In the Night of Memory by Linda LeGarde Grover (2019, U of M Press. ISBN 978-5179-0650-4)

This newest effort by Duluth’s own Linda LeGarde Grover takes a bit of getting used to. What do I mean by that? Here’s my take.

In Memory, we follow the story of two Ojibwe sisters, Azure and Rain, from the moment their mother turns them over to the St. Louis County Social Services (welfare) Department to adulthood. Along the way, we meet caregivers kind and cruel, relatives from the Mozhay Point Reservation, strangers, and we find ourselves as observers moving with the girls on their journey from one foster home to another. The thing is; this is not a traditional linear narrative in a writing style most readers are familiar with. Having read Ms. Grover’s prior collections of short fiction (I’ll be honest and admit I haven’t read her poetry), I was expecting to find a replication of the storytelling used by Ms. Grover in her shorter pieces. It’s a style that is very reminiscent of Native American oral storytelling, a style I am familiar with having listened to many Ojibwe and Lakota and Cree parents, tribal social workers, and attorneys who appeared in front of me during my tenure as a district court judge. I’m happy to say that cadence and speech and tenor is honestly and authentically replicated in this novel.

There is, however, for the non-Native, some work needed to be done by the reader in following the twisting, turning, constantly changing narrative of the girls’ journey. But it’s an enjoyable task similar to that experienced by a white person diving into the diction and cadence of Hurston or other African American writers who remain loyal to their heritage in their writing. It’s work that some readers who prefer their storytelling more straightforward and easy to discern might shy away from after the first few chapters. That, in my view, would be ill-advised: Read the book to its conclusion and wonder about our nation’s treatment of Native Americans, the poverty of the reservation system, the hordes of young Native women gone missing, and the removals of whole tribes and children from the land and culture that nurtured their way of life.

In the end, this is a lyrical work, one chock full of lovely moments, dark sequences, and an awareness of heritage.

4 stars out of 5. A worthy, short read for any book club.

Peace.

Mark

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980. Picador. ISBN 978-0-312-42409-1)

The sticker on the cover makes it plain: Someone decided that this was a book worthy of a community read. Why else would it have been selected bu the NEA as a “Big Read”? But here’s the thing: After reading Robinson’s slender and beautifully phrased novel, I can’t figure out why the NEA found it so compelling.

Oh, I’ll grant you that the author knows how to write complex, intricately woven prose. In many ways, my reaction to the style used to flesh out this sparsely themed novella-seeking-novel-status never changed from the first chapter to the last: “Oh, she’s written an extended prose poem. How lovely.” But as I kept at it, reading snippets of the novel before bed and in the bathroom and finally, as I unwound after a long day at Heikenpäivä in Hancock, MI where I was appearing as the featured author, the same puzzlement intruded upon my enjoyment of the book: “Where’s the story?”

Set in the mythical, lakeside, western town of Fingerbone, there’s a little Russell Banks, a bit of Anne Lamott, and a smidgen of James Burke to the style and tone of Robinson’s work here. The plot, if that’s what one can call the backbone of this lengthy short story, is that all of the adults in the lives of sisters Ruth and Lucille, have either died or left, rendering the children orphans to be ultimately cared for by a maternal aunt, Sylvie. Sylvie is eccentric and unusual and well, a very hands-off sort of gal, leading to lapses in nutrition and care and schooling and the like for the girls, culminating in the expected: The local sheriff steps in to inquire as to the girls’ welfare. Maybe I’m too linear of a reader and a writer to get it. Maybe I’m just a dunderhead who needs to expand his mental capacity and enjoy a book, not as story or storytelling, but for its bones, for its well-crafted wordsmithery.

Perhaps these things are true, that it is a deficiency of the reader and not the writer that left me puzzled and unsatisfied at the end of Housekeeping. I’m open to that possibility. But for me, while the words all seemed elegant and orderly and keen, the end result of my time spent in Fingerbone was disappointing. 2 and 1/2 stars out of five. Pen/Hemingway? Maybe I’m missing something …

Peace.

Mark

Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler

You can read the obituary in the Alexandria and Benson newspapers or online. But words are an imprecise means of describing the life force that was Susanne. Let’s take a step back and figure out who this tiny bundle of energy was, shall we?

            First off, she was the daughter of Jack, a Slovenian immigrant-miner-turned-coal-salesman who quit school in the 8th grade, and Marie, a Normal-school-educated teacher from Oak Park, Illinois who played piano at Zimmerman’s silent movie theater in Aurora, Minnesota. Such different, disparate backgrounds and yet, when Marie toured the mine where Jack worked at the time, it was love at first sight.

            Secondly, Susanne was a sister to Barbara Jean who was four years older. The petty snarking and disagreements that come from knowing your only sibling for over 80 years were never an impediment to Susanne’s love for Barb or Barb’s love for Susanne.

            Sukey was also a wife. You won’t read this in her obituary but I feel it’s important for you to know: Susanne was the survivor of domestic abuse. Now some might ask: “Mark why bring that up at your aunt’s memorial service?” Here’s the thing: You cannot understand, you cannot appreciate the toughness, the grit of that little woman unless you know the truth. And the simple truth is Susanne is a strong Christian woman who, with the help of her blessed Aunt Mary—Grandpa Jack’s younger sister—and Barbara and other friends and family, healed and moved on. She made a commitment: To not let one unhappy episode erode her faith in humanity. Which is how she was able to say “yes” to Paul Pederson when, after years of confirmed bachelorhood, the most eligible single man in tiny Benson, Minnesota fell hard for the little, dark-haired woman with the college degree over coffee in a small town café. In all ways that matter, Paul was Susanne’s first husband, the love of her life, and, as you are likely aware, the father of their two lovely daughters. One of my favorite people, Paul died far too young, leaving Susanne, as both Julie and Heidi attest, the single parent of two school-aged girls. Again, Sukey’s fiercely resilient heart led her to seek happiness and companionship, albeit of a different sort, with her second husband, Wayne Schuler. Together, Wayne and Susanne bought and renovated a home in East Duluth and a farmhouse near Two Harbors. It wasn’t easy at the end with Wayne living in an assisted living facility and Susanne tending to their rural home. But my auntie was up to the task until her own health concerns started to wear her down. It wasn’t long after Wayne passed that Susanne agreed (don’t get me wrong: it took a bit of persuading!) to move closer to her family.

            Of all the roles that Sukey filled, however, none made her as proud as that of mother. Julie and Heidi, know that, along with Susanne’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, you are the precious legacy of your mom’s love. I think she knew it was her time, and, having seen her loved ones over the holidays, and having fought heart and kidney maladies for so long, she decided “To heck with this. It’s time to see Paul, have a screwdriver, and see if I can get Paul and Harry to argue politics.” As an aside, your mom loved my old man. She never had a bad word to say about Harry, not even after he and mom divorced. He pitched in and helped Sukey solve some pretty thorny issues involving Paul’s estate. Picture the three of them, sitting around playing gin rummy, having a cocktail, your old man, the Republican from Swift County, having it out with my dad, the Liberal from Duluth. I’m hoping that they’ve all learned their lesson and aren’t smoking up there. But who knows? Anyway, it was in her role as mom, even when she had to parent alone, where Susanne truly shined.

            She was, of course, also an auntie to me and my siblings, Anne and Dave, and a dear friend to many people. There are so many stories I could tell but time is short and maybe, the best way to make you understand our relationship is by explaining how her beautiful little memoir, Back of Beyond, came to be.

            For years, Susanne talked about the manuscript she was working on; something to do with Buena Vista, the resort her parents owned. Given I’m an author I’d ask her, “Hey, when are you going to let me read your stories?” Year after year she’d put me off. Until finally, she didn’t. She’d had the manuscript typed but left it to me to upload her words into my computer and edit the work as best I could. When I handed her the edited version of her words, she didn’t complain or balk or object or argue. She cried. After we sat at her kitchen table, pouring over photos to insert in the book, she cried again. When she saw the cover my wife René created for Back of Beyond, still more tears. But she saved the biggest cry of all for when she held the completed book, all 154 pages of her life, her blood, her sweat, her family, in her hands fresh off the printing press. Being the person she is, she thanked me and René and my son Chris for all our help bringing her dream to fruition. But you wanna know the truth? Working with her on that project, it was she who gifted us with her trust and her grace and her steadfast belief in what we were trying to achieve.

            Once she had her stories in hand, she was, as in everything else, a whirlwind. She and Wayne and my mom and friends and relatives drove hither and yon, that little short Slovenian lady hiking up her skirt, grabbing a handful of books, and charging into every bookstore and gift shop in NE Minnesota. She sold out two printings, all by herself, her success resting upon an unrequited desire to tell the world what a blessed childhood she’d been granted. Her story and the story of Jack and Marie and Barbara Jean continues today. How so?

            Aunt Sukey lived long enough to see the Buena Vista Resort repurposed into a YMCA Family camp that serves inner city folks. Last summer, even though she was feeling poorly, Auntie made it to the dedication of the new camp and signed copies of her book for adoring fans. Daughter Julie and son-in-law Brad, along with Grandson Caleb and his husband, Nestor, made it happen. Despite her frailty, Susanne beamed at the attention she and her words received that day. I felt so honored to attend the dedication with my aunt, my mom, my son, my grandson, and my wife. It wouldn’t have happened, the Kobe family being remembered in such fashion, had Sukey not told her story.

            Did you know, Sukey was a television personality? It’s true. Her first job after graduating from the Villa (now St. Scholastica) was as an extension agent, which got her a gig on the locally produced, “Dottie Becker Show”, where she discussed nutrition, recipes, and other home economics topics. She also worked as a chemical dependency counselor at Project Turnabout in Granite Falls; was the manager of her church’s traveling youth choir in Benson (even going to Japan on tour!); worked hard for many charitable causes; was active in both ELCA and Episcopal churches in Benson, Duluth, Hermantown, and Knife River; and was a licensed lay preacher, giving sermons in the Episcopal church, many of which I heard as a member of the congregation. I relished her take on faith, not only because of her spirituality but because she valued brevity: Say what needs saying and get on with the service! She was a tireless supporter of the Friends of the Two Harbors Library and a lover of great books.

            When it became difficult for Wayne and Susan to make the long drives to spend holidays with Julie and Heidi and their families, Wayne and Susan spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases at my home in northern Minnesota. Again, it was my family; me, René, and our children who were gifted by the presence of Susanne at such gatherings. She was an intelligent, loving, kind, gal who didn’t put up with shenanigans or nonsense and could spot both at the drop of a pin. The hour is late. My time to talk has run its course. But before I go, let me share some final words, words written by Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler (Anna Marie in the excerpt), with you:

Years later, long after the resort was sold and her life had taken its course, Anna Marie was sitting at her kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee. Her house was silent. It was so quiet; you could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock in another room. Outside the kitchen windows stately birches bowed with the wind towards a stand of majestic pines. The woodsy setting in her own yard reminded her of the resort.

Old photographs and one of Mother’s old journals lay on the table next to her empty coffee cup. One by one Anna Marie picked up the pictures and studied them. The photographs had been removed from old albums because Anna needed to add names and dates to the back of each one. Mother’s journal had a black leather binding. The pages had yellowed over time. Leafing through the journal, she found a short lovely poem written in her mother’s hand, author, unknown. She read the words aloud:

                        Life

Each life is like a changing flower

Like petals pale or colored free

The years slip by drop

Softly hour by hour

And leave rich seeds of memory.

Anna Marie wondered, as she took up her pen to write her own words, her own story, if the act of writing down what she remembered would mean that the journey was finally completed.

Never, she thought. The journey will continue through the years, slowly, day by day. One memory will recall another, each memory precious, bittersweet, funny. Memories shared or kept private; memories of that special place, a place held close to my heart, the Back of Beyond.

(Excerpted from Back of Beyond, by Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler)

God bless you Auntie, I love you.

Thanks ever so much to Mimmu Salmela and Lisa Johnson at KUMD for making a dithering idiot sound, well, sort of smart! Log onto the link and listen to us talk about Kotimaa: Homeland. https://www.kumd.org/post/mn-reads-kotimaa-homeland-mark-munger.

Peace.

Mark

The Civil War (Vol. 1) by Shelby Foote (1986. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-394-74623-4)

The title is in reference to fellow Denfeld High School and UMD grad (and lifelong pal) Dave Michelson. Dave handed me this ginormous trilogy written by historian Shelby Foote, the basis for Ken Burn’s wonderful PBD documentary, and said: “You need to read this.” I took the ten pounds of books from Dave and, awhile back, started on volume 1. You know what? Dave was right.

Yes, there’s a lot of information in the first book of this set. Yes, at times, Mr. Foote brings a reader maybe too far into the weeds of policy and military strategy and politics on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. But all in all, his prose is innately readable, his research is impeccable, and his fairness, in critiquing the issue of slavery and his native South’s reliance upon it as the engine for its agrarian economy, is balanced. Foote makes no excuses for his Southern ancestors’ sins and casts no fault on Lincoln’s evolution from reluctant supporter of buying slaves from their masters to free them to full-on emancipator, the devil be damned. But because of his heritage, Foote does bring keen insight into how the leaders of the Confederacy, especially Jefferson Davis, viewed Lincoln, the abolitionists, the Republican Party, and the North as the two sides sent boys and men to their deaths to prove principles held dear to each side. For Lincoln, it wasn’t slavery that prompted him to act: It was the threatened dissolution of the union, caused by the continual disagreement over slavery, its existence and its expansion, the made him bring the terrible power of the North’s industrial base and its larger population to bear in a war between (literally, in many of the border states) brothers.

Foote’s use of extensive first-person accounts, excerpted from primary source materials, is reminiscent of the way I structured my one and only foray into this sort of nonfiction, Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story, a biography of my legislator uncle and mentor. Don’t get excited here, folks: I’m not equating my abilities as a researcher, historian, and interviewer to the great Mr. Foote. But I was struck, when reading this first installment, by the similarity of Mr. Foote’s approach with my own attempt to recount my uncle’s life. Granted, Shelby has sold a hell of a lot more copies of his books than I have of all of mine combined. Still, I think there is a connection in terms of style and reportage that can’t be ignored.

My only criticism of the book ( and I’ve heard the same said about Mr. Environment) is that the narrative, at times, suffers under the weight of detail. That said, I’m looking forward to cracking open volume 2 of this massive history in hopes of continuing to learn.

4 stars out of 5. A well-written and researched, fair-handed treatment of a conflict that still haunts us today.

Peace.

Mark

Making Sense of Scripture by David J. Lose (2009. Augsburg Fortress. ISBN 978-8066-9953-0)

What do I mean? Well, like most sentient human beings, I wonder about what it’s all about. Why do some dastardly folks escape pain and agony and an ugly death when good, faithful, loving folks suffer cancer and MS and ALS and any other host of maladies? I also ponder, when I have a moment in this fast-paced world, what the Bible means to me, what it holds for me, and how I should be reading it and understanding it. I’m a lifelong Christian and, now that I’m in my third read-through of the Good Book, I remain as puzzled as I was my first time through. What’s that, you say? A guy who’s taught or been involved with confirmation classes in both the Episcopal and ELCA churches for the better part of three decades still can’t figure it out? True, that. As an example, on my current read-through of the Bible (cover to cover) I came across this verse which, for the life of me, I can’t make hide nor hair of:

When the people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. The the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nephilim) were on the earth in those days-and also afterward-when the sons of God went to the daughters of the humans … (Genesis 6:4)

What the hell?

I picked up a copy Lose’s book at my church, Grace ELCA in Hermantown, hoping it might provide a key to deciphering this passage and others, both in the Old and New Testaments, that confound me. I’m happy to say that, while Lose provides no easy answers, he does set out a framework for analyzing and understanding the Good Book that relies upon faith, history, and prayer. In this way, the author separates himself from those literalists who insist that the words contained in the Bible are the inerrant words of God. I’ve previously read Roger Cragun’s masterful work on the origins of the Good Book, The Ultimate Heresy (see my review by clicking on the “Search” tab above and inserting the title), in which Cragun argues that the Word is not the words linked, one to another, in the Bible’s text, but rather, the Word is the personal story and dignity and divinity of Jesus. Jesus is the Word, not the words set about in print we rely upon every Sunday in church. David Lose rehashes, in less detail, some of what Roger was getting at but goes a stop further: He gives lay readers of the Bible a framework upon which to read, discuss, and understand the witness of the book, a means to explore everything from the difficult and seemingly outdated rules in Leviticus to the love expounded by John. His overarching thesis, one that makes abundant sense, it is that only through reading seemingly confusing passages from the Good Book and coming together to discuss those passages in community when we are able to understand.

Makes sense to me as I’ve always relied upon my priests and pastors to illuminate and explain the verses and scenes and passages from the Bible that are part of our Sunday morning and Wednesday evening services. But there needs to be more, according to Lose, more work done by faithful believers in ferreting out the basis of faith and truth as granted to us by God. The author carefully cautions us, as members of a system of belief, to understand the difference between analytical fact and a faith deeply held. That’s, in a nutshell, something that folks who view the Bible outside its history (and the genesis of the scriptures they hold so dear) , folks who believe every word and every passage in the Bible was personally inscribed by God (either in the hearts of men or on some stone tablet) don’t seem too eager to discuss. We should. Discuss such things, I think. So we better understand our shared faith and come to a mutual understanding of what it all means.

This is a slender, power-packed manual; a “how to” guide for reading scripture, with the ultimate goal of understanding Jesus’ life and mission. Well done, Mr. Lose, well done. Your work didn’t answer all my questions but it did lay out a path for me to seek out community and discuss my doubts with fellow believers.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Picasso by Patrick O’ Brian (2003. Harper Collins. ISBN 978007173570)


Newspaper men eating candy
Had to be held down by big police
But someday every thing’s gonna be different
When I paint that masterpiece

(Bob Dylan)

The point of O’ Brian’s massive and well-documented biography is not to cast Pablo Picasso as a great man. It seems the author, who is known primarily as the creator of the “Master and Commander” series of novels about the British Navy, did not set out to portray Picasso as a saint (or a complete sinner for that matter), but sought only to remind us of the man’s genius. In this task, O’ Brian succeeded. Fully and completely.

I bought this biography at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and was pleased to find that, towards the end of the book, the author discusses how that storied repository of Picassos came to be. Seems that the artist did not want the museum, as was first proposed, to be based in Màlaga, a location Picasso claimed “had no connection to me or my art”, but was happy to have his friend and confidant, Jaime Sabartés work with city officials in Barcelona to make the museum a reality. During their decades long friendship and relationship, Picasso paid Sabartés poorly for his work as his right-hand-man, but bestowed upon his fellow artist (Sabartés was a painter, poet, and writer of note before agreeing to become Picasso’s personal secretary and administrator) hundreds of pieces of art as additional compensation. All of Sabartés’s Picassos were given by Sabartés to the museum, a generous gift with a value (today) in the tens of millions of dollars.

O’ Brian deals with Picasso’s two marriages and various flirtations and adulteries, one of which produced two children, and the financial and relationship issues all his dalliances caused both his children and his grandchildren. He tackles such issues fairly and evenhandedly, all the while ensuring that the reader doesn’t miss the main point of the book: While Picasso could be a sonofabitch to family and friends, he was genuinely kind and generous and, above all, the 20th century’s most honored, prolific, and controversial artist. Pablo Picasso continued to be innovative and productive right up until his death at the age of 91. That alone is a significant achievement in a man’s life!

My only criticism of the book is that O’ Brian spends a great deal of time describing the masterpieces painted, sculpted, drawn, or created by Picasso. This leads the overall narrative to bog down and lose some of its steam. One wonders why illustrations of the great man’s works were not included. One would think that, for example, that the Barcelona Museum, which holds many early Picassos (gifted to the museum by the artist himself) would’ve been pleased to have such a positive book about its benefactor available to the world; especially given that the two biographies written by Picasso’s lovers during his life portray him as a devil and an antagonist. Not having visuals to coincide with the narrative descriptions of Pablo Picasso’s work is a major flaw in this book.

That having been said, I still agree with the front blurb by writer Kenneth Clark, who proclaimed O’ Brian’s book to be “Much the best biography of Picasso.” Why? While the author was a friend of the artist’s, a position that gave him direct witness to Picasso’s later life, O’ Brian is careful not to elegize or eulogize the man with grandiosity. He simply makes the point that Pablo Picasso was a flawed man who happened to be the most important and most prolific genius of the 20th century art world.

4 stars out of 5. A worthy effort indeed!

Peace. Mark

Deep River by Karl Marlantes (2019. Atlantic. ISBN 978-0-8021-2538-5)

I loved Marlantes’s debut novel, Matterhorn. Big, sprawling, filled with conflict and angst, it’s one of the best fiction books written about Vietnam. So when a friend sent me a FB message about Marlantes’s new novel, one based upon the author’s Finnish heritage, one that evoked an era and themes similar to those contained in my own Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh, well, I had to swallow my pride, put aside envy, and dig in.

Marlantes is a fine writer and chronicles the story of Finnish immigration to the forests of the Pacific Northwest with a deft hand. His characters are believable, folks we grow to like, admire, and cheer on, which is not an easy thing to accomplish when weaving multiple storylines and character histories into a seven hundred page tome. If a two book sample size is any indication, Marlantes writes long, complex, detailed tales chock-full of facts and history and depictions of landscape that ring true. But in that length and attention to the past, I found myself, when mired in detail after detail concerning logging in the early 20th century, drifting away from the guts and heart of the drama behind the story. That’s why the title evokes Moby Dick: Melville’s novel has always been championed as one fo the great novels of American writing. I don’t dispute that label given I am just a self-taught real estate novelist (sorry Billy Joel!) and not a PhD in Literature. But Deep River shares with Moby Dick this (at least to my eye) flaw: the consistent and constant detailing of the inner workings of logging get in the way of story just as the middle third of Melville’s classic becomes bogged down in the minutiae of whaling.

That said, I liked the story, finishing it on a cruise from Barcelona to Venice. I don’t agree that it is, as the back jacket proclaims, “a page-turner”. I do agree that it “draws you into its world” and makes you care about each fictional person you encounter along the winding and complex road Marlantes leads readers on in this epic novel.

In the end, it’s a book that should be read by Finns and non-Finns like interested in the immigrant experience, labor strife, and what life was once like for our forefathers and foremothers.

Four stars out of Five. A little less fact and a little more heart, and it would be a classic.

Peace.

Mark

Child of Teuva by Anni Korpi Putikka, Edited by Arlene Putikka Tucker, Translated by ivy Nevala (2018. ISBN 978-0-9890478-6-9)

Full disclosure. I go to the same ELCA church as Ms. Tucker, the daughter of the author and the editor of this collection. So take what I am about to say with a grain of salt.

Most, if not all, of these personal essays, reflections of a past way of life in Finland, were first printed in New World Finn, an English language newspaper that is sadly no longer with us. In these former newspaper columns, Ms. Putikka conveys a real sense of what life was like back in the Finland of her youth. There are tales of childish pranks, cooking traditional Finnish dishes, working the fields, and going to school. All of the stories are excellent in rendering a sense of a rugged, tough, difficult yet love-filled childhood. The only criticism I have is that because Ms. Tucker did not edit the content of the essays, sometimes there is a repetition of story or theme between the pieces. But that’s but a minor distraction, one that doesn’t detract significantly from the reading experience.

Overall, this is a nice memoir in snippets and yarns that anyone of Finnish heritiage or intereested in the old ways, will thoroughly enjoy. Four Stars out of Five.

Peace.

Mark

Title: Book Launch of Kotimaa: Homeland
Location: The Bookstore at Fitger’s, Fitger’s Complex Duluth, MN
Link out: Click here
Description: Join Mark, Fitger’s Bookstore, and Iron Range musician Karl Sundquist for a night of readings, an interview (by Jae Cornwell), audience questions, and sweet tunes from Karl. Free admission. Free appetizers. Cash bar. Books and CDs for sale at the event. Tell your friends!
Start Time: 20:30
Date: 2019-10-03
End Time: 22:30

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