Going Coastal: An Anthology of Lake Superior Short Stories (2017. North Star Press. ISBN 978-1-68201-069-3)

I have to be careful here. I’m reviewing a collection of short stories by contemporary writers (some of whom are acquaintances of mine) whose work appears in a collection for which my own short story, Isle Royale, was not selected for inclusion. So I’m hoping this review is objective and not fueled by the sting of rejection. The best way to determine the measure of my fairness? Buy a copy from Zenith Books or The Bookstore at Fitger’s and read it!

As a whole, I was impressed by the quality of the writing. There were a couple of stories here worthy of national attention. My favorites are “The Urge for Going”, a story of a Native American’s journey home that follows the North Shore of Lake Superior. There was something about the tone of the story and the geographic progression of the protagonist’s internal and external trek that struck a chord. The other notable piece, “The Heart Under the Lake”, was much different but every bit as readable and riveting. Most of the other stories were also skillfully crafted. However, “The Lake Effect”, a piece of historical fiction involving the loss of a steamer in 1919 had a number of implausibilities embedded in the plot that made it difficult to swallow, not the least of which was the protagonist, the captain, “darting” across an icy deck from one section of the doomed ship to another during a snow squall. Details make historical fiction believable, allow the reader to suspend his or her disbelief, and “The Lake Effect” simply failed to attain that mark in my view. However, if you read the piece and form a more favorable opinion, so be it.

The remainder of the book includes solid writing, which, coupled with the short duration of the tales, makes the book a great choice for a vacation read. By way of example, “Water Witch” has a refreshing, somewhat mystical theme, one not found in the remainder of the stories in the collection. My one criticism of the collection as a whole is that the breadth and depth and complexities of Lake Superior’s geography and history and people don’t really get the expansive treatment they deserve. Yes, the First Peoples deserve to be showcased. And the North Shore is magical. But what of the Norwegians, the Finns, and all the other ethnic groups that settled around the lake? And where were the stories of the towns, the cities, and industry to be found around the largest freshwater lake in the world? And why no tales set in the UP, another magical, nearly mythical region of the Lake Superior Basin? A good collection that reflects, in a partial way, how it feels to live here.

4 stars out of 5.

 

The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens (2016. 7th street Books. ISBN 978-1-63388-205-8)

The first third of this murder mystery/legal thriller depicted the Twin Cities with such clarity and succinctness that I was ready to give the book a “5 star” rating right off the bat. My ardor for the writing cooled a bit as the plot evolved but, despite the fact that Eskens, in my view, grew a bit less engaging and compelling in his details and depictions as the story arc climaxed, this is s still a fine, fine summer read.

Max Rupert is convinced that defense lawyer Ben Pruitt killed Jennavieve Pruitt, Ben’s wife. Past experience with the lawyer may or may not have caused Rupert to ignore other, more plausible suspects. As is usual in such novels, there are depictions of wealth and privilege and sex and violence, all of which move the story along quite well. As a former prosecuting attorney and now a sitting judge of more than 19 years, I can vouch for the fact that Eskens gets the details mostly right. The one glitch I found, one that should have been edited out early on, is this exchange:

“They’ll hold me over for a bail hearing.”

We’ll get you in and out as fast as possible.”

“And what if the judge denies bail?”

(p. 151)

Fact is, since Pruitt is alleged to have committed murder, a state crime, he’s in Minnesota State District Court on the charge. Minnesota requires bail be set in every case, no exceptions. Even Charlie Manson would be allowed bail in Minnesota; unlike some states where the judge can simply “remand” (keep in jail) a defendant without setting bail. The lay reader won’t likely even see this glitch and, to be fair, it’s about the only error in the procedural depictions in the book that I found.The twist at the end seemed a bit forced to me but I’ll let you discover that on your own and form your own conclusion as to whether it works fully as an ending or not.

The dialogue is crisp and believable. The plotting, quick and lithe, just as you’d expect in this type of yarn. Overall, a well done pot boiler that makes for a good summer hammock read.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

Between Them by Richard Ford (2017. Harper. ISBN 978-0062670342) This review refers to the audio version of the book.

I read about this memoir, really a biography of literary novelist Richard Ford’s parents, on Lit Hub. I’ve never read any Ford. Some of you snootier readers might hold that against me, looking down your noses at a supposed writer because I’ve never read one of America’s iconic literary novelists. Well, life is short. I spent a lot of my youth reading LeGuin, Tolkien, and trashy mass market paperbacks my mom had on the shelf. I’m trying to catch up by making my way through the classics and, here and there, picking up contemporary literary fiction, all the while also reading worthy nonfiction. It’s a tough job folks, but someone’s got to do it. Now, on to Ford.

He’s a fantastically gifted writer. That’s for certain. Richard Ford crafts sentences that flow like oily water over mossy stones. But his effort, to capture the essence of his father and mother, and their impact on him in this fairly short memoir just didn’t captivate me as much as I thought it would. The structure of the book, separating the major character traits and histories of Ford’s parents into their own compartmentalized biographies, while still touching on their loving and sometimes rocky relationship, just seemed too artificial to the reader (or in the case of the version I am reviewing, the listener). In addition, lives of ordinary, everyday people, while perhaps interesting sidelights when their offspring is, as here, a famous writer, if included in a memoir focusing the lens of time on the subject’s parents (a housewife and salesman) seems mundane and boring. This remained true throughout Between Them even when intrafamilial conflict was exposed and pain was expressed.

In short, Ford does a masterful job of portraying his family life as a child, his upbringing, the traits and attributes and deficits of his parents in this succinct read. The problem is, at the end of it all, I just didn’t care. I’m not saying I won’t wander down to one of our two local Indies and seek out a Ford novel. Far from it. He’s a great writer. I just didn’t find the subject matter compelling as a stand alone work.

3 stars out of 5. Readable due to Ford’s great prose but not all that exciting.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

5 stars out of 5. A magnificent work.

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

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

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace.

Mark 

 

 

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!

Peace.

Mark

boomcov25

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!

Peace.

Mark

boomcov25

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!

Peace.

Mark

 

authordmcs

Upcoming events:

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!

Peace.

Mark

 

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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:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1765077620424705/.

 

Peace.

Mark

 

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