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.



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.


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






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!




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.




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.




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: 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.






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!





Dalva by Jim Harrison (1988. Washington Square Press. ISBN 978-0-671-74067-2

“Jim Harrison’s Dalva is the story of a remarkable modern woman’s search for her son…”

That’s the cover blurb that grabbed my attention and compelled me to buy this novel at Books on Broadway,  a lovely little bookstore in downtown Williston, ND. I’ve read Harrison before and both loved and been less than excited about his work (Legends of the Fall-big thumbs’ up; True North-not so much) but because the recently departed author hailed from two places I thoroughly love, UP Michigan and Montana, I figured this book, given the impressive blurbs, would make for an interesting and engaging summer read. I got the interesting. Engaging? That fell by the wayside as I plowed through Harrison’s prose. Here’s why.

I applaud any male author’s willingness to tackle the voice of a woman in the first person in fiction. There are so many opportunities to stumble and fall, to marginalize the character by inserting male sexuality, male language, and male foibles into the writing, that, well, when an author of  Harrison’s stature makes the attempt, takes such a risk, I stand up and take notice. Having tackled this quirky task myself (Esther’s Race), I have sympathy for males writing in the female voice and vice versa. And, for the most part, Harrison handles the difficulties of putting on a woman’s skin, getting into the female mind, with adroitness. That makes the first part of the tale, told in Dalva’s voice, very readable and believable. Sure, the sexuality of the main character seems so feckless and free and without thought of consequence, some readers might argue that Harrison is casting male sexuality onto the female persona. But making that assumption or assertion, I think, misses that there are indeed intrepidly sexual females in the world, women whose carnal appetites equal those of men. So the fact that Dalva has a child early on out-of-wedlock and continues on a path that includes trysts and affairs and nary a serious relationship, well, that’s the free spirit of the character and it’s solidly valid. So it’s not Dalva’s lust or affection or love of flesh that stands out as an issue for me. Rather, it is the fact that, having established a strong, interesting woman as his lead actor, Harrison suddenly changes up the game and gives us an insipidly weak and uninteresting male character, Michael, a sniveling, milquetoast thirty-something (a decade younger than his sometime lover, Dalva, which women readers will likely applaud!) to move the story forward. The author compounds this unacceptable slight-of-hand, this bait and switch, by giving Michael center stage for the second part of the story. Even though part 1, featuring Dalva, and part 2, featuring Michael, are equal in length, I found the second portion of the tale far more labored and uninteresting. My take. Accept it or reject it as you like.

Dalva reappears for the concluding section of the book, “Going Home” and the lives of the two main characters weave back and forth, with other, supporting actors making appearances to enhance the plot. But the narrative, as structured throughout the volume, presents challenges. What do I mean? First, the blurb proclaiming that this is a story about a mother finding her son, a child she gave away as an infant, is pure fallacy. Oh, sure, the birthing and giving up and lamenting are all there on the page. But that segment of the story is so defuse, so subtle that proclaiming, as the blurbist did, that the adoption and search scenario is a main theme of the book is a crock. There’s little significance of the “lost child” narrative to the remainder of the book’s story arc. It simply failed to connect, at least with me. Additionally, the unchaptered structure of the novel, while not anywhere as difficult as reading Joyce, is a bit off putting. And finally, there is this. The ending so confused me, well, I won’t spoil it for you if you decide to wade into this book, but I’m still scratching my head as to how and why it occurred.

Harrison is an American icon. Poet, essayist, novelist, and teacher, Jim Harrison deserves, on the strength of his other work, to be recognized as an American treasure. But despite the proclamations on the jacket of this book, I would not place Dalva at the top of the list of Jim Harrison works that require reading.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.




Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy by Jonathan Clements (2009. Haus. ISBN 978-907822-57-5)

As a non-Finn interested in Finns, I’m always looking to learn more about the history and culture of this fascinating people. When I was working on my second historical novel involving the Finns, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, Carl Gustav Mannerheim loomed large. That book is set during the most turbulent of times for Finland: the Winter War, the Continuation War, and the Lapland War (or, as those of us outside Finland know the period, WW II). Though Mannerheim was already a prominent figure in Finnish history by the time the U.S.S.R. attacked Finland in 1939, having led the White (conservative) forces to victory in the Finnish War of Independence against the Reds (communists) in 1918, and having served a lengthy career prior to that as a soldier and spy for the Russian Czar (Russia having political control of Finland until 1917, when the Finns threw off the mantle of occupation), it was his brilliant strategy in defending the tiny Finnish lion against the Soviet bear in 1939 that caught the world’s attention. I knew much of Mannerheim’s involvement in the later period from my research. What I didn’t know was the backstory, the details of his service in the Russian military, his herculean trip to China as a Russian agent, and his close personal ties to the doomed Nicholas II.

If you read the reviews of this book on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll find a smattering of complaints that Clements spends too much time re-telling the early years, too many pages spent describing Mannerheim’s time as a Russian cavalry officer and Russian spy in the Orient. It’s true that the author devotes cursory time exploring the one-day president and field marshal’s exploits during the Finnish War of Independence and WW II. And not much more than that detailing the precarious position Mannerheim found his nation in during WW II as a “co-belligerent” of Nazi Germany. But these aren’t serious defects in my view. Rather, I read this book as it was written: as a very simple, straightforward introduction to a complex and brilliant man’s career in public service. Clement’s scholarship isn’t an exhaustive exploration of Mannerheim or his life and times. It is a Cliff Notes version of the man’s story and it’s one that serves as a valuable first read about the man voted the most honored and famous Finn in his nation’s young history.

The writing is crisp (there are a few typos, which, since when I find them in my books, I cringe, made me smile!) and the plotting is concise. I found the book, while not memorable, a steady, honest read.

4 stars out of 5. An invaluable first step in understanding Carl Gustav Mannerheim.




We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2012. Mariner. ISBN 9780547737362)

Heralded by many as an “instant classic” when it was released in its original Danish, We, the Drowned is a worthwhile read. But. And here’s the caveat I would assert: it is not Denmark’s Anna Karenina or Grapes of Wrath or some such monumental work that defines a nation, a culture. No, We has more in common with Moby Dick, a novel many consider to be an American icon but one which, upon reading today, seems bogged down by page upon page of filler; fact interspersed with great narrative and descriptions of life at sea on a whaling ship tied to one mad man’s pursuit of infamy. Jensen’s prose, as translated, is honest, concise, and weightily dark, as one would expect from a Scandinavian author. And there are memorable characters crossing from one generation to another who drive the plot: a fictional history of the island of Marstal, a seafaring piece of land that harbored Danish sailing vessels, ships that sailed to every corner of the Earth in service of commerce.

As in every northern European novel, there are fantastic tales (Laurids, who is saved by his heavy boots as he ascends towards heaven on the business end of an explosion, is but one example of such a character), foreboding, death, pestilence, and evil. That’s one of the difficulties with this book: there is very little light or redemption or kindness or love expressed by any of the individuals who populate the tale. Sex isn’t romantic. Courtship isn’t kind or gentle or devoted. Cruelty and harshness abound. But the writing is succinct and direct, in a style that serves the story well. An example:

No one in our town has such a thing as privacy. There’s always an eye watching, an ear cocked. Each and every one of us generates a whole archive of talk. Your slightest offhand remark takes on the weight of a lengthy newspaper commentary. A furtive glance is instantly returned and pinned on its owner. We’re always coming up with new names for one another. A nickname’s a way of stating that no one belongs to himself…

Now, my wife will be the first to tell you that I love dark. Bleak could be my middle name. But 675 pages of small print of consistent, constant pain, suffering, and death tends, without some light, to be a bit much. Then too, the author’s choice of changing, without warning, from third person narrative (“they”) to first person (“we” or “I”), while perhaps valuable to the author’s intention of making the collective souls of Marstal a character in the story (the community having one, unified voice), was something I found disruptive to the story’s flow. And there’s the ending and the coincidences that align in the last one hundred pages of the tale that cut into the suspension of disbelief necessary in any work of fiction. I won’t ruin the book by revealing just what happens other than to say I was not enthralled with the ending. The book’s coda seemed far too predictable and pat. But then, perhaps professional envy is hurting my critical eye. After all, We has been translated across the globe whereas my two Finn novels, similar in genre to this work, remain largely undiscovered beyond the shores of my beloved Lake Superior. I hope the green eyed monster didn’t interfere with my reading of this novel. I enjoyed it. Just as not as much as predicted.

4 stars out of 5. Not The Old Man and the Sea but a solid read if you wish to learn more about Denmark and its nautical roots.



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