The Complete Stores of Leonora Carrington Introduction by K. Davis (2017. Dorothy. ISBN 978099736648)

1 star out of 5. Terrible.

When I think of all the books I’ve read, only two stand out as being as difficult to read and complete as this one. Until I Find You, a terrible novel by John Irving, ended up in the trash before I finished it. It by Stephen King, was so horrific a story (a clown murdering children? Godawful, that!), I stopped a third of the way in. This collection of weird and nonsensical imaginations from Ms. Carrington, a surrealist painter, is in the running for the worst of the lot. None of the stories made sense. They have no enlightening or redeeming value. They have no plot, no characters of note, and no cohesiveness of design. In a word, this book is a waste of time. This collection was hyped on Lit Hub. Why, I have no earthly idea. Don’t bother.

Finn by Waino W. Korpela (2012. Korpela Publishing. ISBN 978-1-937706-06-7)

On the contrary, this little memoir/poetry collection/essay on Finnish language is a hidden gem. Not perfect, you understand, but certainly, for those studying Finnish American history and immigration, a worthy addition to your library. Korpela, who passed away in 1999, wrote an epic poem outlining Finnish history and that poem, “Song of Suomi”, is the beginning place for a reader’s introduction into his reflections and thinking on Finnishness. The poem isn’t perfect: some of the stanzas and transitions are clunky and less polished. But overall, it gives a solid, quick, fast-paced introduction into Finnish history. The notes to the poem, added as an addendum, are helpful in explaining the details that are glossed over in verse.

Korpela’s discussion of Finnish linguistics and the roots of the language takes up the middle section of the book and is enlightening, if a tad bit dry.

The final section includes short stories and poems that chronicle Waino’s life as a Finnish American child growing up on a farm. This is really the highlight of the collection and I wish he had put pen to paper more often with an eye to writing fiction.

All in all, a satisfying reading experience.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



My grandfather and grandmother, Jack and Marie Kobe, shared a vision. Jack, a Slovenian immigrant, and Marie, a school teacher born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, somehow managed to find each other. Jack grew up the son of an immigrant miner and a miner himself. When Jack wasn’t working (he was employed in a local open-pit mine at age 14), his loves were hunting and fishing. With Grandpa’s connections to the railroads, he’d hop an ore train, jump off at a favorite lake or hunting spot, and catch a train back to Aurora at days’ end. In his early twenties, Jack and his brothers built a hunting shack on the shoreline of Wynne Lake (near present-day Giant’s Ridge) proving Grandpa also knew how to swing a hammer.

Susanne Kobe Schuler, author of Back of Beyond

            Grandma Marie taught school in Aurora. She’d been lured to northeastern Minnesota by its lakes and beauty—her romantic, poet’s heart having been steeped in Service and Longfellow and summers spent with her family at resorts in northern Wisconsin. As a girl and a young woman, she dreamed of a camp surrounded by birches and pines. She met Jack on a tour of his mine. Sparks flew and they were married. Work required that the Kobe’s resettle in Duluth but Marie’s dream of having a place in the woods never abated. In 1939, after giving birth to daughters Barbara and Susanne, Marie found her Shangri-La. She and Jack purchased 160 acres of cutover land on Bear Island Lake near Ely and set about building a resort. It was to be a working man’s place: affordable, rustic, tidy, and clean. Because Jack worked as a salesman for Berwind Coal, he hired Finnish carpenters to build cabins, a fish-cleaning house, an ice house, and a small store. By the summer of 1940, the place was open for business. Marie originally wanted to name the resort “Back of Beyond” but settled on “Buena Vista” (Beautiful View) as being more appropriate.

From Left to Right: Unknown girl, Susanne, Barb, and Lizette Barber

            My mom and aunt grew up working the resort. They’d leave school in Duluth in April, finish the grade in Ely, begin the next grade in Ely, close up the resort in October, and enroll in the Duluth schools until the following April, when the cycle would repeat itself. All of the antics and heartaches and stories from the girls’ time at Buena Vista are chronicled by my Aunt Susanne in her memoir Back of Beyond. By the early ‘50s, with Barbara’s marriage looming and Susanne entering St. Scholastica, my grandparents decided to sell the resort to pay for a wedding and college.

            Over the years the resort, known as The Escape, and Timberwolf Lodge, managed to stay afloat as a no nonsense, family-oriented place.  The simple cabins built by hard-working Finns formed the cornerstone of a legacy. While working as an arbitrator in Winton, I stayed at Timberwolf Lodge with my three oldest sons and my wife, Rene’. When my eldest boy wanted to take a vacation with his family, he chose to stay in one of the original cabins at the resort. But times have been hard on small, family operated resorts. So, when I received an email from my daughter-in-law that the resort had been sold again, the news wasn’t earth shattering. What was surprising, and uplifting, and completely in keeping with my grandparents’ vision for Buena Vista is the new owner’s intentions for the place.

            The Twin Cities YMCA purchased Timberwolf Lodge (and the adjacent Northern Lights Resort) to create a family camp. The Y needed another facility in northern Minnesota to accommodate families yearning for a connection to wilderness. When I learned about the transition being planned for Buena Vista, it brought tears to my eyes. Grandpa Jack and Grandma Marie are smiling! What better use of the original cabins, forested land, and sandy beaches of the old resort than a place for parents and kids to bond with nature? I shot an email to the Y. Niki Geisler emailed me back. She’d read Back of Beyond and was excited to make contact with the Kobe family. Niki invited the family to the dedication of the revamped facility, dubbed Camp Northern Lights. It was heartwarming to find out that the camp’s main road is now known as “Kobe Drive”, that the cabins built for my grandparents are now demarcated “Buena Vista”, and that new cabins built by the Y—in a style reminiscent of those built in the ‘30’s—bear the label “Back of Beyond”.

            On May 30th, my 90-year-old-mother, my 86 -year-old-aunt, myself, and other family members—four generations of Kobe’s—were guests of honor at the dedication of Camp Northern Lights. As we toured the new facility with Y staff, Mom had tears in her eyes. My aunt, confined to a wheelchair by age and unable to take the tour, smiled broadly when asked to sign copies of Back of Beyond for folks visiting with her at the Sisu Lodge.

And as my seven-year-old grandson, Adrien, stood on a dock, the blue, crystalline, and clear waters of a border country lake rippling behind him, I knew Grandpa Jack and Grandma Marie were happy with the way things turned out.

(c) Mark Munger, 2019

An edited version of this essay first appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.

Bonhoeffer: Pator, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (2010. T. Nelson. ISBN 978-1-5955-5138-2

Marvelous. That’s the one word I’d use to describe this fine biography as well as the exemplary life lived by Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Prescient is also another word that fits here. Unlike many of the Lutheran pastors of his time, Bonhoeffer recognized Adolph Hitler, long before the Night of the Long Knives, long before the burning of books, long before the rounding up of the Jews and other “undesireables”, for what he was: evil. Unvarnished, uncontrolled, and unrepentant evil.

Metaxas takes us through Dietrich’s early life, his education, his loves, and his relationships with mentors, friends, and family: something completely expected in a massive biography such as this. But more importantly, it is the author’s painstaking recreation of his subject’s metamorphosis from pulpit skeptic of Hitler to would-be assassin, that drives this work:

I am hopelessly torn here, going to India and returning to Germany to take charge of a preacher’s seminary shortly to be opened there. I no longer believe in the university…It is high time we broke with our theologically based restraint towards the state’s actions-which, after all, is only fear. “Speak out for those who cannot speak”-who in the church today realizes that this is the very least that the Bible requires us to do?

(Letter of 9/11/34 to E. Sutz)

The use of original source material, as I did in Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story, can lead a reader to become bogged down in minutia. But the author avoids that here and, in almost every instance, the original source material clarifies the subject’s evolution from pacifist to conspirator. Even though I knew the ultimate, horrific fate that awaited this kind and genteel man for his participation in the conspiracy to kill Hitler, I found the road to that conclusion fascinating. I especially enjoyed Metaxas’s detailed revelation of the Confessing Church’s role in pastoral opposition to Hitler, to include, in Bonhoeffer’s case, being willing to take the matter further and actually plan the assassination of the Nazi leader. That principled stand is starkly different from the fawning adoration expressed by the State Lutheran Church for Hitler and his policies. “Make Germany Great Again” could well have been the catch phrase that the official church adopted as part of its creed; a creed by which pastors and leaders turned a blind eye to the truth: Adolph Hitler was not a Christian, had no love for his fellow man, and was, if there is such a being, Satan incarnate. Bringing Germany back from the bowels of desperation occasioned by the nation’s humility at the conclusion of the Great War was good enough for leaders of the state-sanctioned church to turn a blind eye to this reality.

I find it interesting that, here in the U.S., leaders of the Evangelical movement have adopted our current leader and his nationalistic, “Make America Great Again” slogan much like the state church in Germany adopted the ideas and policies of Adolph Hitler. Church leaders on the Right seem willing to ignore the fact that our current leader neither espouses nor embraces the tenets of Christianity that Bonhoeffer spoke about in sermon after sermon: piety, love of God, modesty, charity for one’s neighbor, love for those who don’t love us, and on and on. I make no claim that Donald Trump is the essence of evil that Adolph Hitler clearly proved to be. But I also think that the evidence is very clear Trump is not someone who “speaks for those who cannot speak”. Failing to understand the similarities between then and now is to miss the arc of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life’s work and his sacrifice.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



Carver: Collected Stories by Raymond Carver (2009. Library of America. ISBN 978-1-59853-046-9)

I’d always heard about Raymond Carver, hailed as the champion of late 20th century minimalism in short fiction. But I’d never read any of his work. He’s a rare animal, in terms of a fiction writer in that, so far as I am aware, Carver never completed a novel. His entire career and catalog of work, most of which is included in this volume, involves that dying animal, the short story. One of my kids gifted this book to me (at my request) for the past Christmas and it was the first of four books I read while spending two weeks on the Garden Island.

My take on Carver’s writing is, that, at times, it is simply magnificent. “The Bath” and its various permutations, “The Ducks”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, and “Tell the WomenWe’re Going” all stand up to Hemingway’s or Welty’s or Lawrence’s best. Carver is not a happy writer, writing quaint little vignettes of domestic life; few, if any, of the characters are happy or have marriages that are fulfilling, complete, or loving. There is much turmoil, likely mirroring that of Carver’s own personal life, displayed in these tales. But more than the fine storytelling held within the hardcovers of this tome, it is the side-by side comparison of Carver’s original work to the edited versions of his stories, pared down, sparse snippets of the efforts, all accomplished at the brutal hand of Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, that makes this collection intriguing to a writer like me. Lish’s scalpel is evident in many of final versions of the stories but it is most prominent in the gruesomely engaging “Tell the Women We’re Going” where two young married men chase after two teenaged girls on bicycles to a bad end. As published, the tale runs 6 and 1/2 pages. Carver’s original, a far more detailed and sinister version of the themes Lish reined in, weighs in at 13 and 1/2 pages! So the question one must ask, if we’re considering an original of nearly twice the length versus the final, edited cut of a story, Who was actually the writer, the originator of the sparse, crisp, curt writing for which Carver is applauded and lionized?

Despite the editorial quibble I raise above, a worthy addition to any reader’s library.

4 stars out of 5.

The Breath of a Whale by Leigh Calvez (2019. Sasquatch. ISBN 978-1-632178-6-3)

I picked up this beautifully bound and illustrated trade paperback at the Talk Story Bookstore, the only bookstore on Kaua’i. I was, very simply, drawn in by the cover art and the extremely high quality of the binding and presentation. That’s an interesting way to buy a book by an author you’ve never heard of, I’ll grant you. But, given that we were searching for humpback whales during our stay on the island, and given the book appeared to be about, you guessed it, humpback whales, I took a chance. I’m glad I did.

Calvez has spent her adult life studying whales, particularly the whales of the Pacific. She’s spent time along the mainland coast, in Oregon and Washington State, and in the Hawaiian Islands, mostly engaged in researching the lives and habits of blue whales, humpbacks, and orcas. There’s no question, upon reading her prose, she’s a gifted and concerned environmentalist and scientist. But more than that, she is also a gifted writer:

Blue whales can live to be ninety years old. Do they remember being hunted in the 1960s and 1970s in their historic feeding areas, so they simply don’t go there anymore? Do they remember the days when they could hear others of their kind from a thousand miles away rather than one hundred miles or so today, due to the levels of noise pollution in the oceans? Why is it they have moved closer together? Is it so that they can hear one another?

Her prose is elegant, well paced, and yet, conveys the details of her expertise without weighing down the narrative with excessive facts and science. And, she is, despite all the issues confronting whales and dolphins and their kin today, hopeful about the survival of these magnificent mammals, which in this very complex and troubled world, is in itself, a reason to read the book.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2018. Milkweed. ISBN 978-1-57131-130-6)

Richard Wagamese was, according to the back jacket of this enthralling novel, one of Canada’s great authors, indigenous or otherwise, up until his death in 2017. I picked up this book at Zenith Bookstore in friendly West Duluth (none of that Spirit Valley bullshit for this Denfeld boy!) and packed it into my computer bag for our Hawaiian vacation. I’m glad I took the novel along.

Wagamese’s character, Saul Indian Horse, begins his journey of loss, sadness, understanding, and redemption, as a boy escaping the Indian boarding school movement. His grandmother and his family take him north, into the bush, to avoid being captured by the authorities and sent off to assimilation. The early sections of the book, to my mind, recall the best of Native American mysticism and surrealism as depicted by Grover, Alexi, Treuer, and Erdrich. In addition, the author’s depiction of the world of the indigenous boarding school is fascinating, terrifying, and haunting:

St. Jerome’s was hell on earth. We were marched everywhere. In the mornings, after the priests had walked through the dorms ringing cowbells to scare us awake, we were marched to the latrines. We stood in lines waiting our turn at the toilets-dozens of them for a hundred and twenty boys. Some of us soiled our pants during the wait, because we were strapped if we left our beds at night…

Saul’s tale of woe takes a bright turn when he discovers, despite his diminutive size, an ability to both skate and put the puck in the net. Hockey, playing on a tribal team against other tribal teams, becomes the Indian child’s ticket out of hell. He lands in the arms of a loving Native family, where, for the first time since he left his grandmother, he finds love and compassion and understanding. In fact, Fred Kelly and his wife Martha, the folks who give Saul a home, know more about what Saul has endured than Saul does himself. I found the hockey section of the book to be a bit too lengthy. I wanted more detail about Saul’s alcoholism, his battle towards sobriety, and the loves of his life. That’s my only criticism of the novel: it lives a tad too long on the rink.

This would make an excellent book club selection given the themes it explores and the high quality of its prose.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr (2002. Scribner. ISBN 978-1-4391-9005-0)

Excellence. You’d expect nothing less from an author who has won a Pulitzer (for All the Light We Cannot See, reviewed elsewhere on this blog). Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we?

When the rain let up he heard the water dripping from the roof and a cricket under the refrigerator started singing. There was a new voice in the kitchen, a familiar voice, the mwadhini’s. He said, “You will be left alone now. As I promised.”

“My son…” the shell collector began.

“This blindness,” the mwadhini said, taking an auger shell from the kitchen table and rolling it over the wood, “it is not unlike a shell, is it? The way a shell protects the animal inside? The way an animal can retreat inside, tucked safely away? Of course, the sick came, of course they came to seek a cure. Well, you will have your peace now.”

Yes, the shell collector, the story’s protagonist, is blind, living on a beach in Africa, collecting rare shells, some of which have healing powers, some of which can kill a man. But there’s so much more to this tale than is revealed in an exemplar snippet. Trust me. If you enjoy great writing and revel in finely crafted short fiction, pick this one up and devour it in one sitting as I did. Bob at Zenith books recommended this one even though he’s not a short story reader. He was right to point me in the direction of the shell collector.

5 stars out of 5. Every story, a rare shell of truth…

Return to Paradise by James Michener (1951. Dial. ISBN 978-0-8129-8677-8)

Finally. After the Grisham debacle, The Reckoning, where a modern day writer began his tale of heroism in the South Pacific brilliantly, only to have it fade into nonsense at the book’s conclusion, I feel fulfilled. This collection is unique in that Michener gives us both an essay about a place (for example, New Zealand) and a short fictional story about folks who live there (such as “Until They Sail”, which happens to be my favorite piece of fiction in the book). My friend, Nancy McVean, picked this book out when she and her husband Ron were vacationing on Kaua’i and wandering around their favorite (and only) bookstore on the Garden Island. She knew I liked books about places I’ve been to and so, Return to Paradise was part of this year’s Christmas present. I’m glad she gave it to me.

Now to the critique. Whereas Grisham’s latest novel seemed to lose steam, perhaps because the author wrote himself into a corner or perhaps because, quite simply once the historical portion of the tale was complete, he lost interest in the topic (The Bataan Death March), Michener’s essays and short stories hold up well from beginning to end. What is so gratifying to me as a writer is that this effort was accomplished by one of our best in mid-career, before he engaged a cadre of researchers to do his leg work or resorted to “co-writing” with lesser lights (take note, James Patterson and others!). Here’s a sample of the type of splendid writing I’m talking about:

The days of that dreadful autumn were rainy, cold, and dismal. Barbara tried her best-in the house of five women and no men-to keep spirits alive. She baked special goodies for their teas, instituted a program of reading each night at least four poems from The Oxford Book of English Verse, but the love lyrics were so lacerating to the heart that by common consent this was stopped. And week by week, the Japs came closer…And then titanic hope burst like a mighty spring flower all across New Zealand. The 1st Marine Division landed from America, and with it came astonishing stories of equipment, superb young men, and hope.

There. Concise, tight, and well executed writing that makes an author smile. Michener’s essays set the stage for the actions, emotions, and successes or failures of his myriad characters in multiple exotic locales. From Fiji to Australia, readers are side by side with the author for a wild and wonderful trip through the South Pacific. The final essay, where Michener pontificates about the changing geopolitical nature of America’s relationship with Asia, is spot on and, in this time of Little Rocket Man and The Orange Headed One, troubling to say the least.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. A valuable and scintilating look at the islands of the Pacific.



A judge says farewell…

Before I begin my remarks, I want to thank my two Irish friends, Judges Eric Hylden and Dale Harris for putting this splendid living wake together with my wife, Rene’. Thanks as well to Barb Harris and Hannah Hylden for being willing to act as money changers in the temple. Thanks also to my dear friend and folk musician supreme, Mark Rubin and his wife Nancy, someone I’ve known since grade school, for spending time with me in their cozy home, encouraging a neophyte John Prine wanna-be to stand up here before you folks and sing. If it went badly, you can blame them! And finally, thanks to the speakers who agreed to given their perspectives on my career in the law.

Tom Olsen of the DNT got it mostly right. Disgruntled with the private practice of law, tired of clawing and digging and fighting for clients, having come close to being appointed to the bench by Governor Arne Carlson in 1992, I took the advice of his advisor on judicial appointments, Paul Anderson (later, Justice Paul Anderson), who told me via the phone that “we liked you, Mark, but you need a little more seasoning.”  I went back to the practice of law, changing law firms and enlarging my scope of work from primarily plaintiff’s personal injury and municipal law to include insurance defense, admiralty, employment, and construction law. And then, I waited. For an opportunity. A chance. To become a judge.

When Galen Wilson let it be known that he was going to serve out his term, meaning his judicial seat would be filled through popular election and not by gubernatorial appointment, I thought, “I can do this.” My wife Rene’, a smart, poised, mental health therapist agreed. She’s my rock. She’s my North Star. She’s the one I owe any modicum of success I’ve had as a father and a husband. When she gave me the green light to run for Judge Wilson’s seat, that’s all the encouragement I needed.

1,200 lawn signs, 12 parades, countless dinners and fundraisers and appearances and interviews and speeches later, the people of St. Louis, Lake, Cook, and Carlton Counties elected me to my first six year term. That was November of 1998. I shared the ballot with my 88 year-old uncle, Rep. Willard Munger, and a former wrassler. They both won too. Yes, my uncle’s name recognition helped my cause. But it was the dogged persistence of my father, Harry, and a cadre of close friends and acquaintances, including my four sons (even Jack, barely a year old at the time, worked parades from his stroller), who did yeoman’s work in putting up those lawn signs and getting out the word. Thank you, guys and gals, for all the sweat and hard work you invested in a forty-three year-old lawyer who thought he could be a decent judge.

Three folks deserve special recognition for helping me during that first election. The late Bob Scott, long an icon of behind-the-scenes DFL politics, was my Iron Range campaign chairperson. He made sure that I attended every noteworthy event on the Range to solidify my support in the northern half of St. Louis County. His son John admirably performed that same role here in Duluth and, as my overall campaign manager, worked his tail off to see his fishing buddy and personal lawyer attain victory. And finally, my longtime friend, Bruce Larson, the CFO of Best Oil Company, kept the books and made sure that I didn’t violate any of the quirky finance rules attendant to running a judicial campaign.

As the DNT article said, I was a bit headstrong as a young judge, pretty sure of myself and my ability. I quickly learned, while serving half-time in Carlton and half-time in Duluth my first two years on the bench, I may have known the law but I knew nothing of justice. I thought, as Tom Olsen accurately reported, that becoming a trial judge was just another job opportunity. Within a month of hearing cases, I knew that assumption wasn’t true. Being a trial judge is finding yourself in the midst of people’s stories and lives. It entails far more nuance and fortitude and discretion than any other legal position I can think of. It took a while for this headstrong former litigator to get it. But I did, at least, I hope I did.

To all of the law enforcement officers and probation officers and social workers and Guardians who appeared in front of me, I hope, despite our occasional disagreements, you came away knowing that I took your testimony and opinions to heart. I hope I always treated you as professionals, doing hard jobs for little pay and scant appreciation. Thank you for your service.

To the myriad clerks who work all aspects of the courts: you are the foundation of what we as judges do. You are the public’s first interaction with the system of justice and are required to deal with folks who are angry, frustrated, scared and quite frankly, at some of the lowest points in their lives when they come to court. And to the supervisors and administrators and support staff who work behind the scenes to make the Sixth the best and most innovative district in the state, I thank you as well. Your patience in seeing justice done is much appreciated.

Our security staff and transport staff, from my first Bailiff, Cathy Brown, whom I called Betty for my first two weeks as a judge until she got up the gumption to correct me, to George and Jeff and Becky and all the others working in the sheriff’s office who provide protection and order during court: You folks are on the front lines, dealing with upset citizens whose lives are in turmoil, handling tumultuous court sessions with a fair but firm hand.

You know, judges have two important employees they hire and manage. Over the years, I’ve been blessed with 11 bright young men and women who worked for me as law clerks. These are young attorneys who’ve graduated from law school and are trying to find their professional niche’. They provide legal research for the judge, prepare jury instructions and orders, and attend every contested hearing or trial, learning aspects of the law and lawyering you can’t learn in law school. My thanks to: Rebecca Eisenmenger, Megan Preblich, Heidi Murtonen, Stacy Johnston, Jen Claseman, Jon Holets, Ben Hanson, Rachel Bell, Kory Horn, Ellen Anderson, and Peter LaCourse for all your hard work and dedication in helping me make the right calls.

The other employee judges hire and confide in is their court reporter. Over twenty years of judging, I worked daily with two fine, young women who were my sounding boards and my other mental health therapists day in and day out. Their job is far more than keeping an accurate record of every court proceeding: they are, along with the law clerk, some of the only folks judges can confide in when weighing difficult decisions. But whereas law clerks come and go on a regular cycle—the position being an apprenticeship—court reporters are there for the long haul. Renata Skube was my first CR. She served our district for over twenty-five years, teaching this new judge, during our fourteen years together, what real justice should look like. Never shy about telling it like it is, this half-Finn, half-Slovenian firebrand made me a far better judge than I would have been on my own.

I finished my time on the bench presiding over two lengthy murder trials, one of which took me to Brainerd for the last month of my career. Deb Dreawves, my second court reporter, was by my side that entire month away from home. Much different in personality from Skube, but every bit as willing to share her thoughts when this judge was headed down the wrong path, I’ll miss our discussions of cases, families, life, and the Orange Headed One, Deb, that we shared these past 6 years. You are a blessing and the right person to work with me into retirement. And to all the other CRs who worked with me when my regular CR was off sick or on vacation, you too deserve appreciation for jobs well done, especially when reporting a motor mouth like me!

Finally, I want to acknowledge that, over my two decades of judging, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to count on a cadre of smart, dedicated, wise, and sometimes playfully weird brother and sister judges throughout the 6th district. I’ve been able to call upon each of the judges I’ve served with, from my first chief judge, John Oswald, to my last chief, Sally Tarnowski, for support and guidance, both personal and professional, as the need arose. Judging is, as my friend Carol Person once warned me before I took the oath, a lonely job. Having colleagues willing to hash out issues in a confidential setting, whether they are case related or not, makes the job bearable. Without brother and sister judges willing to step in and take calendars during the last illness of my stepfather, or after the sudden death of my father, such tragic occurrences would have been magnified and intensified by the stressors of judging. You all pitched in and helped and for that, I am forever grateful.

You know, I once wrote in a DNT essay that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Every person of prominence or success, in whatever field, stands on the shoulders of his or her family and friends, teachers, coaches, and other mentors. I’ve had so many folks, including my mother, Barbara, my father, Harry,  my brother Dave, my sister Ann, my wife Rene’, and my four sons: Matt, Dylan, Chris, and Jack gift me with their love and nurturing and guidance, I am who I am because of them all.

So, to those who helped tutor and instruct and mentor and mold me during this forty-year journey, from serving divorce papers my first year of law school to drunks in the bars of South St. Paul, to taking the verdict in the case of State v. Davenport, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. As Warren Zevon, one of our greatest songwriters—about the only thing Jesse and I ever agreed on— said: “Make us be brave, and make us play nice. And let us be together tonight.”

God loves you. And so do I.

Grandpa with Adrien, Ari and Avery his last week of work.
Bridger Bowl, Bozeman, Montana

John Myers sort of stole my thunder. Now, before you get all upset with me, I’m not blaming a fellow scribe for pilfering a story idea. John came up with his storyline all on his own. Nothing nefarious. On that, I need to be clear. And damn, as I said in my post on Facebook, he did a marvelous job reporting the genesis and longevity of the Ski Hut’s annual trip to Bridger Bowl in Montana. Exceptional feature story, is what I’d say. But here’s the thing: I was thinking, while riding the chairlift at Bridger this year, my left knee bone on bone from 44 years of racing, moguls, too much Munger girth, and old age, my low back screaming from just below where I had a spinal fusion 30 years ago, Man I should write an essay about this trip. How family oriented, how friendly, how laid back, how multi generational the whole vibe is. I was pretty sure I’d sit down some morning after I returned from the fifteen hour car ride across Montana and North Dakota and Minnesota to tackle the story. Until.

Back home, catching up on my newspaper reading in my easy chair (after digging out from the big snows God “gifted” us while we were gone) I learned I was too late. “Damn it,” I muttered, loud enough for Rene’ to hear, “the DNT beat me to the punch.” My wife looked up from a stack of crossword puzzles (all clipped by yours truly from the same stack of newspapers I was wading through) and said, “Oh?” “John Myers wrote a nice article about the annual Ski Hut trip.” Not wanting to appear to be a whiner, I posted a link to the piece on FB and advised Rene’ that she “really needed to read it.” She did: she enjoyed it as much as I did. I also posted that I wouldn’t be writing anything about the trip because, well, because it had already been handled. But here’s the thing: after thinking it through, I figured maybe folks might appreciate an essay written by someone who’s been on 12 of the last 15 trips (that’s an estimate; don’t quote me on it). So here goes.

After a short stop in Williston, ND to see our son Dylan, his wife Shelly, and our two-year-old granddaughter, Saxon, we resume the long grind west in the Jeep. We left Duluth in sub-zero cold on Friday morning and arrive at the Comfort Inn in Bozeman, the hotel Wes Neustal and his son Scott (of Ski Hut fame) have reserved rooms for 150-200 Duluthians and their friends for over twenty years, late Sunday afternoon to the same Arctic freeze we left behind. Here’s the thing about the Comfort Inn. No, it’s not slopeside. It’s a half-hour drive to Bridger Bowl from the hotel. But it’s cheap (thanks to preferential rates Gene, the owner charges his friends from Minnesota), has a spectacular complimentary breakfast, is close to all of Bozeman’s shopping, eateries, and places of libation. Plus, it’s only an hour to Big Sky, if one is so inclined. But this is, in all respects, a family trip. That’s how Wes Neustal and his late wife Shirley conceived of the event; setting it during President’s Week so school-aged kids can join their parents and learn the joys of real mountain skiing. Scott and his wife, Kathleen, and the staffs of the Ski Hut and the Comfort Inn, have continued this tradition in spades.

We have four sons. One year, we convinced all four, (along with their wives and children) to make the trip. That was a highlight for Rene’ and I: having all four of our boys in the mountains, skiing as a family. This year, only Matt, our oldest, his wife Lisa (a non-skier but a trouper none-the-less) and their three kids; Adrien (6), Avery (3) and Ari (1) joined us. They got a late start thanks to the God-of-all-things in Minnesota: youth hockey. So Rene’ and I take to the hills at Bridger on Monday without them. It is, as I’ve said, below zero. But such weather can’t daunt rugged Duluthians, right?

-8F at Bridger but who cares?

Matt and Lisa and the kids arrive on Monday evening. My sister Ann, her husband Dave, and their two lively, lovely teenage daughters, Maddie and Em, have already skied a day by the time the rest of us arrive. The girls, who alternate between snowboarding and skiing, stick to skis in the high mountains. More control and with that, the possibility of outback treks to the very top of the mountain. The families take their time getting to the hill. But by noon, the main lodge at Bridger is full of Minnesotans recounting their downhill exploits, chattering away in faux Canadian to the amusement of the Montanans who’re also braving the cold.

Matt and Lisa’s boys take lessons, though Avery is a reluctant student and learns more from his Auntie Ann, his cousins Maddie and EM, and old Grandpa, than he does from the professionals. On the other hand, Adrien proves to be not only an adept student but a natural athlete. After one lesson, he’s ready for the blue runs: the steeper intermediate terrain. So I take him to the top of Pierre’s Knob.

Adrien on Pierre’s Knob

Avery on the main slope after lessons with Grandpa and Annie

Wednesday, we take a break from the cold and introduce Adrien to cross country skiing at the Cross Cut facility just up the road from Bridger. Again, he takes to it like a duck to water. We put in three plus miles on beautifully groomed trails and get in, as Rene’ likes to say, “our steps” for the day. Afterwards, we drive with Matt and the two boys to Chico Hot Springs in Paradise Valley, about an hour’s trip from Bozeman, to laze around in the naturally heated outdoor pools of the spa. We join a throng of other Duluthians-including my sister’s family and her friends-under an open blue sky. After a long soak we attempt a family picture outside the Chico Saloon. Avery is having none of it. “But Grandpa, I hate pictures,” he whines. Grandpa says: “Get in the picture or no skiing tomorrow for you.” So I guess what you see below is the Munger version of a compromise.

Avery’s attempt at “cooperation”

On the drive back to the Comfort Inn, as Matt’s Tahoe speeds along Highway 89, a memory-one that will never fade-is made. I’m looking at oodles of deer, some of which are standing on top of giant, round hay bales munching away. It’s an odd sight, to be sure, to see deer grazing ten feet above frozen ground. But that’s not the memory I’m talking about. A small stream, open due to the warm waters of the valley’s geothermal properties, follows the course of the highway. Or rather, the roadway follows the stream. In any event, out of the corner of my eye, I see something remarkable, astonishing, and, quite frankly, inexplicable. A deer has launched itself over that stream, soaring a full eight feet above water, attempting to leap from bank to bank. I see what I think is another deer trailing the lead animal. But then my brain recognizes the scene for what it is: prey and predator, a death struggle in mid-air. The second animal lashes out with its right paw. It’s then I note the long tail, the laid back ears, the feline face, the distinctive markings. “It’s a f_____ing cougar!” I blurt out, forgetting my two grandsons are with Rene’ in the back seat. I’ve never seen a mountain lion outside of a zoo. I’m beyond excited by the drama playing out in that stream bed as the Tahoe speeds past. I have no idea whether the deer made the leap or not. Matt’s attempt to stop the car and return to the scene is for naught.

It looked a lot like this…

My wife and I avoid injury. We eat well, drink a few adult beverages, laugh a lot, tell tall tales, and bond with family and friends on the hill, in the Bridger lodge, and during apres ski time; the Ski Hut hosting a banquet where “fabulous” prizes, including some Munger books, are awarded in a drawing. And then, it’s Saturday morning. We pack up the Grand Cherokee and head home.

As a teenager, I grew up traveling to the Rockies to ski. My mom and dad brought me with them on a number of trips sponsored by the Continental Ski Shop in Duluth to Colorado. Despite being an alpine racer, it was on those trips that I really learned the sport.

The author, Kirk Vesterstein, Dr. Mark Neustal, Scott “Potter” Neustal, and Scott Vesterstein at Snowmass, circa 1970.

Mark racing, circa 1972, Snowmass.

But the beauty, the joy, the family-oriented aspect of these Ski Hut sponsored trips, the brainchild of Wes Neustal-the 98 year old patriarch of this fine tradition-is that we all, related by blood or not, are family. It’s that simple. What a wonderful idea in this time of controversy, arguing, mean spiritedness, and discord.

So, with apologies to Mr. Myers, that’s my report from the road. Until our next visit to Bozeman…



Ari Munger can’t wait until she joins us on skis!

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018. Putnam. ISBN 978-0735219090)

Yes. I agree. I’ll keep this review short. I applaud Ms. Owens for creating a memorable character, providing us a vibrant, natural setting for her tale, and, with one minor exception, executing a nearly perfect debut novel. This is the second novel that Rene’ and I listened to on Audible during our long drive from Duluth to Bozeman.

Those reviewers who bemoan that the protagonist, Kya Clark, pejoratively known in her rural North Caroline coastal community as “The Marsh Girl”, and her backstory (being abandoned at age 7 and living on her own in the marshes and swamps of her backyard) is unbelievable as a character-that her survival is too trite, too unrealistic-miss the beauty of Owens’s writing and her request of her readers. Which is: that we suspend our cynicism and skepticism, all too apparent and distracting in this Topsy-turvy modern world, and simply enjoy a morality tale. I found her writing well-crafted, her storytelling exemplar, and her characterizations, including that of Kya, remarkable.

My one criticism of Ms. Owens is that her setup of the legal proceedings against The Marsh Girl (for allegedly murdering her lover; one of the town’s football heroes and local legends) rings hollow. The author simply doesn’t support the conclusion that, even in rural North Carolina in the 1960s, a sheriff and prosecutor (and ultimately, the trial judge), would plow ahead with a capital murder charge against a white woman on such flimsy (really, nonexistent) evidence. I get that the world’s against Kya; that she’s The Other despite her white complexion. But really? There’s simply no way, on the skimpy premise advanced as probable cause, any reputable legal system, even one composed of racist, simple minded locals in a southern state, would force the case presented by Owens to trial. No way.

But the remainder of the writing, the story, and the plot twists all ring true. So I will forgive the author if, as a non-lawyer, she didn’t get all the procedural or evidentiary matters lined up to support her protagonist’s brush with old sparky. After all, even Grisham doesn’t always get it right! (See my review of his his most recent, The Reckoning, on this blog for details.)

Solid literary fiction with a protagonist nearly as memorable as Scout.

4 stars out of 5.



The Reckoning by John Grisham (2018. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0385544153)

On our semi-annual road trip from Minnesota to Montana to ski Bridger Bowl, my wife and I listened to two new novels. She started listening to Grisham’s latest, The Reckoning, on Audible during her daily walks along our rural country road. But winter set in and she never finished the book. So, we plugged in and, as we drove, we listened to this story of Pete Banning, the quiet, unwilling anti-hero of this tale.

The beginning segment of this long read (or listen) is set in rural Mississippi, on a family cotton farm and in the small town of Clanton. Pete Banning and his sister each own a section of land willed to them by their mother. Before WW II, Pete farmed both sections with the siblings splitting whatever profits were obtained by his efforts, mostly involving cotton and the manpower of Black workers who live on and work the land. When WW II breaks out, Pete, a West Point grad who left the Army for the family farm, does his duty, enlists in his old cavalry unit, and is shipped off to the Phillipines to fight. The book opens with Pete, a devout Methodist, preparing to murder and then murdering, his pastor. After the deed is done, the protagonist doesn’t resist apprehension by the local sheriff and says “I have nothing to say.” Banning maintains his silence as to motive throughout the legal process. It becomes quickly apparent that the plot of the story is not “who done it” but “why”. Grisham does a fantastic job with this noir legal writing (the timeframe is post-war, 1947) making the investigation, trial, and execution of Pete Banning gritty, realistic, and believable. Because of what I thought of the other two sections of the book, I will rate the story in that light, giving this first section a solid 4 and 1/2 stars. The writing’s a departure from the author’s usual formula for which he deserves credit. And as he did in A Painted House, this noir portion of the novel includes serious, literary writing.

The second “book” within the novel is even better. It’s all backstory about Pete Banning’s service in the Phillipines. Turns out, Pete returned to Clanton, Mississippi after having been in combat, captured, tortured, escaped, and having fought for a ragtag guerilla force in the mountains of that Pacific battleground. Grisham is spot on here as a writer of historic fiction, a huge departure from his normal grist, and I’d rate the second section of the story, one that will bring chills to your spine and tears to your eyes, a solid 5. It includes some of this author’s best writing.

But. And I am saddened to say this. There is a ‘but”. So Banning is gone, leaving behind his portion of the farm, land that, before he killed the preacher, he tried to protect by putting in his children’s names. Much of the final section of the book, which deals with the aftermath of Pete Banning’s death and the reveal of the “why” behind the killing of the preacher is simply filler; word after word describing a legal process that, eventually, leads nowhere in terms of plot or interest. Grisham returns to the writing style and landscape (the civil courtroom) he knows best but, in the process, bores the ever-loving shit out of his readers (or listeners). But, and this is not the biggest but of the tale, it’s his reveal of Banning’s motivation for murder that ultimately fails as a plot device. Why? I guessed all of the details behind Pete Banning’s motivation for the deed after listening to the first section. There’s really no mystery here in terms of the killer’s reasons for wanting the preacher dead. The impeteus for the murder was, to me, no surprise. But, and this is the biggest but of the novel, that’s not the worst of it. At the last minute, out of the blue, Grisham tosses in a twist, a reveal, that has no predecessory basis other than one or two banal references earlier in the story. After likely over 100,000-plus words, we, the readers (or listeners) are expected to remember a tidbit of information provided dozens of chapters ago upon which we will agree to suspend our disbelief. No. Doesn’t work. And for all these reasons, I rate the final section of the story a paltry 2, far below even this author’s worst.

So what is this novel anyway? Is it crime noir? Is it a genre legal thriller? Is it a historical novel? Is it literary fiction? Up until the last segment of the book, I would have leaned towards saying that his is a literary work, with historical elements, and that it was likely John Grisham’s best. The first two sections solidify Grisham as a great storyteller. The final segment? It falls so flat and is so filled with such dullness and writerly chicanery, it leaves one angry that the author chose to return to form, and in the process, ruined a lovely, lovely tale.

I can’t rate the overall effort above 2 and 1/2 stars despite the majority of the book being a compelling read.

2 and 1/2 stars. A major disappointment.



Iron and Water by Grant J. Merritt (2018. U of MN Press. ISBN 978-08166-7881-5)

Oh boy. I ask an author to sign two copies of his book, one for me, and one for a friend who worked with that author when they were both in government. I give the one away as a gift. I read the other full of expectation and hope. I end up disappointed. The question then becomes, since I once interviewed the author, the former head of the MPCA (as one of the 23 interviews I conducted when writing Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story) and the author is an acquaintance of mine, do I just keep fingers off the keyboard and not write a review? Or do I try to distill what I’ve read and leave it to you, the reader, as to whether or not you want to pick up the book and give it a try? I guess, if I’m going to be honest with myself, it’s the latter. Here goes.

My problems with this attempt at environmental memoir are multiple. First, Iron never settles on a genre. At times a memoir of the author’s early life in Duluth, his career as a litigator, and his legacy as the head of the MPCA (and as an environmental activist), the theme of the story never crystallizes so that the reader understands which genre he or she is reading. While the author renders a brief history of his family (the Merritt Brothers who famously found, then lost, their fortunes on the Mesabi Iron Range) that familial introduction is only a tease. Since this is billed as a memoir (the book’s back cover proclaims such), the lack of depth and personal details regarding the writer’s own life, juxtaposed against the family history, leaves the reader feeling short-changed. This deficiency is further complicated by the last few chapters, when Merritt returns to his own life and regales us with stories from his beloved Isle Royale, the national park where his family still maintains an historic camp. Is this a story about the author’s famous ancestors, the way they were ill-treated by the legal system and lost their fortune, and Merrit’s own life, or it something else? I was never sure.

Additionally, the main gist of the non-memoir portion, a rendering of the Reserve Mining case and other environmental challenges Merritt faced as head of the MPCA and as an activist, lacks the clarity of authorial distance. Why do I say this? To my ear, as I read this portion of the story, one comes away with a belief that the author pretty much took on the challenges of Reserve and issues of water and air pollution, solid waste disposal, recycling, and the founding of state parks with little to no help from others. There is far too much of the “I” in the story and far too little of the “we”. A perfect example, and this might seem like I am evoking familial umbrage on the point (which I am!), of how the author shortchanges the involvement of others in these fights is that, in the 198 pages of this book, the man who authored every single major conservation and environmental bill in the Minnesota House from 1954-1999, Mr. Environment himself (Rep. Willard Munger) is granted one brief appearance in the story (on page 87) which references Willard’s stand against additional nuclear power plants in Minnesota. That’s it? So the 400 plus pages of Willard’s own biography is simply fluff? Yes, I’ll readily admit that I have a personal stake in my uncle’s legacy. So there is that. But when retelling the 1947 battle between Reserve and the United Northern Sportsmen over the taconite plant’s original permit to discharge tailings into Lake Superior, how can one not inform readers that Willard Munger was the president of that organization for at least a portion of that battle? Inexplicable, is my thought. And not letting readers know that Willard, a DFLer who needed union support to continually be re-elected, was the public official most clearly on the firing line when he supported (against union opposition) a container deposit on bottles and cans, is a similar flaw in relating that chapter in Minnesota’s environmental history with accuracy.

My last criticism of the book deals with where this critique started. Is it a memoir? Is it a history of the Reserve case? Or is it, as it seems to devolve after the Reserve story has been told, an environmental policy guide for future generations? I can’t say. The disjointed approach of this slender volume, beginning with family history, unveiling environmental stories and Merritt’s activism in the middle, and then returning to family history and tales of Isle Royale, displays a lack of serious editorial control over the project. I went into this read with great hope that Mr. Merrit would relate his family’s story and his own part in Minnesota’s environmental history in a dramatic, fair, and concise way. I came away disappointed, in part because the tale is told in such a disjointed and non-linear fashion.

3 stars out of 5. The writing isn’t bad; the execution of the story left me scratching my head.



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