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

 

The Koran Interpreted (translated by A. J. Arberry) (1996. Touchstone. ISBN 9780684825076)

As with my reading of The Book of Mormon, this is a review of the literary merit of one of mankind’s most beloved scriptural texts, The Koran. It is not my attempt to critique or disassemble the theology of Islam: I will leave that to the scholars. I am just an average, ordinary American, raised Christian amongst other Christians and a smattering of Jews and nonbelievers, who is trying to understand the basic tenets of a faith that underpins many of the lives, cultures, and social orders of the latest immigrants to the United States. So take what I observe and write here in the spirit in which it is written: as a critic of the language, writing, and structure of The Koran, not as a criticism of The Book’s core beliefs.

First, the repetition. Gehenna, a Biblical valley that appears in Hebrew scripture, is referenced, by one account, more than 70 times in The Koran. I gave up counting how many times the terms “chastisement” (as in “the unbelievers will suffer a great chastisement”) and “punishment” appear within the suras (chapters) of the book. This constant refrain of salvation and damnation, the repetitiveness of the text, may well, when read aloud in a mosque or recited by heart at prayer, reinforce the central themes of the second largest religion in the world. (One source has Christianity as the largest at 33% with Islam second at 21% of the world’s population; USA Today predicts that by 2070, Islam will supplant Christianity as the world’s largest faith community.) But when read as a complete text, from beginning to end, this consistency becomes redundant. I found this repetitiveness reminiscent of the overly repeated refrains found in The Book of Mormon, though, to be fair, The Messenger’s collection of revelations and scripture precedes Joseph Smith’s discovery by 1,200 years, making The Koran a likely source of inspiration for the Mormon prophet’s revelations. One thing that sets The Koran apart from Smith’s retelling of the contents of the golden plates is the language. Whereas Smith, an uneducated and illiterate religious searcher, relied upon a tone and tenor that was pedestrian and ordinary in its prose, The Messenger’s presentation of the Eternal Book is, despite also coming from an oral tradition, far more polished and, in some suras, reaches the poetry of The Bible:

Hast thou seen him who lies to the Doom? That is he who repulses the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy. So woe to those that pray and are heedless of their prayers, to those who make display and refuse charity.

(Sura CVII)

This is not an easy text to read. And I am certain that if I was privileged to hear the verses and suras recited in their original Arabic, there would be a flow, a magic to the words that transcends even the best English translation of this compilation of revelations from the Divine. But even in English, The Book displays moments of linguistic clarity and beauty; and, departing from my initial premise (that I would not delve into theology) much of what radical Islam is preaching and acting upon (jihad being raised against children, women, the old, and the infirm in the name of God) is nowhere to be found in this book. Certainly, just as with Judaism and Christianity, there are facets of a faith that come from customs and practices created over millennia of observance, some of which may support suicide bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, and the murder of noncombatants or captured combatants. But I did not, in my time with The Koran, find those practices ingrained in the spiritual message of this book. As a Christian, I may be troubled that The Messenger defines Christ not as God embodied on Earth, but as a mortal prophet akin to Moses and Noah. In addition, there is a theme of evangelism to the text; the need to convert unbelievers to The Book that mirrors Paul’s exhortations to conversion in the New Testament. But The Koran incorporates both Jews and Christians into a larger, monotheistic framework of faith, considering those religious bodies to also be People of the Book. Perhaps the world would be a better, calmer place if Jews and Christians extended the same courtesy to Muslims.

Reading The Koran was not easy but it was enlightening and, given the world we live in, essential for non-Muslims to at least attempt.

4 stars out of 5. The book is, as indicated, rated for literary merit, not its spiritual content.

Peace.

Mark 

jolly1

Listener in the Snow by Tim Jollymore (2013. Finns Way Books. 978-0-9914763-0-5)

Readers who enjoy Louise Erdich’s or Linda LeGarde Grover’s or Sherman Alexey’s brand of native mysticism wrapped within a fictional tale will enjoy this new novel by Cloquet, Minnesota native Tim Jollymore. Interwoven stories of the first-person narrator, Tatty, a mixed race Mi’Maq whose wife Mary is of Ojibwe lineage, and three legendary trips north from Tatty’s home in the States; first, for his father’s funeral; second, to bring his mother home to die in Canada; and third, to northern Minnesota to assist Mary in the birthing of her young cousin’s twin girls, all intersect in ways that are strange, enlightening, frightening, and legendary. Jollymore is a skilled storyteller and wordsmith, though, from time to time, the eloquence of his prose might, at least in this reader’s humble opinion, slow down the intensity of the action driving the plot. Still, there are so many well crafted passages and scenes throughout this flight of fancy intermixed with adventure and emotive recollection that one hardly notices the interruption of the storyline. Here’s an example one of Jollymore’s better pieces of narrative:

After the expansive, dazzling snow burning under the cloudless sky, the inside of the cabin was close and nearly black. The fireplace flame, whose smoke I had seen from above, was the first thing to reveal itself to my sun-glazed eyes. Then appeared the fainter glows of the windows, where drifts had been partially flung back by Danny’s shovel-work. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a white-draped bassinet standing away from the fireplace. Over this hovered a tiny silhouetted figure signing words I could not make out.

There are many memorable characters inhabiting Jollymore’s fictional story; from the enigmatically strong and defiant Mary, to the reclusive Tiny, to the aging, inherently wise Granny-the old woman who helps Tatty understand the visions he is plagued by. Each one is well crafted and unique. One criticism of the book would be that, for a work this polished, I found a few typos and/or missing words. These are rare occurrences, to be sure, and something my own work, also being self-published, has suffered from as well. There is also something unsettling about the climatic scene involving Roscoe and the ice flow. I won’t spoil the ending for you because this is a book that, if you have an interest in Native American fiction, you should read: Perhaps as a member of a book club to spawn discussion regarding the storytelling, the accuracy of the tale’s depiction of Native American life in the 21st century, and a host of other topics. Despite these minor flaws, I found the characters and the story memorable and well worth the time.

4 stars out of 5. A good novel for a book club to pick up, read, and discuss.

Peace.

Mark

mistry

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (2012. Vintage Anchor (Canada). ISBN978-0-7710-5704-5)

I was in Thunder Bay, Ontario this summer for a Finnish festival. I was riding around with my host, Ron Harpel, and stopped in at Chapter’s, the Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble, looking for a book to read. My intention was to buy Circus at the Edge of the Earth by my friend and internationally known Thunder Bay author, Charlie Wilkins. But alas, the largest bookstore chain in Canada did not have a single Wilkins title in stock, much less his first memoir. I settled for Such a Long Journey even though I’d not heard of the book’s author, Rohinton Mistry, because of the back jacket blurbs. I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel is well written in a style that reminds me, due to its reliance on mysticism and ritual, of Native American fiction (think Erdrich or Alexie or Grover). Mistry sometimes wanders a bit off the beaten path, tossing in asides and “howevers” that distract from the overarching plot but, in the end, the clarity of the author’s storytelling brings the plot back into view. Throughout the effort, Mistry carefully and adeptly gives us snippets of Indian culture, history, and Zoroastrian practices (the main character, Gustaf Noble, is of that religious minority; learn more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism) so that, as we are entertained by the fictional story, we learn a bit about one of the largest nations on earth and one of it’s least examined religions. Here’s a snippet that portrays living in a mosquito infested slum and the protagonist’s constant battle to keep his family safe from pestilence and vermin:

“Perfect, said Gustav, clearing the dining-table. He placed the round shallow dish under the bulb and filled it with water. When the surface grew still, the light bulb’s reflection steadied and shone brightly, tantalizingly, under water. Then the mosquitoes started to dive in. One by one, abandoning the real bulb, they plunged unswervingly suicidal in their attempts to reach the aqueous, insubstantial light. Somehow it was a greater attraction than the one hanging from the ceiling.”

My only criticism of this novel is that, as concise and crisp as the writing is, I was ready for more revelatory prose surrounding Prime Minister Gandhi (Indira) and the alleged corruption in her administration which is an almost unspoken accusation behind much of the action and plot involving Gustav and other characters, major and minor, in the book. Then too, the friction between Noble and his eldest child, Sohrab, while eventually resolved, could have used a bit more time on the stage. But over all, this is a good, good read. Not, as proclaimed, on the jacket, a great novel but one that surely whets the appetite to read more Mistrys (pun intended!).

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

 

linda

The Sky Watched by Linda LeGarde Grover (2015. Red Mountain Press. ISBN9780990804772)

Speak English. Forget the language of your grandparents. It is dead. Forget their teachings. They are ignorant and unGodly. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Indians are not clean. Your mother did not teach you to be clean.

(from “Everything You Need to Know in Life You’ll Learn at Boarding School”)

Indian boarding schools. Creation myths. Cultural references. Family. These are the compass points of a new poetry collection by Duluth poet and author, Linda LeGarde Grover. A confession. I grew up with Linda’s siblings. Of the 14 LeGarde children, I knew four of them fairly well before age thirty: Nancy, two years older than me; Jerry, a year ahead of me in school; Susie, a classmate at Lincoln Jr. High and Denfeld H.S., and Jimmy, who played shortstop on my law firm’s softball team. I’ve also had the pleasure in my later years of spending time with Linda at book signings and other writerly events. So take this review for what it is: opinion tainted by familiarity. That having been said, if these poems of Ojibwe life and dreams and spirituality weren’t damn good, well, I’d beg off and tell Ms. LeGarde I didn’t have the time to review this book. But that’s not the case.

There’s a Zen-like quality to LeGarde’s verse and prose poems, the wrapping of myth into history into sadness into joy that reminds me of the Finnish epic saga, The Kalevala. Though the mysticism that is so often the cornerstone of Native American contemporary writing (think Erdrich or Northrup or Alexie) may be found in some of these poems, front and center, LeGarde isn’t heavy handed in applying aboriginal beliefs and magic to her remembrances. Instead, the connections between spirit and flesh, reality and fantasy, are more subtle, less onerous for non-Native readers, allowing us access to a world that, while seemingly shrinking due to the monolithic advance of American culture, continues on beneath the fabric of everyday life. LeGarde’s periodic reflections of being raised in the non-Indian world while being taught the “old ways” at home and within her family, the clash of cultures being omnipresent and somewhat daunting, rise from the page, easily accessible but poignant.

Our little sister is the only blond in our family. As children we were fascinated by her coloring, her hair that lightened to an ice frost in the summer, her cheeks that bloomed with a red fire in the winter. Winters she became the sun, summers the moon.

(from “Mary Susan”)

On the critical side, a few of LeGarde’s poems left me scratching my head as I tried to decipher their meaning or simply did not rise to the level of the rest of the collection. But these minor deviations in authorial quality are momentary, fleeting, and rare. What one is left with, after having spent time with Ms. LeGarde, her family, her traditions, her ancestors, is a feeling of love. And hope. And respect.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. Read a poem or two each evening before bed. You won’t be disappointed!

Peace.

Mark

 

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