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

The Madman and the Assassin by Scott Martelle (2015. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1-61373-018-8)

It all started for me, my obsession with Thomas “Boston” Corbett, when I read a menu at Tobie’s Restaurant in Hinckley, Minnesota. How so, you ask? Well there, buried in the stories about the Hinckley Fire (circa 1894) was a very short speculation that the killer of John Wilkes Booth, Boston Corbett, had met a tragic end in Minnesota during the fire. The proof was supposedly some burial or other records related to the fire’s aftermath. Just like the historical figure, Olli Kinkkonen, whose tragic lynching in Duluth propelled my historical novel, Suomalaiset, I thought Maybe Corbett’s story is the beginning of a book…But in the end, that didn’t happen. Instead, I read a bit about Corbett and used his nasty self-castration (a known fact!) as part of The Tyler’s backstory in Laman’s River and pretty much put Boston out of my mind. Until I couldn’t. When you’re OCD, things never truly are forgotten or placed on the shelves of your mind. So in looking at his tale as a potential novel unto itself, I stumbled across an actual biography of the man written by journalist Scott Martelle. The book, finely written and complete, convinced me that Corbett’s story has been told and I need to move on.

Martelle does a marvelous job of giving readers as much factual history as possible about a man who had a tortured and difficult life. In truth, there isn’t a whole lot out there about Corbett that a biographer can grab hold of and turn into a character study. But what is there, this author has woven into a story of Booth and Corbett and their tragic intersection in a rural Washington D.C. barn on that fateful night. Corbett, a cavalryman with the Union during the war, was charged with accompanying a group of soldiers and detectives in their hot pursuit of Booth and his accomplices. Martelle gives us the background-historical and personal-regarding the two main protagonists in that chase. He also explains Corbett’s actions (shooting the assassin when his orders were clearly to take the man into custody) such that there is little doubt the diminutive eunuch was simply doing his duty when he shot Booth.

Additionally, Martelle paints a compelling portrait of the later years of Boston Corbett’s life, highlighting the significant ordeal the former soldier went through to obtain his pension for his years of service during the war and his incarceration as a POW in the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville. Resisting the opportunity to embellish and speculate regarding Corbett’s reported demise in the Hinckley Fire, Martelle sticks to the facts until this very well done examination of a fascinating character reaches its conclusion.

I’d highly recommend this biography of a compelling, if somewhat demonstrably odd minor figure, in American history to anyone interested in the Civil War, Booth, or their times.

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

Peace.

Mark

The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison (2016. Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-2456-2)

I stand corrected. After reading two of Harrison’s better known works, Dalva and True North and finding both books far less satisfactory in story and character when compared to his masterpiece novella, Legends of the Fall, I was pretty well convinced that the hype regarding this author’s creative powers was overblown. But, after reading this collection of two novellas and a long short story (the third piece, “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” is billed as a novella but it’s too short for that moniker) on a recent Canadian fishing trip, I must edit my prior remarks. Harrison, who died in 2016 at the age of 78, after having lived a life of literary acclaim, maintained his skills right up until the bitter end.

First in the line-up is the title piece, a quirky novella/memoir of an aging writer based upon the author’s own history. “The Ancient Minstrel” is engaging, humorous, touching, and thought provoking; exploring the life of a hard drinking, hard charging literary icon ala Hemingway but with a touch of foreboding and longing to give the portraiture a sense of bitter angst and reality. I only wish the novella had actually been spun into a full blown memoir of the author’s life.

“Eggs” is probably my favorite piece in this brief collection. Catherine, the protagonist, is drawn carefully and lovingly by Harrison and is as good as it gets. Set in the writer’s second home, Montana, this novella fully displays the crisp, brief, yet descriptive and lively writing style that made Harrison such a darling of the literary world. Hemingwayesque and yet, not, Harrison’s prose in this wonderfully conceived piece of fiction proves that, as with “Legends of the Fall”, this writer is the master of the novella form, a form not easily sold in today’s marketplace of words where agents clamor for full length, big spined, epic novels from their literary fold.

Finally, Harrison, who spent much time in Upper Peninsula Michigan escaping the hurly burly world of publishing, gives us his take on Nabokov. The author’s version of a forbidden sexual relationship between an aging private investigator and a neighborhood high school girl is, from the very outset, one of danger and foreboding and yet, the protagonist is unable to resist the lure of innocence:

There had to be an escape route from this obsession. He loathed his mind’s starling capacity to raise up an image of Barbara naked below the waist…He remembered the name of the mind doctor that Diane (his ex-wife) had given him. It might be time to bite the bullet and go., but would the man hold his information in confidence?…What was it about our sexual impulses that demolished us and how did he end up with his ass in this sling?

This was Jim Harrison’s last effort for his readers. I won’t claim I was a fan of his work before this slender volume came out. I am now.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

Red Jacket by Joseph Heywood (2012. Lyons Press. ISBN978-0-7627-8859-0)

Great, I thought, when I stumbled across this novel set in UP Michigan during the Copper Strike of 1913, maybe the author can give me some additional insight into what happened. Sorry to say, this isn’t the case. Here’s why.

This book, in many ways, reminds me of the Western penned by actor Gene Hackman (Payback at Morning Peak), which can be reviewed in the archives of this site by using the search bar. Hackman, a wonderful actor, is a lousy writer. I don’t know about Mr. Heywood’s acting ability but, as a writer, his style, at least as displayed in this 472 page tome, is puzzling. Puzzling in the sense that it doesn’t measure up to the blurb hype on the back jacket of the book or what one would expect to come from the fingertips of an author who reportedly has (according to the Amazon reviews of his work) a pretty loyal regional fan base for his fiction. What’s the problem, you ask?

Well, for starters, traditionally historical novels (and that’s what this book purports to be: heck, Teddy Roosevelt even appears as a character, though a bit unfulfilled as such, in my estimation) are big on narrative and use bits of dialogue to expose the inner thoughts and demons of the book’s characters, both real and imagined. Here, the reader is forced to read page after page after page of flat, uninteresting, and mundane dialogue that far exceeds what one would find even in the most stripped-down genre novels, where action and plot and dialogue are the keys to the story, and where narration and character usually take a back seat.

Then there is the protagonist himself, Lute Bapcat, and the details surrounding him. Let’s start with the fact that, as a 1910 era game warden, it would be unusual for Bapcat to carry a firearm or have arrest powers. My grandfather was a game warden in Minnesota a decade or so after this story takes place and he carried no weapon, had no powers of arrest, and at best, issued written citations to fish and game violators that resulted in small fines. Now, I’m not saying Heywood got the details of Bapcat’s profession wrong. I haven’t done the research to make that claim. But I am suspicious of the details inserted into this fictional story, especially when Bapcat’s weapon of choice is the rifle he carried with him during the Spanish American War. Logistically, a rifle makes a poor law enforcement tool. A handgun, such as the .45 that Heywood introduces later in the story, makes abundantly more sense if the officer is to be armed.

Add to this the plot, which involves mining executives scheming to disrupt the strike by poisoning streams (to eliminate trout as a source of food) and slaughtering the Keewenaw deer herd (for the same reason), and my suspension of disbelief’s radar was placed on high alert as I struggled through this very long and not so interesting read. Again, I don’t know if the mining companies in the UP hired out such nasty work in an effort to starve the strikers. But the language used by the author and the settings depicted gave me reason to doubt this major plot point throughout the book.

Heywood’s use of the UP as a setting also gets shorted. Oh sure, the author writes intelligently about his “neck of the woods” as you would expect from a regional author. But there is no depth, no soul to the depictions of place strewn about this story like solitary boulders in a mine dump. This failure to grab hold of the Keewenaw’s unique and compelling landscape and make it real, an additional character in the work, is perhaps the book’s greatest disappointment to me as a fellow regional novelist.

Finally, the complexities of plot and character seem artificial and forced. Take the relationship between Bapcat and Jaquelle Frei, a UP business woman who’s predilection for sex on demand comes off as immature and cartoonish: a connection without soul, meaning, or context. It’s pretty clear the author meant the scenes shared by Bapcat and his love interest to be titillating and naughty. But as written, the romantic connection falls hard on the frozen Keewenaw ground such that it is incapable of redemption by the remainder of the plot.

All in all, a severely disappointing read, so much so, I convinced myself that this book had to be self-published; unedited by professionals who would have read the manuscript and urged either rejection or a complete overhaul. Checking both the Lyons Press site and it’s parent company, Globe Pequot, I was unable to confirm my suspicion. So perhaps, like Hackman’s misguided journey into journalism, this one simply slipped through the cracks.

2 stars out of 5. Not a book I’d recommend.

Peace.

Mark

 

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.

 

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