Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018. Putnam. ISBN 978-0735219090)

Yes. I agree. I’ll keep this review short. I applaud Ms. Owens for creating a memorable character, providing us a vibrant, natural setting for her tale, and, with one minor exception, executing a nearly perfect debut novel. This is the second novel that Rene’ and I listened to on Audible during our long drive from Duluth to Bozeman.

Those reviewers who bemoan that the protagonist, Kya Clark, pejoratively known in her rural North Caroline coastal community as “The Marsh Girl”, and her backstory (being abandoned at age 7 and living on her own in the marshes and swamps of her backyard) is unbelievable as a character-that her survival is too trite, too unrealistic-miss the beauty of Owens’s writing and her request of her readers. Which is: that we suspend our cynicism and skepticism, all too apparent and distracting in this Topsy-turvy modern world, and simply enjoy a morality tale. I found her writing well-crafted, her storytelling exemplar, and her characterizations, including that of Kya, remarkable.

My one criticism of Ms. Owens is that her setup of the legal proceedings against The Marsh Girl (for allegedly murdering her lover; one of the town’s football heroes and local legends) rings hollow. The author simply doesn’t support the conclusion that, even in rural North Carolina in the 1960s, a sheriff and prosecutor (and ultimately, the trial judge), would plow ahead with a capital murder charge against a white woman on such flimsy (really, nonexistent) evidence. I get that the world’s against Kya; that she’s The Other despite her white complexion. But really? There’s simply no way, on the skimpy premise advanced as probable cause, any reputable legal system, even one composed of racist, simple minded locals in a southern state, would force the case presented by Owens to trial. No way.

But the remainder of the writing, the story, and the plot twists all ring true. So I will forgive the author if, as a non-lawyer, she didn’t get all the procedural or evidentiary matters lined up to support her protagonist’s brush with old sparky. After all, even Grisham doesn’t always get it right! (See my review of his his most recent, The Reckoning, on this blog for details.)

Solid literary fiction with a protagonist nearly as memorable as Scout.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

The Reckoning by John Grisham (2018. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0385544153)

On our semi-annual road trip from Minnesota to Montana to ski Bridger Bowl, my wife and I listened to two new novels. She started listening to Grisham’s latest, The Reckoning, on Audible during her daily walks along our rural country road. But winter set in and she never finished the book. So, we plugged in and, as we drove, we listened to this story of Pete Banning, the quiet, unwilling anti-hero of this tale.

The beginning segment of this long read (or listen) is set in rural Mississippi, on a family cotton farm and in the small town of Clanton. Pete Banning and his sister each own a section of land willed to them by their mother. Before WW II, Pete farmed both sections with the siblings splitting whatever profits were obtained by his efforts, mostly involving cotton and the manpower of Black workers who live on and work the land. When WW II breaks out, Pete, a West Point grad who left the Army for the family farm, does his duty, enlists in his old cavalry unit, and is shipped off to the Phillipines to fight. The book opens with Pete, a devout Methodist, preparing to murder and then murdering, his pastor. After the deed is done, the protagonist doesn’t resist apprehension by the local sheriff and says “I have nothing to say.” Banning maintains his silence as to motive throughout the legal process. It becomes quickly apparent that the plot of the story is not “who done it” but “why”. Grisham does a fantastic job with this noir legal writing (the timeframe is post-war, 1947) making the investigation, trial, and execution of Pete Banning gritty, realistic, and believable. Because of what I thought of the other two sections of the book, I will rate the story in that light, giving this first section a solid 4 and 1/2 stars. The writing’s a departure from the author’s usual formula for which he deserves credit. And as he did in A Painted House, this noir portion of the novel includes serious, literary writing.

The second “book” within the novel is even better. It’s all backstory about Pete Banning’s service in the Phillipines. Turns out, Pete returned to Clanton, Mississippi after having been in combat, captured, tortured, escaped, and having fought for a ragtag guerilla force in the mountains of that Pacific battleground. Grisham is spot on here as a writer of historic fiction, a huge departure from his normal grist, and I’d rate the second section of the story, one that will bring chills to your spine and tears to your eyes, a solid 5. It includes some of this author’s best writing.

But. And I am saddened to say this. There is a ‘but”. So Banning is gone, leaving behind his portion of the farm, land that, before he killed the preacher, he tried to protect by putting in his children’s names. Much of the final section of the book, which deals with the aftermath of Pete Banning’s death and the reveal of the “why” behind the killing of the preacher is simply filler; word after word describing a legal process that, eventually, leads nowhere in terms of plot or interest. Grisham returns to the writing style and landscape (the civil courtroom) he knows best but, in the process, bores the ever-loving shit out of his readers (or listeners). But, and this is not the biggest but of the tale, it’s his reveal of Banning’s motivation for murder that ultimately fails as a plot device. Why? I guessed all of the details behind Pete Banning’s motivation for the deed after listening to the first section. There’s really no mystery here in terms of the killer’s reasons for wanting the preacher dead. The impeteus for the murder was, to me, no surprise. But, and this is the biggest but of the novel, that’s not the worst of it. At the last minute, out of the blue, Grisham tosses in a twist, a reveal, that has no predecessory basis other than one or two banal references earlier in the story. After likely over 100,000-plus words, we, the readers (or listeners) are expected to remember a tidbit of information provided dozens of chapters ago upon which we will agree to suspend our disbelief. No. Doesn’t work. And for all these reasons, I rate the final section of the story a paltry 2, far below even this author’s worst.

So what is this novel anyway? Is it crime noir? Is it a genre legal thriller? Is it a historical novel? Is it literary fiction? Up until the last segment of the book, I would have leaned towards saying that his is a literary work, with historical elements, and that it was likely John Grisham’s best. The first two sections solidify Grisham as a great storyteller. The final segment? It falls so flat and is so filled with such dullness and writerly chicanery, it leaves one angry that the author chose to return to form, and in the process, ruined a lovely, lovely tale.

I can’t rate the overall effort above 2 and 1/2 stars despite the majority of the book being a compelling read.

2 and 1/2 stars. A major disappointment.

Peace.

Mark

Iron and Water by Grant J. Merritt (2018. U of MN Press. ISBN 978-08166-7881-5)

Oh boy. I ask an author to sign two copies of his book, one for me, and one for a friend who worked with that author when they were both in government. I give the one away as a gift. I read the other full of expectation and hope. I end up disappointed. The question then becomes, since I once interviewed the author, the former head of the MPCA (as one of the 23 interviews I conducted when writing Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story) and the author is an acquaintance of mine, do I just keep fingers off the keyboard and not write a review? Or do I try to distill what I’ve read and leave it to you, the reader, as to whether or not you want to pick up the book and give it a try? I guess, if I’m going to be honest with myself, it’s the latter. Here goes.

My problems with this attempt at environmental memoir are multiple. First, Iron never settles on a genre. At times a memoir of the author’s early life in Duluth, his career as a litigator, and his legacy as the head of the MPCA (and as an environmental activist), the theme of the story never crystallizes so that the reader understands which genre he or she is reading. While the author renders a brief history of his family (the Merritt Brothers who famously found, then lost, their fortunes on the Mesabi Iron Range) that familial introduction is only a tease. Since this is billed as a memoir (the book’s back cover proclaims such), the lack of depth and personal details regarding the writer’s own life, juxtaposed against the family history, leaves the reader feeling short-changed. This deficiency is further complicated by the last few chapters, when Merritt returns to his own life and regales us with stories from his beloved Isle Royale, the national park where his family still maintains an historic camp. Is this a story about the author’s famous ancestors, the way they were ill-treated by the legal system and lost their fortune, and Merrit’s own life, or it something else? I was never sure.

Additionally, the main gist of the non-memoir portion, a rendering of the Reserve Mining case and other environmental challenges Merritt faced as head of the MPCA and as an activist, lacks the clarity of authorial distance. Why do I say this? To my ear, as I read this portion of the story, one comes away with a belief that the author pretty much took on the challenges of Reserve and issues of water and air pollution, solid waste disposal, recycling, and the founding of state parks with little to no help from others. There is far too much of the “I” in the story and far too little of the “we”. A perfect example, and this might seem like I am evoking familial umbrage on the point (which I am!), of how the author shortchanges the involvement of others in these fights is that, in the 198 pages of this book, the man who authored every single major conservation and environmental bill in the Minnesota House from 1954-1999, Mr. Environment himself (Rep. Willard Munger) is granted one brief appearance in the story (on page 87) which references Willard’s stand against additional nuclear power plants in Minnesota. That’s it? So the 400 plus pages of Willard’s own biography is simply fluff? Yes, I’ll readily admit that I have a personal stake in my uncle’s legacy. So there is that. But when retelling the 1947 battle between Reserve and the United Northern Sportsmen over the taconite plant’s original permit to discharge tailings into Lake Superior, how can one not inform readers that Willard Munger was the president of that organization for at least a portion of that battle? Inexplicable, is my thought. And not letting readers know that Willard, a DFLer who needed union support to continually be re-elected, was the public official most clearly on the firing line when he supported (against union opposition) a container deposit on bottles and cans, is a similar flaw in relating that chapter in Minnesota’s environmental history with accuracy.

My last criticism of the book deals with where this critique started. Is it a memoir? Is it a history of the Reserve case? Or is it, as it seems to devolve after the Reserve story has been told, an environmental policy guide for future generations? I can’t say. The disjointed approach of this slender volume, beginning with family history, unveiling environmental stories and Merritt’s activism in the middle, and then returning to family history and tales of Isle Royale, displays a lack of serious editorial control over the project. I went into this read with great hope that Mr. Merrit would relate his family’s story and his own part in Minnesota’s environmental history in a dramatic, fair, and concise way. I came away disappointed, in part because the tale is told in such a disjointed and non-linear fashion.

3 stars out of 5. The writing isn’t bad; the execution of the story left me scratching my head.

Peace.

Mark

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (2017. Hogarth. ISBN 978-0-451-499066-6)


I can’t argue with success. Or, maybe I can. Sally Rooney is apparently the new Irish Writer in Residence, following in the footsteps of Swift, Joyce, McCourt, Carr, Delaney, and a host of others. Why do I say this? Well, in addition to making the New York Times bestseller lists for both this book and her new novel, Normal People, this young phenom is on a roll in terms of winning awards for her writing, Conversations with Friends won the Guardian’s Best First Novel award in 2017 and, two years later, Normal People, shut out of the prestigious Booker Prize (one of the most coveted awards for fiction writers), became the youngest winner of the coveted Costa Award. In fact, I picked up this novel, essentially chick lit with a 21st century minimalist vibe, after reading an excellent essay by Rooney on my go-to literature website, Lit Hub. So is this young Dubliner that good? It depends.

Conversations with Friends is a dialogue-driven examination of the relationship between Frances, the narrator, a twenty-one year old poet/student; her former girlfriend, Bobbi (essentially the same age as Frances); Nick, film star husband of photographer Melissa; and Melissa. A casual encounter between the four, long after the breakup of Frances and Bobbi, leads to Nick and Frances falling into a relationship. As they say, it’s complicated since all four have admiration, if not respect, for each other. There’s certainly some fine writing in and amongst the awkwardness of the tryst between the thirty-something Nick and the college-aged Frances. Here’s a sample of Rooney’s style, prose somewhere between Salinger and Fifty Shades of Gray. The scene occurs before Frances, experiencing abdominal pain beyond her normal menstrual cramping, suspicious that she might be pregnant by Nick, learns she may in fact be infertile:

When I looked up I saw Nick was watching me. We looked at one another for a few seconds and it felt so serious that I tried to smile at him. Yeah, I said. I love this baby. This is a great infant, ten out of ten. Jim replied: oh, Rachel is Nick’s favorite member of the family. He likes her more than we do. Nick smiled at that, and he reached over and touched the baby’s hand…She held onto the joint of Nick’s thumb then. Oh, I’m going to weep, I said. She’s perfect.

See what I mean? Nicely constructed once you get through the oddity of not separating dialogue with quotations. That threw me a bit but, like reading Ulysses and Joyce’s bizarre aversion to punctuation, I got over my pique. That’s not my complaint. Here is my beef: I read the book and never once, throughout the experience, got the sense I was in Ireland or Dublin or anywhere other than New York City or LA. I get that Rooney isn’t writing literary or historical fiction here, chock full of descriptions of character or place. But the settings are so defuse and oblique, it was like walking through a forest without a compass. I never really knew where the hell I was.

So how to gauge this story and the artistry behind it? I get that Rooney is trying to do something fundamentally divergent from what I do when I craft a story. She’s marching to her own drummer, finding her own path, chronically a new generation in a new century. And apparently others find that refreshing, daring, and intelligent. I’ll admit I was titillated by possibilities of these four sensual characters falling into bed singly or in pairs or whatever. But the four main actors in this play all seem so disconnected from love and truth and real life, in the end, I felt cheated. Maybe I’m wrong. You decide.

3 stars out of 5. But maybe I just don’t get it.

Mark

The People vs. Alex Cross by James Patterson (Little Brown. 2017. ISBN 978-0-316-27390-9)

No. I won’t. Never again. There. My review of this book is complete. Oh, alright, if I’m going to write something negative about a guy who outsells King, Brown, and Grisham combined, a writer whom King as apparently called “terrible”, I better back up my opinion with something more than an overall impression. Here goes.

My Aunt Sukie, God bless her soul, gave me this book when I was helping pack her up for her move from her cozy little farmhouse south of Two Harbors to an assisted living condo in Alexandria, Minnesota. “Here,” she said, handing me a hard cover version of one of Patterson’s newer efforts, “I liked this one. You might too.” The novel sat on my reading stack for nearly a year until, despite my penchant for literary fiction or in-depth non-fiction, I thought, What the hell…and dove in. The water was shallow. I bumped my head. In fact, I think I was knocked unconscious by the flaws in this read. There are so many, too many really to catalogue here. But I’ll let the writing speak for itself:

I could hear Bree in my head saying I had not authority here and that my time would be better spent working on my defense for trial. But I was back in the game, and who was going to tell Bree or anyone? The creep? Not a chance. The creep would want to avoid any contact with legitimate law enforcement…

See what I mean? The entirety of the book is constructed of sixth grade sentences devoid of any writerly passion or craft or beauty. You can, as Stephen King or Grisham or Brown have demonstrated, write genre fiction that also passes, in the dim light of a late night reading lamp, for literature. But that is not true with Patterson’s prose. It is flat, sophomoric, and distinctly uninteresting and unchallenging to the reader. At least to this reader. The same thing can be said for Patterson’s characters, not a one of which, including his African American detective/protagonist, Alex Cross, is revealed to be anything more than cardboard cutouts, actors being moved around by the whimsical hand of the their director.

I read on and on and on and, despite the very short chapters that Patterson is known for, the brevity of which is said to equal “pace” (it doesn’t; this thing plods along like a freight train being switched in the yard), but found, despite the curtness of scenes, the plot simplistic, unrealistic, and crafted with the same sort of clunkiness that the dialogue and characterizations are. Maybe I am an outlier, that I’m letting professional envy obscure my objectivity: after all, James Patterson has sold more than 350 million copies of his books worldwide and me, well, I’ve sold about 15,000, I thought. But no, there are others out there who’ve been reluctant to wade into the Patterson universe despite the success of films made from his Cross books (Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider starring Morgan Freeman being good, solid efforts), Here’s a link to one of the better critiques of this author’s overall craft: https://themillions.com/2014/11/first-encounter-of-the-worst-kind-on-reading-james-patterson-at-32000-feet.html. I share Bill Morris’s reluctance to ever revisit James Patterson based upon some shared opinions that, while his work obviously is being devoured by the masses, it is scant intellectual sustenance for thinking readers:

So what is this book? The best answer I can come up with is that it’s product. Merchandise. Something designed to satisfy the craving of those millions of Alex Cross readers mentioned in the dedication. And while it might be unfair of me to judge James Patterson after reading just one of his 50-plus New York Times bestsellers, I’m guessing, based on the horrendous quality of the writing in Pop Goes the Weasel, that millions of Alex Cross fans will buy the next Alex Cross novel regardless of what’s between the covers. The audience is built-in, automatic. The writing doesn’t have to be any good; it just has to live up to the expectations created by the previous books in the series. I can’t imagine a better definition of brand loyalty.

Amen.

2 stars out of 5. I’ll watch movies made out of Patterson’s prose; I just won’t buy any of his books.

Peace.

Mark

Dead Wake by Erik Larson (2017. Black Swan. ISBN978-0-77934-0)

We all know that the sinking of the Lusitania prompted President Woodrow Wilson to enter WW I, right? I mean, when I picked up this book, delivered to me by a friend, and began to read, the first thought that popped into my brain was I know this stuff. I can’t imagine it will be anything close to riveting. I was wrong. Larson’s use of novelistic prose makes this back and forth revelation of the Cunard Line’s flagship’s final voyage a fascinating read.

Larson builds the suspense and his story by exchanging scenes between Captain Turner, the skipper of the doomed ocean liner, and Captain Schweiger, the commander of U-20, the German submarine that ultimately strikes the fatal blow, as well as interspersed perspectives from Winston Churchill (head of Britain’s admiralty at the time) and other players, including love-struck widower, Woodrow Wilson. The callousness of both Cunard officials (decreeing that Turner could not run his ship at full speed, thereby saving coal but diminishing his ability to outrun sluggish submarines) and the admiralty (who had ample warning U-20 was in the area and on the hunt) leads to the death of over a thousand passengers and crew. Larson builds and builds the suspense of the last voyage of the Lusitania until this scene, a moment of happenstance and luck (good for the Germans, bad for Turner and his crew), brings the sub and the liner together:

U-20 moved through a blue-on-blue morning. The fog was gone, the sky was empty of clouds, the sea was still. Schwieger trained his binoculars-his Zweiss “godseyes”-on a smudge at the horizon and was startled to see “a forest of masts and stacks,” as he later described…”Then I saw it was a great steamer coming over the horizon. It was coming our way. I dived at once, hoping to get a shot at it.”

What is missing from this cinematic depiction is the backstory, how Germany made the bold and lethal decision to allow its submarines to target non-military and non-cargo ships; passenger ships that, as an aside may or may not carry military cargo but decidedly did carry women, children, and non-combatant men. It was, according to Larson, Germany which determined both to use sub warfare against civilians traveling on passenger vessels and poison gas in the trenches against enemy soldiers “upping the ante” of inhumanity occurring in the Great War. As I read about Germany’s decisions to sink passenger ships and use chlorine gas (tortuously deadly in its application), I could not help but hear echoes of Hitler’s cruelness towards an entire ethnicity that would foment and erupt two decades later. War was always hell. But Germany, by engaging in “no rules” engagement in WW I changed the face of warfare forever.

In the end, Larson’s skill as a writer and researcher makes the story flow and sing. Not quite a novel, not quite the revelatory prose one would find in historical fiction, this is still a fine piece of writing.

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

Peace.

Mark

Tailspin by Stephen Brill (2018. Knopf. ISBN 978154731632)

I’ll be honest. When Fritz Mondale handed me this book last June on our annual Canadian fishing trip, saying “Here. You might learn something,” being assigned a book by the former Vice President, Ambassador, Senator, and Minnesota Attorney General is not something you turn down. I was raised to do the work. So, with respect to Brill’s lengthy dissertation on what’s ailing America, I dutifully completed my assignment. And yes, I did learn a thing or two along the way.

Brill begins his discussion of where we are as a nation by a taking a long and extended historical tour of a number of major political themes. First, and this was the hardest slog in the tome, he takes the reader back through the causes of the Great Recession of 2007, detailing the “why” of the massive failure of the American lending and mortgage system. He takes aim not, as many conservatives are want to do, at the home buyers who overreached and obtained homes and attendant loans that they could never afford, but the system of Gerry-rigged lending policies, reinsurance, and derivative markets that made a few folks rich for making bad loans, impoverished millions, and cost the federal government tons of cash in the form of bailouts. His main theme in this light, however, turns out not to be the blame he casts on those who orchestrated the disaster: his ire is aimed at a federal government who has no problem incarcerating poor folks and folks of color for minor drug crimes but that does nothing, in terms of punishment and prison, for those who take financial advantage of the weak and helpless. Mortgage brokers don’t go to prison: they pay fines or minimal “clawbacks” under Dodd-Frank, a remedy that itself is in serious jeopardy of vanishing in the era of “Let them Fail” Trump.

Brill’s evaluation of our broken democracy turns to a dissection of national discourse and politics with a detailed examination of the big and dark money allowed by the Citizens United decision but aptly points out that the movement to unregulated commercial speech began decades before the Supreme Court released that fateful decision. Academic types of a Libertarian stripe had long argued that the 1st Amendment wasn’t meant to protect the speaker; it was meant to protect the listener by allowing him or her to hear every sort of message, even those corrupted and driven by greed. The author couples his exhaustive review of this warped and seemingly benign view of freedom with the mean-spirited politics of the Right brought to fruition by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, when that hard boiled, loud mouthed, self-promoting professor left his post at a sleepy little Southern college and burst onto the American political scene. It was Gingrich, a minority member of Congress, who first recognized the power of reality television, something the current Orange Headed wonder has become a master of manipulating:

Gingrich soon latched onto a new tool to boost his profile. A few months after he took office in 1979, the House allowed the cable news industry to launch a public service channel, C-Span, to televise Hose proceedings. For years, members had gone to the floor…but would be seen and heard only by a handful of members…Gingrich realized, he and his allies could give the same speeches to a nationwide audience.

Brilliant and, unfortunately, the beginning of the nastiest streak in American politics we’ve ever endured. Brill has ample disdain for the Left as well, castigating Bill Clinton and a host of others for allowing legislation and federal regulations that have weakened unions, minority voting rights, welfare protections for our most vulnerable citizens, protections against predatory lenders, environmental guardrails, and the like. He not only blames the politicians: he blames the regulatory and judicial system that allows de minimus lawsuits based upon scant science to halt infrastructure projects and commercial developments, tying up needed improvements and modernization of the very fabric of America in lengthy, costly court battles. As an example of how it should work, he cites the 2009 bridge collapse in Minneapolis as a project that, when an emergent need arose, the federal government was able to erect a substantial project in months as opposed to years.

The complex story Brill tells is shocking and yet, certainly true in nearly every respect. The problem: he gives short shrift to a list of answers to solve the problems he raises. The final chapter contains optimism, optimism that, in my view, doesn’t ring quite true given the fix we, as Americans, of every political stripe, find ourselves in.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck (1967. Bantam)

I came upon this book, described as one of Steinbeck’s earliest novels, somewhere along the line. That it turned out to be a collection of short stories linked by both character and place (Las Pasturas del Cielo: the Pastures of Heaven) in California detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the stories. I was hoping for an early version of the depth of character, plot, and place displayed in Grapes of Wrath or Garden of Eden. That’s not this book. But then, what books are?

After completing the read, the stories are mostly unremarkable but entertaining. I’ve little memory of the characters or storylines or predicaments in this work with two notable exceptions.

Two Hispanic sisters, Rosa and Maria, in hopes of selling their fine tortillas to the gringo settlers of the valley, end up offering additional “encouragement” to their male customers. The story’s tastefully done, humorous, and reveals just enough of the untoward to cause the reader to ponder:

Rosa sat like a rock and sucked on her candy bar. Suddenly, she glared into Maria’s eyes. “Today,” she said solemnly, “today I gave myself to a customer.” Maria sobbed… ” “Do not make a mistake,” Rosa continued. “I did not take money. The man had eaten three enchiladas-three

The other memorable tale is piece enveloped in sorrow. Richard Whiteside, an orphaned young man with dreams of creating a palace; a showpiece of a farm in the valley to be filled with a loving wife and children; is the story’s protagonist in the early going. His only heir, son John, also has a solitary child, William. John dreams of young Bill doing what neither Richard or John were able to do: stock the Whiteside estate with oodles of children; progeny born and raised within the Pastures of Heaven to ensure the family legacy. But Bill’s wife is a city girl and they depart, leaving John and his invalid wife Willa alone on the farm. An idea transpires, an idea that calls to mind the fiery end of Drageda depicted with such deftness in The Thorn Birds. John believes he can re-invigorate the farm by burning off brush to enliven the soil. But before the final, tragic scene, there’s a touching exchange between husband and wife that displays Steinbeck’s uniquely simple power as a writer:

One Night he awakened to hear a light rain whispering on the slates and splashing softly in the garden.

“Are you awake, Willa?” he asked quietly.

“Of course.”

It’s the first rain. I wanted you to hear it.”

I was awake when it started…You missed the best part, the gusty part…

“Well, it won’t last long. It’s just a little first rain to wash off the dust.”

All in all, the stories are well crafted, if not independently memorable.

4 stars out of 5.


Destiny and Power by John Meacham (2018. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-79-47-3.)

I was reading this tome, nearing the conclusion, when President George H.W. Bush died. Meacham, a frequent guest on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC- not as a political talking head but as a well-respected biographer and historian-does a thorough and thoroughly engaging job of pointing out why Bush 41 has not, until his death, been honored as an American hero. I’ll be frank: I never liked Reagan’s economics; his willy-nilly tossing folks off Social Security Disability so that he could give his rich friends tax breaks. But you had to admire his foreign policy chops. And that’s really where H.W.’s story takes root.

President Reagan is often given sole credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the retreat of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. There’s no question his tough persona played a part in that success. But it must also be remembered that throughout the dismantling of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s and early 1990s, H.W. was the Ambassador to the U.N., Vice President under Reagan, and finally, President in his own right. All of those positions, offices to which H.W. brought considerable patience and a steady handed diplomacy, were equally instrumental in the ultimate collapse of communism. While the Neo-cons and Reagan rattled swords, President Bush worked the back channels reassuring our allies and Gorbachev, who was in grave jeopardy of being ousted as the leader of his nation due to his desire to modernize the Soviet Union and give its citizenry economic and political freedom (through glasnost and perestroika). It was H.W.’s steadfastness and patience that ultimately allowed the world to benefit from the transformation of Eastern Europe and the independence of countless nations, including the Baltic states.

But there was more to H.W. than keen international political chops. At home, he rolled back the detrimental anti-environmentalism of his predecessor and in fact, expanded the Clean Air Act, instituted Rails for Trails, pushed hard for conservation of wetlands (not entirely altruistic as he was a duck hunter) through CRP, and championed the ADA.

Towards the end of this fascinating study of an underappreciated world leader, Meacham posits this:

His life was spent in the service of his nation, and his spirit of conciliation, common sense, and love of country will stand him in strong stead through the ebbs and flows of posterity’s judgment.

Indeed. After this week, perhaps we can conjure his spirit to come back and return dignity, sanity, and a sense of service to the Presidency.

5 stars out of 5. A masterful exposition of a man’s legacy and spirit.

Peace.

Mark


Over the past few weeks, I’ve finished reading two smaller works that need some attention. Here they are.

Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon (2018. Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-283462-1)

My good friend, Mark Rubin, insisted I take his copy of this little memoir/essay collection written by Chabon, the author of Wonder Boys. Though I’ve never read the novel, I loved the movie (starring Michael Douglas) so I readily accepted Mark’s persistent gift. Here’s my take: Chabon is a fine writer and some of the essays in this collection deserve applause but overall, even as slender as the volume is (just over 120 pages 4″ x 6″ hardcover format) to me, the book feels less a completed work and more a quick moneymaker for the author. I say this because the writing felt uneven and, at times,  bland. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Chabon grabs your attention right out of the gate (especially if you’re a writer or an avid reader or a wannabe author) beginning the work with a stellar piece, “Introduction: The Opposite of Writing.” In the story, the author replicates advice he was given from a sage of words whose identity remains clouded in time and mystery at a cocktail party years past. The advice?

“Don’t have children,” he said, “That’s it. Do not.” The smile faded, but the ghost lingered a moment in his blue eyes. “That is the whole of the law.”

Chabon breaks this primary authorial law by marrying, having children, and trying to balance art and fatherhood. A strong, strong starting point for what I thought would be a collection of essays following Chabon’s life on both accounts. Chabon tries to accomplish this duality but, in the end, stories like “Little Man” divert off that expected path and not with clarity or good result. “Against Dickitude”, a story about a father trying to impose some sort of empathy for young women and their own problems and issues when pursuing adolescent love upon his surly son, is a nice, stand-alone reflection but again, it doesn’t really fit the premise of the book. There’s precious little connection between the essay and the opening essay, the exploration of how difficult it is to balance being a parent and trying to write something worthwhile.

In the end, I have to say I enjoyed most of the individual stories as stand-alone snippets of life but I failed to gain an overall appreciation for Chabon’s struggles as a father who writes. And that’s something I’m intimately familiar with!

3 stars out of 5. Read Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King if you truly want to understand what being a parent and writer means.

Deep Woods, Wild Waters by Douglas Wood (2017. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-3173-5)

As depicted in my essay from a recent BWCA canoe trip with my son and grandson, I not only lugged this Minnesota author’s latest essay collection with me in my Duluth Pack, I read it nightly and, after encountering “The Wild Wind”, a piece that reminded me of one of my own family canoe trips into Sawbill, I ended up reading the story aloud to my kid and grandkid around a crackling fire in the heart of canoe country. It was a fine, fine piece of outdoors writing and it deserved to be read aloud in such a sacred place.

While the accolades and blurbs attached to the dust cover of this book place this compendium on the shelf next to Leopold and Olson, Wood is neither. But that isn’t a bad thing. He writes in his own style, making memories of past experiences real and tangible in his own, distinctive way. Beginning with tales of a Midwestern upbringing that involve the excitement of bullhead fishing, Wood charts a course through his life of guiding, canoeing, and adventuring that, all in all, is a very satisfying chronicle of the wilderness he and so many other outdoors writers and conservationists love.

Being an unrepentant worm dunker when it comes to brook trout fishing, I thoroughly enjoyed and related to “Streams of Consciousness”, a dandy little essay about chasing native, wild trout in crystalline waters.

After that I began to see the stream with new eyes. I started to notice all the little places where the current wasn’t so fast. I looked more carefully and began to see the eddies, the shadows, the undercut banks, the flats where I had to look in three dimensions to see that, although the current on the surface looked smooth and swift and uniform, in fact, rocks and objects on the bottom provided just an inch or two of rest, of protection. Enough.

As with his other stories in the book, Wood isn’t content to let us wander that little stream without connection to the greater, larger world or environment. His stories link the reader to the interconnected waters of the world, bringing home the validity of an outdoor ethic that is fairly simple and yet, so seemingly lost in today’s rush to dig, divert, cut, and improve: Every action we take as a species has an impact on the natural world. The choices we make today resound into the future. How are we going to be remembered as exploiters or stewards of the precious woods and waters that are salve to our tortured souls?

Not every piece in this collection is perfect or especially crafty or significant on its own accord. But taken as a whole, while Woods isn’t Sam Cook or Aldo Leopold or Sig Olson or John Muir, he is Douglas Wood and he’s written a fine book chronicling his thinking on the out-of-doors and man’s impact on our world.

And that, for my sons and grandsons and granddaughters well-being, is a very good thing.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

Prudence by David Treuer (2015. Riverhead. ISBN 978-1-59463-308-9)

Another bargain bin hardcover I couldn’t pass up at Fitger’s. When I see the name “Treuer”, I think of brothers Anton and David, Ojibwe from the Bemidji area of Minnesota. So when I saw this book and saw that it was written by one of the brothers, I had to have it. Had to. Thing is, I can never keep the guys straight. Anton is the brother who spoke recently at a judge’s conference I was at on the topic of race. His work in words tends to be more historic and academic. David is the novelist. Their parents have interesting life stories of their own but don’t really fit into this short review. Anyway, I knew the name and I’d previously read Rez Life so buy the book I did!

The language and style and pace of Treuer’s writing mimics the speech pattern of many Ojibwe people I’ve encountered in my career as a lawyer and judge. There’s a clipped, sing-song rhythm to the language the author uses, not only in dialogue but also in the narrative sections, that reminds me of those folks. And that’s a good thing. A very good thing. It gives the novel authenticity of the sort a white author, writing about or as a Native person, would be hard pressed to duplicate.

Prudence is the title of the book but she is, in many ways, the backstory here. The real focus of the plot and the novel is the love story and relationship between Frankie and Billy, two young men trying to find themselves in the aftermath of a tragedy that took the life of Prudence’s younger sister. There’s a sexual tension between the two boys, who become men during WW II, that is remarkably tender yet painful:

As he said it, he reached up and picked a twig from Billy’s hair and leaned in, his eyes closed in expectation. Billy closed his eyes and let himself be kissed. How long had it been? A Year? A full cycle of seasons and chores and school and all that work peeling pulp, and the letters, and the books, and his own pitiful letters back, smudged and probably misspelled. Billy kissed him back and savored the slight, ever so slight feel of Frank’s stubble on his lips. His blood rushed in his ears.

Part literary novel, part mystery, but always spot on in its depiction of tragedy-both individually and culturally-I raced through this book one recent sunny weekend, lounging on my porch swing, following the lives of Frankie, and Billy, and Prudence, and the silent, near stereotypical Ojibwe warrior, Felix, who knows all but says little. It was a great, great ride with one exception.

Inserted into the plot is a short yet, in my view, disruptive scene involving a German immigrant to the town where the tragedy and murder take place. A wandering Jew (OK, I admit to doing that on purpose!) comes into the picture, having only been mentioned briefly in the prologue. There’s confrontation and perhaps, revelation, that really doesn’t have much to do with anything. If Treuer was attempting to use the Jew’s sudden appearance to jolt the reader, his ploy worked. But in my humble view, there were likely better ways to keep the tension high and the suspense taut then plucking down a Holocaust survivor in the middle of a tale centering around Ojibwe culture and history and dislocation. But for this editorial decision, one that I am sure the author and his agent and the publisher haggled over before it’s inclusion, this would be one of my favorite books of the summer.

Still, I enjoyed the writing and the characters to the point where I’d recommend Prudence as an excellent book for summer or winter reading.

4 stars out of 4. Would have been 5 but for that darn, wandering Jew…

Peace.

Mark

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