“I thought we were going to Scotland,” I complained as my wife showed me a TravelZoo page on the family iMac.

The page wasn’t of some gray and drizzly loch in the highlands but rather, of Villa I Laghi; a villa set in the golden hills and stark light of Tuscany.

Villa pool in Tuscany

“I want to go to Italy,” Rene’ replied.And that was that.

The trip was solely and wholly an idea conceived and orchestrated by my wife. She celebrated her 60th birthday in June. We celebrated 39 years of marriage in August. She was bound and determined that her longevity and her patience should be rewarded.

Without so much as a peep, I agreed: “Italy it is!”

Because I’d actually been watching flight prices to Scotland, I knew we could drive to Thunder Bay (TB) and fly Air Canada for significantly less than flying out of the Twin Cities. Plus, having flown out of TB on my infamous tour of Independent bookstores to Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Calgary (please, don’t ask), I knew that TB’s airport had cheap parking and was, like Duluth’s airport, easy to get in and out of. I found tickets from TB to Rome with one stop in Toronto for $400 cheaper than any flight out of Minneapolis. Because Rene’ was booking a villa an hour outside of Florence, we’d need a car. To get from Rome to the villa, I booked a flight on Alitalia and reserved a car at the Florence airport through Sixt. I figured we could drop the rental car at the Florence airport, take a cab to the railway station, and take the bullet train to Rome fro the second part of our journey. All that remained was to lock in a place to stay in Rome. I found decent prices at the Hotel California (“You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave…” is NOT their motto!). I did everything-airplane tickets, car, and Rome hotel stay-on Expedia using my ten year old iMac.

 “Do you think we should see if anyone else wants to go with?” Rene’ asked one evening after finalizing our itinerary.

Whoever we approach will have to have the time and the money to say “yes”. We’re two months out so not a lot of our friends can say ‘yes’…”How about the McVeans?” I suggested.

 “I’ll ask Nancy.”

A few days later, Nancy and Rene’ were sitting on our sofa, logged into my notebook, trying to book the McVeans on our trip. It took an actual person at Expedia to make it all come together. But our friends were in. And off we went on our excellent Italian adventure.

Rome, Italy. “The website says that the flight to Florence is cancelled,” a young lady, her hair pink, her eyes, nose, and tongue pierced, deadpanned.

We found ourselves stuck at the airport, waiting for an Alitalia jet to Florence. Our flight was scheduled to leave by 3. It was nearly 5:30 by the time the airline confirmed what the bright young lass with the smartphone had already learned via the Interweb. Alitalia handed us vouchers for sandwiches with the promise of a bus ride. No one, least of all the four Americans who’d spent 9 hours on Air Canada jets, was happy that we’d paid good money to go zoom zoom and, through bait and switch, were going to be crammed into a tourist bus for a two hour ride through the dark Italian countryside. But, true world travelers that we are, we didn’t complain.

The Florence airport was deserted when we pulled in seven hours after our flight was due to land. We found the Sixt booth, rented our car ( a Spanish Seat sedan complete with six speed manual), and headed for the villa. I’d insisted on GPS in the Seat. Good thing. It was as dark as the bottom of the sea as we tried to find the village of Montaione (a place which it took Ron and I two weeks to finally pronounce correctly and remember!). Eventually, Rene’ called the folks managing the villa (it was nearly midnight) who came into town, met us, and led us down a lonely dirt road to our digs.

Villa I Laghi

The stay at the Villa I Laghi was exceptional with one caveat: Tuscan mosquitoes are ungodly. They’re nearly invisible but when they latch on, they leave behind nasty welts that itch for days and days. But the pool, the hillside, the morning coffee on the stone patio complete with fresh croissants. Ah. It was like a scene out of Under the Tuscan Sun. Our hosts were kind, considerate, helpful, and made the stay remarkably easy. From our villa, we took in the sights of Montaione, Sienna, Pisa, Marina di Pisa (on the Tyrrhenian Sea) Florence, and the walled fortress town of Monteriggioni. The delights came day after day after day of bright sun, warm breezes, and great pasta and wine. But of all the cathedrals and churches and ruins and buildings we visited, the Duomo di Siena (Sienna Cathedral) in Tuscany was the most striking, most amazing building to my eye. Though, truth be told, sitting in an open-air pizzeria in rural Tuscany, listening to rain beat a cadence on the tin roof while watching young Italians slide pizzas in and out of a woodfired brick oven as lightning lit up the night and thunder boomed across the valley, was nearly as memorable. As was an evening spent in a linen-table-clothed restaurant within the walls of Old Montaione. The four of us toured the bistro’s wine cellar, tried to understand our waiter (whose English matched my Italian), received bags of pasta made by either the waiter’s cousin or nephew (the language thing again), and then sat down to a seven course feast ( I had the lamb: it was out of this world) and several fine bottles of locally crafted wine.

Sienna Duomo

Our time in Tuscany, other than the driver of the Seat (me) burning the clutch on a steep, rainy road coming back from town with groceries, was without any major international incident. Don’t laugh: Given my friend Ron’s penchant for engaging and talking to everyone, including immigrant workers in the eateries and random folks on the street, I figured we were destined for an Italian prison once he said the wrong thing to the wrong person. But he never did.

Ron, Nancy, and Rene’ in Sienna

 

Rome was busier than the laid back time we spent in Tuscany. The bullet train (which hit a top speed of 165 mph) was the perfect way to travel. We’d taken a local train from Castelfiorentino into Florence (I didn’t want to test my international driving skills in city traffic), which was an easy way to get to town. But that line was diesel and slow and not anything like the state-of-the-art electric wonder that whisked us from Florence to Rome. Once at the Rome station, it was just a short walk with our luggage to the Hotel California. Again, the reviews on Expedia and TripAdvisor were spot on: the place was funky but clean and had a great buffet breakfast, all for a very reasonable price. The blue glazed glass shower sitting in the middle of the room took a little getting used to but, well, when in Rome, do as the Romans do!

Nancy and Rene’ at the seashore

In our six days in the ancient capital, we saw and did it all: the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel, oodles of other museums, Trevi Fountain, the ruins, the Colosseum, Hadrian’s Mausoleum, and many lesser, but equally beautiful cathedrals and churches, the likes of which took your breath away at every turn. What made it all even more real is that, while on the bullet train, I’d finished my last physical book in my backpack, pulled out my phone, opened up the Kindle app, and began reading From Sand and Ash.

St. Peter’s Basilica; Michelangelo’s Pieta

“Hey, “ I said to Rene’ once we arrive in Rome, “this novel…”

 “Yes?”

 “I loaded it on Kindle because I liked the cover. Turns out, it’s about the Holocaust in Italy. It’s set in Rome and Florence.”

 “No kidding.”

I gave the book such glowing reviews, Rene’s book club selected it for this month’s read. Go figure.

Language was never a barrier. Oh, I won’t claim we mastered Italian. Time and time again, when we’d try out a phrase on a waitress, she’d invariably correct our missteps. But kindly and always with a smile. Even a simple, “Grazie” (thanks) usually came out deformed; and Ron’s misuse of “Prego” (you’re welcome) with any number of comely young ladies from all parts of the world has given me an idea as to what Ron will be getting for Christmas. But most Italians readily accommodated our inability to communicate by speaking passable English.

Two Happy Guys

I can’t end this piece without giving you some advice: If you want to see the Vatican, go with a tour. It’s crowded and you don’t want to wait hours to get in. As far as the Colosseum and the forums, you can do those on your own. But, unless Ron is with you, make sure to reserve your tickets online. What’s so special about Ron? Well, you’d never know it from how he plays volleyball, or hockey, or basketball, or works around the house, but he’s missing his left arm. Now, having known the guy for 34 years, I can tell you this: Never once have I ever thought of Ronald McVean as being handicapped. He is one of the most able bodied people I know. But this exchange proves why you need to bring Ron (or your own one armed pal) with you to Rome:

“It’s gonna be a two hour wait to get in,” I moaned as we approached the Colosseum. “The line winds all the way around the place…”

Rene’ bit her lip. “You don’t come all the way to Rome to look at it from outside.”

“I agree,” Nancy said.

“Me too,” Ron agreed.

So, I complied and followed my group begrudgingly towards the entrance.

An Italian in charge of security eyeballed Ron. “You sir, are you with a group?”

“Yes. Four of us.”

The officer looked at Ron’s stub. “Follow me.”

Now whether he thought Ron was an American war hero (doubtful since he served his time in the Air Force away from falling bombs) or, as we seemed to be learning by a sequence of random acts, (Ron was given special privileges on other occasions as well), it’s simply Italian good manners, the four of us went to the head of the line. And, once inside, I have to say: I enjoyed the view immensely!

The Forum, Rome

Ronaldo on the tour bus

We ate our last dinner in Rome at another fine restaurant, dining as we nearly always did, under a canopy on the sidewalk, before attending a Vivaldi concert (how can you not take in “the Four Seasons” when Italy?) performed live in a beautiful Anglican church a few blocks from our hotel.

The next morning Ron said goodbye to his new friend from Sri Lanka, an airline pilot Ron had breakfast with most days, exchanging emails and promises to “stay in touch.” We caught a cab to the airport, waited in agonizingly slow lines, and finally, our feet weary but our spirits content, we flew back to Canada, four American friends who’d managed to avoid international incident or embarrassment…mostly.

Pace (Peace in Italian. I looked it up…)

Mark

Art-the Italian Way!

                 

                 

                 

 

 

My Own Words: Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mary Hartnett, and Wendy W. Williams (2016. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-5011-4524-7)

Someone gifted me this book for Christmas. It sat on my reading shelf, somewhere down in the stack, until Rene’ and I were packing for a trip to Tuscany and Rome. Despite the book’s bulk, I tossed it in my suitcase with relish, thinking, That’s gonna be a great read. I will finally find out something about my legal heroine’s upbringing and life. Well, I, along with whomever bought me the book, misconstrued exactly what this volume entailed. Sadly, expecting a memoir or autobiography of one of most notable liberal Supreme Court Justices still serving telling me her story through childhood remembrances and perhaps, through anecdotes shared by others, this hastily put together mishmash of old school editorials, speeches, and lectures wasn’t anything like what I was expecting. Now, it is true there wasn’t any “bait and switch” here: The cover never proclaims this volume to be a memoir or autobiography (can someone enlighten me as the difference, please?). Instead, the subtitle tells potential readers that the book’s material is “in her own words”, which, because the speeches and other writings quoted are indeed the Justice’s, is not deceptive. But it’s also true that neither the front nor the back cover indicate this tome is simply a collection of Bader Ginsburg’s previous writings. In some ways, the disappointment I experienced reading this collection, given my high expectations for unique, revelatory prose matched my reaction to Pat Conroy’s, A Lowcountry Heart, a similar collection of Mr. Conroy’s prior speeches, eulogies, and blogs that was published after the author’s demise. Here, Justice Ginsburg, being very much alive, missed a chance to tell her story in her own words. That, to me, was a missed opportunity.

3 stars out of 5. An interesting compendium of writings worth reading to understand the Justice’s take on modern American life but not a linear memoir or biography.

Peace.

Mark

From Sand and Ash by Amy Harmon (2016. Lake Union Publishing. 978-1-50393932-5)

I didn’t know. Looking for something as a “backup” read for a two week trip to Italy and with two big paperbacks already crammed into my suitcase, I wanted a digital book on my phone that I could read and enjoy during the 9 hour plane rides to and from Europe. I looked on Amazon, found this novel as a “free” read on Prime, and downloaded it onto my iPhone 7 in the Kindle app. All I can say is: “Wow!”

Little did I know that this story of a Jewish woman and a Catholic priest caught in the whirlwind of Italy after the Nazis take control of the country during WW II would serve as a literary tour guide for my first visit to Florence and Rome. Yes, that’s right: without a clue, I’d downloaded a book simply because of the cover art and because it was free and it turned out to be a novel set in the very country, and in the very cities, I was visiting! Weird, huh? Anyway, to cut to the chase, those folks who loved the literary sensibilities and historical accuracy of The Nightingale and, more recently, All the Light We Cannot See, will love, yes that’s right, simply love this story. It’s memorable for all the right reasons and would make for a fine book club read.

5 stars out of 5. I suggested it to my wife for her book club and they picked it up. I’ll let you all know what a group of rural Minnesota women think!

Peace.

Mark

 

Going Coastal: An Anthology of Lake Superior Short Stories (2017. North Star Press. ISBN 978-1-68201-069-3)

I have to be careful here. I’m reviewing a collection of short stories by contemporary writers (some of whom are acquaintances of mine) whose work appears in a collection for which my own short story, Isle Royale, was not selected for inclusion. So I’m hoping this review is objective and not fueled by the sting of rejection. The best way to determine the measure of my fairness? Buy a copy from Zenith Books or The Bookstore at Fitger’s and read it!

As a whole, I was impressed by the quality of the writing. There were a couple of stories here worthy of national attention. My favorites are “The Urge for Going”, a story of a Native American’s journey home that follows the North Shore of Lake Superior. There was something about the tone of the story and the geographic progression of the protagonist’s internal and external trek that struck a chord. The other notable piece, “The Heart Under the Lake”, was much different but every bit as readable and riveting. Most of the other stories were also skillfully crafted. However, “The Lake Effect”, a piece of historical fiction involving the loss of a steamer in 1919 had a number of implausibilities embedded in the plot that made it difficult to swallow, not the least of which was the protagonist, the captain, “darting” across an icy deck from one section of the doomed ship to another during a snow squall. Details make historical fiction believable, allow the reader to suspend his or her disbelief, and “The Lake Effect” simply failed to attain that mark in my view. However, if you read the piece and form a more favorable opinion, so be it.

The remainder of the book includes solid writing, which, coupled with the short duration of the tales, makes the book a great choice for a vacation read. By way of example, “Water Witch” has a refreshing, somewhat mystical theme, one not found in the remainder of the stories in the collection. My one criticism of the collection as a whole is that the breadth and depth and complexities of Lake Superior’s geography and history and people don’t really get the expansive treatment they deserve. Yes, the First Peoples deserve to be showcased. And the North Shore is magical. But what of the Norwegians, the Finns, and all the other ethnic groups that settled around the lake? And where were the stories of the towns, the cities, and industry to be found around the largest freshwater lake in the world? And why no tales set in the UP, another magical, nearly mythical region of the Lake Superior Basin? A good collection that reflects, in a partial way, how it feels to live here.

4 stars out of 5.

 

The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens (2016. 7th street Books. ISBN 978-1-63388-205-8)

The first third of this murder mystery/legal thriller depicted the Twin Cities with such clarity and succinctness that I was ready to give the book a “5 star” rating right off the bat. My ardor for the writing cooled a bit as the plot evolved but, despite the fact that Eskens, in my view, grew a bit less engaging and compelling in his details and depictions as the story arc climaxed, this is s still a fine, fine summer read.

Max Rupert is convinced that defense lawyer Ben Pruitt killed Jennavieve Pruitt, Ben’s wife. Past experience with the lawyer may or may not have caused Rupert to ignore other, more plausible suspects. As is usual in such novels, there are depictions of wealth and privilege and sex and violence, all of which move the story along quite well. As a former prosecuting attorney and now a sitting judge of more than 19 years, I can vouch for the fact that Eskens gets the details mostly right. The one glitch I found, one that should have been edited out early on, is this exchange:

“They’ll hold me over for a bail hearing.”

We’ll get you in and out as fast as possible.”

“And what if the judge denies bail?”

(p. 151)

Fact is, since Pruitt is alleged to have committed murder, a state crime, he’s in Minnesota State District Court on the charge. Minnesota requires bail be set in every case, no exceptions. Even Charlie Manson would be allowed bail in Minnesota; unlike some states where the judge can simply “remand” (keep in jail) a defendant without setting bail. The lay reader won’t likely even see this glitch and, to be fair, it’s about the only error in the procedural depictions in the book that I found.The twist at the end seemed a bit forced to me but I’ll let you discover that on your own and form your own conclusion as to whether it works fully as an ending or not.

The dialogue is crisp and believable. The plotting, quick and lithe, just as you’d expect in this type of yarn. Overall, a well done pot boiler that makes for a good summer hammock read.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

How do you capture the spirit of a man in words? I mean, a sculptor, a good sculptor, can do it in rock or wood, right? If you’ve seen any of Michelangelo’s work in marble, or Rodin’s The Thinker carved from stone, I think you’ll agree. The same is true of any painter worth his or her easel. The nuances of a person’s soul, their essence, can, if the artist is talented, be conveyed on canvas by replicating that one glance, that one smirk, that one wink everyone remembers. Music, the medium of Duke’s essence, might be a good choice for trying to figure the guy out but no one here, least of all Duke’s family and his fellow musicians want me to start trying to replicate Duane Tourville in song. So, as I struggle writing this piece, listening to jazz classics on Youtube—a real contradiction since Duane never owned a computer—“All of Me” playing softly in the background, I’m stuck trying to capture a beloved husband, brother, stepfather, grandfather, great grandfather, uncle, and friend in a eulogy. But here goes.

It’s not an easy thing to be a stepparent. Especially a stepparent to three Munger kids and their respective broods. Even though Duke entered into the picture when I was already married and a father and practicing law in Duluth, and Dave was already gainfully employed, and Annie was wrapping up high school, the point being, we weren’t little kids when Mom and Dad finally pulled the plug and Mom and Duke started spending time together, such transitions and change can be troublesome. Many such late-in-life partnerships fail. This one didn’t. From the very beginning, Duke was an engaged stepfather and grandfather despite never having kids of his own. And there’s absolutely no question he, in a word, simply adored Barbara. The two of them, though never perfect, were perfect for each other. How Mom found a railroad man who was elegant, dapper, talented, generous, thoughtful, and dedicated after both of them had been married to other folks, well, that really is a mystery. But a mystery that served them and our family well.

Most of you know that Duane had a lifelong love affair with another lady, a big blue one. Lake Superior was in Duke’s DNA likely because of his father, Ransom, who once operated an excursion boat on St. Louis Bay. In any event, it wasn’t long after Duke and Barb were married that my older boys, Matt and Dylan, were invited to experience the glory of Lake Superior. Matt, our eldest, remembers a trip from Grand Portage to Isle Royale in the company of Rene’, me, Barb, and Duke aboard the Ransom II not so much for the fun and excitement but for the fact that as we left Mark Rude and his mother at Fisherman’s Home and headed up the east coast of the island, the seas became rough. The two and a half to three foot swells and dark sky didn’t faze Captain Duke who invited me up on to the fly bridge to sip Bud as the little 26’ bluewater boat bounced through weather. Matt remembers Grandma Barb’s solution to my wife’s uneasiness in the cabin below us was pretty straightforward: Brandy and seven. Lots of them, allowing us to circumnavigated the island without incident. A few years later, Matt joined Grandma and Grandpa on the Ransom II for an even longer voyage, a trip to the Keweenaw. Again, Captain Duke was a master of his boat and respected the big lake enough to know when to stay in port and when to venture out.

Dylan, my second son, recalls a week-long trip from Barker’s Island to the Apostles on which he caught his first lake trout. On a shorter trip, Grandpa let the eight year old captain the boat from the fly bridge but made a serious miscalculation: Dylan had chowed down a bag of Doritos that ended up being hurled over the boat’s side as chum.

Chris and Jack, our youngest sons, never got to experience personal voyages with Grandpa on the Ransom II. By the time they came along, Duke and Barb had sold their place in Superior and traded in the Bertram for a pontoon boat. But you know Duke. The pontoon boat he bought wasn’t just a 20 footer with a cheap Force outboard to be used for lazy tours of Island Lake where the Tourvilles built their new home. No, Duke invested in a twenty-six foot Tritoon powered by a 260hp inboard outboard, a boat capable of pulling three water skiers and reaching 40 mph. No sedate, putt-putt for Captain Duke! Both Chris and my brother Dave reminded me, when I asked for reflections of the Old Captain, of how Duke loved to tow his grandkids behind that pontoon, starting out slow, a can of Bud in hand, gradually opening the throttle. Duke believed it was his job to flip the kids off the tube and when he wasn’t able to do that, which was rare, he begrudgingly gave the rider a big “thumbs up.”

When Duke and Barb moved to West Duluth from Island Lake, the pontoon moved with them. They used the Tritoon to host Labor Day gatherings on the St. Louis River. If the weather was good, the tube came out. If not, we just took a ride. My sister Annie remembers one return trip where white caps tossed passengers around like ragdolls but had no affect on the man in charge. Despite the rough seas, Captain Tourville kept the boat on course, a grin on his face and a cold beer in his hand.

One Labor Day, we were returning to Boy Scout Landing on the pontoon when we passed a fishing boat anchored near shore. A woman was in the water next to the boat thrashing and screaming something about a dog. Duke sprang into action and raced to rescue the floundering woman. The family dog had apparently jumped overboard and was having a jolly good time paddling around the boat. According to her husband (who remained uncommonly calm) the woman had panicked because she thought their dog couldn’t swim, jumped in, and then remembered that she was the one who couldn’t swim. My brother Dave, brother-in-law David, and I opened the front gate on the pontoon and tried to pull the woman out of the water. But here’s the thing: That woman was as big as a house. When we yanked on her arms, we nearly pulled them out of their sockets. She was panicked and tearful and just about spent as Duke held his boat in place and we worked out the logistics. My brother dove in the river. David and I grabbed a beach towel and threaded it under the woman’s arms. It was shallow enough for my brother to stand on the bottom, put his hands inelegantly on the woman’s butt, and lift. With Dave underwater and pushing, and two of us pulling, we plopped the overly large woman onto the pontoon’s front deck. Duke’s response, as he threw the inboard outboard into reverse? He simply grinned, opened up the throttle, and brought the tearful woman back to Boy Scout Landing.

As his obituary said, if Duane wasn’t on water, he was on snow. Barb and Duke weren’t part of the original group that began the Ski Hut trips to Bridger Bowl but they soon became part of the crew. Fifteen years ago, when our youngest son Jack was five or six, Mom and Duke convinced Rene’ and I to join them. Jack learned to ski the right way, as Grandpa Duke would say: he learned in the mountains! Since then, all four of our sons and Annie’s family have made the trek to Bozeman at one time or another, experiences with family and friends that we’ll never forget.

Duke was an elegant and graceful skier who constantly challenged my boys and Annie’s two girls, Madeline and Emelia, to “race”, which, since there weren’t any gates set up, meant bombing the hill. Grandpa claims he never lost a race and I guess, we can’t really dispute his bragging at this point, can we? Chris remembers Grandpa Duke skiing a steeply pitched run and “buying the farm”, requiring Chris to stop and walk back up the hill to help a very snowy Grandpa dig out his skis and poles. Once, Duke and I were skiing Pierre’s Nob at Bridger when I led him down a back slope, a black diamond, not knowing that I was taking a seventy-five year old guy into a field of awful moguls and ice. We made it through but that was the last run Duke skied with Mark that day!

Though never a soccer or hockey player, Duke made sure he and Barb were there for many, many of his grandkids’ athletic contests. Even more important, he was there, working as a crew chief when my youngest son, Jack, organized his Eagle Scout project. Duane gave up the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend to be at Grace Lutheran Church leading a group of five or six scouts putting together benches as part of Jack’s project. The kids of Grace still use those benches when enjoying a campfire, the benches a lasting legacy to Grandpa Duke’s generosity with his time.

He never missed a gathering at my brother Dave’s house in South Range and he was proud of the lives that Diane’s daughters and Grandson Jonathan were living. The fact that Jonathan is now working the same rails that Grandpa Duane engineered on for over 45 years is something, I’m sure, that makes the old man’s chest puff out with pride.

Duane grew up in a large and loving family. Jack and Carol (two of his siblings) and their spouses were there every day of Duke’s last stay at St. Luke’s, constantly talking to him, trying to rally his spirits, praying, like all of us, for a miracle. The miracle never happened but oh, the stories his brother and sister told! There were tales of Duke and Jack ski jumping throughout the Midwest, tales of familial teasing, the typical sort of thing you’d expect. But the one tale that really stuck with me is one Jack told, and one I’d heard Duke himself relate. When the boys were on the cusp of being teenagers, around ten or eleven, and school was out for the summer, the Tourville boys hitch hiked to the farm of a family friend outside Ashland, Wisconsin. They were to work on the farm for the summer. It was left to the boys to figure out how to get from the West End to Ashland on their own. Different world, different time. Anyway, the way Jack tells the tale, the boys made it to Ashland by dark, having hitched numerous rides along US Highway 2. With no tent, no place to stay, the two pre-teens bedded down in the shrubs near the band shell in the city park only to have their sleep disturbed during the night. No, it wasn’t the cops or wildlife that woke Jack and Duke. The boys were startled out of sleep by the sounds of a man and a woman making love in the bushes just a few feet away from the giggling, hysterical boys. And you thought farm kids learned the birds and the bees in the barnyard!

Did you ever see Duane unhappy? Shelly, my daughter-in-law can’t recall seeing Duke without a smile beneath his pencil thin moustache. She calls it “the best smile ever!” And, like I said earlier, that smile wasn’t just reserved for folks he knew well. Lisa, my other daughter-in-law, the gal who gave Duane the nickname “Troublemaker” or “Trouble” for short, says that from the moment she first met Grandpa Duke, he was thoughtful, engaging, and welcoming. And his joy, his interest in folks extended to the little people in his life. As he awaited heart surgery at St. Luke’s, Duke talked to his great-grandson, Adrien, who stopped by to visit. If Duke was nervous about the impending triple-bypass and valve replacement, he didn’t let on. Which, if you know Duke, was not his usual demeanor. Hospitals and doctors tended to make him nervous and fretful. But not this time. No, he and Adrien, who, like his father Matt, knows many variations of the word “Why?” had a good give and take including a discussion of Grandpa ordering meatloaf for dinner, a meal that Adrien advised he’d had for lunch that day at preschool.

Most of you know that Duke was a man of faith. He loved this big old church, a church he came to late in life. Given that, I don’t want to be disrespectful when recalling the life of a guy who had five Episcopal priests, a deacon, an Evangelical preacher, and a Catholic priest visit him, anoint him, pray for him, and say the last rites over him when he was in St. Luke’s. But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Duke was a perfect man who never got angry or said a cross word or made a mistake. Hell, he was married a couple of times before he got it right with Mom so there’s that to mull over. And, let’s be honest, there were times when Duke liked beer a bit too much. He could also, if you pushed the right button, show his temper. I know. I experienced it a time or two, as this last story will make clear.

When my mom and dad divorced, we’ll not go into the details here, let’s just say that my mom did all right in the settlement. After she and Duane got married, he sold his Spirit Mountain condo and the two of them planned and built a gorgeous house in Billings Park. I sort of wish they never left that place. Of the three homes they built in their 33 years of marriage, that’s the one I liked best. Hands down. Anyway. So Duane sold his condo and mom used her divorce settlement to build that lovely place on the water in Superior. I was still working as a lawyer, as a partner in my dad’s firm, at the time. One day my dad asked me about the new place Barb and Duke had built. News traveled quickly at the Paul Bunyan Bar. Without missing a beat, I said, “Well, Dad, it’s the nicest house you ever built.” Harry didn’t think that was funny. Word got back to Duke about what I’d said. And while I thought the quip was funny, the Frenchman didn’t. Duke wouldn’t talk to me for a couple of days after that.

Those of you who golfed and bowled or fished and boated or played music with Duane likely have hundreds, maybe thousands of similar stories of this gracious, kind, loving, joyful man. I urge you to come to the Kitch after the service, listen to some great jazz from his pals, and share your stories in a place that Duke loves. The old ski jumper, boat captain, and drummer will be listening in to make sure Billy Bernard plays all the right notes and that the bass and drums keep proper time. Trust me. Troublemaker wouldn’t miss a party.

As I end this reflection of Duane’s life, I’ll leave you with a poem I found online. Duke’s not here in person, but he’s here in spirit and he’ll be ever so grateful if, from time to time, you’d look in on his beloved Barbara. Stop in for coffee. Take her to lunch. Invite her to the ski hill to watch the grandkids and great grandkids bomb the hill. Call to chat. Send her a note. Drop off a good book. Duke will appreciate it.

The Sea Captain’s Wife

Often when I drink my tea
I dream of Duluth, by the sea
But though her hills are sweet and fair
It is the sea, which holds me there.

The jagged cliffs, remain as gifts
To me in my old age,
Where lilac heather and pines together
Traverse across the page.

Up the winding stair I go
Into the heavens grey,
And though it was so long ago
It seems but yesterday.

Still on the wind the autumn air
Comes in crisp and cold,
And buried with the gravestones bare
Are secrets left untold.

Beyond the walls of gabro stone
Lie ruins of the past.
I’ve come aways to be alone–
To make this moment last.

And when the boats come into shore
I take in all the bay,
For though I’ve opened an ancient door
I’m never far away.

Muse22 © 2015 (as adapted by MAM)

Thanks.

 

Killer of the Flower Moon by David Grann (2017. Doubleday. ISBN 978-038554246)

It seems that J. Edgar Hoover didn’t screw everything up as the perennial director of the FBI. At the height of the murders (by poison, gun, beating, and explosion) of wealthy Osage Indians in the late 1920s, Hoover’s fledgling sleuths, who were not allowed to carry firearms during their normal course of duty but did in this case, were dispatched to do undercover work in Indian County in Oklahoma. What Special Investigator Tom White, a retired Texas Ranger, and his band of federal lawmen uncovered was a shocking betrayal of the Osage: a tribe of Native Americans that had the foresight to retain the mineral rights to their territory even as it was sold from under their collective feet. This forward thinking meant that the Osage, as oil was discovered and released from the Oklahoma landscape, became the 1920s equivalent of some modern day tribes that’ve hit the jackpot (pun intended) with casino gaming.

Betrayal. History. The timeless desecration of the Natives by White intruders. Murder. Mayhem. Destruction. It’s all here in this well wrought rendition of history that, for the most part, reads like a novel. And that, for those of us who like our prose expertly crafted (and not written for fourth graders ala Bill O’Reilly) is a very good thing. The only minor flaw in the book to my way of thinking is Grann’s determination to include all of the information he learned (during his exhaustive research) about the totality of the deaths, including murders never charged against the principals. The author dives into the unsolved cases and their impact on the Osage in the concluding chapters of the tale. I would have simply told the story that’s known, verifiable, and complete and leave the addendum for a magazine article or a blog entry. But this failing is but a minor distraction in an otherwise very fine read.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. Non-fiction that sings like Hemingway.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

 

Between Them by Richard Ford (2017. Harper. ISBN 978-0062670342) This review refers to the audio version of the book.

I read about this memoir, really a biography of literary novelist Richard Ford’s parents, on Lit Hub. I’ve never read any Ford. Some of you snootier readers might hold that against me, looking down your noses at a supposed writer because I’ve never read one of America’s iconic literary novelists. Well, life is short. I spent a lot of my youth reading LeGuin, Tolkien, and trashy mass market paperbacks my mom had on the shelf. I’m trying to catch up by making my way through the classics and, here and there, picking up contemporary literary fiction, all the while also reading worthy nonfiction. It’s a tough job folks, but someone’s got to do it. Now, on to Ford.

He’s a fantastically gifted writer. That’s for certain. Richard Ford crafts sentences that flow like oily water over mossy stones. But his effort, to capture the essence of his father and mother, and their impact on him in this fairly short memoir just didn’t captivate me as much as I thought it would. The structure of the book, separating the major character traits and histories of Ford’s parents into their own compartmentalized biographies, while still touching on their loving and sometimes rocky relationship, just seemed too artificial to the reader (or in the case of the version I am reviewing, the listener). In addition, lives of ordinary, everyday people, while perhaps interesting sidelights when their offspring is, as here, a famous writer, if included in a memoir focusing the lens of time on the subject’s parents (a housewife and salesman) seems mundane and boring. This remained true throughout Between Them even when intrafamilial conflict was exposed and pain was expressed.

In short, Ford does a masterful job of portraying his family life as a child, his upbringing, the traits and attributes and deficits of his parents in this succinct read. The problem is, at the end of it all, I just didn’t care. I’m not saying I won’t wander down to one of our two local Indies and seek out a Ford novel. Far from it. He’s a great writer. I just didn’t find the subject matter compelling as a stand alone work.

3 stars out of 5. Readable due to Ford’s great prose but not all that exciting.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe,” was all she said.

Peace.

Mark

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 star out of 5. Well worth the read.

Peace.

Mark

 

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