All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014. Scribner. ISBN 978-1-4767-4658-6)

A story of contrasts. A German boy (Werner) whose life revolves around his ability to tinker with electronic gadgetry; his eyes and hands quick and easy with tools, his mind adept at solving problems,  joins one of the youth movements in Hitler’s Germany and becomes a person that his sister, with whom he shares a bleak existence in an orphanage, barely recognizes. Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl, lives a life of comparative luxury despite her infirmity, until she and her father are forced to flee France’s capital city, taking refuge in the fortress town of Saint-Malo. Marie-Laure’s ingenious father works as a locksmith for a museum and, as they move from city to town, uses his considerable model-making skills and locksmithing ability to craft models of Paris and Saint-Malo that allow the girl to travel within both in relative safety. But the German Wermacht is on the march and with the invasion of France, eventually the paths of the two young protagonists cross. Doerr won the Pulitzer for this unique and creative look at two lives tossed into the maelstrom of a cataclysmic conflict and it was much deserved. One of the best books I’ve read in the past decade, here’s a sample of the author’s voice and his fine prose:

Her father says their weapons gleam as if they have never been fired. He says their boots are clean and their uniforms spotless. He says they look as if they have just stepped out of air-conditioned train cars…Curfews are installed. Music that can be heard outdoors is banned. Public dances are banned. The country is in mourning and we must behave respectfully, announces the mayor. Though what authority he retains is not clear. Every time she comes within earshot, Marie-Laurie hears the phsst of her father lighting another match. His hands flutter between his pockets…He flips the locking clasp on his tool case over and over until Marie-Laure begs him to stop.

If you enjoyed The Nightengale, or my historical novel of the Finns and Estonians during WW II (Sukulaiset: The Kindred), this is the sort of well-crafted, highly charged prose that you will devour.

5 stars out of 5. A magnificent work.

All the Wild that Remains by David Gessner (2016. Norton. ISBN 978-0393352375)

Part memoir. Part travelogue. Part biography. Part environmental treatise. This well drawn work of non-fiction is the perfect reading companion for anyone traveling to Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Denver, or anyone simply interested in the environmental legacy of the American West. Gessner examines contemporary issues like land use, water rights, fracking, and wilderness in the context of the writings of Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegner, two revered Western writers. Both men, despite enormous differences in their approaches to environmental activism, retain dedicated followers decades after their respective deaths. Gessner inserts himself in the middle of the debate as to which approach: “monkey wrenching” (environmental sabotage; Abbey’s preferred method of achieving change), or philosophical and political dissertation (Stegner’s choice), is the more effective in terms of halting the degradation of Western resources and lands. This is a must read for fans of both writers because Gessner’s challenge, which he accepts and does an admirable job of meeting, is to consider present-day issues in the context of history and geographic reality, all the while merging the theoretical with the pragmatic. A good sign that the author is on the right track in pushing readers out of their comfort zones is this: I’ve never read Abbey, though I’ve read Stegner (he’s a fellow Eagle Scout, after all!) both his fiction (Angle of Repose) and his non-fiction (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian). Because of Gessner’s excellent writing on the similarities and differences between these two authors of the West, I’m now one-third into Abbey’s classic, Desert Solitare. That fact alone should compel you to pick up a copy of All the Wild that Remains.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

A Notion of Pelicans by Donna Salli (2016. North Star Press. ISBN 978-68201-035-8)

I’ve known Donna as a fellow writer, mostly from her attendance at readings I’ve given at various locales over the years. As a fellow author and as a teacher at Central Lakes Community College in Brainerd, she’s attended some of my events close to her home in central Minnesota. This effort, her first novel, is one that intrigued me and, after talking briefly with her recently, I bought the book directly from the publisher. When I told Donna I’d ordered it, she cautioned, “It’s really a women’s book…” but despite that caveat, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

More a collection of linked short stories, each section profiling a different female denizen of a mythical, nameless town on Lake Superior’s North Shore, the stories intertwine and create an overall tale much like a patchwork quilt; quilting being a familiar feminine pastime around these parts. But to be clear, the whole cloth is, as with a completed wall hanging or afghan for the back of the davenport, indeed greater than the sum of its patches. Taken as a whole, the stories form a thoughtful revelation of small town life centered around a little church congregation, its pastor and, most succinctly, the pastor’s wife. It is Serena Cross, the wife of Rev. Richard Cross, who functions as the character link in these vignettes depicting contemporary females as they deal with love, loss, infidelity, and age. Rena also serves as a link to the history of the town and the church in the form of her devotion to the memory of Lavinia Hansen, the town matriarch. It is Rena, more than any other character, who forms the binder, the glue if you will, to cement independent stories into a cogent whole. The writing is crisp; the plot intriguing but it is the character studies that Salli provides her readers with that compel us to continue on. We are drawn deeper and deeper into the internal dialogue of each of the characters until it seems like we too are as intimate with each woman portrayed in this collected tale as her partners and friends seem to be. One would expect a writer who teaches others to be a master of her craft. Salli doesn’t disappoint in this regard as this passage makes clear:

The chill outside lifted mid-morning, just before ten. By ten-fifteen, the day had gone to hell. But before we go there, let me say the morning started out like any other. I slipped into my nubbly-but-soft red chamois jacket, descended the narrow back stairs of the parsonage, and crossed the church grounds to the cemetery. There’s something about a cemetery that I love, and about this one, especially. In the sunshine this morning, the clutch of worn and fusty headstones rose brightly out of a crazy quilt of leaves. Mostly maple-feverishly red, calm yellow- with a smattering of oak-crisply, patient brown. As I sat there, thinking, looking out over the lake and running leaves through my fingertips, the world was kept at bay by the wrought-iron fence that wraps the perimeter.

The book is filled with realistic dialogue and the sort of tapestry of characters one would expect to find in any small town in the Midwest.

And therein lies my minor criticism of the book. The sense of place conveyed by Salli throughout (particularly because the cover art is so reminiscent of Grand Marais, Minnesota-the last outpost of civilization in northeastern Minnesota on the big lake before one crosses over into Canada) really isn’t that of the big lake and all it entails. Why? Here are a couple of  minor issues that, with a bit more research and familiarity with the North Shore, could have been avoided.

The consistent allegorical appearance of white pelicans along Lake Superior’s rugged north coast, gave me, a son of this “neck of the woods”, pause. I’ve lived around the big lake for over sixty years. I’ve never seen a white pelican (as depicted on the book’s cover) anywhere near this part of the world. Are white pelicans ever found on Lake Superior’s North Shore? Yes. But it’s such a rare and unusual event, that to mark it as relatively commonplace-as the story seems to suggest-doesn’t ring true for someone who knows the flora, fauna, and geography of the area. (For more on white pelicans on Lake Superior, see http://files.ontario.ca/environment-and-energy/species-at-risk/stdprod_075573.pdf. The article indicates that white pelicans on Lake Superior’s North Shore are confined to a small colony near Thunder Bay, ON.) The other anomaly that struck me from the place and setting aspect of the story was not jarring but still caused me to be drawn away from the book’s great writing. There’s a reference in the story to the sounds of railroads and locomotives moving about the unnamed town. Unless one is in Two Harbors or Silver Bay (where ore trains do occur) there are no trains or train tracks along the North Shore. Again, this might seem like a minor detail. And to readers from Ms. Salli’s backyard (Brainerd being a railroad town) the persistence of pelicans and the sounds of locomotives in an isolated village on the North Shore may not seem out of place. But they do to me.  A simple fix with respect to the namesake of the church, the white pelican, would have been to comment, either through Rena, the narrator, or another character, about how unusual it is to see a white pelican soaring over the rocks and waves of the North Shore. Add to that a short commentary about the trains, perhaps referencing that the town has links to taconite mining and shipping, and we’re good to go. In the end, I can forgive the trains but I remain slightly troubled by the pelicans.

I don’t want to dissuade readers from picking this novel as a worthy selection for consideration, enjoyment, and book club discussion. There’s plenty of great writing and conflict and interpersonal angst within the pages of this slender novel to make it a compelling read. And maybe, in the end, with my heritage of being a historian and primarily a historical novelist, I’m quibbling too much on detail. I’ll let you folks give a read and decide.

4 stars out of 5. A good, solid read that would make, despite some minor setting issues, a fine book club selection.

Peace.

Mark 

 

 

A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy (2016. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-53086-6). Another confession. Despite being a voracious reader of fiction, from Jane Hamilton to Ernest Hemingway, I’ve not read any of Pat Conroy’s beloved Southern novels. Oh, I’ve read Faulkner. And O’Connor. And Hurston. And Wolfe. But not Conroy. Sad to say, as much as I love Robert Duvall as an actor, I’ve never seen the film adaptation of The Great Santini, one of Conroy’s best known works. I have watched Prince of Tides and reveled in the fabulous performances of Nolte and Streisand. But until my friend Nancy handed me this book for Christmas, wrapped in silver wrapping paper (her husband Ron saves up potato chip bags every year, cleans them, turns them inside out, and uses them to wrap my presents: a running gag that I never grow tired of!), I hadn’t read any Conroy. Here’s my view on this memoir/collection.

I’ll try some of the author’s fiction, maybe start at the beginning with The Lords of Discipline and work my way down the author’s reading list. As for A Lowcountry Heart, my take on this stockpile of blog entries, speeches, essays, and interviews by and about Pat Conroy on life, writing, and his family is that someone, likely his editor (Nan Talese at Doubleday) or perhaps his widow (the author Cassandra King) or perhaps both, either couldn’t let go of Pat or simply saw an opportunity to keep his words flowing. Either way, the takeaway from reading this book cold, as someone who has never read Conroy before, is that while A Lowcountry Heart might be a great trip down memory lane for Conroy aficionados, for those of us who are not yet fans, the best that can be said is that it piques our interest in reading his work. Nothing more. Nothing less.

The subtitle, Reflections on a Writing Life, seems to me to be false advertising. This slender volume is much less a treatise on writing or publishing or marketing fiction in the present eBook age left behind by a master wordsmith, but rather a loose compendium of unrelated writings that, yes, at times, touch writerly topics but only remotely so and with reference, as the overarching theme of the book, to Conroy’s love for his university, The Citadel. Having no background as to that particular school, which is apparently the subject of Conroy’s controversial autobiographical novel, The Lords of Discipline, I grew tired of reading about the author’s connections to that private, military institution of higher learning. Including a commencement speech to the student body in this book as something a non-Conroy fan would be remotely interested in? Poor editing, so far as I’m concerned.

There is no question, on the positive side of things, that because of this book, I will now pick up a copy of one of Pat Conroy’s novels. The essays and letters and speeches contained in this attractively packaged collection (hardcover, with a built in bookmark!) were cogent enough and written with a style such that I will dive into the Conroy library and see what I think of his more popular work. And I might even fork over a few bucks for a copy of his memoir, The Water is Wide because if, after reading his fiction, I’m as impressed with his work, I’ll likely want to learn a thing or two about the writing life from this departed icon of American letters. Sadly, this was not a book that met my expectations when I carefully opened those re-purposed potato chip bags. But for a devoted Conroy fan saddened by the fact that his typewriter keys are now silent, perhaps it’s a worthwhile adjunct to his other work.

2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

The Whistler by Jon Grisham (2016. Doubleday. 9780385541190. This review refers to the Audible version of the novel.)

John Grisham sells more books in a minute than I sell in a year. There. My envious nature is proclaimed and we can all breathe a bit easier that this judge, a real judge, one who’s on the ethical up-and-up, has made full disclosure. On to the review.

I agree with the negative reviews posted on Amazon: This book starts out with great promise but like an unattended campfire in a driving rain, slowing smolders and then dies. There is no there, there. No sizzle; only fizzle. Lacy Stoltz, the latest in a long ling of lawyer protagonists drawn by the author over an extended career, is the main focus of the story. She’s not a trial lawyer (Grisham’s usual heroes and heroines) but a lawyer turned investigator for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct. Her job, and the job of her partner, Hugo Hatch, is to police and recommend discipline for wayward judges. And this plot has a doozie of a bad jurist: Claudia McDover, a woman in bed with both a local Indian tribe and a group of white dudes known as the Coast Mafia. There’s corruption, greed, skimmed cash, offshore accounts, burner cell phones and a pile of dead bodies incorporated into this tale of woe and deceit; all of which are so predictable and Grishamesque that the narrative ends up being a parody of the author’s better, earlier work. Plus, as countless other citizen critics have pointed out on Amazon and Goodreads, there is a guy rotting in prison for a murder he didn’t commit whose innocence, while repeatedly referenced and framed in the storyline, never gets addressed to the readers’ satisfaction. But there’s more…

If I was a Native American (Grisham’s characters use the term “Indian” saying the tribes prefer that nomenclature; that’s not been my experience but I’ll cut him some slack here), I’d be pretty pissed off at the way a white boy from privilege (the author) depicts Native American gaming and tribal life and politics. Other than the tribal constable, who eventually assists Lacy in her quest to bring down the judge and her cohorts, every other Native in this story is a bad dude. The reflections of tribal organization and politics, the fact that much of what happens on a reservation is based upon family and old wounds, while having grains of truth, do tribes that have used gaming to lift themselves out of poverty without demonstrable corruption, a disservice. I know that, in the past, say two decades or more ago, there were elements of organized crime tied to Native gaming. I am not certain such ties exist today.

And then there is the plot. As stated, one major plotline, the wrongfully convicted prisoner on death row, goes nowhere. Other bits and pieces of Lacy’s journey are staid, boring, uninteresting and just plain dull. Once Hugo meets his fiery end (spoiler alert) early on in the story, there’s really nobody to carry the plot forward who’s very intriguing or unique. In fact, the story churns along, word after painful word, mimicking the FBI-heavy story boards of Grisham’s more respected work until thankfully, it’s over. Except that it’s not. In a long-winded Epilogue, the author spends much time explaining what we just read or heard. This need for clarification and revelation after the action has stopped is, to me, a major sign that we are reading or listening to an early draft of a Grisham novel; not the polished art of a master storyteller.

In the end, I have to agree with those readers who panned this book and placed it at the bottom of Grisham’s legal thrillers. It isn’t The Firm or a Time to Kill or The Rainmaker, my favorites, and doesn’t come close to his average work like Runaway Jury or The Pelican Brief. The NYT gave this book high marks (see the review at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/27/books/review-john-grishams-the-whistler.html?_r=0) so who am I to criticize, right? If you want to part with your hard earned cash, feel free. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

2 and 1/2 stars out of 5. Not a worthy effort from a guy who once knew how to craft a story.

Peace.

Mark

PS The title refers to the fact that Lacy becomes embroiled (that’s the wrong word since the plot doesn’t boil or broil or roll but simply steeps) in the case of Judge McDover due to the involvement of someone “in the know” blowing the whistle on the judge. As a trial court judge I figured out who that mysterious blabber mouth was, without he or she being introduced to the plot, in short order. There wasn’t much suspense for me when that person’s identity was later revealed and I was proven right.

 

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (Ballatine. 2016. ISBN 9781444788013. This review refers to the Audible version of the book.)

I will likely incur the wrath of women’s book clubs across the world if and when they read this review. But here goes.

Because of the subject matter, racial discrimination in modern day America, I wanted to love this book. And, for the first quarter of the story, I was hooked. Picoult is a very fine wordsmith. However, at least in this effort, she falls flat as a researcher and storyteller. Here’s why.

The protagonist Ruth Jackson is a registered nurse of color who loses her nursing license because of an incident at the hospital she works in. The white parents of an infant, particularly the husband, Turk, express white supremacist views to a charge nurse, indicating that they do not want “those” people (African Americans like Ruth) touching their child. Inexplicably and despite having worked with Ruth for years, the charge nurse accedes to the couples’ racist desires. That’s something that, while it apparently did happen in Michigan on one occasion (Picoult cites that circumstance as the impetus behind her novel), it’s so highly unlikely and brazenly wrong, makes the story seem implausible. But since it did happen at least once in 21st century America, I’ll give the author a pass on this plot point.

Predictably, an emergency ensues where Ruth must make a choice: render aid to the infant or follow her superior’s order not to treat the child. The child dies and a few days later, Ruth receives a letter from the Connecticut State Board of Nursing that her license, according to author’s first rendition of the event, is revoked. As an attorney and a judge, this defect in basic research caused me pause. Having once represented a nurse addicted to pain medications who went before the Minnesota Nursing Board for a hearing on her license suspension (Picoult later changes the word used to describe Ruth’s punishment from license “revocation” to “suspension”), I was curious as to how a nursing license in Connecticut can be pulled without notice and a hearing, two fundamental principles of law. It can’t. One click on the Connecticut Board of Nursing’s website reveals that the process Picoult described, instant revocation of one’s nursing license by mail, doesn’t exist in Connecticut. This flaw isn’t fatal to the story but it caused suspicion that other aspects of the book might not be based in truth.

Then there is the arrest. For some unknown reason, the State of Connecticut decides to wait until 3:00am to serve an arrest warrant on a well respected African American registered nurse who doesn’t pose a danger to society and doesn’t pose a flight risk. The night arrest propels a scene where cops knock on Ruth’s door while she and her son are sleeping, and, hearing no answer, break down the door, toss Ruth and her teenage son in cuffs, and haul a middle aged registered nurse off to jail in her nightgown. Possible? Maybe in Alabama in 1920. In Connecticut in 2016? Highly unlikely. The motivation behind such emergent and clandestine behavior by the police, especially when it’s the result of collaboration with the prosecutor’s office and not the result of say, a traffic stop or an “at the scene arrest” where tension and fear are major factors and mistakes are often made by the police, is completely absent. Toss in the fact that, given the racially charged aspects of the case, no modern prosecutor in any jurisdiction, including the Old South, would likely seek an indictment or bring a charge against Ruth for any sort of criminal act, and the plot line (preparation and trial) that propels the story can’t pass the smell test.

I did like the handling of the white defense lawyer’s inner turmoil as she tries to represent Ruth during the trial process with the dignity Ruth deserves. Throughout the tale, Kennedy McQuarrie deals with her own white privilege and her understanding of her own prejudices and conclusory beliefs about African Americans as she tries to see things from Ruth’s perspective. She, in my mind, thinks and acts as many white Americans in her shoes would behave. Maybe because the author, a white, privileged woman, identifies closely with the character. But this attribute of believably is not enough to overcome other flaws in both the legal and theoretical plotting of this novel, as well crafted as the sentences may be. Turk (the white supremacist) and his wife end up coming off as cartoonish and gaudy in their antics, and the plot twist (won’t spoil it here) at the end of the story as it relates to them is tired and predictable even if borrowed from real life.

I get why book clubs, especially women’s book clubs, are reading this novel in droves. It does bring to the surface many, many tensions regarding racial interaction in the United States. And that, to my way of thinking, is a very good thing, something I attempted to do in a less in-your-face fashion in my first person novel, Esther’s Race.  I only wish Picoult had spent more time on researching law and police procedure and crafting her story and less time seeking to produce an outline for a social science discussion.

3 stars out of 5. Readable by not a great read.

Peace.

Mark

PS For the record, my wife Rene’ disagrees with my assessment of the book. She has recommended it to her book club…I shall say no more about that!

 

Tom Connor’s Gift by David Allan Cates (2014. Bangtail Press. ISBN 978-0-09623787-5-9)

It is sometimes a tricky thing for an author to write outside their personal experience in terms of ethnicity, gender, or orientation. I can attest that it’s a fine line to be walked between creating an unintended parody of a fictional person by stepping outside one’s comfort zone as a writer and forming a fully functional, believable protagonist who is markedly different from the writer’s own background. I tried, and I think, for the most part, succeeded in accomplishing that task in Esther’s Race by writing in the first person as Esther DuMont; a twenty-something African American Irish and Finnish American woman caught up in methamphetamine addiction. So, after listening to an essay by David Cates on Reflections West (you can listen in at: http://reflectionswest.org/episodes/ep154_cates.php) which, in addition to our apparent joint desire to explore a woman’s voice, is another thing I share with Cates (hear my essay on RW at: http://reflectionswest.org/episodes/ep70_munger.php) I decided to purchase his novel, Tom Connor’s Gift, and give it a read. I have to say: I was impressed.

Janine McCarthy has lost her husband. To cancer. As a physician and the mother of emancipated twins, McCarthy decides to retreat to a friend’s cabin in Montana (leaving the family farm in Wisconsin temporarily during the grieving process) and ponder her life. That’s the essence of the plot in this narrative novel, one that is rich and full with the angst and inner machinations of its female protagonist set against her re-discovery of decades-old love letters written to her by the irrepressibly quirky and ungrounded Tom Connor; McCarthy’s first lover. In rare form, Cates dives deeply into the process of loss, the importance of family, the unsettling nature of grief, and the implausibility of love lost and love found. His prose is literary yet unpretentious and the story line, despite the strange, repetitive allegorical appearance of a grizzly bear, propels the novel forward to its inexorable conclusion. Through it all, Janine confronts and considers the ever-present letters from the man who played a significant role in her emotional life despite distance and time:

I put the letter down and get up and pour myself a cup of wine. The mention of rum (in a letter) makes me thirsty. Does that mean I’m becoming an alcoholic? His unabashed carnality makes me something else, which I take as a good sign, although part of what I feel is panic that nobody will ever want me again, nobody that I would have anyway. I sit back down again at the table with the wine and use my palm to smooth out the crinkled paper the letter is written on, put it back in the envelope, and take it out again. About the only thing I know for certain about desire is how fast it can change.

Cates continues his mastery of prose in the same vein throughout the entirety of this read. I was pleased to discover his work. Reading regional writers (Cates lives and writes in Montana, a place I visit often) and finding gems like this keep me wanting to strive to be better at what I do.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A well crafted read that would be a great book for a book club to digest.

Peace.

Mark

 

Midnight in Siberia by David Greene (2014. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-23955-9)

Timely. That’s the word that comes to mind as I type this short review of NPR anchor David Greene’s fascinating look at post-communist Russia from the windows of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railroad. This morning I awoke to the news that it is possible that the newly annointed Attorney General of the United States lied, or at least, mislead members of the Senate (including Minnesota’s own Al Franken) when asked if he had knowledge of any direct contacts between Team Trump and the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. Sessions said “No” and that may turn out to be, at best, a misstatement, or at worst, a falsehood. Set against the backdrop of the current state of affairs depicted in Greene’s travelogue-turned-political-primer, where the majority of Russian common folk seem impossibly wedded to the notion that, while Vladimir Putin might be a bad man, he is, at the very heart of his core, a Russian. And that, apparently, is enough.

This is a fairly easy, breezy read. Greene doesn’t go deep into the weeds of the new Russian reality. He makes his case directly and succinctly through reportage of his conversations with ordinary Russians he meets (and previously met) during the train ride and from his home base as the Russian Bureau Chief for NPR in Moscow. He makes a steady and fairly deliberate attempt to educate American readers on this simple point: Russia is not now, and may never be, ready for Western style democracy. The heritage of the Russian empire and its people is the need for a strong man (or in the case of Catherine the Great, a strong woman) like Putin to lead them. Sure, there are sophisticates and intellectuals in the larger cities whose protests concerning Putin’s brutal crackdowns against the press, gays, free speech, and the like make international news. But Greene makes a cogent case that, for the most part, though Russians who are not of the privileged class (the oligarchs and their cronies who prop at Putin at the risk of losing their status and wealth) understand they are getting a raw deal in many ways in terms of economic equality and individual rights, the average Russian citizen is happy enough with his or her lot, or at least, willing to tolerate such slights in exchange for relative peace and stability.

This is not great literature. The book’s prose is nowhere as eloquent as that of say, Paul Theroux, one of the world’s most gifted travel writers and observers of divergent culture. But, as stated, given who is now leading our fair nation and the aspersions of connections between Trumpism and the bare chested horseman, it’s a book that should be required reading for all Americans.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Anthem by Ayn Rand (1995. Signet. ISBN 978-0-451-19113-7)

And we sighed, as if a burden had been taken from us, for we had been thinking without reason of the Palace of Mating. And we thought that we would not let the Golden One be sent to the Palace. How to prevent it, how to bar the will of the Councils, we knew not, but we knew suddenly that we would. Only we do not know why such thought came to us, for these ugly matters bear no relation to us and the Golden One. What relation can they bear?

That’s the most complex language and literary structure this novella ever achieves. Throw in the fact that the primary premise, one man, the “we” (otherwise known as Equality 7-2521) in the above sequence, escapes a post-apocalyptic world into a vast and empty forest because he is being hunted for his re-discovery of electricity (an improvement of modernity that is forbidden, secret, and seemingly lost to the mass of humanity) is so flawed in detail and plausibility so as to remind me of a seventh grader’s attempt at speculative fiction. To be fair, Rand’s native language was Russian so perhaps her depth of English comprehension when she began this work in the early 1920s wasn’t as expansive as when she penned Atlas Shrugged some three decades later. But for this weakly penned work to ever have seen the light of day (pun intended) is a remarkable testament to the unpredictability of editorial taste. So many questions, questions that any self-respecting science fiction author would attempt to cover in a story’s narrative, remain unanswered that it’s extremely difficult to take Rand seriously as an author or philosopher. How does Equality 7-2521 generate the electricity that eventually lights the glass box that he carries about? How does he move from his discovery of a crude battery (metal and liquid in a jar that creates current) to a power source that is portable and seemingly inexhaustible? How does he fashion a bow and arrow sufficient to down birds for meals when he has no tools? How is it that he and the Golden One (who inexplicably finds him in the great wooded wilderness with no outdoor or tracking skills) surround themselves with a ring of fire (how many matches do they have, anyway?) to stave off wild beasts and yet they do not cough or inhale the smoke of the fire surrounding their resting place? These are but a few points to consider, but points that even a seventh grade novelist would attempt to tackle. Rand apparently saw no need to make her tale of individuality believable, relying instead upon a steady revelation of the importance of “I”, the singular one, to carry the tale. But she doesn’t pull it off. The story is limpid, dull, and much like her doctrine of objectivism (the premise that each man must be left unfettered by constraints of government, religion, or culture to attain his natural position in the order of the world), fatally flawed. I enjoyed, to a degree, Rand’s storytelling, if not her pontification, in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. I read both to learn more about the philosophical underpinnings of the political thinking of modern day objectivists such as Rand Paul and Paul Ryan. If you too are interested in alternative ways of thinking about mankind, those are two novels that I’d recommend. I would not recommend Anthem.

One final note. The addition of Rand’s manuscript corrections to the British version of the book adds absolutely nothing to one’s understanding of the story or Rand’s point of view.

1 star out of 5. If you must read this tripe, save a tree and buy it as an eBook.

Peace.

Mark

Custer’s Trials by T. J. Stiles (2015. ISBN 978-307-59264-4)

My  senior paper to attain my BA in history from the University of Minnesota-Duluth was an examination of the public reputation and iconization of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. In preparation for writing my work, which was completed while I was in my first year of law school (a long story that I’ll tell another time), I read contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts of Custer’s death to provide a chronology of the evolution of the man from Civil War hero to tragic victim. Of course, to Custer’s opponents on the Plains, the Lakota and the Northern Cheyenne, he was not an innocent victim of a brutal massacre but a casualty in their war for survival against the advance of the Industrial Age into territory vital to their nomadic cultures. I think I incorporated the complexities of these diverse views of the Battle at the Little Big Horn and Custer into my paper. But I did not, in any fashion, examine the psychological makeup of Custer to any great degree. That’s not an uncommon failing in articles, essays, and books trying to peer into the soul of this captivating yet morally ambiguous man. I can honestly attest that Stiles, in Custer’s Trials, puts all of Custer’s moral, racial, political, and military successes and failures under a magnifying glass to fully illuminate the man’s internal nature. Stiles succeeds in, for the first time in the history of examinations of George Armstrong Custer, giving readers a full-bodied review of the man in context. And that, given more than one hundred years have passed since Custer’s death, is no easy task.

Throughout Custer’s life, the man’s love (and contradictory ambiguity) towards his wife, partner, and biggest booster, Libbie, was always front and center, constantly on Custer’s mind even as he dallied with other women. There were, as Stiles portrays the relationship, periods of upheaval during the soldier’s long absences from the marital bed, during which it is fairly clear that Custer found satisfaction-if not love-in the warmth of another woman’s embrace. This theme, while a minor moral impingement of Custer’s standing in history, speaks volumes of the man’s lack of steady faith and virtue:

He longed for her to show real love for him again. He hoped to persuade her that she was wrong, that “however erratically wild or unseemly my conduct with others may have been, you were still to me as you always have been, the one great all absorbing object of my love”…Here the letter seems to veer away from gambling to other women. “I will not pretend to justify my conduct with others,” he wrote. “Measured by the strict laws of propriety or public opinion I was wrong. I knew it as plainly as I know it now.” Their difficulties refined his love, he claimed…Again and again, he had indulged in flirtations, perhaps even infidelities, then promised Libbie his heart was true, only to do it again.

In many respects, Custer’s Trials, which indeed does chronicle not only his emotional and marital trials with his wife, but myriad conflicts, tests, and courts martial and civilian court proceedings, is the first in-depth psychological analysis of the man. Stiles doesn’t offer the reader an ultimate scientific diagnosis for Custer’s seemingly erratic and certainly egomanical behavior, but he does lay it all out for us in bold and concise terms. His use of original source materials and secondary documents such as letters written by Custer’s strongest supporters and his most vehement critics is masterful. For anyone interested in peering into the depths of George Armstrong Custer’s soul in hopes of discerning the man’s attributes and failings, this is as good as it gets.

Masterful.

5 stars out of 5. A must read for Custerphobes.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

 

Facing the Music by Clay Eals (2006. ECW. ISBN 976-1-55022-732-1)

I want you to close your eyes. It’s 1977. You’re in a college ballroom on the campus of a medium-sized public university. The house lights are low. You are sitting on the floor cross-legged next to the girl you want to marry. There are maybe 100 other students and faculty sitting on the floor or in folding chairs arrayed in a circle around a microphone stand. A short, slightly rotund, long-haired Jewish boy from Chicago steps from shadow into light and confidently plants himself in front of the microphone. An acoustic guitar hanging from a strap will remain unplayed throughout the first song.  The singer, his brown eyes clear and bright, begins an a Capella lament:

Oh my name is Penny Evans and my age is twenty-one
A young widow in the war that’s being fought in Viet Nam
And I have two infant daughters and I do the best I can
Now they say the war is over, but I think it’s just begun.

If you can visualize the scene and hear Goodman’s voice, then you will understand how that concert remains, for me, along with seeing Bruce Springstreen perform live, on of the favorite musical moments of my life. “The Ballad of Penny Evans” was born of genius: a man singing in the voice of a war widow about the loss of her husband and what remains. And yet, unlike some other great songs written during the 1970s, it’s a song that very few folks know or appreciate. I’ve heard it performed publicly just twice in the thirty-three years since Goodman’s untimely death in 1984. Once in an Irish pub in St. Paul by a local dude simply making music and once, in my own voice, as I stood scared as a school girl in front of a live audience as the MC for Law Law Palooza at the Clyde Iron facility in Duluth raising money to provide free lawyers for the indigent. I’m pretty sure the dude in St. Paul hit the mark. Not so sure about me. But that’s the impact seeing Goodman one time, long ago, had on me. I bring all of this up as an introduction to my review of Clay Eals’s massive (778 page) biography of the singer/songwriter who wrote not only “Penny Evans” but some other very, very notable tunes, including “The City of New Orleans” (recorded by Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson, to name a few), and “You Never Even Called Me by my Name” (a country hit for David Allen Coe). In between these well known songs, Steve Goodman penned such classics as “California Promises”, “The 20th Century is Almost Over”, and a host of others. But despite a great storyteller’s voice, mastery of the acoustic guitar, a wicked sense of humor, and a knack for creating memorable lyrics, Goodman never achieved universal acclaim. That’s the story Eals so painfully tells, along with Stevie’s 15 year-plus battle with leukemia, his roller-coaster marriage to Nancy, and his doting affection for his three young daughters. And, despite a misstep or two (sometimes bordering on redundancy) Eals manages to keep the life story of this beloved but obscure genius in focus throughout this massive read. The question I have to ask myself as I consider how to rate this book, how to fairly evaluate the over 1,000 interviews Eals conducted (with musical legends such as John Prine and Mary Stuart and Jackson Browne, and non-musical folks such as Hillary Clinton (who attended high school with Steve)) and mountains of newspaper and other written references that the author consulted to create a complete life of a man who died underappreciated by the general public, is this: Would anyone other than a devoted Steve Goodman fan or a Chicagoan want to read this tome? I think the answer is an unqualified “yes”. Here’s why.

First, Goodman was an Everyman, a Midwestern boy raised in a suburban, middle class neighborhood whose dad was a war veteran from the Greatest Generation, and whose Mom encouraged his career through its ups and downs, who, upon learning of his fatal cancer diagnosis just out of high school, was determined to “make it big”. He tried, like so many of us in the arts have, through sheer will of effort and personality and ability, to convince The Man (i.e., record company executives) and the public of his worth, wanting the brass ring so badly that, as Eals points out, he even moved his family to California in the misguided belief that being closer to the record producers would give him his “big break.” Instead, we learn that, as Steve’s studio career tanked (he was axed by both Buddah and Asylum), live audiences, from those who saw him on the “Austin City Limits” stage to fans attending over 200 Steve Martin concerts, loved him. Having only seen Goodman once, and having been enthralled with his story ever since, I can attest that, just like The Boss never leaves a stage without expending the last drop of sweat from his body, Steve Goodman was cut from the same cloth. When he performed live, he was “all in”. So it seems to me that anyone with any sort of unfulfilled aspiration, whether it be in music, writing, the arts, or some other endeavor,  will appreciate the painstaking narrative created by the author to depict Goodman’s slender successes and luminous failures.

And then there is this: I’ve read many other memoirs and biographies of musicians, from Woody Guthrie to Neil Young to Dave Crosby to Springsteen and Clapton. I’ve found them all fascinating looks at how musicians find success, hit the wall at some point in their careers, and then recover. But none of those books tear back the curtain so we are there, in the moment, both on stage and in the offices of the record company executives making deals, like this compilation does. In addition, Eals takes great care to memorialize the songwriting process, both Goodman as a solitary bard scribbling away on his own, or during the collaborative chaos Goodman engaged in while penning masterpieces with John Prine, Mike Smith, Jimmy Buffet, and a host of others. The depth and complexity the author ascribes to the process of songwriting is something to behold and, by itself, makes this biography a worthy read.

In the end, the book is long-winded but beautifully written. The language is direct, concise, and never flowery or cumbersome. And, I sort of get why Eals wanted to include everything in this book. I did the same thing in my biography of my late uncle, State Rep. Willard Munger (Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story). I knew, as Eals did, that no one else was going to pen a biography of his subject, at least not one that would conclusively document the life of someone so iconic yet so underappreciated. And so, Eals, left in anything that was revealing about Goodman’s life and creative process.   In the end, I think that’s a definite plus. The world can now understand the background, struggles, and brilliance of the man who wrote, what Johnny Cash once called, “The best damn train song ever written…”. 

Singing Penny Evans.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. 5 stars if you are a Steve Goodman fan. It is a must read for you if you’re in that category!

Peace.

Mark

 

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