The Awakening by Kate Chopin (2003. BN Classics. ISBN 978-1-59308-113-3)

I’d never heard of Kate Chopin or read any of her work, including what is billed as her seminal novel, The Awakening, until I saw this collection at BN in Duluth and decided to give her a read. Let’s just say that Kate Chopin is a wonderful short story author who should have limited her writing to the short form. Why?

I get that The Awakening was, when it was released in 1899, a bit of a shocker to polite society. The idea that Edna, the female protagonist wants, needs, and desires an affair outside her marriage in the Victorian Age, well, that caused an uproar amongst readers and critics. But here’s the thing: While Chopin spends page after page after page exploring the inner psyche of her heroine, there’s virtually nothing happening outside Edna’s head. I found the story essentially dry, boring, and far from scandalous or titalating. That might be my 21st century societal background impeding my objectivity but I don’t think so. I share the sentiment of American novelist Willa Cather, whose review of Awakenings included the following:

A Creole Bovary is this little novel of Miss Chopin’s. Not that the heroine is a Creole exactly, or that Miss Chapin is a Flaubert … but the theme is similar to that which occupied Flaubert. There was, indeed, no need that a second Madame Bovary should be written … I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed style to so trite and sordid a theme … (N)ext time I hope that Miss Chopin will devote that flexible iridescent style of hers to a better cause. Pittsburgh Leader, 1899.

If I had to rate The Awakening as a stand-alone work, it would barely garner 2 stars.

Still, because the introduction and Willa Cather make it clear that Chopin was a writer of some note at the turn of 19th to the 20th century, I plowed on and read the short stories that follow her ill-conceived novel. I’m happy to say that Miss Chopin’s short fiction redeems her as a writer of quality. Though the themes throughout the short stories are a bit repetitive, sexual and societal awakenings of women in the stories being a near-constant drumbeat of plot, Chopin is masterful in drawing the reader into her world of Creoles and heat and mist and the Old South. Modern critics who complain she is pejorative towards African American characters are not wrong; they just miss the beauty of the storytelling that lurks behind the author’s subtle prejudice. Yes, Chopin could have done more to highlight the character and integrity and humanness of the black folks lurking skirting the edges of her tales. But that wasn’t who she was writing about: She was writing about white women in the Old South coming to grips with the modern age. From that standpoint, she knew how to tell a story.

As a collection: 3 and 1/2 stars out of 5. The Awakening as a stand-alone novel? 2 stars. The short stories by themselves? 4 and 1/2 stars.

Tin House (Final Issue: Vol. 20, No. 4)



I’ll keep this short since this is a review of a literary magazine, one that is no longer being published, and not a book or collection. I’ve never been able to place any of my short fiction in literary journals, and certainly never had a piece considered by the now-departed Tin House. That’s OK; not everyone shares my taste in storytelling. But here’s the thing: With the demise of every journal devoted to poetry and short stories and thoughtful creative non-fiction, writers are deprived of a marketplace for their words, which saddens me.

It was for this reason, my despair (that’s too strong; discomfort is a better word here) at the retracting world of literary journals and wonderful little magazines of writing (Glimmer Train recently ended a long run as a great literary journal; years back, my favorite environmental/conservation magazine, Heron Dance, bit the dust) that I picked up the farewell edition of Tin House. While I’m sad at the journal’s demise, I’m glad I read the fine stories, poetry, and creative non-fiction contained inside its covers. RIP, Tin House, I am saddened you are gone.

Peace

Mark

Interview and Story for the Finnish American Reporter by Mark Munger

Bobby Vee (left) and The Shadows

Four years ago, I was a featured author at the Høstfest in Minot, North Dakota by virtue of my Finnish American novels. I stayed my nights in a tent at the RoughRider Campground outside of town and spent my days selling signed books to Norwegians. During the festival, a dapper young man stopped by to see me, said he was of Finnish descent, that he was Jeff Vee—the son of Rockabilly Hall of Fame musician, Bobby Vee, was the drummer with the Nelsons (Ricky Nelson’s sons and Høstfest headliners), was on break, and that he’d be back to buy my books. When folks walk away promising they’ll be back, it’s about a fifty-fifty shot whether they return. But Jeff was as good as his word. After he read my books, he messaged me on FaceBook, applauding my effort to capture the Finnish American immigrant story. That connection began a friendship, which has included Jeff and his family stopping by to see me at other events, Finnish and non-Finnish themed, to chat and check in and buy a book or two. It’s been a two-way street: I’ve bought a number of Bobby Vee recordings and brought a group of Duluthians to see Jeff and his family band, The Killer Vees, play his father’s hits at the stunning Paramount Theater in St. Cloud, Minnesota. After the show, Jeff and his brother Tommy invited my wife and I and our friends to tour the recording studio founded by Bobby Vee and his sons in nearby St. Joseph. That’s where the idea of writing an article for FAR concerning the life and legacy of Finnish American musician, Robert Thomas Velline (Bobby Vee) first popped into my head. Bobby’s sons thought the idea was marvelous: Jeff and Tommy and I originally planned for me to come to St. Joseph, buy them lunch, and do an in-person interview. The pandemic changed that. What you will read, are my written questions and Jeff Velline’s written answers via the internet.

MM:   For the readers of FAR, can you explain the link between your dad, Robert Thomas Velline (Bobby Vee) and Finnish ancestry? What’s the derivation of the Velline surname?

JV:       Dad’s maternal grandfather, Matti Tampanila came from Finland as a boy in 1900. Matti’s father, Jacob, had already established a homestead at Perth, ND, having immigrated from Pyhajarvi, Oulanni, in central Finland. The farm is still in the family. It consists of 5,000 acres farmed by relatives, including Matti’s 93 year old nephew—Art Tuomala and his sons. In 1906, Matti married Emma Simonson, whose father Henry had come from the same region, and they homesteaded near Dunblane, Saskatchewan, Canada where my paternal grandmother, Saima Tampanila, was born. Saima was 100% Finnish. Dad’s paternal grandfather, Christ Velline immigrated from Balestrand, Norway, in 1892.  He settled near Lisbon, ND. The farm in Norway had been split up under two family names, Sjotun (the original name) and later Vellene.  The immigrants chose to take the Vellene name changing it to Velline as they felt it sounded more American. I recently visited Balestrand with my own family and the farm is still known as “The Vellene” farm. Early in his musical career, Dad was often lumped in with the Philadelphia “Bobbys”— Rydell and Darin. Many fans thought “Velline” was Italian and Dad was often asked to perform at Italian festivals. He accepted such invites but was always clear: “We’ll play the festival, but, make sure they know I’m Finnish Norwegian!”

MM:   Sounds like the Velline household was a house of music given Sydney, your paternal grandfather, was a musician. Did your dad ever talk about his early influences in music and if so, what were they? How about your paternal grandmother’s Finnish roots and any musical heritage?

JV:      There was definitely music in Dad’s house when he was growing up.  No TV, only radio. Grandpa played fiddle, Grandma sang, and the boys learned horns and guitar:  Dad’s older brother taught him his first chords on an old Harmony guitar they shared. On Grandma Saima’s side, extended family kept Finnish folk traditions alive by playing the old country’s music on mandolins and guitars. We’re lucky to have some very rough cassette recordings of some of this. Mom—Karen Ann Bergen—was from Detroit Lakes, MN, where she met my Dad at a dance where he was performing with his band, The Shadows. They were both just 16, married four years later, and celebrated their 51st anniversary in 2014, shortly before Mom passed.  Mom’s heritage is German and French Canadian.

            Dad’s other early musical influence was KFGO Radio in Fargo. He loved Hank Williams and The Louvin Bothers. He said that the first time he heard Elvis sing “That’s Alright Mama” on that same station, Man, country music is really getting good!  He was a fan of early rock and roll; Buddy Holly, The Everly’s, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and the like. The Shadows’ records and a 1962 album called “Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets” reflect these influences.

MM:   I think I read somewhere there was a connection between your dad’s Finnish ancestry and Minnesota …

JV:      Dad’s Great Grandpa Jacob came over from Finland with his brother Matt. Matt settled in Duluth and ran a public sauna on the weekends. One of his sons, Urho, settled in Finlayson, MN.

            When my Grandma Saima was 5 years old, her mother passed away (ironically from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic). The oldest son Henry remained in Canada while the three young ones were sent to Perth, ND to be raised by family.  Five children were lost at young ages due to illness or accidents.  The immigrant life and homesteading was very hard. The older son, Henry (Dad’s uncle), worked in the lumber industry near Thunder Bay, Ontario where he died fighting a forest fire.

            Grandma Saima was raised by her grandmother in Perth, ND and later by her Aunt Minnie who married Bill Tuomala, who also came from central Finland. He had extended family that settled in the Ely area (August Tuomala).

            Christ Velline’s general store grew into a small chain that included a store in Fargo, which is where Christ and his wife, Christine, retired.  Most of their children ended up staying in that area. Grandpa Sydney Velline met Grandma Saima Tampanila when he worked as a short order cook at a café in downtown Fargo.

MM:   Did you dad talk about his Finnish ancestry growing up? If so, what was he take on it? Did he ever talk about Finnish sisu (what I translate as fortitude to the chagrin of Finns who say no one word can encompass the meaning!)? Seems, even if your dad didn’t talk about sisu, he certainly lived it.

JV:      Given he found success as a musician and started a family at a young age, I don’t think Dad had a lot of time to explore family history when we were growing up. However, I took an interest in my Finnish heritage due to stories Grandma Saima told us as kids and stories Dad shared from his own childhood, and was particularly drawn to the “immigrant story.” They were tough Finns, those immigrants, endowed with sisu! Dad’s curiosity was piqued as he aged and reconnected with family near Perth.  In the early 2000s, Dad and us performed at “Music on The Prairie” in the Perth town hall. While the gathering was organized by our Finnish relatives for the whole community, it was pretty much a family reunion.  In 2010, Dad and my family took a trip to visit the old homestead in Saskatchewan where Saima was born. We placed flowers on graves at the Finnish Cemetery and “walked where they walked.” We considered making a trip to Finland and Norway with Dad but a year later, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He passed away from the disease on October 25th, 2016. 

            My wife Cindy, daughter Saima (named after Grandma of course) and I finally made Dad’s dream a reality in June of 2019, visiting both Finland and Norway. We were able to visit the original Velline farm and meet some distant cousins who we remain in touch with. In Finland, we visited the cemetery and honored my Finnish ancestors.  Our favorite city was Helsinki because of the people, the pace, and the beauty.  We also visited Savonlina where we stayed at “The Saima Hotel” and jumped into Lake Saimaa in honor of my grandmother and my daughter! The town and its people were a highlight of the trip.  My personal appreciation for nature, the north country, and saunas made it feel like I had a genetic connection to the place.  With everything going on in this world right now, we just might emigrate back! 

            Dad never referred to sisu. However, there was no doubt he embodied the concept of grit, determination, grace, and simply put: “Doing the right thing.”  He came from a poor background, bought his parents a house when he was just 18, and had a career making music spanning over 50 years.  In a business where many of his contemporaries didn’t survive, Dad had 38 chart hits, 6 gold records, and fans around the world he never took for granted.  We referred to him as an “ambassador of joy”: He (and later, we) went from town to town leaving smiles, memories, and stories through music. He was the last person to leave a venue: He took time for everyone who wanted a handshake, an autograph, or conversation.  He looked each person in the eye and gave the people his complete attention: Something that inspires me to this day.  So while Dad didn’t use the term, he possessed an internal compass I could never figure out. Maybe that was his innate, Finnish sisu

MM:   Bobby ended up filling in for Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens after their plane crashed in Iowa. Give the readers a quick rendition of how your dad was selected to take the stage on that long ago night in Fargo and what followed …

JV:      In late 1958 and early ’59 Dad had been mostly been a spectator as his older brother Bill and buddies jammed in the garage until it became apparent none of the others could sing lead.  On Feb 3, 1959, the word spread thru Dad’s high school that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper had been killed in a plane crash on the way to a show at The Moorhead Armory. Dad and his friends had tickets for the show and DJ, Charlie Boone put out a plea for local bands to “come on down” and play.  Dion & The Belmonts, Frankie Sardo and the “new” Crickets (including Waylon Jennings) arrived by bus.  “The Shadows”—as they named themselves just before going onstage—opened the show.  It was their first gig. Dad was 15 years old and had been playing guitar and singing for only a few months.

            Dad’s recollection of the night is that things started out like a “rock and roll wake”. The musicians who’d been touring with the guys who died were in a daze. Fans in the audience learned the news when they arrived for the show. The Shadows performed twenty minutes of tunes by Gene Vincent, Little Richard, and The Everly Brothers and was called back for an encore, where the band—having run out of songs—had to repeat tunes already played.  A local promoter took the band under his wing and began booking them for school dances and “platter parties” at drive-ins. A few months later, he lined up a recording session for the boys at Kay Bank studios in Minneapolis where they cut four songs including “Suzy Baby” penned by Dad.  With vinyl in hand, the band got into a ’48 Ford and hit every radio station within 250 miles. Within weeks, “Suzie Baby” went to number one in the upper Midwest.

MM:   Did your dad ever perform in Finland? I know he was a huge presence in Great Britain, winning his only gold album (I think) for The Bobby Vee Singles Album in 1980. Talk a bit about his experiences in the UK. Did you and or any of your musical siblings get to tour with your dad in Europe? What can you recall were the highlights of any European visits?

JV:      Dad made a few appearances across the Scandinavian countries but never performed in Finland. He toured the UK many times during his career. We went to the UK with Dad at the end of the 1985 “Regal Rockin’ Blues Reunion Tour.” It was Dad’s first trip back to the UK in years. The tour featured Dad, Del Shannon, Bo Diddley, Frankie Ford, The Marvelettes and was headlined by Ricky Nelson, who was killed in a plane crash a month or so later. Years later, my brother Tommy and I went on to play many shows (and a PBS special) with Ricky’s sons, Mathew and Gunnar Nelson.

            We made about twenty trips to the UK as a family, playing some of the most beautiful theaters anywhere including Birmingham Symphony Hall, Glasgow Royal Music Hall and The London Palladium. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice were big fans of Dad’s music and attended his shows. In 1998, Sir Andrew hired us to play his big 50th Birthday Bash. That same year, we were part of an event produced by Sir Paul McCartney celebrating the music of Buddy Holly. Probably the single biggest career highlight for all of us was when Paul joined us, The Crickets, and Carl Perkins for an epic version of “Rave On!” 

            Dad referred to the UK as his “second home”. We were also privileged to tour with Dad in greater Europe, Asia, and across Australia. Dad always called early American rock and roll an “international language.”

MM:   Talk a little about your dad’s musical career. He really, at least to my mind, made his mark with some pop standards, “Devil or Angel”, “Rubber Ball”. “Take Good Care of My Baby”, and others; all gold singles but all mostly from the early ’60s. Yet he continued making music until his death from Alzheimer’s in 2016. Talk a bit about his work after becoming a star in the early days of rock and roll.

JV:      Dad was thrust into the music business at 15. The only other job he ever had was a paper route.  He was fortunate to end up with a label less corrupt than others, a great producer (Snuffy Garett), and a protective manager but I’m quite sure it was Mom who kept him on track; as she did for all of us.

            Most of Dad’s hits came early on. When the “British Invasion” arrived (1964), Dad felt his hit-making days were over but he had his biggest selling record (“Come Back When You Grow Up Girl”) which made it to #2 on the charts in 1967. Even so, by the early ‘70s his record company had lost interest, trends had changed, and he was no longer a “teen idol”; something he never wanted to be. Liberty Records owed him one more album.  With no support from the label, Dad went into the studio to record an album under his real name, Robert Thomas Velline with the Five Man Electrical Band.  Nothing Like A Sunny Day was critically acclaimed but, lacking support from Liberty, it came and went without fanfare. In Dad’s view, that album was as important as anything he ever recorded. For the rest of us, it’s our favorite album of Dad’s career.

            The lack of chart success began a process of slow disengagement from LA, culminating in the family’s return to the Midwest. By the early ‘80s there was a resurgence of interest in ‘60s pop/rock that allowed Dad and us to tour nationally and internationally.  Dad retired from performing on July 3, 2011 in front of 20,000 people at an annual fund-raising event we had started in 2006 called Joetown Rocks.

MM:   How many of Bobby’s children followed in his footsteps and became professional musicians? Talk a bit about the formation of Rockhouse Productions and how you, your dad, and your brother Tommy became involved in opening a studio.

JV:      The four Velline siblings grew up in a house surrounded by music, musicians, and instruments.  Dad often recorded demos late into the night on his 4-track reel to reel.  The three boys jumped from one instrument to the next until we settled on one. With Robby on guitar, Tommy on Bass and myself on Drums, we later backed Dad and other iconic ‘60s artists. Jennifer is an artist and designer who’s responsible for our promotional materials and CD artwork.

            Regarding Rockhouse Productions, I took an interest in the technical side of recording and production and studied audio engineering with the thought of helping Dad build a home studio. He did have a home studio but in 2000, Tommy and I bought a historic bank building in St. Joseph, MN and retrofitted it as a professional recording space.  Rockhouse is now home base for touring, rehearsals, booking, and event production, which is much of what we do. The place is a bit of a museum and when there’s no pandemic, the door is always open to visitors; no charge!

Jeff, Bobby, and Tommy Vee

MM:   You dad worked with Bob Dylan, James Burton, Nanci Griffith, to name a few of the greats in the business. Talk a bit about his history and association with Dylan.

JV:      In the summer of ’59 Robert Zimmerman detoured to Fargo on his way to the U of M in Minneapolis.  He’d taken a job as busboy at The Red Apple Café. Uncle Bill met him at Sam’s Record Land. Robert introduced himself as Elston Gunnn– “with 3 n’s”, told Uncle Bill he’d just gotten off the road with Conway Twitty, and said he’d had heard The Shadows needed a piano player.  “Elston” auditioned: He wowed the band with Jerry Lee riffs in the key of C. The band bought him a matching sweater, crammed him into that ’48 Ford, and they drove off to play a dance.

            Turns out “Elston” could ONLY play piano in the key of C! Whenever the band was in a different key, he’d jump up next to Dad and sing backup. “He’d stand behind me and scream in my ear,” is the way Dad recalled it.  After a few shows the band decided it wasn’t working out and they parted ways.

            A few years later Dad was walking through Greenwich Village.  In the window of a record shop he saw an album titled: BOB DYLAN. Dad’s take? “Man, that looks a lot like Elston Gunnn!”

            In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that “Bobby had a voice like a silver bell,” and “he was like a brother to me,” which touched Dad deeply. When Dylan played Midway Stadium in 2013, Dad—already dealing with Alzheimer’s—watched from the side of the stage. Dylan, who rarely speaks during concerts, called Dad “one of the most beautiful people he’d ever been on stage with …” Then he covered “Suzy Baby,” a song they would’ve played together at those teen dances. That moment meant more to Dad than any award or accolade he ever received.

MM:   I’d like to focus on two albums your dad completed later in his career. The first one is I Wouldn’t Change a Thing, which was released in 2003. Talk a bit about how that record came to be.

JV:      I Wouldn’t Change A Thing is an album we’re all proud of. We’d just finished the studio, were touring regularly, and were mostly tracking other artists work. Sir Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Lion King, etc.) dropped by the studio for a visit: He was in Minneapolis for the opening of his latest production, Aida. At my parents’ house, Tim and Dad reminisced about the “old days”. The talk turned to The Crickets and Tim blurted out: “Whatever happened to Peggy Sue?” Dad replied: “That sounds like a song!”  A few weeks later, a lyric showed up in an email from Tim. We took the words, went into the studio to write the music, and finished the song in short order. Eager to release “Whatever Happened to Peggy Sue,” we felt like we needed more than a single. I suggested we go the studio one night a week and just make music. So the “Tuesday Night Club” was born. We had no illusions about success; no timelines. The album came together organically, note by note.  It was as much about the journey as the destination.

            We wrote some tunes and others, we stumbled onto. A few are reworkings of earlier hits. Two of my Dad’s best friends in the business were Del Shannon (“Runaway”) and Brian Hyland (“Sealed With A Kiss”).  Two of my favorite tracks on the album are “Cry Myself To Sleep” and “That’s The Way Love Is”; obscure singles penned by Shannon and reworked by his buddies—Dad and Brian Hyland—in Del’s honor.

            In 1963, Dad released a song penned by Sonny Curtis of The Crickets. Though “How To Make A Farewell,” did not chart, it was a personal favorite of Dad’s. A gospel/ballad version of that song morphed out of those Tuesday sessions. On the album, it features folk singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith (a friend from Lubbock, Texas, who fancies herself an honorary Cricket) on main harmony.

Bobby Vee

MM:   The second album I’d like to get some feedback on is The Adobe Sessions. Maybe talk a bit about the trials and tribulations of working with Bobby on the album after his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s.

JV:      Our approach to The Adobe Sessions was similar to I Wouldn’t Change A Thing, though circumstances made things more urgent and challenging.  In early January 2011, Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Everyone in the family dropped what they were doing, circled the wagons, and road-tripped to Tucson, AZ where our folks had just finished building a retirement home.  I tossed portable recording equipment into the RV before we left and set up in the garage of their new adobe home after we arrived.

            In an effort to spend valuable time, support our father, and fight back against the reality of the disease, we made whatever music felt good; live and with minimal technology just like Dad did in the garage of his youth. We cut old songs from past campfires, lyrics that resonated, and melodies that made us feel good inside. We had no end game; it was about the process and being together to help Dad make music.

            “If I Needed You” was the very first track we cut. On it, you hear Dad doing his own harmonies as he did in the early days. We just kept cutting tunes from there; night after night.  The next track we cut, “The Man In Me,” resonated for all of us lyrically—and in tempo and melody as we gave it some twists. Dad sang it during his “club” shows in the ‘70s. We have fond memories of hearing it as kids and even better, it was written by Elston Gunnn!

            Most of the tracks were cut or started that first week. Then we chipped away for about a year, adding a few things here and there. The last track added is, I think, the most dynamic and cathartic song on the album. “The Maker” started in Tucson and was finished as a collaboration with monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN.

            In the end, the album’s a family scrapbook of musical memories that, though very personal, has been embraced by fans for the sweet and honest work that it is.

MM:   It’s hard to point to marital success amongst the famous. How were your parents able to keep a family together?

JV:      Our parents dealt with the same issues any marriage does: They just never gave up.  They worked at it. Touring was hard on all of us, especially on our mother, being in her twenties and raising four young children. But when Dad was home, he was 100% with us. Also, Mom finished college and graduate school and pursued her own career as a social worker and therapist.  She was a strong and driven woman who impacted many.  They were a good team. One of my fondest memories of our parents was watching them in their last years, both of them dealing with terminal illnesses, holding hands and going for walks, making the most of each moment. 

MM:   Talk a bit about you and Tommy’s efforts to keep Bobby Vee’s music alive.

JV:      As much as we try to keep the music alive, we try to keep our parents’ spirit of giving back to the community and to the arts in mind with everything we do.  

            A few years ago, we produced a show called Remembering Bobby Vee starring The Killer Vees. The musicians included folks who played with Dad over the years; family, me, Tommy, Tommy’s son Bennett, our cousin Matt, and others. “We’re like a bunch of hillbillies,” Dad used to say.  That show includes a string section, female background singers, and some phenomenal video footage. Today, we only take it out periodically.

            It’s the musical play Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story that we’re most proud of.  Collaborating with local playwright Bob Beverage and The Minnesota History Theater, we spent several years interviewing people and developing the storyline. The play premiered in the fall of 2016 playing to packed houses and receiving rave reviews.  We lost our father during the last week of the production, making the play’s success a bittersweet tribute.

            Not only does it tell Dad’s story and our family’s story: It’s a love story and a theatrical ride through an exciting yet volatile time in America. It’s my hope the show will continue to entertain and inspire across the country and the world; perhaps one day debuting in Finland!

MM:   Explain your family’s connection to charitable works, like Joetown Rocks held in St. Joseph, Minnesota where the studio is located. Seems that your family has a close connection to the Catholic faith. Explain where that connection comes from and how it’s molded your view of helping out your fellow man and woman. Were Catholic charitable values something instilled in the Velline kids by your parents?

JV:      Dad was nominally a Lutheran. That wasn’t gonna fly with Mom’s family so he converted. The Catholic faith was a factor in our upbringing, but more in a ‘70s-California-hippy-acoustic-guitar-peace-and-love sort of way. Still: Broad, Catholic values kept all of us kids in Catholic school growing up.  After we moved to Minnesota and enrolled in Catholic schools here, our parents were asked to get involved with fund-raising, bake sales, and to help out painting the band room; things like that. That’s when my parents suggested: “How about a concert?”. 

            We called it Rock Around The Clock and included daytime carnival for kids, a raffle, a concert; the whole shooting match.  Over twenty-four years the event raised over two million dollars (for the school).  It became a tradition and created memories for many. Artists who were featured included Dad (and us kids), Dick Clark, Del Shannon, The Crickets, The Coasters, Little Eva, Tommy Roe, Ben E. King, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, Brian Hyland, Frankie Avalon, Johnny Rivers, The Three Dog Night, Herman’s Hermits, Paul Revere And The Raiders, Mary Wilson’s Supremes, Little Richard, and many others. 

            My folks were strong on community and values, though not necessarily Catholic-driven.  They were liberal and open-minded; treating people the way they wanted to be treated. They sought to give something back, to support youth and the arts, and most of all, to bring people together.

            Two years after we wound down Rock Around The Clock we started Joetown Rocks since St. Joseph and Collegeville, MN, had become our stomping grounds. Meant to be first and foremost a community event, it was a parish festival on steroids. The first year we set up for 3-5,000 people: We drew 10,000. Dad played his last public show as part of JoeTown Rocks in front of an audience of 20,000 on July 3, 2011.

            Even after our parents’ passing, Tommy and I’ve kept the event alive: It continues to grow.  In 2016 we started another event, Rock 4 Alzheimer’s, to raise funds and awareness about the disease as well as fund scholarships for youth arts and music programs throughout Central Minnesota.

MM:   Looking at your dad’s lengthy, successful career in music what do you think Bobby Vee’s legacy is?

JV:      Dad received a fan letter a few years before he got sick. The sender wrote of an encounter with Dad when the fan was a young immigrant shining shoes on the streets of NYC in the early ‘60s.  Upon learning whose shoes he was shining, the immigrant told Dad he was a huge fan of Dad’s music; that he and his brother played “Rubber Ball” over and over on their little turntable.  Dad promised to return with an autographed album, but for whatever reason, didn’t make it back.  Fifty years later, not only did Dad send the guy a CD; he dug out a brand-new vinyl L.P., signed it and sent it along with a letter of gratitude.

            Dad took no thing and nobody for granted. He seemed to remember everyone he ever met, every DJ that ever spun his records, and every song he ever heard. He hung out with Elvis, performed with The Stones and the Beatles, played with Dylan and sold millions of records. He will surely be remembered for his music. However, I think the person and the father he was are his greatest legacies.

MM:   Where can interested readers of FAR find and purchase Bobby Vee’s music and find out more about this amazing Finnish American?

JV:      It’s best to go to the usual places: iTunes, Spotify, Siri, Alexa, etc … I can be reached at info@rockhousepro.com and would be happy to answer questions or chat with any Finn so inclined. We can “Zoom” now, too!

MM:   What question haven’t I asked that readers of FAR might want answered?

JV:      Like anyone who is not a Native American, the Vellines are here because of family who came before us: Immigrants who did what they did, struggled, and survived. It’s important to know your heritage and express gratitude for your ancestors. I also think that those long-ago immigrant Finns and Norwegians deserve some credit for the joy Dad gifted the world through his music.

The Author and his wife (center) visiting Rockhouse Productions with Friends.

True Colors by Kristin Hannah (2009. Griffin. ISBN 9780312606121)

Disappointing, for sure. Now, to be fair, my wife, an avid reader and a woman who actually belongs to a book club (this author does not) read this novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. I will be candid: I did not. Before you Hannah lovers out there get all bent out of shape and start throwing cyber-grown rotten tomatoes at me, let me explain something: I am a Hannah fan too!

If you type in “Hannah” in the search bar of this blog (upper right hand), you’ll find three reviews of Kristin’s work: Nightengale (5 stars and smashing); Winter Garden (4 1/2 stars and a great read); and The Great Alone, Hannah’s most recent (4 stars). So, I am not on some crusade to hack apart another writer’s efforts. I have enjoyed my fellow ex-lawyer’s efforts as listed and will do so, more than likely, in the future as well. So what, you ask, is wrong with True Colors?

First, I was completely disinterested in the personal journal entries of Noah, the troubled love-child of Vivi Ann, one of the three sisters in the story, and Dallas, a Native American bad boy with a good heart. After reading the first few entires written in Noah’s hand, I found myself skipping the rest. That’s never a good sign; skipping portions of the text a writer worked so hard to create. Turns out, by skipping one of the last pieces written by the kid in his diary, I missed the final reveal in the story. I found myself confused at the end of the tale until I went back and read the entry. Not that I was surprised: I told my wife, when Dallas went to prison for a murder he likely didn’t commit, there’d be (spoiler alert) a DNA aspect to the plot that eventually releases him from wrongful bondage. That was in the first third of this soap opera and so, even though I missed that key plot point, I wasn’t all that surprised to find it in Noah’s writings.

The ending, to me, was extremely contrived, as if the author didn’t know how to reconcile the intra-familial conflicts raging in the Grey family between the three sisters, their father, their lovers, and Noah. There’s also a very trite and superficial reckoning between Dallas and the goody-two-shoes of the town whose eyewitness testimony put Dallas in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Unlike Hannah’s later works (the three previously reviewed books all follow True Colors, the author seems to be content to let dialogue drive the story; forsaking the literary fiction traits of character and setting and complexity that make her other books so darn good. I felt like I was, at times, reading “Grisham light” with a feminine touch. That’s not pejorative: This is, when all is said and done, chick-lit and if you’re into that genre, probably a fine read. That’s not me and that’s not what I expected from an author who gifted the world The Nightengale, one of my favorite reads in the last ten years.

3 stars: Readable but not my cup of tea.

Peace.

Mark

One Writer‘s Beginnings by Eudora Welty (1983. Harvard. ISBN 067463927-8)

I always love to read what inspires other writers past and present, how they write, where their ideas come from, and so forth. I am not an English major. I do not possess an MFA in Creative Writing. I am a self-taught author who relies upon years of reading great and not-so-great novels and short fiction, personal experiences, and the words of genius that I do not possess to teach me how to tell my stories. In the past, I’ve read books on these topics by Stephen King, Anne Dillard, Anne Lamont, and a host of other well-known writers. Because Eudora Welty is one of my favorite short story writers, when I came across this title, I knew I needed to read it. I ordered my copy from Zenith Bookstore and over the course of a couple of days spent on my front porch, a place any writer from the South would likely love, I dove in.

This is really more of a memoir than it is a “how to” script on fiction writing. That said, there’s great value for any would be writer in studying Welty’s personal history as told by the author. I was one of those folks who tried, as a young writer (junior high, high school, and college) to spin yarns out of whole cloth; meaning, by complete fabrication and invention. Of plot. Of character. And yes, even of place. Hemingway’s writing was the first place I understood, in my late twenties, that fiction writing is not fabrication of story without reference to the writer’s own experiences, encounters, and life. Welty takes that principle, fiction writer as synthesizer and collector, and explains, in curt and easy to understand terms, how every fiction writer worth his or her salt borrows from life to create stories that compel and resonate. She intersperses her own life story with the invented lives and characters and settings that permeate her fictional work and does so in a way that is both expository and entertaining.

As stated in the headline, at 104 ages of nicely posited prose, I’d give this thin read five stars but for one flaw: It’s far too short!

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Peace

Mark

Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (2005. B&N. 978-1-59308-052-5)

I had never read Flaubert before I picked up this novel. I know that’s shocking, coming from someone who thinks himself as a writer at the crossroads between genre fiction (historical, mystery, thriller, et al) and high-brow literary fiction. I was challenged to examine Flaubert by literary critic, James Wood, in his classic How Fiction Works. Wood is a Flaubert aficionado and heaps praise upon Gustave as a master of realism; in fact, perhaps the inventor of that lineage of literary fiction. I stumbled upon Wood’s book and though it took a bit of time to get geared up, I finally picked up Flaubert’s classic and dug in. Here’s my take.

Madame Bovary is a difficult protagonist to like. Perhaps it’s the age she lived in and the archaic customs of her time; perhaps that’s authorial intent; perhaps that’s due to my own personal sympathies for her long-suffering husband. Though we spend much time with Emma, the daughter of a French landowner and farmer, it is Charles we meet first, in the very first chapter, and he is immediately cast as a dullard. Charles could easily be cast as the villain in this tale; one of a widower who snaps up an energetic, beautiful, somewhat distant young woman to be his second wife. But that’s not the husband’s role in Flaubert’s immorality play. I’d say morality but the author spends little time exploring the psychological and religious aspects of Madame’s engaging in serial affairs. Rather, our attention is focused almost solely upon the female protagonist’s insatiable romanticism and her attempts to conceal her financial and sexual deviance from her husband. That Charles loves Emma throughout all her deceptions, lies, and inattention to his needs, wants, and desires is a given and leads one to postulate, given all Madame’s comings and goings, that Charles is about as smart as a box of rocks. Flaubert certainly draws us into the affairs and opens our eyes to the aloofness of Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) and the emotional ineptitude of Léon (her second conquest), and gives the reader an interesting stable of surrounding characters, both familial and townspeople, from which the story made detailed and complete. And yet …

The title of this piece telegraphs that something, in my view, is lacking in this novel to make it the classic, the five-star-read, Mr. Wood advances in his thesis. That “something”, to me, is multifaceted.

First, Flaubert wastes precious words, paragraphs, and pages on drivel; by which I mean, long-winded speeches given by dignitaries and characters at various intervals during the story. Whenever I encountered such stuffy narrative or dialogue, I found myself either skimming or simply skipping ahead. Sure, I get that in any novel, backstory and other diversions from the main action and plot are needed to flesh out a tale. But much like Ayd Rand’s insertion of John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged, Flaubert’s attempts to educate the reader through such oral presentations by minor characters simply wastes a reader’s time and tries a reader’s patience.

In addition, despite Wood proclaiming this to be one of the first (or perhaps, the original novel) invoking realism, I found Madame herself, even with all her inner thoughts and emotions and musings revealed, to be a bit of a cardboard cutout. The early marital scenes between Emma and Charles devolve too quickly into loathing: Emma’s introduction to infidelity seems premature, forced, and untrue. Other than being a bit dull and unseeing, Charles doesn’t appear to be the sort of man to generate true animosity. Which leaves the reader surmising that all of the lust, all of the breaches of sanctimony, all of the turmoil caused by Emma’s fickle nature is based upon one fatal attribute: She is easily bored.

For its time, Madame Bovary brought to the forefront an aspect of contemporary French society (commonplace infidelity) that caused an uproar and, for the most part, introduced a writing style unique to literature. The plot is acceptably drawn; the settings lush and complete. The characters? Somewhat less satisfactory. But Wood is right: Flaubert is an author to be read when one is trying to craft fiction.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

The Civil War by Shelby Foote (1986. Vintage. ISBN 978-394-74622-7)

When my pal Dave Michelson handed me Foote’s ginormous three volume study of America’s War Between the States, I was daunted by the task of reading 2,846 pages of history. History that at least, in part, I was aware of. But, as in all things that Dave has suggested over the fifty years of our friendship, I acquiesced and dug in. That was last summer, before Dave, his wife Lail, and six other couples joined René and I for a two-week cruise in the Mediterranean. Well, here we are in May and I finally finished the read! To the review.

Throughout the three volumes of this study, Foote makes his southern upbringing and outlook clear despite his attempts to conceal it. He reveals, though he tries not too, a personal affinity for the Confederacy and the right of secession. No that he applauds slavery and all of its ills. He acknowledges the institution’s evils and makes it clear that slavery, upon which the entirety of the Southern agrarian economy was based, had to go. But he spends much time inside the politics of Jeff Davis and his confederates (pun intended) trying to explain how the South didn’t begin the conflict in a vacuum, how Lincoln’s election triggered secession. That, of course, is indeed true. But Lincoln’s fairly modest anti-slavery stances before Ft. Sumter were, in my humble opinion, an excuse used by the radicals in the South to attempt the unthinkable; the dismemberment of the American experiment. And though Foote paints a fairly accurate and sympathetic portrait of Lincoln as a man and leader, his dissection of Davis’s and the South’s political motivations for firing the first shot ring hollow against the one and fundamental truth: Slavery, the mass bondage of an entire population of Africans brought here against their will, was and is a sin. A sin against man. A sin against God. Many times, as the author digressed into long-winded dissertations about the politics of the Confederacy, I simply skimmed over sections to get to the action.

That’s where Foote really shines. His depiction of the military leaders on both sides of the conflict, the details of their personalities and attributes and upbringings, when placed in the context of Bull Run and Shilo and Vicksburg and Gettysburg and the fall of Atlanta and all the rest is the reason to read this series. Foote is a master of describing skirmishes and battles, including much about Texas and the Wester Front left out in slimmer versions of the war’s history, and making it clear to the reader what transpired. The horrors. The casualties. The losses of loved ones. The genius of Lee and the steadfastness of Grant when finally, Lincoln makes him the overall commander of the Union forces. The dogged determination so men like Sherman and Sheridan and Forrest and Johnston to see their missions through. It’s all here in concise and precise detail.

His portrait of Lincoln’s last months as president, Lincoln’s travels to Richmond after the Army of Northern Virginia (Lee’s army) is dispatched, and the greatest president’s final days is all supremely wrought. His depiction of Jeff Davis’s attempted escape, incarceration, and ultimate release is equally well done. The last two hundred pages of the series was worth the slog that sometimes accompanied the earlier political digressions and personal stories, all of which added color to the page but didn’t necessarily move the narrative forward.

Foote’s work here is laudatory despite the Southern winds whistling through its pages. It’s one of those rare histories written, not by the winners, but by a descendent of the losing side. It is worthy, despite its attitude and somewhat biased bent, of reading by anyone interested in the possible disintegration of our Republic.

Thanks, Dave, for getting me to read this!

Volume 3 is the best of the lot: 5 stars. As an overall review, I’d give the three-book set a rating of 4 and 1/2 stars.

Peace.

Mark

Violet and Leala: Sisters from Different Mothers

I’ve been delinquent in writing this story. Grief does that to a guy; makes things tough to wrap your thoughts around. It’s now been two months since our best girl died. It’s time I try to make sense of it all. Here goes.

She came to us on a whim. I’ve been a Lab guy since age four, when my parents bought me a black Labrador, a pup from famed Duluth dog trainer, kennel operator, and all around Lab whisperer, Joe DeLoia. Deuce I was a loving, unneutered male who never calmed down and never received any serious obedience or field training. I found him dead at age ten in his kennel. His replacement was a slightly less hyper black Labrador who died a tragic death I won’t relate here. Suffice it to say, that was the first time I experienced the loss of a pet at the behest of a vet’s needle.

After Deuce II, I had a plethora of other Labs; black and yellow and chocolate; some of whom were exemplary companions and extraordinary hunting dogs. A couple females were intentionally bred and gave our boys litters of pups to consider and love. Other Labs we owned were gun shy or bit kids or didn’t survive country traffic long enough to get acquainted with the family. There were circumstances of loss attached to many of those dogs; some perished in the night in their beds at the Munger Farm. Others needed to visit the vet to be mercifully sent off to the next world. Grief came and went, generally lasting a few months’ until a new Lab came to the farm and a new bonding experiment commenced. Truth be told, I wasn’t very good about training our dogs. It wasn’t until I bought our youngest son Jack his own black Labrador bitch, Kena (“Greatest Champion” in Celtic) that, fairly late in the game and life, I grew serious about training. Turns out, I’d matured over the six decades of living sufficient to be patient with a dog. Kena is an intelligent, kind-hearted, bear of a girl who takes to our grandchildren like the mother she wasn’t allowed to be.

In between all the pure-bred, AKC Labs we had at the house, our sons dropped off a couple of rescue dogs. Daisy, a Lab-sled dog mix who looked like a purebred black Lab but had no instincts for hunting animals with feathers came to us from a group home where Matt worked. She was the best rescue dog a family could ask for. Chris, when he was going to school in River Falls, brought home Kramer, a supposedly purebred chocolate Lab. He too was utterly useless as a hunting dog but a sweetheart who once got mauled by a bear and refused to enter the house.

But dogs age and they pass on, leaving holes in a family. René had to take Daisy in to the vet because I was out of town when the dog finally hit a marker in her life requiring mercy. Three of our four sons met my wife at the vet and said their goodbyes through adult tears. Kramer passed not too long thereafter, dying in his sleep on his bed in the garage. Kena was still with us but was showing signs of knee issues making it problematic whether she could make our family’s annual hunting trip to Ashley, ND to chase pheasants.

“You’re looking for another dog, right?” Matt asked one Friday night, the two of us talking on the phone.

“Yup.”

“Have you thought of a Brittany?”

I was raised on Labradors. I was unfamiliar with pointers, which Brittanys are. Plus, I had this image of crazed, wild, untrainable Springer Spaniels I’d encountered over the years. Once upon a time, Brittanys were called “spaniels” and sort of remind one of Springers, But that’s in error. They are really pointers, not flushing dogs.

“Not really.”

“Well, there’s a litter in the paper. Just outside of Superior.” Matt paused. “Wanna take a look?”

Understand: René was not part of this discussion. She had no idea I was looking to begin anew with another puppy. I thought a moment: “Sure, but only if they have some females.” I didn’t want to have to deal with a male puppy marking every vertical space in the house.

Matt called. “They have one female left.”

I wasn’t put off by looking at the runt of the litter. Kena was the last female in a litter of ten and turned out to be one hell of a family and hunting dog. “OK. But you’re driving. Pick me up at ten tomorrow.”

We drove and drove and drove and drove.

“I thought you said this was right outside Superior.”

“It’s by Shell Lake.”

Since my four year old grandson was in the back seat with Kena, I held my tongue. An hour later, we were at the farm. I had a check in my wallet. One look at Leala (“Faithful” in French) and I was history. (Text photo sent to René from Matt’s truck).

Kena approved as well.

I learned very quickly that the stern tone one needs to train thick-headed Labradors doesn’t work with Brits. Brittanys are sensitive, loving, and energetic dogs who need constant reassurance and outdoor time. But that pink nose and those yellow and cinnamon eyes! No Lab I’ve ever had measures up to the emotional attachment I formed with that little pup. She became Jack’s buddy as well, replacing Kena in his bed. I’m not too sure what the Labrador thought of that.

I struggled to train Leala in terms of pointing. I went on the internet, watched all the YouTube videos of how to train a Brit to point, to “hold” and all that other stuff. Thing is, the damn pup was pointing chickadees in the bird feeder and holding her point long before I figured out she was self-taught. The dog was smarter than I was.

Of course, this meant she’d bring any manner of prey to the front porch. Mice. Song birds. Dead cottontails and snowshoe hares. She brought them all and proudly dropped them at the door for her master to see. A couple of

times she managed to sneak in the house hauling a dead bunny nearly as large as she was into the kitchen. One of the proudest moments in training, where she and I worked with the eCollar and learned sit, stay, come, and hold commands, was teaching her to water retrieve. I bought a small retrieving dummy for her and tossed it a few feet ahead into snow melt in a low spot in our pasture.

Once she got the hang of retrieving in that small puddle, she was ready for the Cloquet River, which she took to like a champ. She wasn’t quite as solid on grouse as Kena but in the wide open spaces of North Dakota, watching her work a field and lock up on point, man, that was some of the greatest hunting with a dog I’ve been privileged to enjoy over my long life.

You look at her compared to Kena, who goes about seventy pounds and is built like a brick, and you wonder, “How can that little dog retrieve a rooster pheasant?” I’m here to tell you that it’s not the size of the dog, it’s the size of the heart. Leala had no problem running down a winged male pheasant, tracking it, retrieving it, and looking at me as if to say, “What’s next?”

Upland hunters understand the spiritual bond between man and dog in the field. It’s a connection that I was reminded of last fall, when I made a solo trip to Williston, ND to see my son Dylan and his family. A few weeks earlier, our annual trip to Ashley had ended in bitter disappointment. One bird for five guys and four dogs over four days. Oh, I should add here that, given the uncertainty over Kena’s knees (she’s on Ibuprofen and supplements to ward off surgery and it seems to be working) I convinced René into bringing another Labrador to the Munger Farm. Violet came to live with us in July and by hunting season, was in the field with Kena and Leala. Violet formed sisterly bonds with both her canine roommates. But whereas Kena tends to be somewhat aloof and her “own girl”, Leala, despite the constant nibbling on her neck by the puppy took to Violet. The two pooches spent much time nuzzling and cuddling. When four Mungers and an Amborn hunted Ashley last fall, we had our three dogs plus Matt’s new Labrador pup, Greta. But with torrential rains, wet and muddy fields, standing crop, and Leala being sprayed in the face by a skunk (after being encouraged to flush what Jack and I were sure was a rooster pheasant), our trip to the southern edge of the state was dismal. Which is why I decided to use my second week of hunting in the northwestern corner of the state where my son Dlyan, his wife Shelly, and their kids live.

Leala came with. The two of us hunted two and a half days and had us a time. The crops were down. We found plenty of public and non-posted private land to hunt. Plenty of birds took wing. Some I was able to hit and Leala dutifully retrieved. Many more remained free unscathed. We worked our butts off, that little girl and I, averaging eight miles a day. Until. I’d never had it happen before but Leala found a barbed wire fence and tore her leg up something fierce. Thing is, she didn’t even slow down after it happened. I caught a glimpse of blood on her white fur from across the field, called her over, and knew immediately she needed a vet. I called Shelly. She gave me the directions to the clinic. 12 staples later Leala was on the mend. But she was done hunting. Matt was coming out with René and our eldest grandson, Adrien. He was supposed to bring Greta with. He didn’t. I learned, over the next two days of dogless hunting, how much a good dog means to the whole upland experience.

I was pretty sure that the ordeal Leala endured in Williston would be the worst of what she’d experience. I was wrong.

A few months later I got up to let our dogs out to pee in the wee hours of the morning. When I went outside to call the dogs in, the scene that greeted me is one that I will never forget. My best girl was stuck, her collar wedged between Violet’s lower canines, being dragged along by the Lab. It was pretty clear to me what had happened: Violet had been chewing on Leala’s neck and got her teeth stuck between Leala’s fur and the collar. I imagine that both dogs panicked: Leala, because her airway was compromised; Violet because she had a thrashing, choking thirty pound dog hanging from her jaw. I called Violet over. She came, dragging Leala with. (This is not easy to write but there’s a point to be made about what I witnessed and what both dogs endured.) I could not disengage the dogs. I screamed for René. She heard me and came outside. I screamed for her to get me a scissors. She did. Jack, hearing the commotion, rushed to help. Though I cut the collar off Leala and spent the next ten minutes trying to breathe her back to life, it was too late.

All it took was five minutes. It wasn’t Violet’s fault. It was mine. Ignorance is no defense. But in my sixty years of owning dogs, I’d never seen anything close to what I was confronted with that morning on the banks of the Cloquet River. Never had I suspected a collar around a dog’s neck could be the instrument by which a beloved pet died. Every dog we’ve ever owned has worn a collar with his or her rabies tag and ID. No more. I learned my lesson. If I can save one dog owner from the pain and agony and hysteria I went through that morning, if someone else’s best girl lives because a collar has been removed due to my revelation, I will have done something in Leala’s memory. Something positive can come out of the most negative of episodes in a long, long history of loving and raising puppies into companions.

Peace, little girl. Violet didn’t mean it. And neither did I.

Mark

Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began by Ar. Spiegleman (1991. Pantheon. ISBN 978-0-679-72977-8)

I read Spiegelman’s first installment of his graphic novel about the Holocaust a month or so ago on the plane back from Key West. I immediately ordered the second part of the story. I am glad I did.

The artwork is tremendously moving despite this story being told through cartoons. Maybe that’s too simplistic: the entirety of this story is truly one of the first bestselling graphic novels of all time so labeling the work “cartoons” doesn’t capture the breadth and depth of the story or the depictions of Spiegelman’s struggles with his Jewish heritage, his parents’ captivity at Auschwitz, his mother’s suicide, his ghost brother’s murder in the camps, and the complex relationship the author had with his father.

Read together, the two volumes constituting Maus bring us into the most intimate of discussions between the author and his father and other members of his family with respect to his father’s zany, near stereotypical Jewish fetishism regarding plenty, money, saving, scarcity, and the like. When the last chapter is behind them, readers seventy to eighty years removed from the events depicted in this work will undoubtedly understand and appreciate the ugliness and horror of Nazi Germany conveyed through graphic artwork depicting the murdering of mice by cats in a manner that transcends time.

Stunning. Something every middle school and high school civics class should be required to dive into, analyze, and appreciate.

5 stars out of 5.

Peace.

Mark

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (2018. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-63557-434-0)

This is a book I picked up in Key West, mostly because it was written by Ms. Toews, a Canadian writer of Mennonite heritage I have read before. Her novel, A Complicated Kindness, is very good. In an act of personal kindness (pun intended) she actually took a look at the early stages of my novel, Pigs, a Trial Lawyer’s Story when she was the writer in residence at the Winnipeg Public Library and I was a member of the Manitoba Writers Guild. She made some helpful suggestions, which made the book better, and for that, I have always been grateful. Now to the headline.

No. This is not a masterpiece, nor a feminist manifesto, nor anything close. I admire the author’s attempt to use a new, or at least, fresh for her writing style, approach to telling a story. But while the premise of the story (based upon true events where Mennonite men drugged their wives, sisters, cousins, and children to have sex with them) could have been the basis for a big, bold, blockbuster tale of feminine strength, courage, and perseverance, the structure of Ms. Toew’s storytelling, casting it as reportage from the pen of a male sympathizer and being nearly entirely dialogue-driven, simply failed to grab hold and maintain my interest. This is a slender book, less than 220 pages, the sort of thing I’d hoped to be a fast read. Instead, because of the book’s writing style and the plot composition, I spent the better part of a month struggling to finish the story.

Maybe it’s the fact I’m male. Maybe it’s the fact I have writerly envy. Maybe I am a dullard and don’t appreciate art. Those things may all be true. But all I can say is that this novel did not suit my tastes, did not compel my emotions to rise and fall, and really did very little to interest me in the characters, topic, or religion behind the reality of what happened.

2 stars out of 5. But you be the judge if you wish …

Peace.

Mark

The Civl War (Vol. II) by Shelby Foote (1986. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-394-74621-0

My friend Dave gave me Foote’s trilogy about a year ago and told me I had to read it. I always do what Dave says and so, here I am, having finished the second mammoth tome in Foote’s epistle of the war that still, in many ways, defines America.

As with the first volume, this second offering in the set is chock full of memorable scenes, speeches, maps, observations, and details regarding the battles fought to preserve the Union. And as indicated in my first review of this series, Foote’s goal is an admirable one, much like my goal in writing Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story a biography of my conservationist uncle. Both works tend to be a bit long for the casual, recreational reader but with purpose: For in both works one can find essentially everything one needs to know about the topics!

Foote is a good writer who, from time to time, could have used a better editor in terms of run-on sentence structure and the reporting of minutiae that most readers, except for academics scrutinizing this trilogy, could live without and still get the gist of what the Civil War was and what it means for present day America. There are two major themes that emerge from this series. First, that the North had a series of inept commanders in the East, charged with facing off with Lee, who continually failed to seize the day and deal the Army of Virginia the death knell that may well have ended the war a year or perhaps two before Appomattox. Only when Grant takes Vicksburg, after slogging around in the swamps of Mississippi for the greater part of a year to find a way to conduct a siege, and then follows that victory up with the saving of Chattanooga, does President Lincoln finally find the man he needs to face Lee and bring the war to an end. The second theme Foote weaves into the story is the that resentment and defiance which caused the South to secede, if one listens to present day political discourse, remains omnipresent in our politics more than a century after Lee’s surrender. Nothing has really changed other than the replacing of a D besides the names of politicians with an R. Lincoln’s party in the Deep South is no longer his party: It is the antithesis of who and what he was at the end of his life in terms of unity and equality.

Like the trauma experienced by Native Americans due to genocide and removal policies, there can be no question that the devastation unleashed on the South when Grant turned over the Western theater of the war to Sherman, whose slash and burn tactics brought the breadbaskets of the South to their collective knees, still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of some Southerners. The difference? The South attempted to sever the Union, thereby beginning the conflict. The native tribes? They were simply trying to exist in ancestral lands Europeans deemed “up for grabs”. There is no equivalency between the two and yet, in many ways, both strands of our past continue to haunt us as a nation.

4 stars out of 5.

Peace

Mark

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