Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway (1950. Scribner. ISBN 978-0-684-84464-0)

Mmmm. How to begin? How about with this. After being lured into the crazy world of writing, editing, and publishing by the seductive, dynamic, and brusque style of my authorial mentor; after diving headlong into the pool of words to create seven novels, a collection of short fiction, a biography, and one volume of essays, reading this book-the last novel written by Pappa Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea came out two years later but is a novella)-made me feel like I’d hit my head on the bottom of that linguistic swimming pool. I should have heeded the critics who, when this book was released four years before I was born, panned it as “Hemingway’s worst” (see https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/ernest-hemingway/across-the-river-into-the-trees/. But, being this was his last effort to write another Great American Novel, I had to give it a chance. Sadly, I must report those critics-most of whom are long dead (as is the author)-were spot on.

Here’s a story of a fifty-something combat officer, a career army man who’d served in both the Great War and WW II, and who’d spent considerable time during both conflicts in Italy. The Colonel falls in love with a 19 year old Italian girl, Renata (I’m not being pejorative here; the protagonist refers to her as “Daughter”) while on a duck hunting trip to Venice. Or perhaps, he met her somewhat earlier and they are ending their relationship. One can’t really be sure about timelines or much else in this jumble of a late-in-life Lolita story (Hemingway is more cautious with his lust for young things than Nabokov since Renata in this tale is at least older than the age of consent). What’s the problem, you ask?

First off, I’ve written before about sixty or seventy year old white men writing tales of love where the object of the thinly disguised autobiographical protagonist’s affection is a woman twenty or thirty or forty years younger than the male centerpiece. I’ve criticized Jim Harrison, Larry McMurtry, and John Irving for similar flights of fancy. Not because such December-May relationships don’t happen in real life (they do) but because the versions of this age old daydream from testosterone deprived men I’ve come across simply don’t ring true. Other than the classic Lolita I’ve yet to run across a novel that pulls off the December-May thematic alignment with poise and grace. Hemingway doesn’t do it here and additionally, in an apparent nod to Joyce and experimental prose, Hemingway discards punctuation, capitalization, sentences, plot, and any sort of meaningful tension to create interest in either the Colonel or his young mistress as the tale labors towards its predictable conclusion.

In addition, readers of this slender tome experience a fictional version of A Moveable Feast starring two lovers and no one else. There are no interesting supporting actors or actresses adding context or color to the tale. It’s boring, staid, and not at all titillating. Two scenes out of this 170 page disaster of a story convince me that, had he actually cared, Pappa could have pulled it off. The book’s beginning and end feature some fine writing about duck hunting in the tidal marshes of Italy. But if I want great duck hunting stories, I’ll read Sam Cook or Gordon MacQuarrie. Here, the outdoor scenes, while well written and concise, are too little, too late to save the plot or the characters or the author.

Pick up a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls or The Sun Also Rises or Farewell to Arms and regale in Hemingway’s masterful, curt yet precise writing. Don’t waste your time on this outline of an old man’s lustful desires.

2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

The Circus at the Edge of the Earth by Charles Wilkins (1998. McLelland and Stewart. 978-0771088421)

In this travelogue, memoir, and depiction of a dying art form, my Canadian friend and noted nonfiction writer, Charles “Charlie” Wilkins leaves us with a concise, riveting, and accurate portrait of the Great Wallenda Circus. That alone is worth the price of admission (which, in my case, was quite modest since I bought the book used at Duluth’s great new independent bookstore, Zenith Books). But more than reportage of the locales and route of the Wallenda show as it made its way through NW Ontario and Eastern Manitoba, more than a critique of the individual performances of its component parts, it’s Wilkins’s ability to relate to, embrace, and yet effectively profile the performers, workers, and ultimately, the founder of the troupe-Ricky Wallenda himself, that makes this such a great read.

Wilkins introduces his first such character, the tiger tamer Wilson Barnes, on the very first page. The riveting first chapter, which portrays Barnes’s history and the inner workings of his training regimen, sets the stage (pun intended), detailing the steadfast hard work and dangers inherent in trusting five hundred pound cats to remain compliant even as their native hearts look upon Barnes as not much more than a next meal. But it is the appearance of elephant man Bobby Gibbs, whose larger-than-life persona is contained in a mammoth, obese, extraordinary physical presence who, upon entering the narrative, ends up stealing the show (yes, intended that one too!). In the character of Bobby Gibbs, the author finds his cornerstone to build a vivid, depressing, exhilarating, sad yet happy tale of a vanishing way of life. Wilkins admits to his humanness; he never claims to be an entirely disinterested scribe simply chronicling the demise of an art form. Instead, he allows us to accompany one tour of the Wallenda Circus through his knowledgeable and equitable eyes, all the while providing a historical narrative of both the Wallenda family and the component parts of this less-than-greatest show on earth. He takes on animal rights activism, the Shriners (who sponsor the shows), Canada’s treatment of its First People, and other ancillary yet important topics with an eye to explaining, not condemning; a trait that serves the narrative well and adds spice to the tale. Here’s a sample of the high quality of prose that populates this book:

“(T)his blind guy came out on the floor with his mother at intermission and the mother said to me, ‘My son would like to touch the elephant. Is that all right?’ And I said, ‘Sure, just take him out there.’ And she said, “He doesn’t need me. He can go out on his own.’ And this guy walked right out to where Judy was standing and put out his hand and gently started moving it across the side of her face. She don’t miss much-she knew right away that something was different about him. She just stood there kinda lookin at him outta one eye, and then very cautiously brought her trunk up and over and extended that little finger on her trunk, and brought it down so that it touched him lightly just below the eye. She was saying to him, ‘I understand-it’s your eyes…'”

I waited years to finally get my hands on this book. Having met and been encouraged by Charlie in Thunder Bay when I was just beginning my writerly journey, I’ve read most of his other work, all of it solid and exceedingly memorable. But, mostly out of a sense of nostalgia I suppose (having not attended a circus in a decade or so now that my sons have grown into men) this was the Wilkins book I wanted to read. And I’m damn glad I finally did!

A stellar effort of nonfiction writing.

5 stars out of 5. I’d highly recommend this book to book clubs. It’ll spark hours of conversation and reflection.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

 

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5.

 

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

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

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

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

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

“And what if the judge denies bail?”

(p. 151)

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

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

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

It 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

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