. He was a devoted attendee of sporting events, cheering for his sons on the PSS gridiron (mostly for David, a starting offensive lineman), rooting for his kids when they skied competitively, and attending innumerable baseball and softball contests. He also took in many of his grandchildren’s baseball, basketball, softball, soccer, and hockey games.

Harry is survived by his sons Mark (Rene’) and David (Diane), daughter Ann (David) Sarvela, and grandchildren Matthew (Lisa), Dylan (Michelle), Christian (Rachel), Jack, Jonathan, Nichole (Chris) Howard, Crystal (Ryan) Hoyt, Melissa (Megan) Landon, Madeline and Emelia Sarvela, 11 great-grandchildren, his first wife—Barbara Tourville, his second wife—Mary Kay Munger, partner Pauline Liston, and many nieces and nephews including special niece and special nephew, Patricia Lehr and Will Munger.

As Harry’s partner for 12 years, I’ll leave you with two short stories about practicing law with Dad. As a brand new lawyer, freshly returned from US Army Reserve basic training in Ft. Dix, I stepped off the plane in Duluth and was handed my first court trial. The client, Arrowhead Concrete, was an important one to the office so Harry accompanied my to the trial as my “second chair”. Any one who knows Harry understands the impossibility of that label. In any event, we were in front of Judge David Bouchor and our client, Mike Robertson was on the stand. I was examining him but I was having a heck of a time because every time I’d ask Mike a question, Harry leaned over and barked in my ear. I was getting more and more flustered until Judge Bouchor straightened up and said: “Harry, why don’t you let the kid ask the questions? He’s doing a pretty good job without you…” Dad turned red, stood up, picked up his file, and stormed out of the courtroom. Turned out Judge Dave was right: He ruled in my client’s favor but it took weeks before Harry would talk to him again.

The second story involves the case of Minter versus Chrysler. Joey Minter was a young man injured in a motor vehicle crash. He sustained quadriplegia due to what Harry believed to be a defective shoulder harness in the back seat. The driver alleged that a dog or a deer had darted out, causing him to swerve, resulting in the catastrophic crash. But there was a problem. The main police reports didn’t say anything about a deer or a dog. Digging deep into the investigating officer’s notes, Harry discovered a comment about “a roll of sod being in the road”. He placed an ad in the DNT asking if anyone had witnessed a sod truck dropping its load on the day of the crash. A witness came forward and Godden’s Sod was added as a defendant.

As hard as Harry pushed his products case against Chrysler, the auto maker fought harder. Here was a four-person PI firm up against Bowman and Brooke and all its money and power and backing. The case seemingly stalled out on the issue of the design of the shoulder belt that our expert said was defective. Again, as Bob Falsani affectionately noted in a recent email, my pit bull father dug deeper. He found Chrysler literature that tied none other than Lee Iacocca, the head of Chrysler, to the design of the very shoulder harness that failed. This discovery emboldened the old man to do the unthinkable: He subpoened Iacocca for a deposition. Of course, Bowman and Brooke opposed. But they weren’t fighting in federal court: Because Godden Sod was in the case, the case was venued in state court in Duluth. When good old “Let it in” Charlie Barnes heard the motion to quash, he sided with Harry and said: “I’d like to hear what Mr. Iacocca has to say about all this.” Harry took that order, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court, and turned the case into his first seven-figure settlement. That was Harry: no one was too big or too important to fall beyond his scrutiny, including the president of Chrysler Motors or Harry’s son, even if he became a district court judge.

Mark

Tailspin by Stephen Brill (2018. Knopf. ISBN 978154731632)

I’ll be honest. When Fritz Mondale handed me this book last June on our annual Canadian fishing trip, saying “Here. You might learn something,” being assigned a book by the former Vice President, Ambassador, Senator, and Minnesota Attorney General is not something you turn down. I was raised to do the work. So, with respect to Brill’s lengthy dissertation on what’s ailing America, I dutifully completed my assignment. And yes, I did learn a thing or two along the way.

Brill begins his discussion of where we are as a nation by a taking a long and extended historical tour of a number of major political themes. First, and this was the hardest slog in the tome, he takes the reader back through the causes of the Great Recession of 2007, detailing the “why” of the massive failure of the American lending and mortgage system. He takes aim not, as many conservatives are want to do, at the home buyers who overreached and obtained homes and attendant loans that they could never afford, but the system of Gerry-rigged lending policies, reinsurance, and derivative markets that made a few folks rich for making bad loans, impoverished millions, and cost the federal government tons of cash in the form of bailouts. His main theme in this light, however, turns out not to be the blame he casts on those who orchestrated the disaster: his ire is aimed at a federal government who has no problem incarcerating poor folks and folks of color for minor drug crimes but that does nothing, in terms of punishment and prison, for those who take financial advantage of the weak and helpless. Mortgage brokers don’t go to prison: they pay fines or minimal “clawbacks” under Dodd-Frank, a remedy that itself is in serious jeopardy of vanishing in the era of “Let them Fail” Trump.

Brill’s evaluation of our broken democracy turns to a dissection of national discourse and politics with a detailed examination of the big and dark money allowed by the Citizens United decision but aptly points out that the movement to unregulated commercial speech began decades before the Supreme Court released that fateful decision. Academic types of a Libertarian stripe had long argued that the 1st Amendment wasn’t meant to protect the speaker; it was meant to protect the listener by allowing him or her to hear every sort of message, even those corrupted and driven by greed. The author couples his exhaustive review of this warped and seemingly benign view of freedom with the mean-spirited politics of the Right brought to fruition by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, when that hard boiled, loud mouthed, self-promoting professor left his post at a sleepy little Southern college and burst onto the American political scene. It was Gingrich, a minority member of Congress, who first recognized the power of reality television, something the current Orange Headed wonder has become a master of manipulating:

Gingrich soon latched onto a new tool to boost his profile. A few months after he took office in 1979, the House allowed the cable news industry to launch a public service channel, C-Span, to televise Hose proceedings. For years, members had gone to the floor…but would be seen and heard only by a handful of members…Gingrich realized, he and his allies could give the same speeches to a nationwide audience.

Brilliant and, unfortunately, the beginning of the nastiest streak in American politics we’ve ever endured. Brill has ample disdain for the Left as well, castigating Bill Clinton and a host of others for allowing legislation and federal regulations that have weakened unions, minority voting rights, welfare protections for our most vulnerable citizens, protections against predatory lenders, environmental guardrails, and the like. He not only blames the politicians: he blames the regulatory and judicial system that allows de minimus lawsuits based upon scant science to halt infrastructure projects and commercial developments, tying up needed improvements and modernization of the very fabric of America in lengthy, costly court battles. As an example of how it should work, he cites the 2009 bridge collapse in Minneapolis as a project that, when an emergent need arose, the federal government was able to erect a substantial project in months as opposed to years.

The complex story Brill tells is shocking and yet, certainly true in nearly every respect. The problem: he gives short shrift to a list of answers to solve the problems he raises. The final chapter contains optimism, optimism that, in my view, doesn’t ring quite true given the fix we, as Americans, of every political stripe, find ourselves in.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck (1967. Bantam)

I came upon this book, described as one of Steinbeck’s earliest novels, somewhere along the line. That it turned out to be a collection of short stories linked by both character and place (Las Pasturas del Cielo: the Pastures of Heaven) in California detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the stories. I was hoping for an early version of the depth of character, plot, and place displayed in Grapes of Wrath or Garden of Eden. That’s not this book. But then, what books are?

After completing the read, the stories are mostly unremarkable but entertaining. I’ve little memory of the characters or storylines or predicaments in this work with two notable exceptions.

Two Hispanic sisters, Rosa and Maria, in hopes of selling their fine tortillas to the gringo settlers of the valley, end up offering additional “encouragement” to their male customers. The story’s tastefully done, humorous, and reveals just enough of the untoward to cause the reader to ponder:

Rosa sat like a rock and sucked on her candy bar. Suddenly, she glared into Maria’s eyes. “Today,” she said solemnly, “today I gave myself to a customer.” Maria sobbed… ” “Do not make a mistake,” Rosa continued. “I did not take money. The man had eaten three enchiladas-three

The other memorable tale is piece enveloped in sorrow. Richard Whiteside, an orphaned young man with dreams of creating a palace; a showpiece of a farm in the valley to be filled with a loving wife and children; is the story’s protagonist in the early going. His only heir, son John, also has a solitary child, William. John dreams of young Bill doing what neither Richard or John were able to do: stock the Whiteside estate with oodles of children; progeny born and raised within the Pastures of Heaven to ensure the family legacy. But Bill’s wife is a city girl and they depart, leaving John and his invalid wife Willa alone on the farm. An idea transpires, an idea that calls to mind the fiery end of Drageda depicted with such deftness in The Thorn Birds. John believes he can re-invigorate the farm by burning off brush to enliven the soil. But before the final, tragic scene, there’s a touching exchange between husband and wife that displays Steinbeck’s uniquely simple power as a writer:

One Night he awakened to hear a light rain whispering on the slates and splashing softly in the garden.

“Are you awake, Willa?” he asked quietly.

“Of course.”

It’s the first rain. I wanted you to hear it.”

I was awake when it started…You missed the best part, the gusty part…

“Well, it won’t last long. It’s just a little first rain to wash off the dust.”

All in all, the stories are well crafted, if not independently memorable.

4 stars out of 5.


Destiny and Power by John Meacham (2018. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-79-47-3.)

I was reading this tome, nearing the conclusion, when President George H.W. Bush died. Meacham, a frequent guest on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC- not as a political talking head but as a well-respected biographer and historian-does a thorough and thoroughly engaging job of pointing out why Bush 41 has not, until his death, been honored as an American hero. I’ll be frank: I never liked Reagan’s economics; his willy-nilly tossing folks off Social Security Disability so that he could give his rich friends tax breaks. But you had to admire his foreign policy chops. And that’s really where H.W.’s story takes root.

President Reagan is often given sole credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the retreat of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. There’s no question his tough persona played a part in that success. But it must also be remembered that throughout the dismantling of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s and early 1990s, H.W. was the Ambassador to the U.N., Vice President under Reagan, and finally, President in his own right. All of those positions, offices to which H.W. brought considerable patience and a steady handed diplomacy, were equally instrumental in the ultimate collapse of communism. While the Neo-cons and Reagan rattled swords, President Bush worked the back channels reassuring our allies and Gorbachev, who was in grave jeopardy of being ousted as the leader of his nation due to his desire to modernize the Soviet Union and give its citizenry economic and political freedom (through glasnost and perestroika). It was H.W.’s steadfastness and patience that ultimately allowed the world to benefit from the transformation of Eastern Europe and the independence of countless nations, including the Baltic states.

But there was more to H.W. than keen international political chops. At home, he rolled back the detrimental anti-environmentalism of his predecessor and in fact, expanded the Clean Air Act, instituted Rails for Trails, pushed hard for conservation of wetlands (not entirely altruistic as he was a duck hunter) through CRP, and championed the ADA.

Towards the end of this fascinating study of an underappreciated world leader, Meacham posits this:

His life was spent in the service of his nation, and his spirit of conciliation, common sense, and love of country will stand him in strong stead through the ebbs and flows of posterity’s judgment.

Indeed. After this week, perhaps we can conjure his spirit to come back and return dignity, sanity, and a sense of service to the Presidency.

5 stars out of 5. A masterful exposition of a man’s legacy and spirit.

Peace.

Mark


Over the past few weeks, I’ve finished reading two smaller works that need some attention. Here they are.

Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon (2018. Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-283462-1)

My good friend, Mark Rubin, insisted I take his copy of this little memoir/essay collection written by Chabon, the author of Wonder Boys. Though I’ve never read the novel, I loved the movie (starring Michael Douglas) so I readily accepted Mark’s persistent gift. Here’s my take: Chabon is a fine writer and some of the essays in this collection deserve applause but overall, even as slender as the volume is (just over 120 pages 4″ x 6″ hardcover format) to me, the book feels less a completed work and more a quick moneymaker for the author. I say this because the writing felt uneven and, at times,  bland. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Chabon grabs your attention right out of the gate (especially if you’re a writer or an avid reader or a wannabe author) beginning the work with a stellar piece, “Introduction: The Opposite of Writing.” In the story, the author replicates advice he was given from a sage of words whose identity remains clouded in time and mystery at a cocktail party years past. The advice?

“Don’t have children,” he said, “That’s it. Do not.” The smile faded, but the ghost lingered a moment in his blue eyes. “That is the whole of the law.”

Chabon breaks this primary authorial law by marrying, having children, and trying to balance art and fatherhood. A strong, strong starting point for what I thought would be a collection of essays following Chabon’s life on both accounts. Chabon tries to accomplish this duality but, in the end, stories like “Little Man” divert off that expected path and not with clarity or good result. “Against Dickitude”, a story about a father trying to impose some sort of empathy for young women and their own problems and issues when pursuing adolescent love upon his surly son, is a nice, stand-alone reflection but again, it doesn’t really fit the premise of the book. There’s precious little connection between the essay and the opening essay, the exploration of how difficult it is to balance being a parent and trying to write something worthwhile.

In the end, I have to say I enjoyed most of the individual stories as stand-alone snippets of life but I failed to gain an overall appreciation for Chabon’s struggles as a father who writes. And that’s something I’m intimately familiar with!

3 stars out of 5. Read Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King if you truly want to understand what being a parent and writer means.

Deep Woods, Wild Waters by Douglas Wood (2017. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-3173-5)

As depicted in my essay from a recent BWCA canoe trip with my son and grandson, I not only lugged this Minnesota author’s latest essay collection with me in my Duluth Pack, I read it nightly and, after encountering “The Wild Wind”, a piece that reminded me of one of my own family canoe trips into Sawbill, I ended up reading the story aloud to my kid and grandkid around a crackling fire in the heart of canoe country. It was a fine, fine piece of outdoors writing and it deserved to be read aloud in such a sacred place.

While the accolades and blurbs attached to the dust cover of this book place this compendium on the shelf next to Leopold and Olson, Wood is neither. But that isn’t a bad thing. He writes in his own style, making memories of past experiences real and tangible in his own, distinctive way. Beginning with tales of a Midwestern upbringing that involve the excitement of bullhead fishing, Wood charts a course through his life of guiding, canoeing, and adventuring that, all in all, is a very satisfying chronicle of the wilderness he and so many other outdoors writers and conservationists love.

Being an unrepentant worm dunker when it comes to brook trout fishing, I thoroughly enjoyed and related to “Streams of Consciousness”, a dandy little essay about chasing native, wild trout in crystalline waters.

After that I began to see the stream with new eyes. I started to notice all the little places where the current wasn’t so fast. I looked more carefully and began to see the eddies, the shadows, the undercut banks, the flats where I had to look in three dimensions to see that, although the current on the surface looked smooth and swift and uniform, in fact, rocks and objects on the bottom provided just an inch or two of rest, of protection. Enough.

As with his other stories in the book, Wood isn’t content to let us wander that little stream without connection to the greater, larger world or environment. His stories link the reader to the interconnected waters of the world, bringing home the validity of an outdoor ethic that is fairly simple and yet, so seemingly lost in today’s rush to dig, divert, cut, and improve: Every action we take as a species has an impact on the natural world. The choices we make today resound into the future. How are we going to be remembered as exploiters or stewards of the precious woods and waters that are salve to our tortured souls?

Not every piece in this collection is perfect or especially crafty or significant on its own accord. But taken as a whole, while Woods isn’t Sam Cook or Aldo Leopold or Sig Olson or John Muir, he is Douglas Wood and he’s written a fine book chronicling his thinking on the out-of-doors and man’s impact on our world.

And that, for my sons and grandsons and granddaughters well-being, is a very good thing.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

Grandpa and Adrien: Lunch in Tofte

It was Matt’s idea. He’s the one to blame. Or to thank. You be the judge once you’ve read this story.

“Let’s go canoeing,” my eldest son suggested.

“Where?”

“Brule.”

I stopped and pondered our past trips as father and son into one of the largest lakes in the BWCA. Brule was the first lake I canoed, back in 1969 or ’70 as a Boy Scout. That was before the lake was wilderness. Motors were still allowed. There were cabins and at least one resort on its shores. But in 1978, when the BWCA became reality, all that disappeared, leaving behind a formidable body of water with over 60 miles of shoreline that can be, due to its west to east layout, the perfect alignment for nasty waves to daunt even the most experienced canoeist. The lake was, to my thinking, too big to tackle for my grandson’s first foray into the Boundary Waters. Perent would be a better choice, I thought. Easier in and easier out. Walleyes are plentiful. Brule, not so much. But Matt was eager to take his son on an adventure so I held my tongue. With one exception.

“OK. But I’m not hiking up that freakin’ cliff into Wench Lake!”

The reference wasn’t lost on Matt. On our previous excursions into Brule, Matt had insisted that we portage into Wench, a bucolic little brook trout lake. He’d fished Wench once with great success back in high school and so, dreams of fat 16-20″ brookies colored his otherwise solid common sense. Trips into Wench require an arduous climb up and down a narrow, twisting, tree and rock blocked, bug infested portage. Both times I’d made that sacrifice, we’d caught zero fish. I wasn’t going to fall for Matt’s optimism again, especially with a six year old in tow.

“Alright. But the brookies…”

“Enough. No Wench Lake.”

To be fair, Matt put it all together. He made the reservation for our permit, created a grocery list and a menu, and did all of the shopping (with his wife’s kind assistance!) So I had little room to complain. My part? Pull together all the equipment needed: cook kit, stove, lantern, tarp, utensils, and assorted other camping items, pack them, and get the once red, now faded pink, old Coleman ABS canoe ready for the trip.

After stopping for our permit and lunch in Tofte on Wednesday afternoon, we headed up the Caribou Trail. The day was bright and open when we arrived at the Brule Lake landing. Every thing seemed perfect. Except…

Matt and Adrien at Brule landing.

There was a breeze coming in from the west.  At the landing, the wind had little effect. But I knew that, once we hit the big lake, we’d be in for it. Especially with hundreds of pounds of gear, precariously poised packs, and a six year old seated in the bottom of the canoe. And I was right. It was a battle to keep the Coleman headed on course, slicing the waves diagonally, as two-footers rolled beneath the plastic keel. But after missing out on a number of campsites and crisscrossing the broiling lake to minimize the impact of the wind, we finally found our temporary home.

Adrien at the campsite with his first fish.

Within five minutes of landing, the grandkid reeled in a scrawny pike and a tadpole-sized smallmouth bass, leaving us all with the false impression fishing would be a snap. While AJ fished, the adults set up camp and establishing the routine that would be in place for the next four nights and five days: Mark would gather lake water and start the two burner stove. Matt would prepare the meals. Mark and Adrien would then do the dishes, taking care to deposit the soapy water well away from the campsite and the lake.

Grandpa’s tent.

Thursday dawned gray and windy. After breakfast, we paddled around the east end of the lake in search of walleye. We never found them. But it became clear that first day of fishing that the kid would end up besting his grandpa and his dad. In the end, we elected Adrien President of the Brule Lake Fishing Club, not only because he caught the biggest fish (an 18″ smallmouth), or the most, but because he also endured a day and a half of swirling rain in the bottom of the Coleman as we fished. The kid never complained a once about his lot, a remarkable circumstance given his age and the fact that he was soaked to the skin.

After the epic battle, one of AJ’s big fish in the net!

Typical dinner in camp.

AJ battles another lunker in the rain.

When the rain abated and the wind calmed, the sun finally peaked from behind the wall of gray that had defined the sky since our arrival. Though we didn’t portage the canoe into other lakes, we took a couple of side trips to show Adrien how portages allow travel between lakes.

Portage to Vernon Lake.

And while we never saw the arch typical mammal of the north, moose being reluctant to show themselves for fear that Adrien’s mom, Lisa (who’s never seen a moose) might become upset, we did have a family of loons-mom, dad, and teenager-follow us in the shallow bay abutting the portage to Echo Lake. It was the sort of close encounter with Minnesota’s state bird that generally only happens in waterways devoid of outboards.

Momma and juvenile loon.

After dinner we sat around the campfire, the most elemental and ancient of mankind’s rituals, and read. Matt read to himself while I read aloud to Adrien from Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy, regaling my grandson with tales of magery and wizards that seemed to enthrall the child as darkness slipped over us.

Adrien and Matt, Echo Lake.

Reading LeGuin.

Saturday’s nightfall brought with a full moon and a chance to count stars, a nearly impossible task in the city; a totally unrealistic endeavor in the wilderness. It also found Grandpa digging into his tent to pull out a ragged copy of Doug Wood’s new book, Deep Woods, Wild Waters. I’ve been reading the book for awhile but thought, after encountering one of Doug’s stories, “The Wild Wind”, it needed telling around the fire. It’s story of nature’s power, about endurance, in the face of a sudden, catastrophic storm in the Boundary Waters:

We stood, shivering, under a rain tarp I’d hung the night before. It flapped crazily in the wind, somehow still partially tied. The gale screamed, trees bent and shuddered, and we could feel the ground moving beneath our feet as great pines strained against their roots…

Powerful stuff, that. I’d been reading Woods’s stories, in between snippets of Poets and Writers magazine by headlamp in my tent. If the gist of the tale, that God’s forces are strong and we are pitifully small, frightened Adrien, it didn’t show.

 

The author thinking authorial thoughts in his tent.

Ready to leave Heaven.

Oh. I need to add this: God must have been looking out for the Munger Boys despite our overloaded canoe and inability to find walleye. There were no bugs. None. Not a horsefly, not a black fly, not a deerfly, not a mosquito. Nothing that bites and flies bothered us for nearly five days! I guess I’ll trade a safe, damp, bugless five days in paradise for just about anything. Wouldn’t you?

All in all, it was a blessing that Matt asked me to come along and man the stern of that old pink canoe. Five days on a pristine, motorless, noiseless lake reminded me of how precious, how fragile, how desperately needed wilderness is to my soul, and likely, the souls of many others. Without waxing political here, it would be shame to think that my grandsons and granddaughters are but one defective retention pond away from never experiencing such tranquility and peace.

It makes me think hard about the choices we are being asked to make…

Ready to load the old pink canoe and head home.

Peace.

Mark

Shrinkage!

Homeward bound…

The Mother of all cedars.

 

 

 

 

 
 

Prudence by David Treuer (2015. Riverhead. ISBN 978-1-59463-308-9)

Another bargain bin hardcover I couldn’t pass up at Fitger’s. When I see the name “Treuer”, I think of brothers Anton and David, Ojibwe from the Bemidji area of Minnesota. So when I saw this book and saw that it was written by one of the brothers, I had to have it. Had to. Thing is, I can never keep the guys straight. Anton is the brother who spoke recently at a judge’s conference I was at on the topic of race. His work in words tends to be more historic and academic. David is the novelist. Their parents have interesting life stories of their own but don’t really fit into this short review. Anyway, I knew the name and I’d previously read Rez Life so buy the book I did!

The language and style and pace of Treuer’s writing mimics the speech pattern of many Ojibwe people I’ve encountered in my career as a lawyer and judge. There’s a clipped, sing-song rhythm to the language the author uses, not only in dialogue but also in the narrative sections, that reminds me of those folks. And that’s a good thing. A very good thing. It gives the novel authenticity of the sort a white author, writing about or as a Native person, would be hard pressed to duplicate.

Prudence is the title of the book but she is, in many ways, the backstory here. The real focus of the plot and the novel is the love story and relationship between Frankie and Billy, two young men trying to find themselves in the aftermath of a tragedy that took the life of Prudence’s younger sister. There’s a sexual tension between the two boys, who become men during WW II, that is remarkably tender yet painful:

As he said it, he reached up and picked a twig from Billy’s hair and leaned in, his eyes closed in expectation. Billy closed his eyes and let himself be kissed. How long had it been? A Year? A full cycle of seasons and chores and school and all that work peeling pulp, and the letters, and the books, and his own pitiful letters back, smudged and probably misspelled. Billy kissed him back and savored the slight, ever so slight feel of Frank’s stubble on his lips. His blood rushed in his ears.

Part literary novel, part mystery, but always spot on in its depiction of tragedy-both individually and culturally-I raced through this book one recent sunny weekend, lounging on my porch swing, following the lives of Frankie, and Billy, and Prudence, and the silent, near stereotypical Ojibwe warrior, Felix, who knows all but says little. It was a great, great ride with one exception.

Inserted into the plot is a short yet, in my view, disruptive scene involving a German immigrant to the town where the tragedy and murder take place. A wandering Jew (OK, I admit to doing that on purpose!) comes into the picture, having only been mentioned briefly in the prologue. There’s confrontation and perhaps, revelation, that really doesn’t have much to do with anything. If Treuer was attempting to use the Jew’s sudden appearance to jolt the reader, his ploy worked. But in my humble view, there were likely better ways to keep the tension high and the suspense taut then plucking down a Holocaust survivor in the middle of a tale centering around Ojibwe culture and history and dislocation. But for this editorial decision, one that I am sure the author and his agent and the publisher haggled over before it’s inclusion, this would be one of my favorite books of the summer.

Still, I enjoyed the writing and the characters to the point where I’d recommend Prudence as an excellent book for summer or winter reading.

4 stars out of 4. Would have been 5 but for that darn, wandering Jew…

Peace.

Mark

Me: Stories of My Life by Katherine Hepburn (1991. Ballantine. ISBN 978-0-345-41009-2)

Too harsh, you say? Well, maybe. I mean, there is something folksy and close to the heart in the cozy style Kate invokes to tell her life stories. I mean, there are some real gems contained within the covers of this book, tales that flesh out what I’d known and heard about America’s greatest actress (4 Oscars for Best Actress across six decades of work). So there is that. But the disorganized manner in which the stories are told, along with the insertion of mundane and frankly, boring remembered exchanges between Hepburn and friends or beaus, that eat up page after page after page of the volume (maybe to pad and expand the book to make it appear to be weighty and noble?) renders what could have been a wonderful examination of the life and loves of a modern woman less than compelling. Here’s a sampling of what I mean. From page 294-318, she recalls a trip to Europe with Willie Rose that goes something like this:

Willie:

Look, don’t tell me about the whole trip. Just here-what do I do? Which way do I turn now?

Kate:

You turn left.

Willie:

I thought you said right.

Kate:

I did but I was wrong. You can’t turn right. It’s against the law. You turn left. IN about a mile turn all the way around to the left, then past the aerodome take first right. Go under bridge, then left onto…

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get away with selling such drivel to my readers. But of course, I’m not the world’s most famous actress!

Oh, there are very interesting and heart felt admissions and revelations. Her writing about her three year relationship with Howard Hughes (portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the Aviator opposite Leonardo DeCaprio’s Hughes) is fascinating, though she offers nothing as to her thoughts of the bizarre billionaire later in life. The 27 years she spent with Spencer Tracy? Also well documented and heartfelt. Similarly, her depiction of her family and her early life in movies flows well, once the reader becomes accustomed to her stream of consciousness writing style. But whether Ballantine thought so much of the actress to avoid editing her words, or whether her editor thought the better play would be to present this unvarnished, rapid fire regurgitation as a stand-in for the actress spending time over tea with adoring fans,  the end product is a disorganized, fairly bland depiction of a fascinating figure in American cinematography.

A disappointment.

2 stars out of 5. An unmemorable memoir.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

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

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

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

“OK…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

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

George, Fritz, Jay, and Ross.

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

Jay and Matt fishing from the pontoon.

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

Mark and Tony fitting cedar planking in the sauna.

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

Reading on the dock.

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

Elsie lake trout.

 

Tony and Sammy and Elsie walleye.

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

“Why so?” you ask.

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

Lilly waiting for Harry.

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

That’s just how it is.

Peace.

Mark

Harry and Fritz, Elsie Lake 2017.

 

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

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

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

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

Here’s a slice of a nicely crafted effort:

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

(“Christmas 1953”)

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

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

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

Apparently not.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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