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

Me: Stories of My Life by Katherine Hepburn (1991. Ballantine. ISBN 978-0-345-41009-2)

Too harsh, you say? Well, maybe. I mean, there is something folksy and close to the heart in the cozy style Kate invokes to tell her life stories. I mean, there are some real gems contained within the covers of this book, tales that flesh out what I’d known and heard about America’s greatest actress (4 Oscars for Best Actress across six decades of work). So there is that. But the disorganized manner in which the stories are told, along with the insertion of mundane and frankly, boring remembered exchanges between Hepburn and friends or beaus, that eat up page after page after page of the volume (maybe to pad and expand the book to make it appear to be weighty and noble?) renders what could have been a wonderful examination of the life and loves of a modern woman less than compelling. Here’s a sampling of what I mean. From page 294-318, she recalls a trip to Europe with Willie Rose that goes something like this:

Willie:

Look, don’t tell me about the whole trip. Just here-what do I do? Which way do I turn now?

Kate:

You turn left.

Willie:

I thought you said right.

Kate:

I did but I was wrong. You can’t turn right. It’s against the law. You turn left. IN about a mile turn all the way around to the left, then past the aerodome take first right. Go under bridge, then left onto…

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get away with selling such drivel to my readers. But of course, I’m not the world’s most famous actress!

Oh, there are very interesting and heart felt admissions and revelations. Her writing about her three year relationship with Howard Hughes (portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the Aviator opposite Leonardo DeCaprio’s Hughes) is fascinating, though she offers nothing as to her thoughts of the bizarre billionaire later in life. The 27 years she spent with Spencer Tracy? Also well documented and heartfelt. Similarly, her depiction of her family and her early life in movies flows well, once the reader becomes accustomed to her stream of consciousness writing style. But whether Ballantine thought so much of the actress to avoid editing her words, or whether her editor thought the better play would be to present this unvarnished, rapid fire regurgitation as a stand-in for the actress spending time over tea with adoring fans,  the end product is a disorganized, fairly bland depiction of a fascinating figure in American cinematography.

A disappointment.

2 stars out of 5. An unmemorable memoir.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks (2017. Knopf. ISBN 978-1-101-94615-2)

A few years ago, I chanced upon a copy of actor Gene Hackman’s Western, Payback at Morning Peak, in the bargain bin at a local bookstore. Unfortunately, that’s where Mr. Hackman’s misguided foray into literature belonged. Not so this debut short story collection from Forrest Gump’s smarter brother. Turns out, despite my initial skepticism when handed this book as a Christmas present, Hanks can write.

The themes of these stories include quite a few tales centered around typewriters (hence the title) but don’t let that seemingly mundane topic turn you off. Hanks uses the ancient tool of Hemingway and Stein and Fitzgerald as an anchor for some nicely crafted prose. Thing is, those tales are only the beginning glimpses of everyday, ordinary life and the occasional space oddity (as in science fiction) that make this volume intimate and readable.

True enough, Hanks never really digs too deep beneath the surface in terms of angst or turmoil or sexual passion. His fiction is what you’d expect from our generation’s Jimmy Stewart: vignettes of small town and city life brought to the page with honesty and integrity.  By drawing upon his experiences as an actor (“Christmas 1953” echoes Saving Private Ryan; “Alan Bean Plus Four” shares Hank’s affinity for space exploration, solidified by his portrayal of astronaut James Lovell in Apollo 13) Hanks shares the knowledge and insight he gained while researching and portraying those roles with his readers.

Here’s a slice of a nicely crafted effort:

The outfit marched in roads and across ice-solid fields, along trails dragged out in the gathered snow, hauling ammo and supplies for themselves as well as for other who were already ahead in the fighting, which Virgil could see in the distance like Fourth of July fireworks. They fought along with the paratroopers who had taken heavy casualties, moving forward in s show of arms meant to convince the Germans that an entire division was at the ready to take them on. The ruse worked. But lives were lost.

(“Christmas 1953”)

There aren’t any real clunkers in this mix, only some stories that rise above others and make the reader sit up and concentrate so as not to miss the show. The more pedestrian, less clever, less emotive tales still have merit and keep the reader’s eye engaged and his or her mind churning.

My favorites in the collection include “Christmas Eve 1953”, “Go See Costas”, and “These are the Meditations of My Heart.” All of these short stories are quality fiction, making you marvel at Hanks’s craftsmanship and ask the question (like Steve Martin seems to postulate on the back cover blurb):

“Is there nothing this man can’t do?” 

Apparently not.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

 

Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden (2017. Flatiron Books. ISBN 978-1-250-17167-2)

Part campaign-memoir-that-never-was, part eulogy to a dead son, part intimate depiction of a bond between president and vice-president, this book was billed by some who knew I was reading it as a “tear jerker”. I shed a few tears, alright, but not so much over the story of Beau Biden, the vice president’s son who died far too young from the same brain cancer that is taking its toll on Senator John McCain (incidentally, a great friend of Joe Biden’s), as I did over the ultimate end of the story: Biden’s decision, despite promising his dying son otherwise, to not run for president. That decision cleared the way for Hillary Clinton, which, as we all know, didn’t go so well. Not just for the Democrats. But for America and the world. As I write this, new revelations of misconduct by Donald Trump, Jr. during the campaign (wiretaps were just revealed that have him meeting with Russian money launderers during the campaign), the collapse of The Orange Headed One’s misguided attempt to best Rocket Man at nuclear poker, and the upset created by America’s defiance of decades of diplomacy in the Middle East by moving its embassy to Jerusalem, all weigh heavily on my mind. But enough of that. On to the book.

Biden is a concise, accurate writer whose prose is easily accessed and whose points are easily understood. This is a precise portrait of the gut-wrenching decision making process that Joe and his family endured in determining that, in the end, he just didn’t have it in him to run. The numbers, as it were, with Clinton securing so many early endorsements, including the tacit support of Barack Obama, made the man from Delaware’s path to a convention win unlikely. That coupled with the devastatingly brutal chemo and surgery and hospice that Beu was forced to endure, yielding, in the end, not only his own lofty political aspirations but his life, make the story readable, compelling, and heart breaking. I didn’t shed so many tears as I found myself angry at God and circumstance for blocking a good, decent, and caring man from becoming our president. The result? We all know what we’ve got, and as Joe Biden would say, “It ain’t pretty.”

4 stars out of 5. A good, quick read that would get book clubs chattering.

 

On Writing  by Stephen King. (2000. Scribner. ISBN 0-684-85352-3)

I bought this book years ago for my teenage writer-to-be-son, Christian. He told me, after reading it, that it was a helpful guide for aspiring authors. That was in 2001 or 2002. The book then went on the shelf until a few weeks ago when, in a funk over my own writing career (don’t get me started!), I decided to take a peek. I’m glad I did.

Part instructional “how to” for would-be novelists, part memoir of King’s early life, writing career, and the horrific accident that nearly killed him, there’s a lot to this fairly slender volume. In the section of the book entitled “Toolbox”, King lays it all out in simple and direct terms, identifying those attributes, from vocabulary to grammar to reading other authors to narration to dialogue to description, that make good writing work, and set great writing (he doesn’t believe he’s there yet, he’s still striving to be great at his craft) apart from the merely good. Using sources as diverse as folksinger John Prine and Steinbeck and his own work, King guides neophyte and experienced scribblers through the process of developing fiction, from idea to polished story.

I have to admit, I’ve never read a King book from beginning to end. I’m a fan of his novellas Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, and his novels, The Green Mile and Dolores Claiborne in their cinematic versions but the only one of his books I tried and failed to read was It. Clowns killing children? No thanks. But then I listened to King’s interview with Terry Gross on NPR, heard her talk about that experience live when she came to Duluth, and ended up buying a collection of Gross’s interviews from Fresh Air that included King’s spot because his story is so genuine and compelling. Having now read what the master storyteller has to share with those of us still trying achieve the label of “good writer”, I may just pick up some of his work and challenge myself to see it through.

4 out of 5. Not Bird by Bird but worthy of consideration and study by all writers.

Peace.

Mark

Collected Stories by Wallace Stegner (2006. Penguin Classics. 978-0-14-303979-2)

As I am typing this, I am finishing up Steven King’s writing memoir/tutorial On Writing. Like all good writers (I’ll confess, I am taking the word of others on this as I’ve never successfully completed a King novel), King admonishes folks who have the “writing bug” to “read, read, and read”. And he is particular in his declaration: read the classic as well as the contemporary. Why? Reading the giants of literature, alongside today’s gifted storytellers, gives a wanna-be writer a clear understanding of craft. King doesn’t mention Wallace Stegner by name in his book or in the book’s bibliography but he should have.

Here, Penguin gives us true genius in the short and not-so-short story form. I’ll admit I am a Stegner fan, having fallen in love with his prose after reading Angel of Repose, Beyond the 100th Meridian, and other longer works. I was searching for a western author to read while visiting Books on Broadway in Williston, ND and this collection caught my eye. It took me months to get to it, methodically working down my stack of “books to be read” in OCD fashion, but in the end, I started reading Stegner’s shorter work and of course, could not put it down. Like seeing my wife dolled up for an evening out, I fell in love with Wallace all over again.

Stegner’s stories are not linked in the manner of many modern collections. Oh, there are two or three stories that share characters and settings; continuing a previous piece in the book in some fashion, digging deeper into familiar literary soil. But by and large, the snippets of fiction that make up this catalog of a great writer’s “lesser” (in terms of length only) work are stand-alone pieces, something abhorrent to today’s publishers. I’ve written a similar collection, without the skill and polish evidenced in Stegner’s Collected Works; short tales that are intended to be read one at a time, like grapes sucked off the vine. And it’s pretty clear from studying today’s marketplace that both Stegner’s short story collection and my own would not find a home with a traditional publisher in our contemporary world. Publishers want collections that connect and continue themes, characters, and place. Here, Stegner ranges from the Canadian Plains, to the Midwest, to California, writing in styles as varied as Annie Proulx and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though known primarily as a “Western” writer, two of my favorite pieces in the book are “party scenes”: one set on the campus of an unnamed Indiana college (“The View from the Balcony”), the other, “A Field Guide to Western Birds”, set in the hills above LA. This last exists admirably as a time capsule of a certain age and class of people in a manner very akin to Fitzgerald:

“Maybe it’s something you did for ten percent,” she whispers, and that tickles me. I was the poor one when we were married. Her father’s money kept us going for the first five or six years. She laughs and rubs her cheek against mine and her cheek is soft and smells of powder. For the merest instant it feels old, too soft, limp, and used and without tension and resilience, and I think what it means to be all through. But Ruth is looking across the violet valleys and the sunstruck ridges, and she says is her whispery voice,” Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it really perfectly beautiful?”

For those readers who cherish Stegner’s writings about the Plains and the mountain country of the American and Canadian West, there is “Genius” a novella length depiction of a doomed cattle drive in Saskatchewan, with elements of place, style, and dialog that will make McMurtry lovers swoon.

All in all, a fine reflection of genius.

5 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

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

 

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