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.
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.
Next Monday, 2/06 at noon I’ll be at the Brainerd Public Library reading from and presenting a PowerPoint entitled “The Facts Behind Writing Crime Fiction”. It’s the story behind my latest novel, Boomtown. The event is part of the library’s “Borwn Bag Series.” It’s free, open to the public, and there will be signed books available for purchase. Tell your friends and relatives in the Brainerd Lakes area.
See you there!
Tonight (12/14) I’ll be at the Ely Public Library from 4-6 talking about and reading from Boomtown, my latest novel. Set in Ely, Grand Marais, and the Babbitt area, Boomtown explores the present-day controversy surrounding copper/nickel mining in the context of a fictional accident/murder. Should be warm conversation on a cold night! Books available at the event for purchase through Piragis’ Bookstore. Hope to see all my friends from Ely in attendance!
First, if you’re interested in how and why I write, there’s a nice interview up on Ed Newman’s blog. The link is: http://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com/. Then, if you are looking for some places to shop for nice holiday gifts, my schedule this week includes the following:
On 12/08 from 4-6, I’ll be at the Aurora Public Library with other regional authors signing and selling my books. Here’s a link: http://aurorapubliclibrarymn.blogspot.com/.
Then, on Saturday, 12/10, I’ll be at the beautiful Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis (a National Historic building: A visit is well worth the effort!) from 12-4:00pm for their Joulu celebration. Here’s more info: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/holiday-christmas-buffet-12-2-pm-at-joulu-magical-finnish-christmas-tickets-28643986936.
Stay warm and see you at event near you!
11/19 @ Duluth Congregational Church; Get Great Stuff Arts and Crafts Show. 10-3pm. Signed books available for your holiday gift giving. Readings by Mark and other local authors. Free and open to the public.
11/21 @ Duluth Public Library; Building a Novel from A-Z. 6-7:30pm. Mark will lead an exploration and discussion of fiction writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. Free and open to the public. Signed books available for purchase.
See you there. Many more events coming up in December!
Join host Aaron Brown, great local musicians, and the cast and crew of KAXE radio’s The Great Northern Radio Show for a live broadcast in Duluth next Saturday, 5:00pm, at the Lincoln Middle School auditorium. Tickets are $15.00 for adults, $10.00 for kids. Don’t miss this chance to be part of northern Minnesota’s own version of A Prairie Home Companion. I’ll be reading a brand new, never-heard-before essay about growing up in Duluth. Should be fun! Here’s the link:
Noon on Monday, 9/26/2016, I’ll be at the Finnish American Heritage Center in Hancock, MI to talk about my latest novel, Boomtown, a legal thriller set against the backdrop of the copper/nickel mining controversy in NE MN. I’ll also be taking questions about my Finnish themed historical novels, Sukulaiset and Suomalaiset. Free and open to the public in the Archives Room of the Center. Signed books available and provided by Finlandia University’s Northwind Books.
More at: http://www.finlandia.edu/about/festival-ruska/.
They are old men now. Actually, they are very old men now. But in their day, they were (collectively) a Vice President (and Senator, Ambassador to Japan, and Minnesota Attorney General); a criminal defense lawyer, fur trapper, and gemologist; a Peace Corps diplomat, economist, and outdoors enthusiast; and a plaintiff’s lawyer, Democratic delegate to the 1968 National Convention, and avid hunter/fisherman. They range in age; from Harry Munger, the eldest, to Bruce Meyer, the youngest; 89 to 83. Mondale is 87 and Millard, a mere 85. They have battled cancer, heart attacks, stomach ailments, bowl disease, loss of spouses and children, and a host of other conditions through their “golden years”. Their vision has dimmed and their hearing is sometimes non-existent. Two of the four use C-Pap machines to sleep at night. Their gaits are unsteady: quiet, slow steps to avoid catastrophic falls. And yet, there they are standing on the wooden dock outside Ignace Airways, waiting to board a DeHavilland Otter for a short flight, a flight all of them relish and remember from years of fishing together. They are headed to Elsie Lake in the backwoods of Ontario. The “younger” guys, two men in their late fifties and early sixties (myself and Sammy Perrella), help the fertile octogenarians into the Otter and claim seats. The Otter slips away from the pier. Randy, the bush pilot, fires up the powerful single engine that will lift tons of humanity, gear, and food into the still Ontarian air. And then, they are airborne, returning to the Litman Camp for another week of walleye fishing.
Ross and Jay Litman, two of the four children of Judge Jack and Helen Litman, the camp having been left in the confident hands of the Litman children upon the deaths of the patriarch and matriarch of the family, greet the Otter as it lands. The plane is quickly unloaded. Mike, who is married to Mara-the only Litman daughter, stands on shore, waiting to leave. We pack his gear, some bags of trash and recyclables onto the plane, and Randy shuts the door, ready to depart. The Otter’s piston-driven engine revs. The old sheet metal of the cowling rattles. The newly arrived pick up our bags and begin the process of settling in.
My wife and I spent our honeymoon here back in August of 1978. Oh, we weren’t alone in the Canadian bush. The entire Litman, Munger, and Mondale families, along with the Secret Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and an Ontario Provincial Police officer or two camped with us to provide security for the then-Vice President. My wife hasn’t been back to visit but I’ve been privileged over the past decade to join the four fertile octogenarians, sometimes accompanied by neurosurgeon Dr. Bob (Robert Donley, M.D.), Sam Litman (Jay’s son), and Tony (Sammy Perrella’s son) for five or six days in paradise.
In the bunkhouse, I claim a top bunk and roll out my sleeping bag. The old men do the same. Despite the ages of my bunkmates, the banter is lively and nearly constant. That evening, Ross, Jay, and Sammy man boats to transport us to the walleye “hotspots” for the evening bite. Elsie does not disappoint yielding fish after fish after fish to jigs and spinners tipped with minnows and worms. After a long drive, a short flight, and a few hours of excitement, we eat a hearty dinner and tumble into bed.
The menu and the cooking (handled by Jay and Sammy and Ross) is always exemplary. We eat big, hot breakfasts including eggs, bacon, French toast, blueberry pancakes, egg McMuffins, and sausage. Lunch is a rarity. Dinners this trip include hamburgers and brats, filet of beef, Sammy’s pasta, Sammy’s pizza, fresh fish, barbecue ribs, brisket, and assorted side dishes. There’s not a restaurant in the U.S. or Canada that can top the fare at the Litman Camp. George and I are the designated dishwashers. Everyone, regardless of age or infirmity, pitches in to clean and organize before we leave. Ross, as always, is a whirling dervish of energy, constantly on the move. Jay, to his credit, tinkers, using a methodical approach to repairing the things that need repair.
The political discussions around the dinner table? With an “interesting” election brewing and a former candidate for President in attendance, well, let’s just say that the dialogue becomes spirited; the observations, crystalline.
Despite rainy, cold weather, everyone catches fish.
One afternoon, Ross and I take a detour and end up talking to the only neighbor on Elsie Lake. Imagine, if you can, a lake the size of Fish Lake (near where I live) with only two fishing camps on its beautiful shores. Then take away road access, requiring everyone and everything that comes onto the lake to be either flown in or, during the depths of the Canadian winter, hauled in over the ice via snowmobile. That’s Elsie. Anyway, back to the narrative. Ross and I pull up to the only other dock on the lake to say hello to Ava, the owner. It’s supposed to be a short, “how-do-you-do” session. Instead, the very slight septuagenarian asks us to join her on the deck. I ask the old woman about her personal history and she launches into a story of escape from East Germany, the foreign accent beneath her well-formed English buttressing her words. It’s a harrowing ordeal that ends with Ava escaping to Canada and her mother being shot by a neighbor working as a border guard. Motherless, and having left her father behind, Ava relates a tale of heroism, kindness, pluck, and fortitude that someday might find it’s way into a Munger short story or novel. We thank the old woman for her hospitality and leave, the two of us happy to have learned something of her mettle.
On the only day the sun comes out (except, of course, for the day we leave!) Jay and I motor the pontoon boat across the lake to fish for smallmouth bass. My gold spinner tipped with a nightcrawler or a minnow is an instant hit. I pull in big smallies every fourth or fifth cast. Jay catches a few on flies. The bass are on their nests, depressions created by the fish to lay eggs in Elsie’s cold water. The fish are readily visible, hovering above their nests, aggressively protecting their defined territory. The fish aren’t hungry: just pissed off at our intrusion. It’s an afternoon spent hauling in one and two pound smallies, the fish snapping viciously at our offerings, diving deep and leaping high into the still Ontario air when hooked.
Over the week, we catch a few lake trout, some whitefish (pound for pound the hardest fighting fish I’ve ever tied into), oodles of walleye, tons of bass, and the occasional lunker northern pike (Bruce landing one over twelve pounds). Nearly all the fish go back into the lake with the exception of a few walleye used for the evening fish fry the night before we leave and a few fillets for the fertile octogenarians to take home.
Ever constant and nearby are the dogs: Devin, Jada, and Lilly. The two Labs, Jada and Lilly, can be found under the table at every meal, waiting for Harry to drop them a treat or two. During fishing hours, the dogs are out on the water, keeping their human companions company.
One night, after sufficient reflection and libations, we come up with a plan. Ava, it seems, is in need of a husband. Our collective genius devises a scenario where George, a widower, might be willing to “take one for the team” by proposing marriage to the elderly refugee if, and this of course, is the key, her fish camp is part of her dowry. The plan is never implemented though George seems willing to give it a go. And that’s where the term “fertile octogenarian” manifests: in our rousing discussions of how and when the marriage might, if ever, be consummated.
In our travels, we see an otter scoping us out and bald eagles and countless ducks and geese in flight. Resident loons locate a school of bait fish just off the Litman dock and feed and call for hours. Ross points out native orchids, Minnesota’s state flower, the showy lady slipper, as we walk a wooded trail. A tree frog makes itself known. On the ride from Thunder Bay to Ignace, we see a cow moose grazing in a roadside swamp. There is no question we are in wilderness despite all the fine food, noisy chatter, and relative comforts the camp offers.
“I hate having to do this,” Ross says as he dismantles his rods and reels. We are packing for departure when the Sheriff of St. Louis County utters his lament. Indeed. The next morning at 11:00am sharp the Otter and a Beaver will be idling on the now calm water, waiting to fly us back to Ignace. Five days spent with wisdom, age, and good people will have come and gone. But the memories? Ah, they will be with us forever.
OK. Here’s your chance to make a difference in the world of digital publishing. If you own a Kindle, use the Kindle app, or have an Amazon account, you can log onto Amazon and vote for the book. if the book receives enough votes in the next 30 days, it’ll be published by Kindle, you will receive a free Kindle version of the book from Amazon, and I’ll get a publishing contract with Kindle. Everyone wins! How do you know if you want to vote for Boomtown? Starting tomorrow morning, you can log into the Boomtown page on Kindle Scout and read an excerpt as well as some other fun stuff about me and the book. Then, if you like the book, simply cast your vote. That’s all there is to it. And those of you that want a printed version, don’t worry. I am only giving Kindle exclusive rights to the eBook and audio book versions of Boomtown. I retain the print rights and the copyright. So, here’s the link to the Boomtown page: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/37ES8OBBSRHHP.