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.



Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (2017. Hogarth. ISBN 978-0-451-499066-6)

I can’t argue with success. Or, maybe I can. Sally Rooney is apparently the new Irish Writer in Residence, following in the footsteps of Swift, Joyce, McCourt, Carr, Delaney, and a host of others. Why do I say this? Well, in addition to making the New York Times bestseller lists for both this book and her new novel, Normal People, this young phenom is on a roll in terms of winning awards for her writing, Conversations with Friends won the Guardian’s Best First Novel award in 2017 and, two years later, Normal People, shut out of the prestigious Booker Prize (one of the most coveted awards for fiction writers), became the youngest winner of the coveted Costa Award. In fact, I picked up this novel, essentially chick lit with a 21st century minimalist vibe, after reading an excellent essay by Rooney on my go-to literature website, Lit Hub. So is this young Dubliner that good? It depends.

Conversations with Friends is a dialogue-driven examination of the relationship between Frances, the narrator, a twenty-one year old poet/student; her former girlfriend, Bobbi (essentially the same age as Frances); Nick, film star husband of photographer Melissa; and Melissa. A casual encounter between the four, long after the breakup of Frances and Bobbi, leads to Nick and Frances falling into a relationship. As they say, it’s complicated since all four have admiration, if not respect, for each other. There’s certainly some fine writing in and amongst the awkwardness of the tryst between the thirty-something Nick and the college-aged Frances. Here’s a sample of Rooney’s style, prose somewhere between Salinger and Fifty Shades of Gray. The scene occurs before Frances, experiencing abdominal pain beyond her normal menstrual cramping, suspicious that she might be pregnant by Nick, learns she may in fact be infertile:

When I looked up I saw Nick was watching me. We looked at one another for a few seconds and it felt so serious that I tried to smile at him. Yeah, I said. I love this baby. This is a great infant, ten out of ten. Jim replied: oh, Rachel is Nick’s favorite member of the family. He likes her more than we do. Nick smiled at that, and he reached over and touched the baby’s hand…She held onto the joint of Nick’s thumb then. Oh, I’m going to weep, I said. She’s perfect.

See what I mean? Nicely constructed once you get through the oddity of not separating dialogue with quotations. That threw me a bit but, like reading Ulysses and Joyce’s bizarre aversion to punctuation, I got over my pique. That’s not my complaint. Here is my beef: I read the book and never once, throughout the experience, got the sense I was in Ireland or Dublin or anywhere other than New York City or LA. I get that Rooney isn’t writing literary or historical fiction here, chock full of descriptions of character or place. But the settings are so defuse and oblique, it was like walking through a forest without a compass. I never really knew where the hell I was.

So how to gauge this story and the artistry behind it? I get that Rooney is trying to do something fundamentally divergent from what I do when I craft a story. She’s marching to her own drummer, finding her own path, chronically a new generation in a new century. And apparently others find that refreshing, daring, and intelligent. I’ll admit I was titillated by possibilities of these four sensual characters falling into bed singly or in pairs or whatever. But the four main actors in this play all seem so disconnected from love and truth and real life, in the end, I felt cheated. Maybe I’m wrong. You decide.

3 stars out of 5. But maybe I just don’t get it.


The People vs. Alex Cross by James Patterson (Little Brown. 2017. ISBN 978-0-316-27390-9)

No. I won’t. Never again. There. My review of this book is complete. Oh, alright, if I’m going to write something negative about a guy who outsells King, Brown, and Grisham combined, a writer whom King as apparently called “terrible”, I better back up my opinion with something more than an overall impression. Here goes.

My Aunt Sukie, God bless her soul, gave me this book when I was helping pack her up for her move from her cozy little farmhouse south of Two Harbors to an assisted living condo in Alexandria, Minnesota. “Here,” she said, handing me a hard cover version of one of Patterson’s newer efforts, “I liked this one. You might too.” The novel sat on my reading stack for nearly a year until, despite my penchant for literary fiction or in-depth non-fiction, I thought, What the hell…and dove in. The water was shallow. I bumped my head. In fact, I think I was knocked unconscious by the flaws in this read. There are so many, too many really to catalogue here. But I’ll let the writing speak for itself:

I could hear Bree in my head saying I had not authority here and that my time would be better spent working on my defense for trial. But I was back in the game, and who was going to tell Bree or anyone? The creep? Not a chance. The creep would want to avoid any contact with legitimate law enforcement…

See what I mean? The entirety of the book is constructed of sixth grade sentences devoid of any writerly passion or craft or beauty. You can, as Stephen King or Grisham or Brown have demonstrated, write genre fiction that also passes, in the dim light of a late night reading lamp, for literature. But that is not true with Patterson’s prose. It is flat, sophomoric, and distinctly uninteresting and unchallenging to the reader. At least to this reader. The same thing can be said for Patterson’s characters, not a one of which, including his African American detective/protagonist, Alex Cross, is revealed to be anything more than cardboard cutouts, actors being moved around by the whimsical hand of the their director.

I read on and on and on and, despite the very short chapters that Patterson is known for, the brevity of which is said to equal “pace” (it doesn’t; this thing plods along like a freight train being switched in the yard), but found, despite the curtness of scenes, the plot simplistic, unrealistic, and crafted with the same sort of clunkiness that the dialogue and characterizations are. Maybe I am an outlier, that I’m letting professional envy obscure my objectivity: after all, James Patterson has sold more than 350 million copies of his books worldwide and me, well, I’ve sold about 15,000, I thought. But no, there are others out there who’ve been reluctant to wade into the Patterson universe despite the success of films made from his Cross books (Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider starring Morgan Freeman being good, solid efforts), Here’s a link to one of the better critiques of this author’s overall craft: https://themillions.com/2014/11/first-encounter-of-the-worst-kind-on-reading-james-patterson-at-32000-feet.html. I share Bill Morris’s reluctance to ever revisit James Patterson based upon some shared opinions that, while his work obviously is being devoured by the masses, it is scant intellectual sustenance for thinking readers:

So what is this book? The best answer I can come up with is that it’s product. Merchandise. Something designed to satisfy the craving of those millions of Alex Cross readers mentioned in the dedication. And while it might be unfair of me to judge James Patterson after reading just one of his 50-plus New York Times bestsellers, I’m guessing, based on the horrendous quality of the writing in Pop Goes the Weasel, that millions of Alex Cross fans will buy the next Alex Cross novel regardless of what’s between the covers. The audience is built-in, automatic. The writing doesn’t have to be any good; it just has to live up to the expectations created by the previous books in the series. I can’t imagine a better definition of brand loyalty.


2 stars out of 5. I’ll watch movies made out of Patterson’s prose; I just won’t buy any of his books.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Mark and Harry waiting for the kid to get hitched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5.



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