HUMOROUS

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

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

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

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

            “What were you doing?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Where have you been?’

            “Nowhere.”

            “What did you throw in your shack?”

            “I wasn’t at the…”

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

            “Get it”, he said.

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

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

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

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

TOUCHING

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

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

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

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

            Thank you, Dad.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in all, a fine reflection of genius.

5 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

 

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

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

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

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

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

If I could take back

every snide remark

                                                                                 the way I terrorized

                                                                                my brothers…

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

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

In the wee hours,

I dream another woman’s dreams

the dreams of a boat;

the dream of the garden,

sweet peas and cabbages.

Wake with her story

rotting in my mouth

potatoes rotting

in the ground…

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

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

 

                                                                                  

 

You might know me as a writer, a judge, and a life-long Duluthian. You may also know that, over the past two decades, I‘ve researched, written, and published two historical novels about the Finns. As I type this piece, I’m presently at work on another novel concerning Finnish history and immigration. When all is said and done I’ll have devoted more than twelve years to my Finnish-themed novels. Folks often ask, “If you’re not Finnish, why do you write about the Finns?” Given that Finland recently celebrated 100 years of nationhood (on December 6th, 2017) maybe now’s a good time to answer that question.

I grew up with Finns. As a thoroughly diluted American (Slovenian, English, Welsh, and German with a bit of French, Dutch, Scots, and Irish tossed in for good measure), when I befriended two 100% Finnish boys in 6th grade, I was, given my mutt-like bloodlines, curious. But I didn’t question my new pals’ ethnic purity right off. It wasn’t until the three of us set out to build a log cabin on the Tynjala ancestral farm near Palo when I began to ponder my friends’ Finnishness. During breaks from cutting and peeling and stacking logs I wandered the farm’s abandoned hayfields. As I walked, I took notice of glacial rocks piled high in the fields and wondered: “Who were these people and why did they try to farm this godforsaken land?” Even city kids understand the basics of agriculture: you need ample rain, good soil, a long growing season, and hot sun to be successful. The little Finnish farm in Palo had none of these attributes except ample rain, which, of course, bred ample black flies and mosquitoes and little else. As our makeshift cabin took shape, I puzzled over the hardscrabble lives of those who carved a farm out of forest. But I did not, in my imagined stories, discover anything worth putting down on paper.

In 2000, I stumbled across the tale of Olli Kinkkonen, a Finn found hanging from a tree in Duluth’s Lester Park in 1918. The police ruled Olli’s death a suicide. In my view, the facts pointed to something more sinister. Researching Kinkkonen’s life and times, I became captivated by Finnish immigrant history. Before I knew what hit me, I was penning a broad-shouldered yarn I had no business writing. Once Suomalaiset was in print I feared the worst. Who was I to write the story of the Finns coming to North America? I waited for criticism from the Finnish American community. None came. I breathed a sigh of relief and went on to other projects. I was content−until Gerry Henkel, a Finnish American friend pulled me aside for a “chat”−to leave the Finns alone. I had no further interest in exploring Finnish history in a fictional context. But Gerry convinced me that there was a larger story waiting to be told. What that story was, Gerry left it to me to discover.

I struggled as to what theme could be compelling enough to prompt me to write another book about the Finns. Then it hit me: Karelian Fever, the emigration of thousands of Finns from North America to the U.S.S.R., could fuel a novel. I had an inkling that there was a more complex tale to be told than simply regurgitating themes surrounding Karelian Fever. But what other aspects of Finnish history could be fleshed out? Some topics seemed obvious: many writers have explored the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Finland in 1939. To add another fictional accounting of the Winter War atop an existing mountain of similar stories seemed meritless. Then it dawned on me: No one has explored why the Finns cast their fate with the Nazis during the war. With Gerry’s encouragement, my second Finn book, Sukulaiset, found its way into print. Once again, I waited for criticism but the storm of protest never materialized. Finns remained appreciative of my treatment of their history, culture, and national identity. Even so, after Sukulaiset was published, I tried to put aside my fondness for the Finns.

Except. Lingering in the back of my mind was a question I’d left unexplored:

Why did all those Finns leave Finland in the first place?

This morning, I’m at my iMac in my writing studio cobbling together an answer to my question. The answer is taking shape in the form of Kotimaa (Homeland), the final novel in my Finnish trilogy. In my effort to understand why Finns left Finland in droves at the end of the 19th century, I find myself juxtaposing historic emigration upon contemporary events. Trying to comprehend the past, I’m compelled to examine the present. I peruse newspaper articles detailing the political handwringing of nations−including boisterous debates taking place in Finland−as world leaders consider the demands of beleaguered refugees; refugees who don’t look, talk, or worship like the folks inhabiting the homelands being called upon to provide sanctuary.

As the Finns−a people once derided as being clannish, standoffish, and unable to assimilate−debate how to respond to dark skinned Moslems seeking shelter and safety from terrorism, war, genocide, and despotic rule within Finland’s borders, I’ll answer the question of why within the context of the plot and dialogue of a historical novel, letting my readers determine whether my response rings true.

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland.

(c) Mark Munger 2018

*Happy Centennial (at least according to Google translate). This essay first appeared in edited form in the Duluth News Tribune and was reprinted with permission in the Finnish American Reporter.                                                   

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (2018. Holtzbrink. ISBN 978-0312577230)

I loved Hannah’s epic WW II novel, The Nightengale. I relished her story of the siege of St. Petersburg, Winter Garden. (Find my reviews of those books by using the search engine on this page!) So, it was with much anticipation that I began reading this novel of a broken down Vietnam veteran, his wife, and daughter trying to forge a life for themselves in early 1970s Alaska. This a love triangle set against harsh wilderness but not in the way you might think. Ernt Allbright, the veteran, has his moments as a husband and father. But the demons of war have, at least according to his wife’s view of things, shattered the man, making him suspicious, alcoholic, brutal, and unhinged. Wife Cora and daughter Leni try hard to love and protect the man from himself. But who will protect them from his rages, rages made all the worse by the inhospitable landscape and perpetual darkness of an Arctic winter?

Hannah writes well. Her depiction of spousal abuse is spot on. The dynamics of staying or leaving, a choice that I see being debated internally by women in my courtroom when confronted with domestic violence unleashed by men they love, is well documented in this telling of that sad reality. There are some implausibilities and some moments where I thought the lawyer in Hannah got the better of the fiction writer but, in the end, this is a story needing to be told, one that women’s book clubs will eat up like candy.

This is not The Nightengale but that’s okay. It’s a contemporary look at a haunting and difficult issue set in a location that, by itself, forms an esssential character in the story. 

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Boom Copper by Angus Murdoch (1943. Drier and Koepel. No ISBN)

In researching the history of copper mining in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for my forthcoming novel, Kotimaa: Homeland, the tale of Finnish immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s, I needed to locate resource materials that succinctly laid out the history of the industry with an eye towards the human story behind the hardscrabble lives of the early miners. Angus Murdoch’s book fit the bill.

Murdoch’s storytelling sometimes veers into near-fiction, recalling anecdotal tales as if they were documented history, but, for the most part, his reportage is straight forward, compelling, linear, and succinct.

I would recommend this book as a good starting point for anyone interested in Michigan history, the Finnish immigrant experience, or mining.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick (1968. Del Rey. ISBN 978-0-345-40447-3)

This is not Blade Runner. Though this short novel, really more of a novella, was the basis for the character Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford in both cinematic derivations of the tale), that’s about the only consistency between the book and the movies. The original film, which came out in 1982, is so much more complex and detailed in its examination of Deckard, the bounty hunter whose job it is to “retire” replicants (androids who are virtually indistinguishable from humans), his motivations and his demons, than this written work. In addition, a thread to the book that, so far as I can recall, is completely absent from the film, is the theology of Mercerism, a mumbo jumbo of spirituality that doesn’t really seem to add much to the novel’s plot line. I’m glad the movies chose to eliminate that storyline as it adds nothing to the novel and would be, if attempted on film, even less compelling than in print.

And then there is Rachael Rosen, played in both movies by Sean Young, the one replicant that Rick Deckard cannot retire. Her role in the novel is very different and less satisfying and intriguing than portrayed in either film.

All in all, this is one of those tales that contained a germ of an idea-the hunting of rogue androids by a policeman-that genius filmmakers turned into a franchise with far more heart and substance than the original tale.

2 stars out of 5. Watch the original film and Blade Runner 2049 for a far more compelling vision of the future.

Peace.

Mark

Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice by Roberta Waburn (2017. University of Minnesota. ISBN978-1-5179-0231-5)

No. This is not how judges act, decide cases, or go about their business. That’s the thought that rings true after devouring Walburn’s well-written and researched biography of Minnesota’s most iconic, debated, loved, and hated jurist. There were so many aspects to how United States District Court Judge Miles Lord went about doing his work as a trial judge that are inapplicable and indeed, inopposite to my work as a state court judge that, while reading Walburn’s accounting of Lord’s work on the Reserve Mining case and the Dalkon Shield litigation, I found myself clenching, grimacing, and well, quite frankly, shaking my head. And yet…

Beneath it all, was a Minnesota Iron Ranger steeped in the DFL Party’s desperate rush, during the 1950s and early 1960s, to establish itself as the People’s Party, filling in the void left by the Farmer Labor Party that had held sway in Minnesota for most of the Great Depression. Lord saw himself as a fighter-both literally and figuratively-for the ordinary man both in his role as Minnesota’s Attorney General and as a judge. Personal friends with both Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, two United States Senators from the DFL who found themselves on opposite ends of the Vietnam War, Lord tried to bridge the philosophical gap between his mentors through mutual friendship, hoping upon hope to propel HHH into the presidency. He failed in bringing McCarthy back into the fold and, in the process, failed at electing Humphrey to the presidency. Admittedly, the sections of the book detailing Lord’s ties to politics are fascinating. But it’s Walburn’s depiction of Lord’s work on the Dalkon Shield cases that is the focus of her dissection of what made the man tick.

A confession here. Perhaps I’m a bit too close to the subject matter. Not because I share Lord’s vocation, but because of my own background. I was a law clerk at the Robins, Kaplan, and Ciresi Law Firm when Judge Donald Alsop forced another Twin Cities law firm, after discovering improprieties, to disgorge over 400 Dalkon Shield products liability cases. I was working at the Robins firm when the boxes arrived a week before I left to begin my summer study for the Minnesota Bar Exam. Later, after I’d passed the bar, I represented two Duluth women who’d been injured by the Dalkon Shield in front of of Judge Alsop. Both cases settled but there’s no question that Judge Lord’s exposure of AH Robins’ malfeasance in manufacturing and promoting a device that devastated women’s health contributed to cases being resolved short of trial.

I found the author’s careful dissection of Judge Lord’s pugilistic background, juxtaposed upon the tense, ugly world of corporate litigation, to be a fascinating read. Mind you, there’s much that Miles Lord did in both the Reserve and Dalkon cases that caught the attention of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and got him in trouble with the appellate court. But, true to his Iron Range nature, reprimands and reversals did not change the judge’s belief that he was not just a referee between unequal litigants. In Miles Lord’s eyes, his role-as described in loving detail by his former law clerk- was to ensure everyone got a fair shake, damn the personal consequences. While that’s an admirable goal for a jurist, it’s one only those appointed to their jobs for life likely are able to fulfill with such unfettered bravery.

All in all, one of the best Minnesota biographies I’ve ever read.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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