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 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

 

The Fourth Night Watch by John Falkberget. Translated from the Norwegian by Ronald G. Popperwell (1968. University of Wisconsin Press. Unknown ISBN)

I ordered a hardcover, used copy of this Norwegian novel because its author, Johan Falkberget, wrote fiction in and around the town of Rørøs (Bergstadten) Norway. Why would I do such a thing, you ask? Well, my current writerly project involves chronicling my Finnish everyman (from Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh) Anders Ahlomaki’s migration from his birth in Finland to Duluth, where Suomalaiset is set in 1908. Encouraged by my Finnish friends Gerry Henkel (former editor of the New World Finn) and Jim Kurtti (editor of the Finnish American Reporter) to complete my trilogy, I found myself with Anders in Rørøs working a copper mine. So, I thought What better way to learn about the area and the people than to read a novel from a local author? And while part of me was disappointed in Falkberget’s subject matter (I was hoping that he’d detail the mines and mining in his backstory and he said little about that industry), I found the book, albeit stereo typically dark and gloomy (hallmarks of the best of Scandinavian fiction, right?), the novel held my interest and was well worth the effort.

It’s an age old story, one that I adapted to my first lawerly novel, Pigs. A married man, with kids and a career, risks it all for a tumble in the hay with a woman other than his wife. Here, the tortured existence of Rev. Benjamin Sigismund, newly arrived with his children and his consumptive wife, Katheryn to Rørøs, becomes immediately smitten with Gunhild Finne, a younger woman betrothed to a local copper miner. Worse yet, the good reverend is called upon to perform the couple’s marriage ceremony all the while knowing Gunhild has no love in her heart for the groom. Conflicted by his own interest in the woman and his duty to God, Sigismund performs the marriage and the rest is fairly predictable in terms of the tragedies and troubles that befall everyone in the book. One shining light is amidst all the gloom is Gunhild’s uncle, Ol-Kanelesa, a defrocked teacher who is reduced to begging for jobs, including that of the pastor’s assistant. Wise and self-educated, Oll-Kanelsa is the moral linchpin of the tale and is a memorable actor on a fairly narrow and limited stage.

All in all, an interesting excursion into early 20th century Norwegian literature.

4 star out of 5.

A History of Finland by Henrik Meinander. Translater from the Swedish by Tom Geddes. (2013. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-9333351-6)

I was in need of a concise, easily readable, history of Finland. Why? Well, as indicated above in my review of The Fourth Night Watch, I’m deeply immersed in crafting the third and final installment to my Finnish trilogy. The working title of the book is Kotimaa: Homeland, and the tale spans fictional everyman Anders Ahlomaki’s life from birth to immigration to Duluth in 1908 and also touches upon present-day issues of nationalism, Xenophobia, immigration, and terrorism related to Islamic extremism and Finnish politics. A big plate? You bet? And I needed a quick reference in Finnish history to add depth to my Internet and other reading. I found Meinander’s book was the perfect fit for my needs.

The author gives us, in a very short, well written history, all the essentials. Granted, given the cursory nature of the volume, Meinander can only skim over many of the larger episodes in Finnish history, including the War of Independence, the Winter War, and the like. But, all in all, the author gives non-Finnish readers a flavor for the complex and relatively short story of Finland as an independent nation. Given that Finland celebrates its centennial this December and given my need for a primer on all things Finnish, the book was a perfect fit. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Finland or heading out for a visit.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

The Innocent by David Baldacci (2012. Grand Central. ISBN 978-1-4555-1900-2)

After I closed the cover on this paperback for the last time, this was my final thought: At least I didn’t pay for it.  My Aunt Susanne, a fellow writer, handed this book to me a year or so ago and said, “You might like this.” She was wrong.

I’ve never read Baldacci, a mass market paperback guru of the action/suspense/thriller genre. After forcing myself to finish The Innocent, I will never waste my time on his work again. There is so much to say about the  messed up, nonsensical plot, the characters, the improbabilities, the awkward mandatory sex scene (intimated, not directly depicted), and the clunky dialogue of a teenage damsel in distress that I’d exhaust myself working through it all. I won’t. I’ll just give you my basic thought: I don’t use an outline when I write fiction but this guy needs one. It’s that simple. I found the meandering plot, which begins with Will Robie, a U.S. government sanctioned hit-man taking out a Middle Eastern type, and ends with a furious shoot-out at the White House, so disjointed and tactically implausible (really, a guy (Robie) wanders into a state dinner where the President and the Saudi Crown Prince are about to dine carrying two loaded handguns, fires off a round to save them both, and he isn’t immediately taken out by the Secret Service despite their having no knowledge he’s a friend, not a foe?). The would be assassin (spoiler alert) is a slight, petite, secretary and she is able to cold cock a Secret Service agent and steal his weapon and smuggle it into the dinner with impunity? In the White House? And this kind of suspension of reality permeates the plot until you are thinking, Maybe Superman will suddenly appear too!

I found the Robie character boring. No class, no sophistication, no nothin’. Definitely no James Bond or Jason Bourne. He’s a cardboard hero with no depth, soul, or meaning, like the rest of the book. To me, this novel is all about the payday, not in terms of the plot’s climax but in terms of the author’s wallet. I’m not so high minded that I can’t enjoy a good mystery or potboiler or legal thriller or mass market love story. I was a huge fan of Grisham until he too started phoning it in. And no, Mr. Baldacci, this isn’t a semi-famous novelist searching for a reason to denigrate a master. The only thing that this book masters is lining up words into sentences into paragraphs into pages into chapters. Beyond that, it’s pretty much stale, unimaginative, and confused.

422 pages of drivel. That’s my take. About the only positive thing I have to say is that I didn’t toss the novel into the trash in disgust like I did John Irving’s worst work, Until I Find You, or give up 1/4 into the mess, as I did when trying to get through Stephen King’s horrible take on killer clowns, It. We can agree to disagree on this one, folks. But with millions of good books being written, I’ll not waste my precious time on another Balducci. If I want something along these lines, I’ll ask my five year old grandson to tell me a story.

2 stars out of 5. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s about all I can say.

Peace,

Mark

 

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy (Audible. 2009 ISBN 978-0553381559)

I was given a copy of Conroy’s last book, A Low Country Heart by a friend for Christmas. I wasn’t too kind to the old guy in my review (use the search function above to find what I had to say) but, having loved the movie version of Prince of Tides and having heard nothing but raves about The Great Santini and Conroy’s other, autobiographical novels, well, I had to try another book written by this Boy of the South. I chose Santini as my selection and listened to the Audible version of the novel on my rides to and from the courthouse. Here’s my take.

Conroy knew himself, his family dynamics, the fear and loathing, and yes, love, he felt for his father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot who served in three wars. It’s a difficult thing, I think, for sons to write about fathers. At least, I know that will be true for me when I finally sit down to put my life with my old man on the page. The warts. The celebrations. The wisdom. The anger. The tender moments. The praise. The chastisement. They all have to be there, whether you’re writing an autobiographical novel or a memoir. Here, at times, I think Conroy’s venting of his teenage-self’s hatred of The Great Santini, who, like the author’s own father, is a no-holds–barred disciplinarian and asshole, gets in the way of the protagonist’s story. And yet, in the end, Conroy is such a masterful storyteller, for 3/4 of the novel, he had me spellbound. It’s the other 1/4 of the book, where Bull Meecham is an unbearable brute, who, despite the ending (spoiler alert) eventually does get his comeuppance, and several extended narrative passages  chronicling the details of the Meecham family’s domestic life, that leads me to give this less than a 5 star or even a 4 and 1/2 star review. Conroy knows how to write for the male half of American society. His depictions of boyhood bullying and sports and flirtations with girls becoming young women is all spot on. I enjoyed the story except for those rare passages that dragged or became so brutal and horrific (in terms of Bull’s behaviors) that I nearly wanted to scream at Ben, the son, the oldest child, and the Conroy stand-in, to find Bull’s .45, put a bullet in the old man’s noggin and end it all. But, after finishing this marathon of family dysfunction, I have to admit: Pat Conroy knew how to spin a yarn.

4 stars out of 5. I need to see how Duvall played Bull in the movie. On to NetFlix…

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance (Audible. Harper Audio. 2016. 978-0062300553)

Weird, huh? I follow up reading one Southern writer’s bestselling novel by diving into a memoir/social science dissertation concerning mountain folk, poverty, welfare, and yes, just like The Great Santini, family violence and dysfunction. J. D. Vance is a survivor. No doubt about that. When one reads (or in my case, listens to) his life story as depicted in this tale, it’s remarkable that the boy made it to becoming a man. That much is clear. Vance makes it readily apparent that he managed to become an Ivy League-educated lawyer and writer, not because of his immediate family (his parents) but because of extended family, friends, and teachers filling in the void, protecting him, nurturing him. The autobiographical portions of the book are outstanding. It’s when Vance switches from telling his life story and educating the reader/listener indirectly about the effects of poverty and familial discord upon children though his prose to lecturing us on social policy that the memoir loses steam.

It’s a worthy read, a read that fits in well with our current political impasse but Vance’s pronouncement that he remains a “Conservative Republican” begs the question: How can that be possible? I mean, is he not reading the newspapers, listening to the radio, watching the news (including Fox)? I’m not talking about the Orange Headed One and his accelerating disintegration. I’m talking about what the leaders of the Republican Party are proposing in terms of social engineering with the dismantling of the ACA, defunding birth control services provided by Planned Parenthood, tax breaks for the wealthiest segment of society, increased military spending at the expense of Medicaid, and the like. Take Vance’s experience as the grandson of Kentucky hillbillies as an example. He writes poignantly and lovingly, but with a distinct hint of irony and angst, about his mother, his sister and other young women becoming pregnant months after they have their first menses. Where does these young women turn for birth control if Planned Parenthood is defunded? Surely, a man as smart as Vance knows that simply because some old white dudes in Washington stop making birth control available for poor teenaged girls, they won’t stop having sex and making babies.

I enjoyed hearing Vance’s story. And he’s right: more folks, white, black, rich, poor all need to take responsibility for their own actions. But sometimes, despite all the rhetoric coming from The Right, folks do need a helping hand. Despite having been able to take advantage of Pell grants and scholarships and other programs directed at serving the author and others in his situation, Vance’s “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” mantra, though eloquent and without the harshness of Rush or Hannity’s vitriol, rang a bit false to me. Still, overall, this memoir is a well-crafted, valuable read.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Home Sweet Jerome by Diane Rapaport (2014. Johnson Books. ISBN 978-1-55566-454-1)

Most folks who travel to Arizona for vacation (or to spend the winter as “snow birds”) eventually end up taking the long, snaking road out of the valley up to the old copper mining town of Jerome located between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Rene’ and I bypassed that side trip last April, our first visit to The Grand Canyon State, in favor of, well Sedona and the Grand Canyon. This year, with Rene’s sister and brother-in-law along for the ride (actually, come to think of it, Al rented the car and drove!), we made time to stop in Jerome on our way to Sedona. While wandering the crooked, narrow, steep, slanty streets of Jerome, I stopped in at the local museum and bought this short history of Jerome’s people and the place. I’m sure glad I did.

More of a collection of short vignettes about the rise and fall of copper mining, pot growing, the arts, the characters, and the buildings of Jerome than a cover-to-cover narrative history, I found Rapaport’s choice of inserting the personal alongside the factual a solid editing choice. It made the book read much like you’re taking a stroll down one of the town’s rugged thoroughfares. The four of us spent a couple of hours wandering around this fascinating village in the sky, the snows of the San Franciscan Peaks still visible in the distance despite the 90 degree weather in the valley. High in the sloping neighborhoods of Jerome, the temperature was more moderate, 65 degrees, a welcome respite for northerners vacationing in the desert, and the perfect climate for discovery. I only wished I’d read Rapaport’s chronicle of the rise and fall of Jerome before we hit the streets, slid into a cozy little eatery a cup of coffee and a snack, and talked about the town’s vistas and beauty. I would’ve liked to have known about details of the village’s illegal, pot cultivating heritage-the income producing industry that replaced mining when the Douglas family pulled the plug on the copper mines-as I wandered the streets, gazing down at the nearby state park where the old underground mine is preserved for tourists. But I didn’t. And that’s a shame. I didn’t have the narrative backdrop of the exciting times that roared into Jerome in the late 1950s and into the 1980s when pot was king. Rapaport’s discussion of the end of the backyard drug trade reveals the sort of simple, matter-of-fact reportage that makes the book imminently readable and memorable.

The police raid was like an explosion. It shattered lives and caused immense turmoil. Those arrested were friends and neighbors. They were an integral part of the community. Six of them owned homes and worked hard to restore them. They helped fill volunteer positions. Our kids played with theirs. We smoked and partied with them; went camping and rafting. The fallout wrapped us in collective mourning, guilt, and anger.

When mining ceased in the 1950s and the town’s population plummeted from 15,000 to 400, leaving behind sagging streets, broken water mains, leaking sewers, and a demolished economy, the slow influx of artists and musicians and seekers and writers and dreamers was the impetus for the town’s salvation. With few financial resources and a devastated infrastructure to rebuild, the beatniks and hippies and the few natives who hung one reclaimed the once proud town, much of the reclamation being funded by illegal marijuana growing and selling. Not everything was easy. In fact, reading Rapaport’s account of the town’s resurrection, nothing was easy. And yet, today, the place is visited by over one million tourists, whose credit cards and currency keep the dream of Jerome alive, all thanks to a handful of tough, ornery cusses whose vision of an artists’ and thinkers’ paradise, at least when the hubbub of tourism dies down, isn’t far from the reality of the place.

A worthy exploration of a unique backwater town.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

The Valley of the Moon by Jack London (2006. Hard Press. Kindle version. ISBN 978-1406946253)

I loaded this old London novel I’d never heard of because my second son and his wife surprised us in naming their daughter, our first granddaughter, Saxon. I’d never heard the name and when I asked Dylan where they came up with such a lovely, unique name, he told me Saxon was the female protagonist in a long-forgotten Jack London novel he once enjoyed. Turns out that wasn’t the only surprise in nomenclature. Saxon’s middle name is Mercedes, and my wife and I presumed that was to honor the child’s maternal great grandmother, Ann Mercedes Raymond Privette. That’s true, Dylan advised, but then I ran across a character  named Mercedes in the book and I knew my son had pulled one over on us! To the book.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel. It’s a snapshot of California, particularly the rough and tumble of early 1900s Oakland, the setting for the first third or so of the story. Saxon is a laundress in a commercial laundry, working her hands and fingers and bones to weariness for a dollar or so a day under deplorable, non-unionized conditions alongside other women. She meets Billy Roberts, a sometime prizefighter and full time teamster whose ability with horses and fists is legendary. The two fall in love, marry, and set up housekeeping in a working class neighborhood of Oakland. True to the times, once married, Saxon quits working outside the home, becomes pregnant, loses the child, and then, economic disaster strikes: Billy’s employer is caught in the middle of a Teamsters Union strike. The boxer ends up in jail after a brawl over scabs, his arms broken by company thugs, and the couple loses everything. Instead of trying to hang on in Oakland, trying to scrounge up enough work to get by, Saxon and Billy set off on a journey to find, as it is coined in the beginning of their walk about California, “the valley in the moon.” At some point, with no real explanation, the catch phrase changes to “valley of the moon.” In either case, the object of Saxon and Billy’s journey by train, foot, stagecoach, and wagon replicates the migration of their forefathers and mothers from the East Coast through the Plains to California, though the protagonists’ peregrination is limited to California and a brief foray into southern Oregon.

London’s dialogue evokes a long-forgotten time, a voice and a diction that, interestingly, I heard distantly in phrases that my deceased father-in-law, a railroader, used into the 21st century. The author’s reliance upon speech patterns and expressions of his time, essentially contemporaneous to the story he tells, gives the plot authenticity. What isn’t authentic, at least to my eye, is the luck and happenstance that prevails in favor of Saxon and Billy’s ultimate success. The narrative ends up being a tad tilted towards the hero and heroine with not nearly enough conflict and struggle to be faced on what surely must have been a physically demanding and emotionally desperate migration. Then too, because of the times and London’s status as a world-renowned writer of distinctly American stock, there are moments in the story when, despite the author’s socialistic and liberal views towards working men and women, he displays disdain for immigrants of color (the Japanese and Chinese) and Southern European origin (the Italians and Greeks). Though voiced primarily by Billy, who is uneducated, illiterate, and at times, abusive towards Saxon, the disparagement of The Other sometimes feels as if it is coming from London directly, as if he is standing behind Billy, urging on the young man’s Xenophobia. The simplicity of the main characters, Billy as the impulsive, physical specimen, Saxon as the thinking, planning, demure handmaiden to her prince, also grows a bit long, especially when London, having exposed his readers to a dark, explosive, and dangerous side of husband towards wife, avoids wading too deeply into the psychology and after-effects of spousal abuse.

In the end, the book held my interest. London’s descriptions of the landscape the pair encounters on their quest for a farm on “government land”, a place in the world they can call their own, are expertly drawn. They should be. The ultimate destination for Saxon and Billy, the valley of the moon, is a place London knew well, a place he and his second wife, Charmian Kittridge, knew like the proverbial backs of their hands. In some ways, this novel is a precursor to the classic worker migration story told by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. That book is a classic. The Valley of the Moon isn’t, though I’m confident that the book’s namesake will be!

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

PS Rather than buy the usual Christening gift for Saxon, I went online and found a gorgeous first edition copy of the book and had it shipped from London (no pun intended) to Duluth. We brought the book with us on a visit to the kids in North Dakota after the Christening. It’s now in a glass case courtesy of Grandma Rene’ and sits in a place of adoration in the Munger home in Williston.

It’s a Long Life by Willie Nelson with David Ritz (2015. Back Bay Books. ISBN 978-0-316-40354-2)

This isn’t great literature. It’s the personal history of 20th century pop and country and blues culture centered around one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our generation. It isn’t epic or especially well-written. The language is plain and at times, a bit forced in terms of its folksy charm. There are some scene switches and editing glitches (maybe Willie will use that line in a song someday!) that grate and make one reassess just how entertaining this book is. And while the author proposes to “come clean” about his life in terms of his three failed marriages, his troubled youth, his pot use, and his problems with the IRS, there’s not a whole heck of a lot of personal revelation here that hasn’t been examined in other articles and books about Nelson. And yet:

I loved the book.

Sort of like Willie’s whiny, thin voice, I can’t really explain it.

But here’s a passage dealing with a court case involving the Highwaymen, Willie, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristopherson, and Waylon Jennings, when they were sued by a 1960s one-hit-wonder band, the original Highwaymen, for name appropriation. Judge Stephen S. Trott was one of the original band members, a federal district court judge, and the plaintiff in the civil lawsuit against the “real” Highwaymen.

“Your honor, I can only imagine the anger and dismay of the audience when, instead of seeing Judge Stephen S. Trott and his four associates take the stage, the fans see Willie, Waylon, Johnny, and Kris. I’d venture to say we’re even running the risk of a riot”…The judge got a kick Goldberg’s (Nelson’s lawyer’s) sarcasm and seemed ready to dismiss the case against us. I felt sorry for the original Highwaymen, though, and came up with an idea. I asked my partners whether they’d go along with my plan. “What do you have in mind?” asked Waylon. “Let’s get the original Highwaymen to open up for us at the Astrodome.” Waylon laughed. So did Johnny and Kris. The rodeo fans got to hear “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” and everyone lived happily ever after.

That passage paints a fairly accurate picture of literary voice and the type of humor Nelson relies upon to tell his story and that tone and tenor suits the old cowboy just fine. But to me, as a struggling regional author, a writer who waits for accolades from readers and critics, the authorial approach that hits closest to home for me is the depiction of Nelson’s drive, his determination, to make his art his way. The story of Willie’s struggle to be true to himself and his muse, well that, to me is the real story here, with all its flaws, warts, and imperfections. These snippets of wisdom are valuable reminders that even the best artists run long and taxing races before they cross the finish line in glory. In this vein, Nelson’s depiction of his interaction with a Columbia Records executive about the content and styling of one of his greatest albums, Red Headed Stranger, is illuminating and positively inspiring. The executive hated the rough, raw, outlaw sound of the tapes Nelson tossed on his desk. But he’d been savvy enough to construct his contract to give one person creative control of his art: Willie Nelson. And that person believed in Willie Nelson. The rest is history.

A fun, quick read that has its pluses and minuses but, overall, paints a portrait of an American original that sings (pun intended!).

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey (1971. Ballantine. ISBN 345326492)

It was fortuitous that my friend Dave was reading this book when we were together on vacation. That’s true in two ways. First, I was about halfway through All the Wild that Remains, a profile and comparison of the wilderness ethics and lives of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner when Rene’ and I met up with Dave, his wife Lail, and some other friends in Scottsdale about a month ago. Secondly, because we were staying near Phoenix, a city that demonstrates issues raised by Abbey and Stegner in many of their writings (including the most obvious-that deserts and much of the arid West are not places to build cities because there is little water), the fact I was reading David Gessner’s new book about two icons of Western literature and my pal was reading Abbey’s classic memoir of a summer spent at Arches National Monument as a ranger was, well, just plain spooky. So it was only natural that, when I finished All the Wild that Remains, and Dave finished Desert Solitaire, we exchanged books and kept right on reading. Here’s my take on Abbey, having known about him, read about him, but having never read him until now.

We eat lunch, Ralph and I, and lie for another hour or two in the willow glade until the bright inferno  in the sky has edged far enough westward to let the cliffs shade part of the river. Then we launch off, in the middle of the afternoon, and paddle across the current to the shady side, abandoning ourselves once more to the noiseless effortless powerful slide of the Colorado through its burnishes chute of stone.

This passage, though not written about Abbey’s time spent at Arches but about an earlier trip through Glen Canyon to float an untamed and undammed section of the Colorado that Major Powell explored a century earlier, is typical of the magnificent prose Abbey is able to summon. Of course, given the author’s reputation as a monkey wrenching environmental saboteur, not every page is filled with literary greatness. At times, in an effort to promote his beliefs, including the major theme of his summer in Arches; that the federal government should stop paving gravel entrance roads to make trips by citidiots to our national treasures (National Monuments, Parks, Forests, and Wilderness Areas) easier and simply leave wilderness to be wilderness, Abbey comes off as preachy, condescending, and mean spirited. Ah, but that is but one aspect of what Abbey has to offer. The other more subtle, more Stegner-like side of the man is epitomized by countless passages and scenes like the one excerpted above: great writing that pulls you into a fascinating world where rain is occasional, brutal, but life sustaining, and where only the well-prepared human visitor should enter. There is much to admire in the man’s curmudgeonly discourse about modern America. There is much truth in his observations about the government being willing to alter nature and geography, such as creating Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam, despite the folly of such artifice. How much water is lost from that impoundment due to evaporation? How many tons of silt and mud and decay pile up behind the concrete restriction of the river, ultimately causing the lake to become cloudy, warm, and foul? How much of the vital sense of place, the taming of the wild for the gains of a few million fools who wish to play golf or water ski  or water grass lawns in the desert is lost when a river like the Colorado, the major source of water for a huge watershed, is captured and tamed? Abbey may be cranky, ornery, and foul-mouthed in his occasional rants against “The Man”. But his manner of addressing the implausibility of Phoenix and Las Vegas and Denver is no less credible or valuable than Stegner’s more professorial approach. Indeed, in some ways, Abbey’s unhinged discourse may be exactly the medicine we need today. In the present age, an age Abbey would likely rail even more profusely against, America finds itself confronted by federal leadership hell bent on “opening up the West” (allowing unrestricted mining, logging, grazing, drilling and other commercial uses of nationally-held lands) and decommissioning sacred, rare places like Arches National Monument; a sanctuary of desert originality holding on for dear life against the uninformed, narcissistic stroke of the presidential pen.

An astounding, if slightly disorganized (Abbey tends to meander from the story of his summer at Arches to other tales, though all have merit and should be read), call to arms. You don’t have to agree with every premise advanced by this self-styled apostle of wilderness but you do have to accept that much of what he said nearly fifty years ago has, and is, coming true.

Excellent.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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