Dead Wake by Erik Larson (2017. Black Swan. ISBN978-0-77934-0)

We all know that the sinking of the Lusitania prompted President Woodrow Wilson to enter WW I, right? I mean, when I picked up this book, delivered to me by a friend, and began to read, the first thought that popped into my brain was I know this stuff. I can’t imagine it will be anything close to riveting. I was wrong. Larson’s use of novelistic prose makes this back and forth revelation of the Cunard Line’s flagship’s final voyage a fascinating read.

Larson builds the suspense and his story by exchanging scenes between Captain Turner, the skipper of the doomed ocean liner, and Captain Schweiger, the commander of U-20, the German submarine that ultimately strikes the fatal blow, as well as interspersed perspectives from Winston Churchill (head of Britain’s admiralty at the time) and other players, including love-struck widower, Woodrow Wilson. The callousness of both Cunard officials (decreeing that Turner could not run his ship at full speed, thereby saving coal but diminishing his ability to outrun sluggish submarines) and the admiralty (who had ample warning U-20 was in the area and on the hunt) leads to the death of over a thousand passengers and crew. Larson builds and builds the suspense of the last voyage of the Lusitania until this scene, a moment of happenstance and luck (good for the Germans, bad for Turner and his crew), brings the sub and the liner together:

U-20 moved through a blue-on-blue morning. The fog was gone, the sky was empty of clouds, the sea was still. Schwieger trained his binoculars-his Zweiss “godseyes”-on a smudge at the horizon and was startled to see “a forest of masts and stacks,” as he later described…”Then I saw it was a great steamer coming over the horizon. It was coming our way. I dived at once, hoping to get a shot at it.”

What is missing from this cinematic depiction is the backstory, how Germany made the bold and lethal decision to allow its submarines to target non-military and non-cargo ships; passenger ships that, as an aside may or may not carry military cargo but decidedly did carry women, children, and non-combatant men. It was, according to Larson, Germany which determined both to use sub warfare against civilians traveling on passenger vessels and poison gas in the trenches against enemy soldiers “upping the ante” of inhumanity occurring in the Great War. As I read about Germany’s decisions to sink passenger ships and use chlorine gas (tortuously deadly in its application), I could not help but hear echoes of Hitler’s cruelness towards an entire ethnicity that would foment and erupt two decades later. War was always hell. But Germany, by engaging in “no rules” engagement in WW I changed the face of warfare forever.

In the end, Larson’s skill as a writer and researcher makes the story flow and sing. Not quite a novel, not quite the revelatory prose one would find in historical fiction, this is still a fine piece of writing.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars. A great book club selection.

Peace.

Mark

Mark and Harry waiting for the kid to get hitched.

Duluth attorney Harry Munger passed away peacefully in his home in Port Charlotte, FL on 04/28/2018.

            The youngest of five children, Harry was born in Fergus Falls on October 29, 1927, attended the Fergus Falls schools, moved to Duluth at the beginning of WW II, and lived on Raleigh Street. A child of poverty and the Great Depression, Harry valued education and graduated from Denfeld in 1945.

After serving two years in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a weatherman, Harry was determined to go to college. Law school intrigued him. Harry enrolled in the University of Minnesota where he met his longtime partner and close friend, A. Blake MacDonald. But even using the GI Bill, Harry could not afford school. He returned to Duluth and worked on the railroad to earn money for college. He used his savings and the GI Bill to attend UMD. Too undersized to play sports at Denfeld, Harry grew enough during his military service to join the Bulldog football team.  While at UMD, Harry lettered in football (as a quarterback and punter) and student-taught at Lincoln Junior, intending to become a teacher. Harry also began courting Barbara Kobe. Harry proposed marriage but Barbara insisted that Harry earn his degree before she’d say “yes”, which meant that Harry was the first Munger to graduate from college!

After marrying Barbara in 1951, Harry entered the St. Paul College of Law. He worked fulltime as an insurance adjuster while attending night school. Son Mark was born in St. Paul and after Harry graduated with his JD in 1956, the Munger family returned to Duluth, settling in Piedmont Heights where son David and daughter Ann joined the family.

Harry was raised by parents who were members of the Farmer-Labor Party. He was steeped in politics from an early age. When Harry’s brother Willard was elected to the Minnesota House in 1954, he lived with Harry and Barbara in St. Paul during the legislative session. This interaction heightened Harry’s passion for Liberal politics. After returning to Duluth, Harry became the St. Louis County Chair of the DFL. He was a delegate to the 1968 National Convention in Chicago where he proudly supported Hubert Humphrey. He was also active in the Presidential Campaigns of ‘76, ‘80, and ’84, supporting his close friend and fishing buddy Walter “Fritz” Mondale as a Vice Presidential and Presidential candidate.

Harry established a personal injury and general practice law firm in Duluth, partnering with Blake MacDonald and Tim Downs and his son Mark to form MacDonald, Munger, Downs, and Munger. He also served as a Special Municipal Court Judge and as a judge on the Minnesota Tax Court. During his legal career, Harry also served as the President of the MTLA, and was active in ATLA, the ABA, the 11th District Bar Assoc., and the DTLA.

An avid outdoorsman, Harry traveled to fish char in the arctic, salmon in Alaska, and saltwater fish in Florida. He hunted grouse, ducks, geese, sharptail, huns, and pheasants in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Harry fished the Knife in Minnesota, the Brule in Wisconsin, and the Betsy in Michigan for steelhead. He instilled in his children and grandchildren a respect for nature and a love of the outdoors. Harry worked tirelessly on conservation issues with his brother Willard, including a failed effort to block the expansion of the Miller Hill Mall because the shopping center’s runoff was degrading Miller Creek, an urban trout stream.

Harry coached youth sports and served as the President of the Skyline Little League. He was a devoted attendee of sporting events, cheering for his sons on the PSS gridiron (mostly for David, a starting offensive lineman), rooting for his kids when they skied competitively, and attending innumerable baseball and softball contests. He also took in many of his grandchildren’s baseball, basketball, softball, soccer, and hockey games.

Harry is survived by his sons Mark (Rene’) and David (Diane), daughter Ann (David) Sarvela, and grandchildren Matthew (Lisa), Dylan (Michelle), Christian (Rachel), Jack, Jonathan, Nichole (Chris) Howard, Crystal (Ryan) Hoyt, Melissa (Megan) Landon, Madeline and Emelia Sarvela, 11 great-grandchildren, his first wife—Barbara Tourville, his second wife—Mary Kay Munger, partner Pauline Liston, and many nieces and nephews including special niece and special nephew, Patricia Lehr and Will Munger.

As Harry’s partner for 12 years, I’ll leave you with two short stories about practicing law with Dad. As a brand new lawyer, freshly returned from US Army Reserve basic training in Ft. Dix, I stepped off the plane in Duluth and was handed my first court trial. The client, Arrowhead Concrete, was an important one to the office so Harry accompanied my to the trial as my “second chair”. Any one who knows Harry understands the impossibility of that label. In any event, we were in front of Judge David Bouchor and our client, Mike Robertson was on the stand. I was examining him but I was having a heck of a time because every time I’d ask Mike a question, Harry leaned over and barked in my ear. I was getting more and more flustered until Judge Bouchor straightened up and said: “Harry, why don’t you let the kid ask the questions? He’s doing a pretty good job without you…” Dad turned red, stood up, picked up his file, and stormed out of the courtroom. Turned out Judge Dave was right: He ruled in my client’s favor but it took weeks before Harry would talk to him again.

The second story involves the case of Minter versus Chrysler. Joey Minter was a young man injured in a motor vehicle crash. He sustained quadriplegia due to what Harry believed to be a defective shoulder harness in the back seat. The driver alleged that a dog or a deer had darted out, causing him to swerve, resulting in the catastrophic crash. But there was a problem. The main police reports didn’t say anything about a deer or a dog. Digging deep into the investigating officer’s notes, Harry discovered a comment about “a roll of sod being in the road”. He placed an ad in the DNT asking if anyone had witnessed a sod truck dropping its load on the day of the crash. A witness came forward and Godden’s Sod was added as a defendant.

As hard as Harry pushed his products case against Chrysler, the auto maker fought harder. Here was a four-person PI firm up against Bowman and Brooke and all its money and power and backing. The case seemingly stalled out on the issue of the design of the shoulder belt that our expert said was defective. Again, as Bob Falsani affectionately noted in a recent email, my pit bull father dug deeper. He found Chrysler literature that tied none other than Lee Iacocca, the head of Chrysler, to the design of the very shoulder harness that failed. This discovery emboldened the old man to do the unthinkable: He subpoened Iacocca for a deposition. Of course, Bowman and Brooke opposed. But they weren’t fighting in federal court: Because Godden Sod was in the case, the case was venued in state court in Duluth. When good old “Let it in” Charlie Barnes heard the motion to quash, he sided with Harry and said: “I’d like to hear what Mr. Iacocca has to say about all this.” Harry took that order, which was affirmed by the Supreme Court, and turned the case into his first seven-figure settlement. That was Harry: no one was too big or too important to fall beyond his scrutiny, including the president of Chrysler Motors or Harry’s son, even if he became a district court judge.

Mark

Tailspin by Stephen Brill (2018. Knopf. ISBN 978154731632)

I’ll be honest. When Fritz Mondale handed me this book last June on our annual Canadian fishing trip, saying “Here. You might learn something,” being assigned a book by the former Vice President, Ambassador, Senator, and Minnesota Attorney General is not something you turn down. I was raised to do the work. So, with respect to Brill’s lengthy dissertation on what’s ailing America, I dutifully completed my assignment. And yes, I did learn a thing or two along the way.

Brill begins his discussion of where we are as a nation by a taking a long and extended historical tour of a number of major political themes. First, and this was the hardest slog in the tome, he takes the reader back through the causes of the Great Recession of 2007, detailing the “why” of the massive failure of the American lending and mortgage system. He takes aim not, as many conservatives are want to do, at the home buyers who overreached and obtained homes and attendant loans that they could never afford, but the system of Gerry-rigged lending policies, reinsurance, and derivative markets that made a few folks rich for making bad loans, impoverished millions, and cost the federal government tons of cash in the form of bailouts. His main theme in this light, however, turns out not to be the blame he casts on those who orchestrated the disaster: his ire is aimed at a federal government who has no problem incarcerating poor folks and folks of color for minor drug crimes but that does nothing, in terms of punishment and prison, for those who take financial advantage of the weak and helpless. Mortgage brokers don’t go to prison: they pay fines or minimal “clawbacks” under Dodd-Frank, a remedy that itself is in serious jeopardy of vanishing in the era of “Let them Fail” Trump.

Brill’s evaluation of our broken democracy turns to a dissection of national discourse and politics with a detailed examination of the big and dark money allowed by the Citizens United decision but aptly points out that the movement to unregulated commercial speech began decades before the Supreme Court released that fateful decision. Academic types of a Libertarian stripe had long argued that the 1st Amendment wasn’t meant to protect the speaker; it was meant to protect the listener by allowing him or her to hear every sort of message, even those corrupted and driven by greed. The author couples his exhaustive review of this warped and seemingly benign view of freedom with the mean-spirited politics of the Right brought to fruition by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, when that hard boiled, loud mouthed, self-promoting professor left his post at a sleepy little Southern college and burst onto the American political scene. It was Gingrich, a minority member of Congress, who first recognized the power of reality television, something the current Orange Headed wonder has become a master of manipulating:

Gingrich soon latched onto a new tool to boost his profile. A few months after he took office in 1979, the House allowed the cable news industry to launch a public service channel, C-Span, to televise Hose proceedings. For years, members had gone to the floor…but would be seen and heard only by a handful of members…Gingrich realized, he and his allies could give the same speeches to a nationwide audience.

Brilliant and, unfortunately, the beginning of the nastiest streak in American politics we’ve ever endured. Brill has ample disdain for the Left as well, castigating Bill Clinton and a host of others for allowing legislation and federal regulations that have weakened unions, minority voting rights, welfare protections for our most vulnerable citizens, protections against predatory lenders, environmental guardrails, and the like. He not only blames the politicians: he blames the regulatory and judicial system that allows de minimus lawsuits based upon scant science to halt infrastructure projects and commercial developments, tying up needed improvements and modernization of the very fabric of America in lengthy, costly court battles. As an example of how it should work, he cites the 2009 bridge collapse in Minneapolis as a project that, when an emergent need arose, the federal government was able to erect a substantial project in months as opposed to years.

The complex story Brill tells is shocking and yet, certainly true in nearly every respect. The problem: he gives short shrift to a list of answers to solve the problems he raises. The final chapter contains optimism, optimism that, in my view, doesn’t ring quite true given the fix we, as Americans, of every political stripe, find ourselves in.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck (1967. Bantam)

I came upon this book, described as one of Steinbeck’s earliest novels, somewhere along the line. That it turned out to be a collection of short stories linked by both character and place (Las Pasturas del Cielo: the Pastures of Heaven) in California detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the stories. I was hoping for an early version of the depth of character, plot, and place displayed in Grapes of Wrath or Garden of Eden. That’s not this book. But then, what books are?

After completing the read, the stories are mostly unremarkable but entertaining. I’ve little memory of the characters or storylines or predicaments in this work with two notable exceptions.

Two Hispanic sisters, Rosa and Maria, in hopes of selling their fine tortillas to the gringo settlers of the valley, end up offering additional “encouragement” to their male customers. The story’s tastefully done, humorous, and reveals just enough of the untoward to cause the reader to ponder:

Rosa sat like a rock and sucked on her candy bar. Suddenly, she glared into Maria’s eyes. “Today,” she said solemnly, “today I gave myself to a customer.” Maria sobbed… ” “Do not make a mistake,” Rosa continued. “I did not take money. The man had eaten three enchiladas-three

The other memorable tale is piece enveloped in sorrow. Richard Whiteside, an orphaned young man with dreams of creating a palace; a showpiece of a farm in the valley to be filled with a loving wife and children; is the story’s protagonist in the early going. His only heir, son John, also has a solitary child, William. John dreams of young Bill doing what neither Richard or John were able to do: stock the Whiteside estate with oodles of children; progeny born and raised within the Pastures of Heaven to ensure the family legacy. But Bill’s wife is a city girl and they depart, leaving John and his invalid wife Willa alone on the farm. An idea transpires, an idea that calls to mind the fiery end of Drageda depicted with such deftness in The Thorn Birds. John believes he can re-invigorate the farm by burning off brush to enliven the soil. But before the final, tragic scene, there’s a touching exchange between husband and wife that displays Steinbeck’s uniquely simple power as a writer:

One Night he awakened to hear a light rain whispering on the slates and splashing softly in the garden.

“Are you awake, Willa?” he asked quietly.

“Of course.”

It’s the first rain. I wanted you to hear it.”

I was awake when it started…You missed the best part, the gusty part…

“Well, it won’t last long. It’s just a little first rain to wash off the dust.”

All in all, the stories are well crafted, if not independently memorable.

4 stars out of 5.


Destiny and Power by John Meacham (2018. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-79-47-3.)

I was reading this tome, nearing the conclusion, when President George H.W. Bush died. Meacham, a frequent guest on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC- not as a political talking head but as a well-respected biographer and historian-does a thorough and thoroughly engaging job of pointing out why Bush 41 has not, until his death, been honored as an American hero. I’ll be frank: I never liked Reagan’s economics; his willy-nilly tossing folks off Social Security Disability so that he could give his rich friends tax breaks. But you had to admire his foreign policy chops. And that’s really where H.W.’s story takes root.

President Reagan is often given sole credit for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the retreat of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. There’s no question his tough persona played a part in that success. But it must also be remembered that throughout the dismantling of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s and early 1990s, H.W. was the Ambassador to the U.N., Vice President under Reagan, and finally, President in his own right. All of those positions, offices to which H.W. brought considerable patience and a steady handed diplomacy, were equally instrumental in the ultimate collapse of communism. While the Neo-cons and Reagan rattled swords, President Bush worked the back channels reassuring our allies and Gorbachev, who was in grave jeopardy of being ousted as the leader of his nation due to his desire to modernize the Soviet Union and give its citizenry economic and political freedom (through glasnost and perestroika). It was H.W.’s steadfastness and patience that ultimately allowed the world to benefit from the transformation of Eastern Europe and the independence of countless nations, including the Baltic states.

But there was more to H.W. than keen international political chops. At home, he rolled back the detrimental anti-environmentalism of his predecessor and in fact, expanded the Clean Air Act, instituted Rails for Trails, pushed hard for conservation of wetlands (not entirely altruistic as he was a duck hunter) through CRP, and championed the ADA.

Towards the end of this fascinating study of an underappreciated world leader, Meacham posits this:

His life was spent in the service of his nation, and his spirit of conciliation, common sense, and love of country will stand him in strong stead through the ebbs and flows of posterity’s judgment.

Indeed. After this week, perhaps we can conjure his spirit to come back and return dignity, sanity, and a sense of service to the Presidency.

5 stars out of 5. A masterful exposition of a man’s legacy and spirit.

Peace.

Mark


Over the past few weeks, I’ve finished reading two smaller works that need some attention. Here they are.

Fatherhood in Pieces by Michael Chabon (2018. Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-283462-1)

My good friend, Mark Rubin, insisted I take his copy of this little memoir/essay collection written by Chabon, the author of Wonder Boys. Though I’ve never read the novel, I loved the movie (starring Michael Douglas) so I readily accepted Mark’s persistent gift. Here’s my take: Chabon is a fine writer and some of the essays in this collection deserve applause but overall, even as slender as the volume is (just over 120 pages 4″ x 6″ hardcover format) to me, the book feels less a completed work and more a quick moneymaker for the author. I say this because the writing felt uneven and, at times,  bland. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Chabon grabs your attention right out of the gate (especially if you’re a writer or an avid reader or a wannabe author) beginning the work with a stellar piece, “Introduction: The Opposite of Writing.” In the story, the author replicates advice he was given from a sage of words whose identity remains clouded in time and mystery at a cocktail party years past. The advice?

“Don’t have children,” he said, “That’s it. Do not.” The smile faded, but the ghost lingered a moment in his blue eyes. “That is the whole of the law.”

Chabon breaks this primary authorial law by marrying, having children, and trying to balance art and fatherhood. A strong, strong starting point for what I thought would be a collection of essays following Chabon’s life on both accounts. Chabon tries to accomplish this duality but, in the end, stories like “Little Man” divert off that expected path and not with clarity or good result. “Against Dickitude”, a story about a father trying to impose some sort of empathy for young women and their own problems and issues when pursuing adolescent love upon his surly son, is a nice, stand-alone reflection but again, it doesn’t really fit the premise of the book. There’s precious little connection between the essay and the opening essay, the exploration of how difficult it is to balance being a parent and trying to write something worthwhile.

In the end, I have to say I enjoyed most of the individual stories as stand-alone snippets of life but I failed to gain an overall appreciation for Chabon’s struggles as a father who writes. And that’s something I’m intimately familiar with!

3 stars out of 5. Read Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King if you truly want to understand what being a parent and writer means.

Deep Woods, Wild Waters by Douglas Wood (2017. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-3173-5)

As depicted in my essay from a recent BWCA canoe trip with my son and grandson, I not only lugged this Minnesota author’s latest essay collection with me in my Duluth Pack, I read it nightly and, after encountering “The Wild Wind”, a piece that reminded me of one of my own family canoe trips into Sawbill, I ended up reading the story aloud to my kid and grandkid around a crackling fire in the heart of canoe country. It was a fine, fine piece of outdoors writing and it deserved to be read aloud in such a sacred place.

While the accolades and blurbs attached to the dust cover of this book place this compendium on the shelf next to Leopold and Olson, Wood is neither. But that isn’t a bad thing. He writes in his own style, making memories of past experiences real and tangible in his own, distinctive way. Beginning with tales of a Midwestern upbringing that involve the excitement of bullhead fishing, Wood charts a course through his life of guiding, canoeing, and adventuring that, all in all, is a very satisfying chronicle of the wilderness he and so many other outdoors writers and conservationists love.

Being an unrepentant worm dunker when it comes to brook trout fishing, I thoroughly enjoyed and related to “Streams of Consciousness”, a dandy little essay about chasing native, wild trout in crystalline waters.

After that I began to see the stream with new eyes. I started to notice all the little places where the current wasn’t so fast. I looked more carefully and began to see the eddies, the shadows, the undercut banks, the flats where I had to look in three dimensions to see that, although the current on the surface looked smooth and swift and uniform, in fact, rocks and objects on the bottom provided just an inch or two of rest, of protection. Enough.

As with his other stories in the book, Wood isn’t content to let us wander that little stream without connection to the greater, larger world or environment. His stories link the reader to the interconnected waters of the world, bringing home the validity of an outdoor ethic that is fairly simple and yet, so seemingly lost in today’s rush to dig, divert, cut, and improve: Every action we take as a species has an impact on the natural world. The choices we make today resound into the future. How are we going to be remembered as exploiters or stewards of the precious woods and waters that are salve to our tortured souls?

Not every piece in this collection is perfect or especially crafty or significant on its own accord. But taken as a whole, while Woods isn’t Sam Cook or Aldo Leopold or Sig Olson or John Muir, he is Douglas Wood and he’s written a fine book chronicling his thinking on the out-of-doors and man’s impact on our world.

And that, for my sons and grandsons and granddaughters well-being, is a very good thing.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

 

The Fighting Frenchman by Paul Levy (2016. University of Minnesota Press. 978-08166-9719-9)

It’s been called the Sweet Science. The term was coined by English sporting writer, Pierce Egan in the early 1800s (see http://boxing.isport.com/boxing-guides/why-boxing-is-called-the-sweet-science). I wouldn’t say I was necessarily a fan. Having grown up watching the greats of the modern era, Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Norton, and Tyson, to name a few heavyweight professional boxers I watched on television in my childhood, adolescence, and into my early adulthood, I paid attention to who was the heavy weight champion until the game became a carnival in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the title of “World Champion” was not unified and was held by various boxers at the same time, each title sponsored by a different promoting organization. But even though I wasn’t a fan, certain memories stand out for me with respect to my connection to boxing. Watching Cassius Clay demolish Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. Being intrigued by the notion that a famous person, Clay, would change his name simply because he changed his faith. Considering whether Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War was genuine or a publicity stunt. Watching George Foreman in the Olympics. Marveling at the chiseled body of Ken Norton and the insane, tractor like insistence of Joe Frazier in the ring. And then, of course, as a white kid growing up in the suburbs, wondering if any white man could ever really stand up in the ring and win the title. 

Here’s the story of a poor white kid from Crosby, Minnesota, who, though he never won a title, was someone I followed. Why? Well, Scott LeDoux was unorthodox and intriguing in so many ways, beginning with the fact he played college football at my alma mater, UMD. Then there was the son-of-a-miner connection (my maternal grandfather was an iron miner). And of course, the fact he was white. Paul Levy delves into all aspects of LeDoux’s troubled life, including the story of the boxer’s molestation at the hands of a neighborhood teem when he was only six. That incident scarred LeDoux, caused him to want to lash out in the ring, to purify himself, driving him, if not to greatness, then at least to notoriety. You get it all. The love story. The pain. The wins. The losses. The fixed fights. The hard luck. The fight that I watched on pirated pay-for-view in my Inver Grove Heights apartment as a law student (relax: I simply strung an extended wire around the room and captured the signal) where LeDoux, pummeled by Ken Norton for the entirety of the fight, came off the ropes in the last rounds and stood toe to toe with Kenny, bashing him with blow after blow after blow. He didn’t win but had the fight gone one more minute, he would have. During LeDoux’s career, the movie Rocky was released and became a hit. Though the hardscrabble fighter in Stalone’s epic shares the grit and tenacity of the boy from Crosby, the film wasn’t a fictionalized version of Scott LeDoux’s life. Unlike what’s depicted on the screen, the boxer from Crosby didn’t fare well after he left the ring. There’s much sadness, a touch of redemption, and even a bit of reconciliation at the end of the book, making the tale so much richer than an imagined story of a celluloid hero.

Levy’s touching portrayal of a man, his times, his demons, and the disgustingly brutal world of heavy weight prize fighting is better than a draw but not quite a knock out.

4 out of 5. There’s some repetitive writing that could have used a heavier edit but, overall, a fast, good read.

How Fiction Works by James Wood (2008. Pickadore. ISBN 978-0312428471)

Wood, the literary critic for The New Yorker is a bit high-brow for my comprehension and taste. His diminutive volume dissects elements of fiction writing, particularly novel writing, by comparison. He draws upon segments of well-known pieces of literature, both classical and modern, augmented with occasional references to genre fiction, to inspect, discuss, and explain how great writers build their fictional worlds in terms of tense, point of view, plot, character, and setting. His work is curt, precise, and engaging despite the overall atmosphere of suffyness one would expect in reading something written by a legendary critic. He tends, in choosing his exemplars, to draw upon Flaubert, Austen, Joyce, James, Checkov, and Tolstoy and other haughty types. But that’s okay for in the end, will it be writers such as those listed and relied upon by Wood who remain relevant a century from now, or will it be Grisham and Patterson and Flynn and their ilk, the storytellers of today who, in general, sacrifice quality and literary excellence for quantity and cash?

As a writer who has been accused of spending an inordinate amount of time providing details in my work about minor characters, folks who might appear in one brief scene and then never take the stage again, I thoroughly enjoyed Wood’s discussion of “flat” (superficial) and “round” (detailed and developed) characters. He reminds us all that, in the end, writing fiction is a bit of a card trick, an invented reality that is subject to numerous viewpoints and divergent analysis when the curtain is withdrawn and we can see the writer’s hands:

In Aspects of the Novel, Forster used the now-famous term “flat” to describe the kind of character who is awarded a single, essential attribute., which is repeated without change as the person appears and reappears in the novel…Forster is generally snobbish about flat characters, and wants to demote them, reserving the highest category for rounder or fuller characters. Flat characters cannot be tragic, he asserts; they need to be comic. Round characters “surprise” us each time they reappear; they are not flimsily theatrical; they combine well with other characters in conversation; “and draw one another out without seeming to do so.”

I picked up this little primer of writing tutelage at Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books in St. Paul on a whim. As I wandered the store, looking at the uruly crowd of hard cover and soft cover tomes for something to read, I wasn’t really intending to embark on yet another course of learning in my writerly career. And yet, that’s what transpired. In the end, I’m thoroughly happy I slid my little plastic card to the clerk and bought this book.

4 stars out of 5. A quick read that gives even an experienced fiction writer pause and causes necessary contemplation over the word, “Why?”

Peace.

Mark

 

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

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