Strangers in a Strange Land by John B. Simon (2019. Hamilton. ISBN 978-0-7618-7149-1)
I had never heard of this author or this title until I found myself invited to be part of a panel at this year’s Finn Fest in my hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. I did a quick Google of my other panelist and the moderator and that’s how I came to know this book. John B. Simon and I will be sharing our experiences regarding Finnish and Finnish American fiction in Duluth at the DECC on July 28 at 10:30. The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Suzanne Matson, Finlandia National Foundation’s Lecturer of the Year for 2023. I’m humbled to be in such company. But being asked to participate made me want to know and understand Mr. Simon’s work, which includes this title. So I ordered a copy of Strangers and dug in.
Three young Jews, Benjamin, David, and Rachel, all full citizens of Finland at the beginning of the Winter War, form the key characters for the fictional portions of what Finland’s Jews experienced during the Winter War, the Continuation War, and the Lapland War, spanning 1939-1944. I say fictional portions because the format of this book is not simply another war novel. Interspaced with Simon’s depictions of the day-to-day lives, loves, travails, and successes of the three fictional characters (and their families) is a non-fiction historical narrative that educates the reader, in a very flawless and succinct way, about the Jews of Finland: their history, struggles, and enduring legacy. Never more than a few thousand souls, it would be wrong to judge the importance of a religious minority such as the Jews of Finland based upon size alone. This is especially the case when, as Simon portrays things, Finland’s Jews appear to be pawns in a tripartite political game of chicken between Finland, its traditional backer, Germany, and its former imperial master, Russia in the guise of the Soviet Union.
At first, as I struggled to get my bearings in this unusual book, I found myself questioning the author’s artistic choice, to create a hybrid of story and history, rather than a book that was one or the other. But as the narrative of the non-fiction unfolded and the lives of the three protagonists came clearer into focus in relation to events being depicted, I thought, By Jove, he’s done it! What was very interesting to me, as a writer, was the fact that many aspects of my own historical novel, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, are set in the same time frame as this work and cover much of the same ground, including the choices made by Finland and Estonia before and during the wars depicted, as well as the fate of eight unfortunate, foreign Jews who were dispatched from Finland to the Gestapo. We are vastly different writers and yet, I came to respect Mr. Simon’s retelling of that story in ways that I had not expected.
If you are interested in history, Judaica, Finnish history, or the less-well-known aspects of WW2, and are also a fan of well-drawn characters and fictional narratives, you will like this book. I certainly did. I look forward to meeting the author and trading stories about writing fictional accounts of Finns and their history.
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith (2017. Audible. ISBN 978-1439140246)
So, this was another book I “cheated” on as a book club assignment. I listened to most of this while walking the track at the local YMCA and finished it listening in my car. The seminal question, given I’m in the process of tackling my own Holocaust novel set in Slovenia during WW2 (with scenes set in Croatia, Poland, Norway, and Austria as well) is this: Does the world really need another novel about the destruction of Europe’s Jews? The answer is a qualified “yes” and this book meets my qualification.
Smith has given us a story set in Venice, and unravels an uniquely interesting and unexplored peek into the Holocaust during the last days of German rule during the time-frame of Mussolini’s fall, capture, and death. The story’s main protagonists are as follows: Cenzo a reluctant Italian soldier who comes home to resume his life of a fisherman after being discharged for refusing to use poison gas on African villagers; Guilia Silber, the always in jeopardy, obligatory Jewish beauty; and Giorgio, Cenzo’s actor brother who is at times, his brother’s foil and at times, his savior. There are a host of other minor characters who populate the tale but the plot rests upon the well-muscled, strong shoulders of Cenzo. The plot is engaging. The historical details are well researched, well placed, and don’t bog the story down. And the action is unrelenting. My only critique is that Cenzo, supposedly a somewhat downtrodden, ignorant fisherman, speaks and thinks more like a college professor, making him Giulia’s equal, than like a peasant. But that aside, I loved the read and would recommend this book to other book clubs not exhausted by the plethora of Holocaust books (hopefully, mine included) that have been released in the past decade.
My qualification for a new read based upon the Holocaust to be worthy of a read is that it cover new ground regarding that topic in engaging and riveting fashion. This book meets that requirement.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5
The Long Norwegian Night by O.M. Magnussen and Kaare A. Bolgen (2013. Fern Hill. ISBN 978-1-48403244-2)
This book is actually an English translation of a memoir by Norwegian POW O. M. Magnussen, a member of the Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation of Norway during WW II. Bolgen includes Magnussen’s original artwork, drawings done on scraps of paper by Magnussen in various prison cells and concentration camps where he was interned during his long incarceration. The main reason I purchased this book was as background for a novel about the Holocaust and its aftermath in the Balkans that I’m currently researching and writing. One of my characters in my novel is transferred from Croatia to Norway, arriving at the Falstad Labor Camp, before being sent to Grini, another concentration camp run by the SS and its Norwegian counterpart, and a camp that Magnussen spent time at.
I’ll be candid: I tore through this memoir in a few days, reveling in the details and the storytelling that make it a very captivating read. As with my review of The Girl From Venice (above), as I write a fictional rendition of what Yugoslavians went through during. the war, including brutality against Jews, Roma, Serbs, Communists, and others by the Ustaše (Croatian Fascists), the seminal question I ask myself is: Does the world really need another Holocaust novel? The answer, so long as it covers new and unique ground is “yes”. This book satisfies that requirement. It’s also well written and engaging though, given it is one man’s experience at the hands of the Gestapo and the SS, it’s of limited scope. For my purposes, it was a fine addition to my research and anyone who has an interest of what took place in Norway during the war would be well served to pick up a copy and read it.
“INCREDIBLE book. As a Minnesota gal with Finnish ancestry and relatives from Michigan that moved to Minnesota. It felt as though this could have been one of my ancestors. Beautiful storytelling and realistic representations of life during the era of the book. Lovingly careful with the personalities and immigrant stories. I loved it! I gave it to my mom to read, she loved it. I gave it to my dad to read, and he loved it!”K. Ferrier
Hope to sell a few of these, along with the other two installments in the Finnish American Trilogy, at Finn Fest! See you there.
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The Kids Are Gonna Ask by Gretchen Anthony (2020. Park Row. ISBN 978-0-7783-0874-4)
My title says it all. I did not toss this novel in the trash as I did one of John Irving’s worst. I did not stop reading 100 pages in (though I should have) as I did with one of Stephen King’s worst. I soldiered on, despite my doubt at where the plot and the characters of this read were headed. I shouldn’t have plowed ahead. I should’ve stopped.
This is the tale of two adolescents who, having lost their mother to a horrific accident, and never having known their father (the family lore is that they were the offspring of a one night skiing trip/romance that took place when Bess, the mom, was in college), use modern technology (a podcast) to search for Dad. Along the way we learn that these kids ain’t starving, uncared for, unloved, underprivileged kids. No. They live with their maternal grandmother Maggie who really doesn’t know much more about Dad than the kids do. Maggie is a person of means. She has a chef who prepares all the meals for the household. Let that sink in. How in God’s name are we supposed to have any sympathy or find any empathy for two orphaned kids when they have it all, they live as One Percenters and don’t really, other than sadness over their mother’s death, have a care in the world.
This is, in a word, a terrible read. I didn’t find the plot structured or compelling. The issue of absent dads is, for sure, a real issue in modern-day America. But it turns out that Jack, the father, isn’t a deadbeat or an asshole: he was just never told by Bess he was the father of twins. The two main protagonists, the twins Thomas and Samantha aren’t endearing, or memorable, or really even crafted in a way one cares whether they find Dad or not. Same thing for every other character in the book, including the “antagonist”, Sam, a get-rich-off-the-kids-media mogul who isn’t really scary or evil or anything much other than annoying.
I stand corrected. Jack, the dad, is somewhat interesting, at least as it concerns his occupation as a charter fisherman, being a drunk, and as a lost soul. In fact, come to think of it, this would have been a much better book if it was told from his frame of reference throughout. Then, perhaps, maybe, there’s a story to captivate readers and tackle modern day issues of absent parents, privacy, and instant media.
Sadly, this book, a book I “won” during the dice game at Christmas, should have stayed in it wrapping paper.
2 stars out of 5. Don’t waste your time like I did.
Pedaling on Purpose by Ken Rogers and Steve Anderson (2008. Inspirit. ISBN 978-1-60461-634-7)
Another “read” loaned to me by my friend, Ronaldo. It’s actually not his book but one he borrowed from mutual friends. The book is personally signed to those folks so I’ll need to get it back to Ronaldo so he can return it.
The authors, Rogers and Anderson, decided, really on a whim, to support the Minnesota chapter of the Make a Wish Foundation (an organization that funds wishes for severely ill children) by bicycling into (not through) all 48 contiguous states of these United States of America. The authors pedaled through rain, snow, sleet, heat, cold, bugs, dogs, and assorted other challenges on the way to completing a trip that exceeded 10,000 miles. Rogers had zero previous long distance biking experience and purchased the Trek he rode throughout the arduous journey only weeks before the pair departed the Twin Cities. Anderson had some experience in long-distance biking but nothing remotely close to what the duo engaged in during this ride.
Though not especially well written in a literary sense, this book has a lot going for it, from the audacious decision by both men to quit their jobs and bike around the nation; to their persistent banter and less-than-helpful minor squabbles; to episodic kindnesses the pair received from complete strangers in terms of lodging, food, donations, and support. I enjoyed this tale immensely and, though I was a bit put off by the use of bold type to differentiate Anderson’s contributions to the book (it was mildly distracting), I got over that criticism to read on. It was especially helpful to see more photos chronicling this incredible ride towards the end of the story: I wish there’d been more snapshots taken in the beginning, especially the portions involving the American West where the riders were challenged by wide open spaces, mountains, and arid deserts.
Throughout the “read” the authors, Rogers in particular, share their Christian faith with their audience and explained how, in some instances, faith communities opened their arms to receive and house the pair, and, at least on one occasion (when a Catholic priest slammed the door to the rectory in their faces) didn’t. The inclusion of religion in the story made sense given the toil and hardship and sheer determination of will that went into completing the trip so that money could be raised to make children’s dreams, if only for a moment, come true.
Truly inspiring and well worth the time spent accompanying two brave men on their quest.
C,S,N,&Y by David Browne (2019. Hachette. ISBN 978-0306922633)
They are my Beatles. And, in some ways, the rise and fall of this great American band, the band I grew up listening to through covers of their best stuff played by my buddies at high school dances, mirrors that of the Fab Four. What do I mean? Well, Browne lays it all out: the jealousy between the fabulously talented guitar licks and songwriting of Neil Young versus the sometimes brilliant and often times mundane contributions of his other three bandmates to the legacy of their work (think John and Paul versus Ringo and George). Steve Stills, whose career started with Young in the Buffalo Springfield, shot his wad, in many ways, very early on in BS and through his early contributions to C,S, & N. “For What It’s Worth”, “Love the One You’re With”, and “Carry On”, are some of his most important contributions to our musical heritage and they all were written very early in Stills’s lengthy career. Crosby (kicked out of another supergroup, the Byrds), always the best of the band’s voices, was never a great or prolific songwriter, tending to moody, strange, off-the-cuff tunes that, while very personal, didn’t really sell beyond his initial solo offering, If I Could Only Remember My Name, a cult classic. And Nash, the sensible, intelligent, former member of the Hollies, hit the mark as well with his early solo album, Songs for Beginners. But after that, the mule carrying the egos of the quartet was all Neil, plain and simple.
This was another ’round the YMCA track “listen” for me. And it was a gem. Granted, those of you who aren’t big fans might get bored as to the detail Browne invests in telling the stories of these four talented musicians. But for anyone who possesses and cherishes the original C,S, & N album, Deju Vu, the two later-in-career studio reunion albums from the full quartet, or, my personal favorite, a glimpse of the band at its peak despite its flaws, Four Way Street (the clunky piano mishaps on “Chicago” notwithstanding), or have followed Young’s mercurial career and his oft-misfiring journeys away from the sound that made him a legend, this book is a must read.
The chronicling of Crosby’s addictions and near-death experiences; the frail ego of Stills when his work is compared with Young’s; the snappy comebacks of Nash to criticisms of his and the band’s work; and the on-again-off-again participation of Young in group projects; are all here for you to discern, consider, and apply to your own view of the band’s importance to American rock and roll. Though the story ends short of Crosby’s recent death, this is as complete rendition of the band’s sad, joyful, filled-with-jealousy complexity you’ll ever encounter.
A great book about good to great singer/songwriters who rarely saw got along.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tocarzcak (2019. Penguin (Audible) ISBN 978-0525541349)
My book club, the Greater Mesabi Men’s Book Club of Hibbing, Minnesota, is located over an hour from my rural NE Minnesota home. Some time ago, I was invited to join the club after the guys read a couple of my novels, a snippet of the more than 450 works of fiction the club has read and discussed over its thirty-plus years of existence. As the Club’s newest (and youngest) member, what I love about this club is that the mix of members is so eclectic, you just never know what the next selection will bring. Drive Your Plow is a book I would never choose on my own but I’m glad I read it.
Janina Duszejko, the book’s first-person narrator, is a retired civil engineer living in the mountainous region of Poland along its border with the Czech Republic. She is working, after her career in construction has ended, as an English teacher in a local Catholic school. It’s an intriguing read insofar as language because the author, a Nobel prize winner, writes in Polish and must await translation of her work into the wider-read English language. I loved the woman who narrated the audio version: her accent alone called to mind a babushka-wearing older woman, whose health is plagued by a mysterious illness, and who is suddenly surrounded by dead bodies, all of them men, all of them neighbors. While critics (and the author) bill this novel as a crime thriller/mystery, that’s not really a good fit in terms of labeling. This is more of an introspective, literary reflection chronicling the narrator’s singular, loveless existence in the hinterlands, including her affection for and dedication to living things. She abhors hunting. She has lost her two “girls” (dogs) and that loss figures into the solving of the murders and the storyline.
In the end, this was not a great tale. Nor was it especially suspenseful or thrilling in its pace, story, and unfolding. Rather, it’s a good read from a talented author and I enjoyed it, despite some dragging points here and there, to the very end.
4 stars out of 5. She’s a Nobel winner not for this book but for her body of work.
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien (2011. Audible. ISBN 978-0767904421)
This is a read that was actually a listen. Again, as I try to stave off low back surgery by working out and walking the Hermantown Y track, I listen to novels and biographies and what have you, all of them provided by Audible. Being a fan of O’Brien’s work (he’s a Minnesotan so what’s not to like?), I selected this novel for my workout routine. I wasn’t disappointed.
This is unlike any other war novel you will ever read. If you are trying to replicate the internal angst and fear and combat weary feel of Matterhorn ( a great novel of the Vietnam War in its own right) or O’Brien’s slender, much loved The Things We Carried or If I Die in a Combat Zone, you’ll experience some of the same reactions and emotions you encountered reading/listening to those books while listening to/reading Going After.
But this book is far more experimental, far more cerebral in its conception and execution than simply a straight-on, tell-it-like-it-is war novel. You simply have to experience it to understand what I mean. Without giving away the store, all I can say is there is magic and mysticism in this tale. There are also imagery and longing and fear to be gleaned from a listen or read, all of which ring true despite the format and the narrative license the author engages in to tell the story of one squad, sent to find a deserter, as it heads west, out of the war.
A fine book. I’m not sure if it deserved to be book of the year or not but it is a dandy read.
(Kid Cann (middle figure) the man behind the killing of Walter W. Liggett and the inspiration for Muckraker: A Novel Noir)
If you are willing to take a slight risk, pre-order my novel, Muckraker, by clicking on the “Buy Stuff” tab above and selecting Muckraker in the items offered. You’ll be able to pre-order a copy (or copies) of the book and help get it edited and published! You have my promise the book will be in your hands by 10/1/2023 if I reach my goal of 200 pre-sold copies.
If you have any doubts about the quality of the story or the research or the writing, you will find a review of the book here:
I was born in St. Paul while my Dad was in law school. Kip was, too. My Dad was born and raised in New York Mills which used to be a very Finnish town. You could hear the language spoken on the street, at the creamery and in the restaurant and barber shop. By the time I was four and a half years old we had moved back to the Mills area for a brief stay at my grandparent’s farm, then to nearby Wadena. My brother and sister and I often spent time at the farm in our younger days and would go into town with Grandpa where we heard him talking to his friends in Finnish. We also went to the farm for sauna. Grandpa sang songs to me when I was younger, but the Finnish side of the family were Apostolic so we didn’t hear much from them. They did have an old cylinder record player with some Finnish cylinder recordings. Later family friend Irja Hanson properly introduced me to Finnish songs and gave me songbooks from Finland. My Dad read to us from an English translation of Kalevala.
Like being a real estate novelist (my apologies to Billy Joel), choosing a career in music is a pretty risky endeavor.
When I was out at the farm, I often went through my Grandpa’s dresser so I could see his WWI medals and silver Colt revolver. He was a wounded and earned the Silver Star. My mother never knew, but he let me shoot the pistol when I got older. One day when I was 11 or 12, I crawled under my grandmother’s bed and discovered an old Sears mail order guitar in a dusty case. My Grandma told me it was hers and that she used play in a family band with her sister on fiddle and her dad on pump organ. They weren’t Finns but used to play ‘old timey’ country music at house parties and barn dances. Grandma’s mother was from Scotland so they also played Scottish songs like “Annie Laurie.” I tinkered with the untuned guitar every time I was at the farm and one day, she just gave it to me. My best friend got an old guitar from his grandparents, as well: his older brother already played and taught us how to tune the strings and showed us chords. We began playing old-time country: songs by Eddy Arnold, Ray Price, and others, and we were off to the races. Eventually, we played fairs, town dances, and appeared on local radio and television. We liked all kinds of music: early rock, doo-wop, folk, and started writing songs. We later got into old country blues artists, singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, and some of the British Invasion bands.
Was Finnish spoken at home? What’s your proficiency in the language?
My mother wasn’t Finnish so it wasn’t spoken in the home. She was Swedish and Norwegian, although if she had lived a little longer, Ancestry.com would have showed she was also part Finn. Kip and I only heard Finnish from our grandfather, his brothers and friends, and the little bit of what my Dad knew. Finnish as a language was already disappearing. Our local music store in Wadena had a large section of albums imported from Finland and we bought a copy of every one of them. I started picking up Finnish from those songs and took Finnish classes as well. I have never been strong as a Finnish speaker. I was at my peak back in the 1990s and 2000s when I was in Finland more often. I’ve lost a lot of it in recent years, but when I go to Finland to hang out with my friends, comes back a little.
Watching the great Finnish film Ikitie (about Jussi Ketola) I noticed you wrote a song for the film, “Punainen”. Talk a bit about that song and writing songs in Finnish.
I didn’t write “Punainen” for the film. I’d written it in the 1990s in response to first hand stories of historic persecution and prejudice against Finns. I may have only sung it publicly a couple of times, but while in Finland, I taught the song to my friend Hannu Saha’s son, Topi, who began singing it. The song supervisor for Ikitie was Karri Miettinen and he happened to hear Topi sing it. He played it for producer Ilkka Matila and director AJ Annila. They loved it and asked me if it could be part of the film. After getting my OK, they decided I should be in the film, too. The scene in the film with the song wasn’t in Antti Turri’s novel, but he also loved the idea of creating a scene for the song. AJ, Ilkka, and Antti were great people to work with. The film is about a very dark chapter of Finnish, Finnish American, and Finnish-Canadian history in Karelia. But the film was expertly written, directed, and acted by some of Finland’s, Denmark’s, and Estonia’s best actors. It was shot mostly in Estonia and I had a ball doing it!
In the late 1980s or early 1990s, Finnish folklorists toured the UP, Wisconsin, and Minnesota recording Finnish Americans singing Finnish songs. Someone turned them on to me and they came to my house to record me, which led to me recording an album of Finnish and Finnish-themed songs for EiNo Records in Helsinki. The theme of that year’s Kaustinen Folk Festival was Juuret Suomessa, so they brought a whole bunch of us over to sing and play at the festival.
I’ve been back several times, touring clubs and playing festivals. It’s kind of my second home and, honestly, I think I have more friends there than I do here! Finland is a very natural place for me demographically and culturally. It also happens to be ranked as one of the top five societies in the world.
An online biography indicates that, after honing your musical skills in the area you were raised, you migrated to folk/rock music and played in several bands, including Trova, Suomi Orkesteri, and Trova Ystavineen.
I like playing solo and with bands equally. I like the interaction with other musicians, but playing solo allows you to dive deeper into a song. I left full-time playing with a band to focus at Red House Records which was demanding more of my time. But I wouldn’t rule out playing in the right group again. In 1969, I’d been in college, but not very focused in my studies (I mostly played music in coffeehouse). The Vietnam War was on and I got tired of renewing my student deferment so I enlisted in the Air Force. To my surprise, I was rejected from the services as 4F. I immediately dropped out of school, headed to New York City, and started to play my songs around Greenwich Village. There has been no looking back.
You’ve worked in musical theater, writing music and lyrics for the stage. I note that one of the most influential works you had a hand in, Ten November (working with playwright Steven Dietz) not only drew regional accolades for the work but the music from the play became an album featuring yourself and some great regional names in folk music: Prudence Johnson, Ruth Mackenzie, Peter Ostroushko, and others.
Writing songs and music for film and the theater differs only in that I’m more often writing about something specific to the plot or general theme; the tools and skills I have accrued over the last 60 years are the same. I’ve never written a theatrical song for an already existing plot. I’ve always been a full partner working side by side with the playwright creating the play.
Ten November was a life-changing experience–very meaningful to me and probably the highlight of my career. Its Great Lakes theme dealt not only the Edmond Fitzgerald story, but with other shipwrecks: the power of nature and loss. It also examined potential causes of the sinking, the legal ramifications, and the human components. I met people who’d lost a family member on the Fitzgerald and other wrecks. Their positive response to the show was a humbling experience.
In addition to all your creative work, you took over the reins of one of the most beloved (at least by me!) folk/Americana labels in the music industry, Red House Can you give the readers of FAR a short history of Red House and its work in promoting musicians that aren’t always household names? I believe the notion of an independent label headquartered in St. Paul, MN started as idea that Greg Brown, another legendary singer/songwriter, shared with Bob Feldman.
After going to New York for a couple of years as a performing artist, my management moved our operations to Los Angeles. While there I had a day job working for an artist studio that designed many of the iconic LP packages of early 70s rock and pop music. I was just a lackey there but I picked up a lot of skills relating to the music business. After LA and a short time in San Francisco I moved back home, got married and had a child on the way. I decided to stop actively performing then and focus on the album production side of the music. I produced two albums for Flying Fish Records in Chicago and a well-received album for Spider John Koerner. In the course of the Koerner project, I met Bob who had recently started Red House Records with Greg Brown. Bob was a terrific entrepreneur but was doing all of the label work from his dining room. He wanted the Koerner project at Red House. I agreed and we became friends. At some point I noticed I was actually working at Red House and had become the first employee. My skills and Bob’s skills complimented each other, and due to a convergence of many factors, like the emergence of A Prairie Home Companion (our national platform), our artist roster and own talents, Red House grew into an internationally-distributed record label earning Grammy Awards.
Red House promoted and sold music written and performed by some of America’s best: Jorma Kaukonen, John Gorka, Eliza Gilkyson, Lucy Kaplansky, Spider John Koerner, and many others. What was your day-to-day role in signing performers and supervising the production of their music at the label?
I either produced a recording session in the studio myself or interacted with outside producers we brought in for a specific project. Originally, everything was recorded in the Twin Cities. But soon our artists were being recorded in New York, Austin, Nashville, Los Angeles, Canada, Scotland, and England. Part of my job was trying to make sure we got the best results we could, without running up too much cost¾a lot of time on the phone and staring at a computer screen! I also interacted with artists at the recording stage, discussing their projects and what they hoped to achieve. Finally, I coordinated designers around the country commissioned to design album packaging.
One of the founders of Red House passed in 2017 and eventually, the label was purchased from his estate by Compass Records, a Nashville, TN label. Talk a bit about that process and what led to you leaving Red House? What have you been doing to keep your own creative juices flowing since Red House was acquired by Compass and you left your post as President of Red House?
Bob died in 2006 and I became president of the label with the mission of carrying on our vision. I stayed on as president for over ten years but longed to get back to my own creative work. The record industry was changing, and I thought the label could use some younger leadership. I took a sabbatical and went to Spain. My wife’s family is from Spain; most of her relatives are there. I spent time with them and walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage by myself. It was a fantastic experience and when I came back, I’d pretty much decided to retire from Red House. The label carried on for a couple more years, and then Bob’s wife Beth decided to sell it to Compass. Garry West and Allison Brown, who run Compass, are old friends and have a similar mission so it was the perfect hand off.
Any chance we’ll see you and/or your musical brother, Kip, performing at the upcoming Finn Fest in Duluth? Where can folks find your music?
Kip and I will both be there, though not performing together like we often do. I’m looking forward to it. I hope folks can come.
As for my music, my Finnish albums are out of print. The only two recordings currently available are my solo English-language album, Songs of Sad Laughter and the cast recording of Ten November. Prudence Johnson, Ruth MacKenzie, Claudia Schmidt, the late Peter Ostroushko, Dan Chouinard, Jeffrey Willkomm and I toured a concert version of the play’s music three times around the Great Lakes states under the name “Gales of November” to differentiate our concerts from the actual play.
Like the shoemaker’s children who go barefoot, I’ve been slow to make new recordings (COVID partly being to blame), but I have some new stuff in the works that might be ready by Finn Fest. I also love doing house concerts. Folks can Contact me if they’re interested in producing such an event at [email protected] !
(This interview first appeared in the April 2023 issue of the Finnish American Reporter.)
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on A Great Musician and Musical Icon
I’m at it again. After spending two decades exploring Finnish, Finnish American, and Finnish Canadian culture; and after writing three historical novels from that experience and research (Suomalaiset, Sukulaiset, and Kotmaa); I’m returning to my maternal grandfather’s roots in hilly, southern Slovenia. My first novel, The Legacy was part historical novel set in WW II and part present-day murder mystery/thriller. I’m following that pattern in my present manuscript (working title, Slovenec: The Slovenian) and crafting a very rough draft of a fictional story while researching the Slovenian Partisans, the Croatian Ustashi, the Serbian Chetneks, and the Holocaust as it happened in the former Yugoslavia. That’s the projected first half of the book. The second half will take the characters (those that survive!) from the war to present day.
The Heretic is a fine biography of Josip Broz’s (Tito’s) life from birth through the book’s release (1957). This extensive volume takes the reader through the war hero’s formative years as a young Communist, to his break with the Soviet Union (after WW II), and ends analyzing the upset caused by Poland’s and Hungary’s challenges to U.S.S.R. Marxist-Leninist primacy during the late 50’s. Maclean, who ended his career in the British Army as a brigadier general (and also served in Parliment) parachuted into Yugoslavia during the war to meet and work with Tito and the Partisans. Much of his writing about the Field Marshall of Yugoslavia comes directly from Tito’s mouth through the leader’s personal stories and the interactions between the two men. In addition, the geopolitical aspects of Yugoslavian story are well-researched and based upon Maclean’s exhaustive review of Balkan history. The book is well-written, gives a fair and balanced view of Tito’s faults and talents, and will be the cornerstone for my writing about the post-war situation in the reformatted Yugoslavia.
A must read if you are interested in a fascinating man and nation, no longer in existence, with a tortured past.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
Not to be confused with movies bearing the same name, this novel is not a book I would have purchased for myself. I’d never heard of it despite the novel being on the NYT’s Bestseller list. I’d also never heard of the author. But someone gave The Matrix to me as a gift, it was in my “to read” stack for quite awhile, and I finally plucked it from fictional purgatory and to give it a read.
Marie, the protagonist and heroine in this tale, is a tall, strong, strapping and not-so-very-pretty young woman when the novel begins. She’s infatuated (likely sexually) with Eleanor, a Queen of both France and the rough and unruly hinterlands of England. There is only one Christian faith and church during the story’s timeframe (approximately around the time of the last of Crusade) and ultimately, because Marie is a bastard (the product of the rape of her mother by a nobleman) and unmarriageable, the girl is sent to live in a convent across the English Channel. This is, in essence, the life story of a girl turned nun turned force of nature who transforms her dreary existence as a novice to become Abbess, eventually wielding great power and authority; a standing in the world that the Queen herself cannot break or harness.
Written in a tone and style that reminds the reader of the best fairy tales and ancient legends, it is easy to respect and admire Marie’s pluck, resolve, and grit. Harder is the task of grasping exactly what her faith is, the basis of her beliefs, and whether she is actually, deep in her soul, a good Catholic or a heretic. In one very moving scene, when there’s no opportunity for a priest to make his way to the Abby to conduct Communion, Marie puts on priestly vestments, hears confession, and conducts Mass, all to murmurs of apostasy and horror amongst her most ardent followers.
I liked this book’s style, story, and pacing a great deal and found it a hard tale to put down despite my early reservations that it might not be, as the English say, “my cup of tea.”
5 stars out of 5. A great bookclub read!
Another one of my Audible “listens” while working out at the local Y. Also a book club pick by a member of my book club. I will be frank. I would have never read this novel, one filled with speculations about life’s origins, meanings, astrophysics featuring a fairly unlikeable father and his savant/genius autistic son. But because it was selected by one of my book club guys, well, I gave it a listen to fulfill my duty.
Guess what? I actually enjoyed the story. It challenged me in ways similar to how I’d been challenged as a young college student when I reading Ursula LeGuin as part of a political science course on utopias. LeGuin, a fine, fine literary writer who chose to write fantasy and science fiction, is my bellwether when it comes to speculative fiction like Bewilderment. I thoroughly enjoyed following Robin’s, the autistic child’s, meanderings in and around genius and his emotive angst regarding the status of our fragile Earth. I was less enthralled with the character of Theo, the father, who, to my tastes, was a cardboard cutout of a man. Oh, I’ll concede that he’s dedicated to his son, having been made a widower by a car accident that claimed his wife and Robin’s mother, and spends every moment when not at work trying to mentor and father his child. But he is one angry, unpleasant, self-centered, mess of a human being. In addition, the ancillary characters don’t really add a whole hell of a lot to what is, at it’s core, a rumination on planet Earth, human existence, faith, science, and the unknown.
Good writing, not great writing, a passable plot line (though be warned, the ending is very predictible), and one memorable character who will stick in your mind in the manner of Owen Meany.
4 stars out of 5.
That’s it for now, folks!
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