A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (2011. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226286969)
Known as a brilliant war correspondent who covered the Spanish Civil War with her lover and eventual husband, Ernest Hemingway, as well as the Winter War in Finland and many other conflicts up to and including Vietnam, Martha Gellhorn’s fiction reads, in this reviewer’s opinion, much differently than analytical reportage. A Stricken Field is, in many ways, Gellhorn’s apology to the Czech people.
Within the book’s structure, Gellhorn adopts the persona of American reporter Mary Douglas to tell the micro story of Hitler’s usurping of Czechoslovakian independence through Douglas’s eyes and those of Rita, a German communist who has had been expelled from Germany and expatriated to Prague only to await further degradation, torture, and eventually, the horrors of the concentration camps. The author explicitly avoids retelling the macro story of Hitler’s rise to power or the larger tensions between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia that fed Hitler’s paranoia and his need a land buffer between Germany and the U.S.S.R..The author’s choice in this regard is a good one: telling an individual tale of dread and sorrow and fear brings home the era of the slow, agonizing dismantlement of much of free and republican Europe by a madman in ways that, for example, my own novel of the war, Sukulaiaset, cannot. With only a small facet of the messy and complex war to cover, Gellhorn’s choice to narrow her focus is deliberate and smartly crafted.
The juxtaposition of the gaiety and fine dining and good wine enjoyed by Douglas and the other American, English, and French reporters covering the story of appeasement-by which England and France turned their collective backs on their treaties with Czechoslovakia, allowing Germany to gobble up the Sudetenland area of Czech soil, a German-speaking area of the Czech Republic Hitler alleged was being discriminated against by the Czechoslovakian government-and the degradation being experienced by Jewish and communist refugees who had fled Germany and the Sudetenland for Prague is well wrought.
This book should not be confused with a Heminway war novel. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Gellhorn’s attempt to place a feminine touch on Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls. While it seems apparent that Papa had an influence on his lover’s style (the curse, short, declarative patterns of Hemingway’s best writing can be detected throughout this novel), this is very much a cerebral story; a dark, foreboding, and somewhat incomplete rendering of what was happening to Rita and the others who had sought refuge from Hitler in a nation that would soon belong to Hitler. The fictional story displays, in the end, despair and resignation-likely emotions that were indeed prevalent and overarching during the slow, deliberate extinguishment of a free society and its people by evil. Gellhorn’s apology, then, is incomplete as she intended it to be. While we all, in reading such historical fiction tinged with memoir, hope and pray for a white knight, a savior such as Oscar Schindler, to stride onto center stage and save at least one of the protagonists populating this tale, that’ s not reality. Gellhorn as Douglas takes no magnificent or deliberate stand against the Gestapo. In the end, Gellhorn as Mary achieves a small victory of sorts-one that I will leave to readers of this fine novel to discover-but as history is clear, she is unable to save those who looked to her with pleading eyes as she flies to safety.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. I will read Gellhorn’s other books, including her war reporting and her short stories, based upon the strength of this novel.
Yes, that’s right, my Finnish fans. I’ll be at beloved Petrell Hall in Brimson, MN on 09/06/2015 to read from, discuss, and sell copies of my latest novel, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, a story of Karelian Fever set in Estonia, Finland, and Karelia against the backdrop of WW II and the Holocaust. The event is free and open to the public and a great way to spend Sunday of Labor Day weekend if you’re out and about. I’ll have plenty of copies of Sukulaiset as well as the first book in the series, Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh (along with my other books) for you to browse and purchase. So come on out to Brimson for a great event!
Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones (2013. Ballantine. ISBN 9780345526113)
It was a wonderful gift my son Dylan gave me last Christmas. My hardcover version of this massive chronicle of Henson’s life is inscribed “Here’s a book about another creative person…” That alone should have compelled me to dig into Jones’s work earlier than I did. But, with a constant stack of books in my “to be read” pile, each new treasure must wait its turn. Eventually, I get around to reading anything and everything I’ve bought or been gifted. But, I have to say, had I known how expertly this biography was written, and how much of Henson’s story I once knew but had forgotten, well, I would have moved this tome closer to the top of the pile!
Jim Henson, in a nutshell, comes across in this work as a creative, thoughtful, kind, peaceful, generous soul. Though not Buddhist (he was actually a non-practicing Christian Scientist) Henson is portrayed by the author as being infused with Zen-like patience and inscrutability. This depiction is consistent throughout the narrative; whether from business rivals, his estranged wife Jane (they were separated for decades but never divorced and remained a united force in raising their five children despite Jim’s infidelity and wandering eye), his children, or his co-workers at Henson Associates or its London affiliate, Jim’s eternal goodness shines through. If you are looking for demons and addictions (other than an addiction to love, not to be confused with an addiction to sex), you won’t find it within the pages of this biography.
What makes this book worth reading is its comprehensive examination of the creative process and the history of Sesame Street, Kermit, Miss Piggy, The Muppets, Fraggle Rock, and a litany of other Henson-inspired projects. I’d forgotten that the first season of Saturday Night Live included a mystical, Henson-imagined world as a running segment (short-lived to be sure, but memorable none-the-less.) I didn’t know that now Senator Al Franken from Minnesota had been one of the writers of that SNL experiment, or that Jim Belushi affectionately (as only a Samurai cook could) called the puppets and their human operators “those mucking Fuppets.”
We all likely recall how Henson’s life ended far too young at age 53. The author deals with that chapter in Jim Henson’s life deftly, pulling together eye witness accounts of the Muppeteer’s (Henson hated that term!) last days through interviews with Jane and other Henson family members. But the story of Jim Henson and his wildly imaginative creations isn’t about a sad ending. Ever seen a Muppet production that ends in tears? Not likely. At the conclusion of the book, we’re reminded of the blessings Jim Henson’s mind provided to us, some of which, we don’t even recognize or realize thirty years after the master puppeteer’s passing. Case in point: Last night, my three-year old grandson Adrien was over with his four-month old brother while his parents were on a date. As Adrien ate supper, I wandered up to our extra bedroom looking for a video to occupy the kid’s time. I pulled out one of my family’s favorite collections: Dinosaurs, a series that ran on HBO years ago. What I’d forgotten was that the force behind that show was Brian Henson, Jim’s son and the artistic heir to the Muppet empire. Additionally, as the opening credits for the first episode rolled, there it was: a salute to the genius who started it all back in the 1950s:
In Memory of Jim Henson.
4 and 1/2 star out of 5. An exceptionally thorough read.
The Pacifica labored. The Crestliner, trailer, and 60hp Mercury behind the Chrysler slowed the old van to a tepid 60mph and reduced gas mileage to 17mpg. Nylon ropes securing my new fishing kayak to the roof sang as we sped west along US Highway 2, towards North Dakota and the iconic reservoir, Lake Sakakawea, where our son, Dylan, and his wife, Shelly, would spend two nights with us tent camping at a state park on the eastern-most shoreline of the big lake. (Find out more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Sakakawea and http://www.parkrec.nd.gov/parks/lssp/lssp.html.) Rene’ had reserved two campsites. We were staying three nights; the kids two. We were supplying the boat, gasoline, camping equipment, the campsites, and bait. Shelly and Dylan were bringing the food.
As we chugged west, the sky open, the sun beating down, the temperature climbing above 90 degrees, Rene’ and I listened to The Girl on the Train on CD (read a review of the book on this website) and watched the forests of northern Minnesota disappear. We skirted Devil’s Lake, another big body of water in North Dakota, another fishing lake located where no fishing lake should be, stopped for lunch at a Pizza Hut in Rugby (but didn’t see any heavy-thighed Brits milling about!), before pulling into Riverdale, a tiny hamlet located just outside the state park, for gas and ice. After obtaining camping permits from the nice young lady working the entry booth, we found our campsites, parked the Pacifica, and commenced to building a temporary home surrounded by a vague and artificial sort of beauty. What do I mean?
Well, if you’ve camped at Bear Head State Park outside Ely or any of the Minnesota State Parks along the North Shore, you’ve had the good fortune to be immersed in near-wilderness. Not so at Lake Sakakawea. Though the lake, at 180 feet deep, two miles wide, and nearly 200 miles long is a marvel of human engineering, sitting in camp chairs in Sakakawea State Park, one doesn’t get the sense of nature in the same, completely indulgent way one does when camping in northeastern Minnesota. This is prairie country. Yes, there are trees and wildlife to be found (I nearly had a heart attack when a covey of fifty Hungarian partridge exploded from beneath the front tire of my mountain bike as I pedaled on a nearby trail). And the lake, formed from the ice cold, mountain fed, snow melt waters of the Missouri River to depths that cool salmon, is a wondrous fishery: a slash of silver, shimmering relief against the stalled heat and humidity of July on the Plains. The early morning cackling of rooster pheasants reminded me that we weren’t in Fredenberg, Minnesota and that we were camping alongside of waters very different and distant from my beloved Cloquet. So there was nature to be found along the shores of Sakakawea. But wilderness? Not so much.
Before Dylan and Shelly arrived, Rene’ and I towed the Crestliner down to the boat landing and launched it, intent upon doing some evening fishing. The launch was easily accomplished despite the number of campers in the park. And, thankfully, I didn’t repeat my recent error, one that nearly sank my new boat, my brother-in-law Allen, my nephew Alex, and me in Fish Lake. This time, I remembered to put the plug in the stern of the boat before it was launched. It only takes once…
After the kids arrived, I helped Dylan and Shelly set up a new screen tent that, though purchased as a haven against mosquitoes, was never utilized due to the complete absence of flying pests at the campground. As the sun sank in the west, a slight breeze cooling the parched land, we sipped bottled beer and talked, catching up on family gossip and news from Williston, the boomtown of North Dakota. Dylan and Shelly have good jobs in Williston, jobs related to the oil industry that haven’t been affected by the downturn in drilling. Fracking: We avoid any heavy discussions about the environmental impact of using fresh water filled with sand and chemicals injected into the earth to force oil to the surface. Or the wasteful flaring of natural gas. No need to provoke family discord while on vacation.
As tenters, we were in the distinct minority. Even after Dyl and Shelly arrived to raise their K-Mart special family tent (a dubious shelter against rain and wind) alongside my BWCA tested Eureka two-man dome, our tents were only two of about ten in a campground that boasted hundreds of fifth-wheelers, motor homes, and large pull behinds. The amount of money folks spend to get away from it all just so they can take it all with them!
We fished for two days in extreme heat, catching and releasing dozens of feisty white bass (fun to catch but supposedly horrible in the fry pan), a few large mouth bass, and the biggest fish of Shelly’s life (a one pound northern that she refused to touch!)
After fishing and loading the boat back on the trailer, Dylan and I dove headlong into the cool waters of Sakakawea, fulfilling one of my bucket list wishes: to swim in the same waters Lewis and Clark did. Once in the waist deep water, despite the 95 degree afternoon’s heat, Sakakawea was nearly as cold as Lake Superior.
Saturday evening. Rather than attempt dinner with a storm rolling in, the majority (I was a dissenter) voted to head to a restaurant. At the first eatery we entered, a Riverdale bar, a burly waitress took one look at my wife’s “Hillary in 2016” T-shirt and announced “We’re no longer serving food.” Happenstance or political fallout? You decide. From the looks of the crowd in that bar, I pretty much drew the conclusion that we were the only four Democrats in the house. Disappointed, we tried a few places in various little hamlets surrounding the park until we found a bar that was still serving food. We ate, and laughed, and told stories, sipping cold beer and telling tall tales before heading back to our tents. There was a brief storm Saturday night, a storm that the Eureka weathered but one that the K-Mart special and the screen tent were unable to withstand. Despite the failure of the kids’ shelter, they stayed dry.
Sunday dawned clear and bright, bringing with it the promise of another sweltering day. After Dylan cooked us a hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausage, juice, and coffee, we launched the boat for another day on the water. It was brutally hot out on the flat plain of Sakakawea. With no shade, no respite from the sun’s brilliance, I doubted we’d catch fish. But the white bass were still there, angry and wanting our nightcrawlers. After loading the boat back on the trailer, Dylan and Shelly packed up their gear, ready to head back to Williston.
“Mom, what made you pick this campground anyway?” Dylan asked before leaving. “I mean, there are state park campgrounds closer to Williston.” Rene’s answer was slyly non-commital: “Well. I thought since you said Williston was ‘by’ Sakakawea, this state park would be close to you guys.” Of course, my wife didn’t consult Google Maps to discover that, in fact, the state park we were at is about three hours from Dylan and Shelly’s home, or that there are two other state parks between where we ended up and Williston. But that was all forgiven. The park was pretty, easily accessible in terms of parking and launching the boat, and had a nice nature trail that, after concluding a final dip in the water and saying our goodbyes to our son and his wife, Rene’ and I hiked for the better part of an hour as a storm rolled in from the west.
“You better come in the van,” Rene’ admonished as the sky darkened, rumors of a vicious thunder storm scrolling across my wife’s iPhone as she studied the Weather Underground site.
“I’ll be fine. If it gets too bad, I’ll join you in the Pacifica.”
“Your tent is under a tree. It’s starting to lightning. Do you really think that’s very smart?”
I didn’t reply. I buttoned up the Eureka against increasingly violent gusts. Jimi, my wife’s miniature dachshund, cuddled my wife in the Pacifica as I hunkered down in the tent to finish reading Joyce’s Ulysses, a project that had taken me over nine months of dogged, unpleasant study, to conquer. (See a review of the book elsewhere on this site.) As the storm hit, the tent leapt and crouched with the wind. Lightening lit up the sky. Rain pummeled nylon. But the stakes held fast, I stayed dry, and the weather cleared.
Monday morning, Rene’ and I strapped the kayak back to the van’s roof (it never touched the cool waters of Sakakawea despite my best intentions), secured our bikes in the Crestliner, covered the boat, loaded our camping gear into the Pacifica, and headed back to Minnesota. Would I come back? Yes, but I think we’ll try for a campsite closer to Williston next time ’round.
It was 5:30am on a Saturday morning in June. I was up and working on my tenth book, a novel set in Ely about a Lesbian trial lawyer, a long-in-the tooth female sheriff, an environmental terrorist, and the deaths of two innocent blue-collar workers. As I closed my iMac and padded my way upstairs to the bedroom I share with my wife of nearly thirty-seven years, I thought about the long, long road-the travels that I’ve made-trying to hawk my books and promote my stories. I remembered being at a Barnes and Noble store in Cleveland early on in my life as an author, where I sat in a store devoid of patrons trying to entice Ohioans to buy my first novel, The Legacy. That was 2001, the spring after The Legacy debuted to much critical acclaim and brisk regional sales. With endorsements from the likes of Senator Paul Wellstone, former Vice President Walter Mondale, noted writer and trial lawyer Barry Reed (The Verdict), and criminal prosecutor and author Vincent Bugliosi (Helter Skelter), and having sold out the first printing of the novel in less than six weeks, I was certain the world was my oyster. And yet the sudden, rapid, mercurial rise I’d envisioned for myself and my writing didn’t happen. Not then. Not now. So, as I climbed into the shower on that humid, sunny June morning, considering all my travels, I also considered my travails; the constant pounding of my head against the wall of silent agents, absent publishers, and hyper-critical contest judges, all of whom have declined to give my work a leg up, a helping hand. I’ve been writing seriously now for exactly twenty-five years. That’s a long, long time to try and make a name for oneself in any endeavor, much less one as ego draining as fiction writing. It was a tired man who clambered out of the shower stall, pulled on his boxers, shaved, brushed his teeth, arranged his graying hair, donned his favorite blue Hawaiian party shirt and blue jeans, and kissed his slumbering bride goodbye.
At least I wasn’t alone. My company for the long drive to and from Beagle Books and Bindery in Park Rapids was an author, a writer, who has managed to pique the interest of mainstream publishers, contest judges, and the like. Linda LeGarde Gover, whose two works of fiction set in Minnesota and filled with characters and imagery invoking Ojibwe traditions, climbed into the Blue Pacifica at the Super One parking lot in Pike Lake, a box of her latest book, The Road Back to Sweetgrass, under her arm. She put the novels in the van, sat in the passenger’s seat, and we were off. I like Linda. Love her writing. The fact that she, like me, is a graduate of Duluth Denfeld High School, and that I’ve known some of her siblings for decades (though I didn’t get acquainted with Linda until recently) and that she’s an author who was awarded the Flannaery O’Connor Award by the University of Georgia for her first book, a collection of linked short stories, The Dance Boots, gave us much to discuss as the Pacifica sped west. Despite the level of her success, having her first book an award winner and published by the University of Georgia Press, ultimately culminating in the collection being selected as the One Book read for Northeastern Minnesota for 2015, and The Road Back to Sweetgrass having been picked by an editor at the prestigious University of Minnesota Press for publication, Linda is down-to-earth and pragmatic. She could, of course, look down upon her fellow Hunter as one who is a tier or two below her success, what with all of my books either having been collaboratively published (The Legacy, with Savage Press) or self-published (all the rest) in comparison to her work being picked up by major academic presses and lauded by the critics (including me!). But she does not. We were, as we rode towards the Beagle Books Author Festival, kindred spirits. Of course, there was ugly envy lurking inside me. Writing is all about ego. Show me a writer, an author, who doesn’t lament the fact that his or her book wasn’t picked up by a publisher or didn’t win a contest or wasn’t selected for acclaim, and I’ll show you an author who is dead. Hemingway (my writing (though not lifestyle) mentor) cautioned writers about getting too wrapped up in their quest for notoriety. And yet, of course, Papa himself could not breathe, could not exist, when he himself became, at the twilight of his writing career, the subject of negative reviews.
Readers of this blog, and of my posts on Facebook, have long chastised me for being self-deprecating. “You’re a great writer,” readers say. “The Legacy (or one of my other novels) is a great read, a great book!” folks will add, urging me to forge ahead and spend another year or two or three or four writing a book. But then they will read one of my essays steeped in pity and self-loathing and angst and longing for greater recognition from “The Establishment” (critics, publishers, agents, news outlets) and my readers (friends, family, co-workers, and complete strangers) will decry my attitude. “Buck up,” they will tell me, “Just keep writing and self-publishing and things will turn out alright.” Of course, I didn’t share this with Linda as we discussed writing and publishing and bookstores and the demise of Border’s and the new age of digital publishing before I pulled into a parking space in front of Beagle Books. But in the back of my mind, I thought about the owner of the bookstore admonishing authors “not to bring any CreateSpace published books” to the event.
I understand the prohibition: CreateSpace is the printing arm of Amazon.com, the largest purveyor of books in the world. My older books have all been converted to digital platforms for sale through Kindle (Amazon’s eReader), Nook (the Barnes and Noble equivalent of Kindle) and Kobo (the independent bookstores attempt to have their own digital platform) and are now also exclusively printed by CreateSpace. Why? Why would an egalitarian soul like me choose to “feed the beast” and harm small, local independent bookstores by assisting Amazon? Money. Plain and simple. I cannot, as a small, one man enterprise afford to print my older books through conventional means. The demand for such titles is slight and I cannot afford, my wallet cannot countenance, stacks of books in my basement waiting for readers that may or may not materialize. CreateSpace is unlike traditional printers. Traditional printers charge per book based upon the volume printed in a print run: The more copies you print, the lower the price. CreateSpace starts with a discounted price for the first book and that price never wavers no matter how many copies of a title you order and the quality is good, equal to books produced by traditional printing houses.
But I get that the bookstore owner’s admonishment is rooted in economic survival. Independent bookstores (Indies) loath Amazon and CreateSpace. But if I want to keep my words in print, I can’t avoid feeding the beast. I voiced my concerns about this turn of events in the publishing world to Linda as we drove towards Park Rapids. I shared with Linda the fact that, before she reclaimed critical accolades for Vacationland, Sarah Stonich (These Granite Islands) worked with CreateSpace to bring her older works back into print. Being an award winning novelist, apparently, isn’t all glitter and gold as I’d imagined.
Linda and I went our separate ways when we arrived at Beagles. We both sold some books, talked to some folks, and then, our two hours at the festival completed, we headed next door for lunch. We talked about writing, publishing, life, politics, kids, stories, and just about everything under the sun over lunch and on our way home. I dropped Linda off at her truck in Pike Lake. I motored towards Fredenberg in my blue Pacifica, thinking about whether my tenth book, Boomtown, is something that the world really needs or wants.
Ego is a difficult demon to master. I’m not there yet: I am not yet able to reconcile contentment grounded in the kind words and nice things folks say about my stories with the fact that, outside my little niche in the world, no one knows who I am. It hurts like hell that I’ve never been found worthy enough, despite excellent critical reviews of my work, to earn even an honorable mention from any of the novel-writing contests I’ve entered, including the one sponsored by the college I attended.
This morning, I stare out across the misty, gray day that’s settled over the hayfield outside my writing space. I ponder whether I should, when my current project is completed, simply put all my eggs in one basket and issue Boomtown through Amazon, both in print and exclusively for Kindle. I sell very few copies of my work through Barnes and Noble. With the noted exception of the Bookstore at Fitger’s, Indies are nearly gone from my bottom line. Nook and Kobo are paltry second and third places behind Kindle when it comes to digital sales of my books. I listen to classical music on MPR and ponder the future of Mark the writer, of Cloquet River Press, of the novel and writing and fiction in general. I recognize that, before making decisions about my writing future, I must consider the past twenty-five years and all the readers I’ve connected with from Finland to Australia and all points in between before making any changes in how I publish new work. I also recognize that, when it comes to my writing, emotional balance isn’t my strong suit. Pride is a horrible beast to restrain.
I realize these truths about myself and my writing as I tap the keyboard to my iMac and try to figure out a succinct ending for this piece but the muse fails me in this regard.
Things will be what they are, is the best I can come up before turning back to Boomtown to begin another edit.
The Settlers by Vilhelm Moberg
(1978. Popular Library. ISBN 978-0873513210)
Not as much sex but lots of its aftermath. That’s a glib way of saying that The Settlers, Moberg’s third novel in this four-part series of Swedish immigration to Minnesota is rooted, in many ways, in the story of how Karl Oskar Nilsson and his wife, Kristina, and their five surviving children adjust to a life of desolation, poverty, hardship, and promise on the shores of Chisago Lake in Minnesota Territory’s St. Croix River Valley. Moberg’s emphasis here is on the domestic: on the day-to-day lives of the Nilssons as they carve a family farm from 160 acres of rock, timber, and brush along the lake’s shoreline and, ultimately, move from sod hut to log cabin and finally, into a proper two-story, timber framed farm home that dwarfs any expectations envious onlookers (or Kristina for that matter) believed possible.
Moberg’s writing style is crisp. The dialogue rings true. There are characters, fully developed and not cardboard cutouts, from heroes (Karl Oskar) to the slightly unsavory (Karl’s adventure and fortune seeking younger brother, Robert) that draw you into the story and keep the pages turning. Set during Minnesota’s tumultuous conversion from mere territory to state (1858), a time of intense political intrigue both nationally (the Civil War is only three years distant) and regionally (competing teams of Democratic and Republican territorial legislators are so at odds, they draft competing state constitutions!), Moberg places the struggles of an immigrant family in their proper historical context, a feature of the book much enjoyed by this history/political science major.
Religion, the fundamentalism of the Swedish Lutheran Church placed against the evangelical zeal of apostate Lutherans and other Protestant denominations (featuring my favorite character in the series, Ulrika, the former prostitute turned Baptist preacher’s wife), is explored here not as an afterthought or an adjunct to the main storyline, but as an integral aspect of early immigrant lives. The building of a local school and the first Swedish Lutheran church in the burgeoning community, all hewn from the hardwoods and rapidly dissipating pines of the wilderness being tamed by the industrious Swedes, is a highlight of narrative in the middle section of the book.
Moberg explores the details of Karl and Kristina’s marriage in a very realistic context: the fact that intimacy, at least for fertile women of childbearing age in the 1850s, invariably led to pregnancy and, if the infant survived the trauma of childbirth at home, another mouth to feed in times of hardship. His depiction of the conflict within a married woman’s mind of that era is realistic, detailed, and compelling as we witness Kristina struggle with how to deal with the inevitable aftermath of coupling with Karl. A brilliant scene, wherein Kristina studies her face in a mirror given to her by Ulrika, is a representative example of such introspection:
As a girl, Kristina had often been told that she was beautiful…But where was the girl who so many times blushed at the words, “You are beautiful!” Where now were her full cheeks with the soft little dimples of laughter? What had become of her nicely rounded chin? Where was her blossom-tinted color? Where the young girl’s quick and clear glance? What had become of her lips that were once full as wild strawberries? Every day she met this depressing sight. Was this she? She herself? These gaunt, wrinkled cheeks, this pale-gray color, this sharply etched chin, these tired, fading eyes without a glint, this caved-in mouth with teeth missing—this was herself, what was left of the once beautiful girl Kristina of Duvemala!
To be fair, there is a lengthy section where Robert’s wanderings towards California after his immigration clashes with the Karl/Kristina story, a section that I found to be overly long, sometimes confusing (due to the back and forth nature of the intersecting narratives), and diminished the flow of the novel. But not every aspect of this portion of the tale is troublesome. Robert’s agonizing demise due to tuberculosis is again, well wrought and imagined and the unresolved conflict between Robert’s dreamy wishfulness and Karl’s pragmatic industry adds another layer of complexity and nuance to the narrative.
In the end, Moberg got it mostly right and I am looking forward to reading the concluding book in this four-part saga of Swedes coming to my “neck of the woods”. 4 stars out of 5.
Last Letter Home by Swedish writer, Wilhelm Moberg (1978. Warner Books. ISBN 0446311316) is the final installment in Moberg’s four volume set depicting the emigration of Swedish settlers, the Nilssons (the Nelsons by the end of this concluding story) from Sweden to the St. Croix River Valley in east central Minnesota. The closing novel depicting the rugged, hardscrabble lives of Karl Oskar, his wife Kristina, and their children as they build a succession of homes in the Center City/Chisago Lakes area just across the border from Wisconsin is, to my way of thinking, the least satisfying of the four books. Here’s my take on Last Letter Home.
Moberg continues to explore the intimate, religious, economic, and political interactions of the Nilssons with their immigrant neighbors, chronicling in some depth the simmering desire between the long married patriarch and matriarch of the clan, mindfully calling the reader’s attention to the dangers of pregnancy for a woman of Katrina’s constitution and age in the hinterlands of rural America in the late 1850s, early 1860s. This theme, one that expands upon Nilssons’s writing of the amorous and sexual relationships between the immigrants he portrays, is well crafted and adds a bit of tension to the story. Moberg also does a masterful job of re-creating the 1862 Sioux uprising in southwestern Minnesota, though the extension of the Nilsson family saga to include the convenient migration of a neighboring family into the Mankato area just before war breaks out on the Plains seems a bit contrived and, while expertly narrated by Moberg, doesn’t really fit the rest of the story, a tale centered on the everyday struggles of farmers and shopkeepers and preachers trying to carve out new lives in a new land.
The author’s juxtaposition of the Civil War, likely the most significant piece of history of the era outside of the Indian uprising (Minnesotans of the day would argue that the pitched battles fought between the natives and Col. Henry Sibley’s forces in the Minnesota River Valley were more significant than rumors of war out East!), with the relatively calm, undisturbed lives that the Nilssons’s were experiencing during a time of rapid economic and geopolitical expansion makes for an interesting comparative analysis of what we learned from middle school American history texts and what the settlers encountered in their everyday lives.
But that having been said, after speeding through all 283 pages of my mass market paperback copy of Last Letter Home, while the plot and characters held my interest, I found the ending fairly predictable and the narrative to be artificially inflated. Yes, there is romance in this tale. Yes, there is tragedy. And yes, there is history, some of which I learned in school and some of which I learned from Moberg’s novel. But it seems to me, upon reflection, that what the author had to say, with the exception of about half of this final installment in the Emigrant series, could have been said in volume III, The Settlers. There just wasn’t enough left in Moberg’s envisioning of Swedish emigration to justify an entire fourth novel.
3 and ½ star of 5. Worth reading to finish the series but not as captivating or compelling as the first three volumes.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015. Penguin Audio. ISBN 9781611763731). Alright. My wife Rene’ and I didn’t actually listen to the entire story on our way to Lake Sakakawea State Park to spend a long weekend with our son Dylan and his wife Shelly. We were near the finish line, close the end of this very gripping thriller, when we pulled the blue Pacifica and boat and trailer into our campsite. There were 2 and 1/2 disks left to the tale which, once we finished our time at the park, we gobbled up on the way home. All in all, a satisfying yarn. Here’s what I think.
Hawkins is a master of this slowly unfolding tale , a story reminiscent of Hitchcock at his best. Her writing, however, at times, became a bit bogged down in narrative description when I so urgently wanted the characters to move along. There’s a bit of mystery at the front end of the tale, what with the disappearance of a troubled young wife, Meghan Hipwell from the neighborhood that the protagonist, Rachel Watson, used to live in. Rachel is divorced from Tom, who, during their marriage, took up with Anna. Tom and Anna are now happily married, living with their infant daughter in the bungalow that Tom and Rachel once called home. The Watson house is a few doors down from the home of Meghan and Scott Hipwell. The author does a nice job of describing the trains that roll past the Watson and Hipwell bungalows perched on the edge of a London suburb. It is on one of these local trains that Rachel, pretending to commute to work to appease her landlady, sees what she thinks to be a crime at the Hipwell house. At first, she thinks nothing of what she’s seen. But then, as the disappearance of Meghan remains unsolved, Rachel decides to tell the police what she knows. Or thinks she knows.
Ms. Hawkins has drawn a fine, fine character in giving us Rachel Watson, a woman seemingly stuck in the past, unable to give up a marriage that has long since died, a woman whose affinity for drink renders her version of what she saw from the train suspect and unreliable when she finally reveals what she knows, or thinks she knows, to the police. The actresses portraying the three main characters all fit their parts in this audio version of the book. The voices of Rachel and Meghan are especially compelling. There is plenty of psychological drama to this story though, truth be told, I figured out who the killer was about 1/3 of the way through the story. The fact that the author didn’t do a better job of providing additional suspects, however, doesn’t detract from Girl on the Train being a “good read.”
A great way to spend hours in the car rolling over the North Dakota prairie.
4 stars out of 5.
Ulysses by James Joyce (1990. Vintage Classics Edition. ISBN 9780679722762)
October 4, 2014 through July 26, 2015. That’s how long it took me to plow through Joyce’s so-called “masterpiece” of modernist fiction. I’m sorry, but I must be a dullard, a low intellect, a stupid person. There were, throughout the book (supposedly a chronicle of one day in the life of Dublin advertising agent, Leopold Bloom) moments of clarity where I almost understood what the author was trying to portray or explain. And then there were great long passages of nonsensical gibberish, such as the “dream sequence” written in the form of a script for a very confused and poorly executed stage play. The portion of the book that frustrated me the most, this imagined (I expect by Bloom as he sat drinking with his companion, Stephen Dedalus in various pubs about town after the funeral of a mutual friend) sequence, from page 429-609 in my copy of the tome, made me want to cry out in anguish, like an Irish child enduring famine. My pain was not caused by starvation of the stomach or the organs or my skin, mind you, but of the mind! I am not a scholar. I haven’t read the Odyssey since I was forced to do so by Miss Endrizzi in 11th grade English. So, to my dimwitted mind, if there is a connection between the wanderings of Bloom and Dedalus and the conniving and fornicating of Bloom’s long-suffering songstress wife, Molly, to Homer’ epic poem and its characters, it was completely lost on me.
I read to learn. I read to be entertained. And while Ulysses certainly includes references, either in dialogue or narration, to every possible topic under the sun-from physics to astronomy to Mormonism to Irish history to sex (wholesome or trysts driven by fetish)-the educational attributes of this long winded tale became a blur in my eyes and a headache for my brain. While attempting to make sense of this book, I didn’t keep a dictionary handy to decipher the language choices Joyce weaves into this meandering, mind boggling excursion. If I had looked up every term, every word I didn’t recognize, I would still be trudging through the first one-third of the book a full ten months after I began my reading quest!
I will say this: The unusual, experimental style that Joyce ends the book with-sentences that never end and a complete dearth of punctuation and capitalization-told as it was from the perspective of Molly Bloom, was the most entertaining and intriguing part of the novel. I felt some small measure, as a dogged reader trying to understand and follow Joyce’s various slights of hand that led, in slow, agonizing succession, down literary blind alley after blind alley, of success when I read that last section of the book and came to finally understand Molly Bloom’s perspective regarding a once blissful life lost to domestic drudgery. The ending and the beginning, where we meet young Dedalus, are the only portions of the novel I have any recollection of or appreciation for. The five hundred pages in between? Forgettable, like a bad hangover.
Oh. Just so you know. I’ll not be attempting to navigate through the (reportedly) even more difficult waters of Finnigan’s Wake. I’ve already wasted enough valuable reading time on a story that makes no sense and brought me only the slimmest of enjoyment.
2 stars out of 5. Not a book to read for enjoyment.
Last year was the year of the great stone walleye deception. I’ll not bore you with the details. You can read about it in the archives (“A New Faith is Born!”). Suffice it to say, this year’s annual Octogenarian fishing trip to Elsie Lake, Ontario as guests of the Litman family was uneventful. Whereas last year, in addition to the stone walleye caper, our group experienced an unexpected evening in a motel in Ignace, this year was sedate, contemplative, and involved moments of fishing frenzy followed by hours of searching for fish on the choppy cold waters of a Canadian wilderness lake. I drove my blue Pacifica into Duluth to pick up my father Harry, George Millard, and Walter “Fritz” Mondale. George and Fritz were staying at the Willard Munger Inn. After trying out all of the ritzy roosts in town over the twenty or more years of this annual fishing sojourn, a couple of years back the two old friends settled on staying at the Willard, a motel my uncle built back in the 1950s and now run by his grandson, Jeff. After picking up George and Fritz (and nearly forgetting George’s suitcase in the process!), we headed towards UMD’s Heaney Hall to pick up my old man. The fact that my passengers were staying in a motel named after a DFL politician and in an apartment complex named after one of the founding fathers of the DFL Party should not be lost on the reader. These men are unabashed Liberals with a capital “L”. And oh the stories and the banter between Duluth and Grand Marais, where we stopped for breakfast at the Blue Water Cafe and where Sammy Perrella and his son, Tony waited for us! The collective history and wisdom in the Pacifica was something to behold and left me, as the youngest buck in the herd, in awe of the accomplishments of the men I was ferrying to Ontario. Over breakfast, Tony, a wide-eyed economics major at the University of St. Thomas (a school George once taught at) listened to the old men pontificate and philosophize. Sammy, who since our last excursion to Elsie, had suffered and survived a stroke, smiled, the residuals of his scare hidden by therapy and determination, as he watched his son engage with Fritz, a man who has held the second highest office in the land and served as our nation’s ambassador to Japan.
We crossed the border without incident and arrived at Ignace Airways a few hours later. We filled two float planes; a De Havilland Beaver and an Otter with food, fishing gear, suitcases, gasoline, and propane and, one after the other, the planes lumbered across the watery surface of an Ontario lake before becoming airborne for the short flight to Elsie. The landings were smooth. The planes were quickly unloaded in turn and re-loaded with garbage, gear, and passengers for the return to Ignace. The departing crew had been at the Litman camp for a week getting the place ready for our party. Most of the heavy lifting had been done by the time we set foot on the wooden dock outside the cabin. After stowing gear and rolling out our sleeping bags on our bunks, the crew, which now included Ross and Jay Litman, and Doc Bob Donley, distinguished neurosurgeon and noted conservative (the foil for many of my father and Fritz Mondale’s kinky liberal ideals) headed out onto the lake. The walleye were biting, though, true to his serious nature when it comes to fishing, the Sheriff (Ross) deadpanned that “they’re just not biting like they should.”
I was given the task of guiding Sam and Tony. Now understand: I am not a great fisherman and I am certainly no expert on the whiles and whereabouts of Lake Elsie walleye. But, in the end, we found fish. Plenty of fish to keep our boat occupied until the sky darkened and it was time to head back to camp.
Saturday dawned and the place revealed a familiar routine. Jay would, for the most part when not spelled by Ross or Sam, cook our meals. Big, steaming lumberjack-style breakfasts welcomed sleepy fishermen each morning: eggs, pancakes, sausage, ham, bacon, and toast, all punctuated with coffee that, if Ross was the first one up, barely flowed out of the pot given its tarry consistency. Caffeine free? Hardly. The first meal of the day was followed by clean up, with George and I in charge of the dishes, and the others pitching in where needed. Then it was back into the boats for late morning and afternoon fishing, followed by naps, reading Helen Litman’s wide-ranging library of paperback novels, and steam baths in the camp’s wood-fired sauna. After one of the sauna baths, Doc Donley braved the frigid lake fully equipped with goggles and snorkel, patrolling the water off the dock in search of god-knows-what.
Sunday found me guiding George and Sammy. Again, I got lucky and, despite my lack of fishing prowess, found the walleye. We also netted the occasional lake trout and whitefish, along with a few small mouth bass, though the primary catch was walleye, fished shallow and with pink and white jigs tipped with minnows or worms and dragged slowly along the lake’s rocky bottom. Having purchased a conservation license, I didn’t keep any fish. Only walleye within the appropriate slot that were foul hooked, the barbs stuck deep in the fish, were kept for the frying pan. Ross’s classic outdoor fish fry, one of the highlights of these trips, loomed in the future but we had time, we all thought, to catch and keep what we’d need for the feast.
Sunday night, the weather turned and rain pounded the lake. The storm scattered the walleye and exposed my guiding deficiencies. Monday, George and Sammy and I worked hard to find fish when we were finally able to get out but the walleye were few and far between.
The frenzy, the ease of the first two and a half days of fishing, was replaced by long, extended periods between walleye or trout or bass or whitefish. But the food. And the company. Ah. The meals; ribs and brisket, burgers and brats, Sammy’s pizza and pasta, and a host of other culinary delights; along with lively political, religious, philosophical, legal, medical, and sports discussions filled any void caused by the diminished appetites of the walleye. We didn’t solve the world’s problems or come up with concrete advice to send along to the new pope, but we did have spirited yet respectful debate on any number of worldly and heavenly topics, evincing that men of a certain age can, if they listen to each other, share views without name-calling or coming to blows. Through it all, Ross, the tireless worker bee, buzzed around camp, fixing and toting and moving and repairing so that each guest, each temporary resident of the Litman Camp, experienced a blissful, worry-free stay.
As always, despite the slow fishing the last two days of our trip, when Ross announced it was time to start packing up on Wednesday morning, after the last of the eggs were eaten and the last of the morning dishes was done, the sadness of leaving came over me. My job as a district court judge takes bits and pieces of my humanity; the day-to-day grind of court eats away at one’s optimism and faith in mankind as one deals with folks at their worst, at usually the lowest point in their lives. But a few days away from the Internet, Wi-Fi, cell phones, courtrooms, and legalese cannot be understated in terms of a fishing trip’s restorative powers. I’m hoping the Sheriff and his brother invite us back again. Maybe the fish will be more cooperative. Maybe they won’t. But five days at Lake Elsie in the company of three old men, a college kid, a pizza maker, a Sheriff, a carpenter, and a neurosurgeon, with or without walleye biting, beats most everything else I’ve tried as a vacation.
The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman (2013. Quercus. ISBN 9781623651312)
My friend Ron McVean, an avid reader and sometime pre-reader of my manuscripts, handed me his autographed copy of this Freeman thriller with the admonition, “I read it but didn’t get excited by it. Maybe you’ll like it.” Faint praise, eh? So with that lukewarm endorsement, I carried Ron’s hardcover version of the book with me on a recent fishing trip to Ontario. I had my own demons, my own biases to exorcise before I could give Freeman’s book a fair shake as a reviewer. To be frank, I’m not sure I was able to accomplish that task so I’ll disclose the worst of my prejudices here and you can, if you so choose, simply ignore this review.
Envy. Jealousy. Local boy reading a story written about his hometown by a stranger. They all add up to this: While I understand why authors who have no lasting connection with Duluth and the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota (Freeman, Krueger, and Sundstol) might want to choose Duluth or the Iron Range or the North Shore as a setting for a novel (it is, after all, God’s country!), I continue to be unimpressed by the depictions of my backyard by folks who are just passing through, taking notes, and penning novels based upon casual observations about where I live, where I grew up. That these same authors, strangers to the land I inhabit, receive accolades for genre fiction full of cutesy landscapes that bear only a superficial likeness to the Northland irks me. There. The disclosures have been made. Take them for what they’re worth. Read on or move on, your choice.
That having been said, I wanted to desperately like this book. I wanted to be compelled by Cat, the young prostitute’s back story of deprivation and neglect, by the investigator and chief protagonist’s, Jonathan Stride’s, inner struggles and past, and by the romantic possibilities of the juxtaposition of Stride with two former lovers (also cops) in the investigation of a string of suspicious deaths. But I couldn’t, as my friend Ron suggested, get past the implausibility of the plot, the confusion of some of the action sequences, or the lack of a main character, any character, that I could relate to or cherish. It’s not that the writing isn’t professional: it is certainly that. It isn’t that the dialogue is clunky or overwrought: Freeman can write a scene that seems credible as characters engage with each other. And it’s not that he got geographic landmarks wrong (i.e., Enger Tower doesn’t mysteriously migrate to Canal Park). It is, in my humble view, that after 420 pages of reading, I really didn’t care what happened to Cat or Jonathan or Maggie or Ken.
In addition, the various suspects in the story read like a list of stereotypes: Greedy used car salesman, devious cop, the older sister with a drug problem and a traumatic past. Additionally, there isn’t, in my view, much excitement or suspense, or suspension of disbelief at work in the arc of the story or in the character’s actions throughout the book. The book isn’t badly written; there are no major impossibilities that muck up the plot. There just wasn’t enough here to hold my interest, to compel me to stay up late into the night by the light of my headlamp at Elsie Lake Fishing Camp to finish the story.
Bookstore owners have repeatedly asked me, “Have you read Brian Freeman?” I used to answer, “No.” Now I can respond, “Yes.” And that’s about all I will say.
3 stars out of 5.