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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

 

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

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

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

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

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

If I could take back

every snide remark

                                                                                 the way I terrorized

                                                                                my brothers…

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

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

In the wee hours,

I dream another woman’s dreams

the dreams of a boat;

the dream of the garden,

sweet peas and cabbages.

Wake with her story

rotting in my mouth

potatoes rotting

in the ground…

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

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

 

                                                                                  

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland.

(c) Mark Munger 2018

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Faith Works by Jim Wallis (2000. Random House. ISBN 1-4000-6479-1)

An Evangelical friend gifted this non-fiction “handbook for Christians” a year or so back. It sat on my shelf, waiting discovery, until it became one of my bedside and bathroom reads. Because I’m a life-long Liberal Christian (yes, we still exist!), I’ve taken it upon myself to try and understand the recent election of The Orange Headed One through the eyes of my more conservative, vocal, Christian brothers and sisters. I was hoping this book would guide me to some sort of comprehension. It did not. But that’s not because the book lacks depth or quality writing or spiritual insight. Wallis’s work is filled with all of those things. But it is, at this point, eighteen years old already and sadly, written at a time when the current disaster of a president wasn’t in the picture.

Too harsh you say? I’m being too judgmental? Here’s the thing. My entire life, my biggest pet peeve is hypocrisy, the “do as I say, don’t do as I do” mentality of certain folks in power. Wallis works hard to paint a picture of the a possible unification of Christians on the right and the left by turning away from debating whether one side or the other has the keys to the kingdom, or has a clue as to WWJD (What Would Jesus Do). He reports on a then-growing movement of like-minded and stout-hearted civil rights leaders, churchmen and women, and deep thinking politicians who understood, at least back in the late 1990s, that economic disparity, racial inequality, wage inequity, and environmental instability (most often in areas inhabited by the poor) are not just political questions: they are Christian issues. His reportage, as a leader in this re-discovery of the need to blend Christian charity with governmental oversight and programming,  is concise and accurate. But there is one fundamental flaw in his logic. He could not anticipate that his audience, fueled by the advance of Balkanization through politically-driven television and radio and websites, would not come together to confront the issues he raises but rather, separate farther and farther until the two sides of any big-picture argument are no longer able to talk in a common, respectful language.

I was hoping that Wallis, an acclaimed Evangelical himself, could point us all in a direction that would lead to reconciliation and healing. But despite his best efforts, that didn’t happen and in fact, seems desperately impossible. His stern warnings about Trump the candidate went unheeded by his fans and those fellow Evangelicals who believed Wallis, back when this book was written, was spot on. (See https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/donald-trump-narcissist-i_b_7770156.html.) And yet, here we are. We elected ( I include myself because, well, I am still an American and must live through the next three years alongside my fellow citizens who put Trump in office) a man who thinks only of himself, is a serial adulterer, denigrates women and minorities and immigrants and just about everyone who doesn’t share his white skin and his privilege, avoided military service when called, and worst of all, has no semblance of Christian charity or belief about him. Wallis tried, when he began the Sojourner Movement in the 1990s in the face of  Congressional attacks on the social safety net, to bring Jesus forward, to make Him the focus of a discussion of how to improve morally as a people. I applaud his tenacity and his faith. I am only sorry that his vision of a unified approach to the biggest social and equity issues confronting our nation has led us to this.

In reading Wallis’s book, my one major criticism is that he soft sells the wide gap between Evangelicals and Liberal Christians when it comes to the issue of abortion. The topic is only marginally present along the edges and never is tackled head on. This is, in my estimation, a mistake. Until the two sides in the abortion debate can come to some sort of armistice, whereby the Right is allowed to hold fast to its belief that abortion is a moral sin but admits those who think otherwise aren’t murdering, unfeeling animals; and the Left acknowledges that abortion is a morally difficult topic and recognizes that casually denigrating those who believe abortion to be morally repugnant are ignorant, backwater boobs is wrong; none of what Wallis hopes to accomplish across the spectrum of Christianity is likely possible. My personal take is such an accommodation may once have been plausible and all sorts of Believers might have been able to agree to disagree had that dialogue taken place around the time Bill Clinton (no moral guiding light, I’ll admit) shared his belief that abortion should be “legal and safe, but rare” in 1992. Had that discussion taken place before Hannity and Maddow, perhaps Wallis’s vision might have come to pass. But that era disappeared within the whirlwind of impeachment based upon a Liberal president’s own moral failings. Absent the heavens opening and Jesus descending sometime soon to guide us out of this morass, I’m not encouraged that things are gonna change and men and women across the political divide will roll up their sleeves and do the Good Work that Wallis believes is possible.

4 stars out of 5. Trump isn’t Wallis’s burden to bear. He is ours.

Peace.

Mark

(PS One could write volumes about the disconnect between how Evangelical Christianity held its collective nose and voted for an immoral man simply because he assured them “I stand against abortion” and yet aimed its collective slings and arrows in the direction of an intelligent, honest, faithful, and thoughtful black man. But this isn’t the place…)

 

 

 

Big Shoulders by William Jamerson (2007. Pine Stump. ISBN 978-1-882882-12-0)

The back cover jacket of this “coming of age in a CCC camp” novel reveals that the author is an award winning filmmaker (Camp Forgotten: The CCC in Michigan) so when my writer-turned-aunt handed me this book, being that I am a historian by training, I thought, “what the heck.” I must say, even though I managed to finish the story ( ever the optimist, I rarely ever give up on a novel), it’s not a story that I’d recommend to anyone over the age of 16. So. in addition to all of the book’s other flaws and faults, I’d add false advertising to the mix as well. Why?

There’s nothing on the back cover or inside the novel that warns the reader that the book is written for middle and high schoolers. That’s probably because the author did not intentionally set out to write a juvenile novel. But that, in the end, is what readers are left with. Beyond that, Jamerson’s writing style, while accurate, is stiff and analytic and contains few, if any, memorable scenes or passages. The old adage for budding fiction authors, “write like your parents are dead” is completely absent. Mr. Jamerson, while likely a very nice man and a find filmmaker, takes zero risk in his prose. The protagonist, Nick Radzinski-a city boy claimed by the camps for redemption-ambles along in this tale, avoiding, as the author does, any real consequence or conflict or revelation of mind or spirit. Two major plot points, Nick’s looming fight with the camp tough and his burgeoning affection for a local girl (Betty) end in abject disappointment. And the ending, where Mr. Jamerson attempts to “bring it all home” with a climatic, suspense-filled, nail biting conclusion, fails to excite or engage. The final scenes, in which Nick uncovers the identity of a camp thief-a person he’s been seeking to uncover to clear his good name-don’t even rise to the level of middle school suspension of disbelief, much the thrilling  to an adult-level read.

On the plus side, I discovered no sentence clunkers or typographical glitches or major deviations from the English language in this book. But technical competence cannot bring life to a body of words that lacks heart.

In the end, I wish I’d watched the documentary.

2 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace

Mark

 

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah (2011. St. Martin’s. ISBN 978-0312663155. This review is of the Audible version of the novel.)

It’s a long way from Duluth, Minnesota to Williston, North Dakota. So, when my wife Rene’ and I decided to change things up and not “do” Thanksgiving at home but travel to our son’s home in the Bakken, bringing my 89 year old mom with to visit her great granddaughter, I knew the only way we’d survive 10-11 hours (one way) in the Jeep was to have a good audio book ready to go. Having thoroughly enjoyed The Nightingale, a fabulous portrayal of conflict, love, and the French resistance during WW II, when I saw this title, saw that it was by Ms. Hannah, and read a few blurbs, I guessed it’d be a story my wife, my mother, and I would all enjoy. I’m glad I trusted my instincts.

Set in present day Washington State and WW II Leningrad (St. Petersburg), this tale is a complex family saga, historical novel, and contemporary love story (or actually, love stories) chronicling the lives of two sisters, Meredith and Nina as they slowly uncover, while mourning the loss of their father, the truth of their mother’s heritage and the reasons behind her stern, Russian demeanor. While the contemporary sections of the story were, as is always the case with Ms. Hannah’s expert narration, dialogue, and word craft, well paced and cleanly drawn, it is the “story within the story” (actually, at one point, this novel includes a story within a story within a story as well!), Anya Whitson’s (the mother’s) recalling of her survival of the siege of Leningrad by the Germans (for more on the siege see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Leningrad) that is both riveting and heart-wrenching. In the details of Anya’s life during the war, Hannah hits on all cylinders, compelling readers (or in our case, the listeners) to fear and dread and hope as each scene slowly unfolds. In a word, the Leningrad segements are masterful; expositions of fine prose by a writer at the peak of her craft.

My only criticism of the novel is that the ending (no spoiler here) is a bit too convenient, a bit too coincidental for my taste. But the two females on that long ride to and from Williston do not seem to share my concerns in this regard. Perhaps I’m too engaged in my own craft as a writer to allow for suspension of disbelief to the degree Ms. Hannah requires at the end of a very, very satisfying tale. The truth is, even with my slight critique of the book’s conclusion, this novel is a well-written generational tale that both men, who like action and warfare and history, and women, who are more partial to cerebral tales of familial conflict, can enjoy.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A page turner and a marvelous read.

Peace.

Mark

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