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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Mark

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

A worthy exploration of a unique backwater town.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

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

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

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

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

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

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

I loved the book.

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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.

 

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