Finely Wrought

Surface Displacements by Sheila Packa (2022. Wildwood River Press. ISBN 978-1-947787-36-0

I woke to an acre of mayflies

a lace of water lilies and weeds

before and after

nudges of waves

coming to and from the island

a cloud on the water, thick pollen afloat

and lines crossing.

Confession time. I know the poet. She knows me and has even been a pre-reader for Sukulaiset. So take my review here with a grain of salt. But I have to say, friend or not, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Ms. Packa as encapsulated in her latest volume of poems. Why?

First, she carefully and dutifully explores NE MN, where both of us have lived the majority of our lives. It takes someone who is born (or has spent extensive time in) the gabbro and peat and muskeg and open pit mines and black water to do this place justice. And she has. Second, the title cleverly sets the stage for an examination of the displacements we, as northerners living in a land of cold and snow and mining (and, sometimes seemingly incomprehensibly, wilderness) and our ancestors, be they Finnish (Packa’s) or mine (Slovenian) commonly experience. One might argue that her musings about our “neck of the woods” containing three continental divides (the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south), given the erosive power of the rivers raging to those compass points, forms a third displacement, one based upon geographical orientation and watery flow.

I sat in my easy chair in my writing studio over a period of a couple of weeks inhaling these little gems of verse and wisdom. I was unhappy my time with this work ended so quickly. That said, this is my first review typed at my new stand-up desk in my studio space, a feature that my newly fused and titaniumized low back sorely (pun intended) needed. All things considered, fused spine and all, I’m happy to give the newest effort from Duluth’s former poet-laureate a big thumbs up.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.






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A Bit Disjointed

Land Without Justice by Milovan Djilas (1958. Harcourt. ISBN 978-1-15-648117)

Just so you know. I’m in the process of trying to write a second historical novel regarding Slovenia from the 1930s to present day. My first effort, The Legacy, was well received but I feel, in retrospect, taht novel was a bit too sentimental in its treatment of the rise and fall of Tito, Yugoslavia’s dictator who controlled the fate of the Balkans until his death. In my second attempt at writing the Great Slovenian American novel, I’m trying to paint with a broader brush and understand why, within a decade of Tito’s demise, Yugoslavia ceased to be and the region once again found itself plunged into terror and war. In any event, I’m reading some of the literature of Milovan Djilas, one of Tito’s trusted lieutenants who, in 1954, ended up falling from grace to spend decades in prison and/or under house arrest. This is the first of two Djilas books I’m using as background for the middle portion of my novel, the timeframe being post-war through Tito’s death. 

This is an interesting read in that, rather than focus on Yugoslavia as a whole, it’s a patchwork of anecdotes concerning the author’s upbringing (and his family’s history) in the tiny state of Montenegro. Essentially, one gets, from reading this irregular narrative, that Montenegrins share with their Serbian brothers and sisters a history of repression and prejudice at the hands of the Ottomans, who ruled both nation-states into the late 1800s. This, in the author’s skilled prose, begets atrocities on both sides of the ledger: cruelty and nastiness permeates virtually every corner of Montenegrin and Serbian society during the timeframe of the tale. From that standpoint, it makes what happened in 1991, when the federal state so carefully managed and nurtured by Tito and his Communists, a union of six Balkan states, including Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia, blew apart, understandable. Certainly not laudable. But understandable.

I found this book to be a valuable addition to my understanding of the circumstances confronting the Balkans before, during, and after the Great War. But given the slightly disjointed nature of the storytelling, it’s not quite the classic I’d hoped for.

3 and 1/2 Stars out of Five.


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So Disappointing

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump (2020. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-9821-4146-2)

I get it, Dr. Trump. I really do. After spending time reading your analyses of your uncle, former president (and hopefully, soon-to-be convicted felon) Donald J. Trump, after wading through your version of family history beginning with the great grandparents of the House of Trump, carefully assessing your views of the patriarch of the family’s real estate business, grandfather Fred Trump (and his often ill, never child-centric wife), my conclusion about your book is exactly the conclusion I came to with respect to Right-wing iconoclast Mike Savage’s terrible book, Banned in Britain: you could have spared us all a long, tedious slide into Trump slimedom by writing a succinct opinion piece for any major newspaper. Instead, readers, who must spend hours of time inside a very fucked up family, are treated to few new revelations and asked to navigate a fairly listless, factless, and uninspired reportage of grievances you hold against Grandpa Fred, with a few sidelong glares tossed The Donald’s way.

Sure, I understand that Grandpa was aloof, unloving, and really a no-good bastard bent at all costs to make money: the one and only god he and his younger son, the Donald, worship. It’s obvious you feel you father, the eldest Trump son, Freddie, got a raw deal; that the Klown Prince of the family, the dilettante playboy-turned serial husband and money loser stole your father’s inheritance (and yours), not to mention your dad’s rightful place in the sun. But really, aren’t you, in your indictment, overlooking your own father’s failings, including his inability to manage money or his sobriety, to toss vitriol at a dead man? Sure, you throw The Donald into the same pit of inequity and dishonesty and “money at all costs” that claimed Grandpa Fred’s soul. And you do include some casual, non-specific, generic references to the former president’s sociopathic behaviors. But that’s not new information, revelatory or, likely-given the multiple axes you juggle as you grind them against the lodestone of history-to convince anyone who believes the chief liar’s lies of your major premise: that the man is dangerous and shouldn’t be given sharp scissors, much less nuclear warheads.

I so wanted to like this book. I cannot stand the man who’s the subject of this tome. And yet, I came away a very disappointed reader.

2 stars out of 5. Wait for the movie version starring Christian Bale as The Donald … (JK)



(Find my review of Savage’s hit piece by typing in “Banned in Britain ” in this website’s search bar, above right.)


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Thanks, DNT!

Today, my local paper, the Duluth News Tribune, published my rather lengthy (what did you expect from a novelist?) rumination on the writing life. You can read the edited version here:

Or the unedited version here:

                                                            A WRITER’S JOURNEY

It started with a subtle suggestion from my wife. On the eve of my first spinal fusion surgery in 1991, René knew, given my OCD nature, I’d be a handful for her if I didn’t keep my mind and my body occupied. “You’re going to be off work for three months,” she said as we rode to a medical appointment with my neurosurgeon, “you need to do something to occupy your time.”

I shrugged, looked out the window and simply let her keep going. “Why don’t you write a novel? You’ve always wanted to,” she added.

            I won’t belabor the point. I’ve told many gatherings, book clubs, and groups who’ve come to hear me speak since my first novel, The Legacy, hit bookstores in October of 2000, how I came to writing, how, as a small child learning to read, I penned my first “book”, a daring-a-do adventure saga entitled The Priates and the Two Man (The Pirates and the Two Men) in Mrs. Nelson’s first grade class. The writing bug struck early, stayed with me through high school (I was the sports editor of the Denfeld Criterion), but took a hiatus during college and law school. Still, even while navigating courses and papers and professors on my way to attaining a juris doctorate degree, I remained an avid reader. Mostly of historical and contemporary fiction: books like Lonesome Dove, The Thorn Birds, Rich Man, Poor Man and The Godfather. It wasn’t until we moved back to Duluth and started practicing law that I explored the classics: diving into Hemingway, Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, and other authors of note. Those novels rekindled a desire, an urge, a calling, if you will, to write. But instead of staking out a plot of writerly ground from which to plant and harvest fiction, I started writing a column for my local newspaper, The Hermantown Star, a slice-of-life effort entitled “Living Out”, chronicling our family’s life in rural NE Minnesota in an old Sears farmhouse along the banks of the Cloquet River. For eight years, editor Cindy Alexander (and her successors) welcomed my essays portraying the antics of the Munger clan until, as I faced surgery, René issued her challenge to my creativity.

            Oh. I didn’t stop writing “Living Out”. Rather, that effort became secondary to my research and writing a James Michener-style combination historical novel/thriller set in my maternal grandfather’s homeland, Yugoslavia. From 1991 until 2000, I worked and reworked the novel, queried literary agents and publishers, and waited for someone to say, “This works. We’ll publish it!”. Along the way, I was hoodwinked by an unscrupulous agent, had a Canadian agent pass away just as she was going to accept the book, and tried to hold my fire and let things play out. In the end, the book came out in October of 2000 through Savage Press, a local collaborative publishing house, and became a regional bestseller.

            Following book tours (that took me from Youngstown, OH to Denver, CO and all points in between), I hunkered down to write Pigs, a Trial Lawyer’s Story, a John Grisham-style legal thriller set 0n Minnesota’s prairie. But even after the modest success of The Legacy, neither Savage nor any other publisher was interested in the manuscript. Which, after much consideration, led me to form Cloquet River Press (CRP) as a vehicle to self-publish Pigs in 2002. I’ll spare you the details of what that journey entailed, other than to simply chronicle, that, along the way, two of my U.S. distributors closed their doors; my Canadian wholesaler filed for bankruptcy; and I was left distributing my books through Ingram, the largest book wholesaler in the world. That wasn’t a good fit: the publishing game requires that books be sent to the wholesaler with the caveat that all books not sold are eligible to be returned to the publisher (me!) for full credit. In the end, that model proved too expensive and difficult for me to negotiate (I was working fulltime as a district court judge), which led me to rely heavily on hand sales (at events) and internet sales (through Amazon).

            I changed printers because I couldn’t afford to order books in amounts that allowed for a reasonable per-book-cost, migrating to KDP, Amazon’s self-publishing platform, where books are priced, not upon quantity ordered, but upon page count. Since moving to self-publication, a number of my novels, most notably the Finnish American trilogy (Suomalaiset, Sukulaiset, and Kotimaa) have sold well, with two of the Finnish historical novels garnering national grants towards publication. But I’ve never made money, much less broken even, on any book following the success of The Legacy. More devastating to my writerly ego, of the fourteen books (nine novels) I’ve penned in the past 30 years, nary a one has been seen worthy enough to be a regional or state-wide award winner (or even receive an honorable mention) from judges reviewing my work. Oh, a couple of short stories have won local writing contests but the collections containing those stories (Ordinary Lives and Kulukari (Vagabond) and Other Short Stories) have been largely ignored by the powers that be. Even so, I’ve soldiered on, my fragile ego buttressed by reviews from Kirkus, readers, and book clubs who’ve found my work worth a read. But a writer can only chase a dream so long. At some point, the costs associated with paying professional editors, printing review copies for pre-readers, and attending craft fairs, book fairs, and other events (which require paying a table or booth fee), and printing books for sale become something akin to Ahab sailing an endless ocean in search of a white whale.

            This book buying season, I find myself once again facing spinal fusion surgery. I’m not able to host a book launch of my latest tome, Muckraker, a Novel Noir, or attend book festivals, craft shows, or readings and signings. Like all my work, for better or for worse, I put my heart and my soul¾not to mention considerable coin¾into researching, writing, editing, formatting, and uploading my latest book onto KDP (Amazon’s printing arm) and Ingram Spark. My own hubris may have well brought me to this point, a point where I unplug my keyboard, end my research (the new book I’m working on is a massive historical novel chronicling Yugoslavia from its inception to its disintegration through multiple characters and families), and simply admit, “I’ve done the best can. It’s time to rest the pen.”

Agents? I queried an even one hundred while working on Muckraker, following the carefully described protocols on their websites when submitting the manuscript. Perhaps a dozen agents wrote back, saying, in essence, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Small presses? Two dozen received queries from me. I never heard back from a single one. So, as autumn turns to winter, as the sleeping lawn between my writing studio and the black waters of the Cloquet River whitens from snow, I’m left to consider: What now?

I’ll let you know if I arrive at an answer that suits both my writerly ego and my desire, my passion, to tell stories.

(Mark Munger is a life-long resident of NE MN, retired attorney and judge, author of 14 books, and a writer for the Finnish American Reporter.)






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More Like a Big Conflagration!

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017. Audible. B074F3BX79)

I’ll confess. Before I listened to this audio version of Ng’s novel, I watched the Hulu series adapted from the book. I’d suggest reading or listening to the story first, then watching it, because once you spend time with Reece Witherspoon and Kerry Washington as the two primary characters in the video version, it’s awfully hard to get those faces and their depictions out of you mind while reading or listening to the novel. Still. Even after watching the series, I found the book extremely well-written, timely, and full of interesting character (if not plot) twists.

Elena Richardson is a well-off, well-meaning, wife, mother, and journalist who believes she is a modern, highly educated, race-neutral American woman. She and her husband and their three kids live in Shaker Heights, a planned suburban community outside of Cleveland where income, race, religion, and connections are believed not to matter. Mia Warren is an African American woman, artist, and mother of Pearl Warren, her only child (who was actually supposed to be adopted as a surrogate but Mia ran off before fulfilling her surrogacy contract). The Warrens end up living in a rental home owned by Elena, which is the foundation of the connection between the two families. 

I’ll not try to walk through all of the plot twists and turns in this short review. What I will divulge is that Ng tackles not only race as it pertains to interracial dating and the everyday interactions of Americans of different ethnicities, she heaps the social issue foundation that undergirds this lovely, well-written work with, as mentioned, additional questions devoted to surrogacy, abandonment, interracial adoption, poverty, white guilt, and a host of other triggers that keep the reader, viewer, and listener riveted on the story. 

A fine effort.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5



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A Chilling Look at a Broken System

Invisible Child by Andrea Elliot (2021. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-8694-5)

Full disclosure: I worked in the area of child protection for the State of Minnesota as a District Court Judge. Every 8 weeks, I did child protection cases as part of my general judicial rotation, and over the 23 years I was active on the bench, I dealt with several thousand children caught up, for whatever reason, in Minnesota’s foster care, adoption, and termination of parental rights system. I have to say that my experience was nothing close to the judicial and legal system depicted in this book. The sheer volume of child protection cases, situations where social services becomes involved in protecting children who are in families impacted by poverty, abuse, drugs, alcohol, and/or poverty, in New York City boggles the mind. Yes, our child protection social workers in Minnesota, even in relatively staid and predominantly white NE MN, have heavy caseloads. But the number of families and children each social worker (and, for that matter, judge) is required to oversee in our child protection system is nowhere near as mind-numbing as depicted in this book.

Let’s digress. Elliott is a reporter with the New York Times who approached her editor with an idea: “Let me imbed with a family in the system and follow the children, the eldest, Dasani in particular, for not weeks or months but for years.” This the reporter does, chronicling the heart-wrenching story of Dasani from pre-teen to adult, from shelter to slum apartment to the Hershey School and back to New York City. She had unrestricted access to Dasani, the child’s parents, the child’s siblings, and even, through subterfuge, placements that would normally be off-limits to a reporter. Through a very objective and professional lens, Elliott describes the struggles of Dasani’s parents-both of whom who are chemically dependent, undereducated, and prone to violence-as well as their seven children regarding food, clothing, housing, employment, schooling, and safety. She pulls no punches and the depiction of Dasani’s successes, struggles, and ultimate acceptance that she cannot, even at a young age and with the positive assistance of teachers and other mentors, change her life or the outcome of her fate, is extremely unsettling.

In the end, this book offers no solutions to the fate of Dasani and the countless thousands, nay, millions of children who find themselves removed from the familial home by state social service agencies every year with an eye to protect those children from their parents, their lives, and their circumstances. But it’s a valuable reminder that parents and children caught up in the system are more than mere numbers and that, by and large, even the worst of parents (and Dasani’s parents have many, many failings) genuinely love their children and want them to succeed. 

My only complaint with the book is that it’s horribly misprinted in that, inexplicably and unexpectedly, the story leapt from page 300 to page 413, confusing the hell out of this reader! The book then started anew with Chapter 40 (p. 443), only to flip back to page 317. What the author had to say from pages 301-317 is anyone’s guess! One would think Random House has better quality control than this … I know Cloquet River Press does.

In any event, this is a valuable read for anyone interested in the American social welfare system that deals with fractured, ruptured, and dysfunctional families.

4 stars out of 5



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A Great Story …

                                    INTERVIEW WITH JOHN SIMON


Though you live in Helsinki, where were you born? Where did you grow up? What’s your ethnic/religious background?

JS: I was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1943 and grew up in typically suburban Pleasantville, New York, where I attended school (K-12). I was raised in a Reform Jewish home and congregation, but the community where I grew up was culturally mainstream Christian.


Fill the readers in regarding your educational path after high school.

JS: I entered Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. in 1961, spent my junior year at the Sorbonne in Paris, and graduated as an English major from Hamilton in 1965. The next two years were spent at Cambridge University, where I obtained a master’s degree before moving on in 1967 to the University of York, also in England, where I began a Ph.D. program focusing on the works of Samuel Beckett. My research included semesters in Paris, Rome, and Dublin. During 1967-70, however, I became deeply involved in anti-establishment politics and never defended my thesis.


Later, you found yourself living and working in Finland. Explain to our readers how that journey evolved. How did you acquire fluency in the Finnish language?

JS: In 1965-66, while at Cambridge, I played basketball and shared a flat with a Finnish student. We became close friends, but he returned to Helsinki to continue his studies at the Helsinki School of Economics at the end of the school year. During the summer of 1969, I traveled by car with two friends from York to Moscow. On the way, I stopped in Helsinki to spend a week with Kari. While there, I met my future wife, Hannele, who was also studying at the Helsinki School of Economics. In 1970, after spending time together in Paris, Copenhagen, and my family’s home in Pleasantville, we married in Helsinki and moved to New York, where I worked as director of a youth center in a politically active community organization on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Hannele taught in a daycare center run by the same organization. I later wrote about my work in New York and the challenges faced by young people of color at that time in To Become Somebody: Growing up Against the Grain of Society (Houghton Mifflin, 1982).

My work kept me on call 24/7. By 1982, Hannele and I had two children, Mikko and Elina. I wanted to spend more time with them while they were still young, so I took a sabbatical from my job, which we spent in a furnished apartment in Vantaa, Finland. The children and I began learning Finnish and getting to know Hannele’s relatives. I taught English (I was a certified high school English teacher in New York) and absorbed as much Finnish culture as I could in one year. As soon as we returned to New York, I began to feel that living in Manhattan imposed unfair restrictions on the children. They couldn’t walk out the door of our apartment without an adult to accompany them, whereas they had been able to ride bikes and wander around our Finnish neighborhood safely by themselves. Within a month, we decided to move back to Finland and did so in the summer of 1984. We’ve lived in Finland ever since.


At some point, you began work on the biography of the patriarch of the company you ended up working at in Finland. Can you explain how did that process come about and perhaps describe the process of writing a biography?

JS: I started working for KONE, one of the world’s leading elevator and escalator companies (best known in the Midwest for having acquired Montgomery Elevator in 1994) as soon as we arrived back in Finland. My job was to put together the company’s global in-house magazine.

KONE’s principal owner and CEO, Pekka Herlin, was a legendary business leader, having taken charge of a domestic company in 1964 and transformed it into Finland’s first truly multinational organization. He was brilliant but unpredictable; and like many of his Finnish contemporaries, he had a serious drinking problem.

By the time Pekka Herlin’s eldest son, the new CEO of the company, asked me to write his father’s biography, Pekka had been dead for several years. Many writers had asked the family for permission to write an authorized biography and gain access to his papers, but the family was afraid hi story might be sensationalized. In fact, the truth was sensational enough. I only agreed to write the book if I could do so honestly. If the family didn’t like what I wrote, they could refuse to publish it. I’d never written a biography, and the challenge was daunting. Pekka Herlin had five children, and they had been fighting among themselves ever since Pekka secretly transferred a controlling interest in KONE to his eldest son. I interviewed all of them as well as their mother and nearly one hundred others. I shared what I was writing with the family. Sometimes one sibling would tell me, “What X says is bullshit.” I would tell him or her, “I wasn’t there so I can’t say who is right. What I can do is write: ‘X says so-and-so. Y remembers it differently…’ and include both points of view.” In the end, a number of events beyond my control (a granddaughter was kidnapped and held for ransom; the youngest son published a blog on the eve of publication, saying his father was a monster) created an unprecedented amount of publicity, and KONE’s Prince became a bestseller with over 100,000 copies sold. It was written in English but translated into both Finnish and Chinese.


You are Jewish but living in a very secularized, Lutheran country. At some point, the uniqueness of that circumstance must have led you to explore the history of the Jewish faith in Finland, leading to another book which became Strangers in a Stranger Land.

JS: Helsinki’s only Jewish congregation is strictly orthodox and very conservative. I had no reason to connect with it during the first twenty-five years I lived in Finland. After KONE’s Prince was published, though, my editor read in one of the reviews that I was Jewish. He gave me a book to which he had contributed to which multiple authors dealt with ways in which the various Nordic Countries had been involved in the Holocaust. In the chapter on Finland, I saw a picture of a tent synagogue and a dozen or so Finnish Jewish soldiers on the Eastern Front, peacefully preparing for Sabbath services less than half a mile away from Germany’s 163rd Division’s headquarters. Then I saw pictures of two Finnish soldiers and a member of the women’s auxiliary, all of whom were awarded the Iron Cross by the German Army. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Then I read that although more than 200,00 German soldiers were stationed on Finnish soil during WWII, Finland was the only combatant country on either side that didn’t have a single Jewish citizen sent to concentration or death camps or harmed in any way by the Germans (23 Jewish soldiers in the Finnish Army did, however, die in battle, but they were killed by Soviet troops). I felt that I had to understand how such a situation – contrary to everything I understood about Nazi Germany and its treatment of Jews – could have come to pass. The best way to understand it was to write about it.


Strangers is a fascinating, very well-written, yet somewhat quirky book. It’s part historical novel, part straight history.

JS: I wanted people to learn about this unique situation. The number of readers willing to dive into a straightforward factual recitation of an out-of-the-way country’s history is relatively small. I felt from the outset that the predicament of Finnish Jews in a country with hundreds of thousands of German soldiers moving through it was inherently dramatic, and I wanted the reader to experience that tension. The only way to ensure that was to create characters with feelings the reader could recognize and identify with. On the other hand, so few people outside Finland know anything about the country and its history, let alone about its tiny Jewish population, that I had to provide a factual (but, hopefully, not too heavy) framework for the story. The result was a hybrid work that provides both the context and the drama in ways that augment each other.


Strangers was first published in Finland in Finnish?

JS: Strangers in a Stranger Land was short-listed for History Book of the Year during Finland’s Centennial Year, 2017. The head of the jury confided in me that the book might have won without the fictional content, which disqualified in the view of some of the jurors. I was initially worried about how the Finnish Jewish community would react to a foreigner’s “appropriation” of their history, but I received nothing but cooperation and support from community members. The nicest comment was made by a history teacher at Helsinki’s Jewish School, who told me: “You have colored in our history.”


The book is also available in English. How did it end up here, available for purchase? Where can folks find a copy, other than on my website ( : where I have a few copies you kindly left behind for me to sell).

JS: I had little trouble finding a Finnish publisher for the book but it was difficult finding an agent or publisher for Strangers in English, largely because Finland was not seen by them as a “commercially interesting” subject. Eventually, I was able to convince Hamilton Books to publish the (original) English version. The Finnish version is a large format hardcover with full-color illustrations; the English version is in paperback with black and white pictures, and I had to purchase a considerable number at the time of publication, which explains why I was in Duluth at FinnFest, selling books at your stand. The book can be purchased from Amazon or from Roman & Littlefield

( ) once the supply at Cloquet River Press is exhausted.


You did a fairly extensive book tour in the U.S with Strangers. Maybe give the readers a sense of when that took place and what the tour involved. Would you be available for Zoom presentations regarding the book if a Finnish American or Finnish Canadian group wanted to have you speak to its membership?

JS: In October-November 2019, I undertook an East Coast tour of libraries, community centers, bookstores, synagogues, Finnish-American societies, radio stations and museums that started in New York, wound its way to Northern Massachusetts, down through Boston to Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Richmond, Roanoke and Atlanta. I ended up giving 40 talks in 40 days. Then in January-February of 2020, just before Covid would have made it impossible, I gave another twenty talks to various groups in Southern Florida.

Since then, I’ve given a few presentations via Zoom to groups in the U.S. and Israel. I remain willing to give remote talks to interested groups with the only reservation being that the 7-10-hour time difference makes it a bit challenging to schedule evening meetings in North America.


Are you working on another book?

JS: I’ve a new book coming out in Finnish translation in the spring. It tells about the experiences of a young Syrian boy growing up in the epicenter of the devastation of Damascus by the al-Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian allies. It accompanies him on his traumatic flight at 14 to Turkey (where he was mistreated) and Greece (where he almost drowned), until he was selected for relocation to Finland at the age of 16. He and I have grown close, and I have tried to support him as he tries to adapt to the very different customs and requirements of Finnish society at a time when the government is becoming increasingly hostile to immigrants from anywhere outside Europe and North America. Once again, I am having trouble finding a publisher for the English-language version.


It was a pleasure to appear with you at Finn Fest as co-panelists talking about our writing and our work regarding Finnish history. Stay well and keep writing!

JS: FinnFest was an interesting and rewarding experience, but the best part was gaining a new friend, who is not only an interesting and charming person but a wonderful writer. Thank you, Mark, for your books and your friendship.

(This article first appeared in the Finnish American Reporter, October 2023 )

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For Mom

                                                                        FOR MOM

Those of you who knew Barbara, or as her Kobe relatives called her, “Jean”, know she was a fastidious woman, always dressed to the nines, always ready for the next big party or event. But there was another side to Barb, one that only her family was privileged to view.

I know it’s hard to imagine but I was a handful as a child. When I started kindergarten, Miss Ness, a beloved Piedmont teacher, told Mom, at my first school conference, “Keep that boy busy or he’ll end up in jail.” Maybe that’s why Mom doled out chores to me, and later Dave and Anne, by affixing long lists of things that needed doing to the kitchen refrigerator. Or maybe it was Mom’s OCD, which, as she aged, became more and more prevalent, culminating with, when her health required her to move to assisted living, no less than a dozen bottles of Ranch salad dressing and ten jars of peanut butter in her fridge and on her shelves. But whether it was a shopping list or a chore list, Barbara Jean always craved organization.

How else do you explain the note she left for Anne one day? Our house on N 22nd Ave W in Piedmont was surrounded by forest. Apparently, at least to Mom’s keen eye, a very messy forest. So, Barbara’s note, tacked to the Munger refrigerator was succinct: “Anne: Pick up all the sticks in the woods.” Only Mom would think to tidy up nature.

Despite the lists, we three children loved Mom. But we weren’t always the most obedient. When we strayed, there was Barbara, ready with a bar of Ivory soap to wash out our mouths if we used vocabulary inappropriate for the Munger home. Or if our conduct needed more immediate, serious attention, Mom, would unleash the wooden yardstick she kept in the kitchen closet to whack us on our bare bottoms. Once, when I was about ten or so and Mom took exception to my sassing, a fevered chase ensued around our Chambersburg home, with Mom running after me with the yardstick, her intentions clear. I ducked behind the fridge, and without thinking things through, stuck out my foot and tripped Mom. My actions resulted in a broken big toe and a trip to the ER for Mom, but she didn’t blame me for her injury, a circumstance which has always puzzled me.

A couple of other stories come to mind. When I was twelve or thirteen, Harry, our Dad, got the bright idea to take his 18’ fishing boat from Grand Portage to Isle Royale across Lake Superior’s open water. We were to spend a week on the island, staying in the three-sided cabins the park provides. Grandma Munger, who was in her late 70’s at the time, came with but stayed in the hotel at Washington Harbor. When Mom saw Dad’s run-a-bout loaded to the gunwales with food, clothing, fishing equipment, and supplies for a week-long stay, a boat that had no radio, no radar, and only a single inboard/outboard engine with no back-up for power, she drew the line. She, Grandma, and Dave all booked passage on the Wenonah, a commercial ferry to the island, leaving me to motor across the inland sea with Dad in a very overloaded boat. I’ve always wondered what she was thinking by sending me along with Harry in a boat that had no life raft and no radio.

On another occasion, Duke Tourville, our stepdad, and Mom invited my wife, René, our son Matt (who was five or six), and me on another trip to Isle Royale in Duke’s twin screw, blue-water boat. Unlike Harry, Duke really knew boats and big water. But when the Ransom II came around the northern tip of the island and hit a brisk wind, the lake turned ugly. The little boat bobbed and surged ahead, crashing through whitecaps. Duke and I were having a great time bouncing around on the fly bridge. Mom, René, and Matt were all safely tucked inside the boat’s little cabin. The seas were so large, when the boat dipped into a trough of wave, you couldn’t see anything but blue-green water. It was a pretty cool ride, though, when we docked on the west side of the island, I learned the truth of what had transpired inside the boat’s cabin. As the waves grew larger, René had become very alarmed, especially since Matt was along for the ride, and started panicking. Mom’s elegant solution? Mix my wife the strongest Brandy-Seven she could concoct and keep refilling René’s glass until my wife’s frayed nerves were calmed by booze.

When Anne was ten or eleven, Mom left her written instructions (yes, yet another list) asking Anne to bake potatoes for dinner. The directions said to place the potatoes on a paper plate, insert the plate into our brand-new microwave, and set the timer for a half-hour. Before the timer “dinged”, the paper plate caught fire and flames melted the plastic lining of the microwave. Burning plastic oozed onto the kitchen’s linoleum floor. The result? The floor and the microwave were toast. The plus side of all this was that Barbara Jean was able to replace the kitchen floor, something she’d been asking Harry to do, with new linoleum purchased with insurance money. Coincidence? I think the truth of that resides with Mom in eternity.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a word about Barbara Jean’s faith. As Episcopalian kids growing up surrounded by Lutherans and Catholics, my siblings and I often felt estranged from our friends due to our religious affiliation. I tried, early on, to sneak into the Lutheran fold. I went to Vacation Bible School at Christ Lutheran in Piedmont. I was invited to join the youth choir at the church, something I found enticing since the majority of pretty girls in Piedmont were either Lutheran or Catholic. There wasn’t a single Episcopalian kid in our neighborhood outside the Munger clan. But Mom, who married our dad, Harry, in this very church, made me toe the line: there was no way I was going to join a Lutheran choir, no matter how many cute girls may have been members! Mom’s love of the Episcopal/Anglican faith was as strong as her steely, Slovenian resolve. So strong that my Roman Catholic fiancé René and I were also married in this church by an Episcopal priest and a Catholic priest. My sister too, said her nuptials before the St. Paul’s altar. Over a decade ago, both René and I became ELCA Lutherans, joining Grace Lutheran in Hermantown. I figured Mom would be upset. But she wasn’t. I think she was happy that my family sought solace in the Christian faith. After our stepfather Duke passed away (his funeral was also held here), Mom spent Christmases at the Munger home and attended Christmas Eve candle light services with my family at Grace. She always, up until Easter of this year, refused to come forward for communion. Her belief, her faith, that the Anglican way was the only way, was that strong. Even when I urged, “But Mom, there’s an agreement in place that allows Episcopal and ELCA clergy to serve both faiths,” she remained unmoved. This Easter, Mom finally relented. She took communion at Grace without a word of encouragement from me. Something in Mom had changed. What it was, I can’t say. But I’m happy she decided to take communion with her family one last time regardless of the setting.

On behalf of Barbara’s family, I want to thank all of you for being here to celebrate the life of a beautiful, smart, loving, woman of faith  who made our lives better and, on occasion, made us smile. Rest, Mom. You earned it.

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                       Mom …

Barbara Jean Kobe Munger Tourville, the eldest daughter of John “Jack” Kobe and Eloise “Marie” Barber Kobe, was born on September 21, 1928, in Wadena, Minnesota. Jack, an immigrant from Slovenia, grew up and worked in the iron mines of Aurora where he met Marie¾a teacher¾while giving Marie a tour of the mine where he worked. The couple married, lived in Wadena, Iowa, and Minneapolis before settling in Duluth where Barb’s younger sister, Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler(“Sukie”), was born.

During the 1940s and early 50s, Barb and Sukie spent late spring, summer, and early fall at the Buena Vista, a family-owned resort on Bear Island Lake near Babbitt. The Kobe girls spent many weekends with their cousins (most notably, Jim and John Sale and Lizette “Bootsie” Barber (nee Grinden)).

Barb met Harry Munger at Duluth Denfeld High School and the couple became part of a close-knit crew of Hunters; a life-long Dinner Club that included the Monsons, Lundeens, Listons, Scotts, Tessiers, and the Nelsons.

Barb completed a four-year degree in medical technology at St. Scholastica. After marrying Harry, the newlyweds moved to St. Paul where Harry attended the St. Paul College of Law and Barb worked at Miller Hospital. The couple’s eldest child, Mark, was born in St. Paul in 1954. Upon Harry’s graduation from law school, the couple returned to Duluth, built a small house on Chambersburg Avenue, and added son David and daughter Anne to the family.

Barb was unique for her time in that she was college educated and worked outside the home at the Duluth Clinic. But after David joined the family, Barb became a stay-at-home mom and pursued an interest in gardening and flower arranging and judging. She also worked on various charitable causes: the Heart Association, Piedmont PTA, March of Dimes, Planned Parenthood, and others. The Munger family joined Holy Apostles Episcopal Church where Barb taught Sunday school and supervised the youth group.

As a member of the Duluth Lawyers’ Wives, Barb traveled extensively, gathering information and touring lockups, work that culminated in the establishment of the Arrowhead Juvenile Center.

            Barb took up tennis in her thirties and played until knee surgery ended her time on the court. She joined other youthful Piedmont moms and took ski lessons at Mont du Lac. Considered an elegant downhill skier, Barb carved graceful turns under magnificent control into her late seventies. After infecting her family with the “skiing bug”, Barb and Harry skied France, Yugoslavia, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Loch Lomond, Lutsen, Giant’s Ridge, Telemark, and Sugar Hills. Barb encouraged her children to join the Duluth Alpine Club and watched her kids race competitively. When Spirit Mountain opened, Barb served on the hill’s first Authority. Over the course of their marriage, Barb and Harry attended two Democratic National Conventions (and numerous local and state conventions) as delegates and alternates. She also became active in, and a proud member of, DAR.

            After thirty years of marriage, Barb and Harry divorced but remained friendly. Barb then met and married the love of her life, Duane “Duke” Tourville, a former ski jumper, avid downhiller, railroad engineer, and jazz drummer. During their marriage, Duke and Barb accompanied Wes and Shirley Neustal (owners of the Ski Hut) and other Duluthians to Montana to ski Bridger Bowl, Showdown, Red Lodge, and Big Sky.

            Duke and Barb also sailed Lake Superior in the Ransom II (Duke’s Bertram), vacationed in Europe and the Caribbean, traveled the US, and built homes in Superior, Wisconsin; on Island Lake; and a townhome on the St. Louis River in West Duluth. The couple remained active in the Episcopal Church, attending Holy Apostles (Duluth), Christ Church (Proctor), Trinity (Hermantown), and St. Paul’s (Duluth).

Barb loved hosting dinner and cocktail parties, “cutting a rug”, and enjoying Saturday afternoon jazz sessions at the Saratoga. Duke and Barb also attended the annual Red Flannels winter dinner/dance at the Kitch in the company of son Mark and daughter-in-law René.

            After Duke passed away in 2017, Barb remained in the townhouse on Bay Hill Trail. There, she met special friend and companion, Chuck Ralph. The couple enjoyed dining out, dancing, playing cribbage, and attending family gatherings. Following Chuck’s death in 2021, Barb continued to live independently until she moved to Scandia Homes in West Duluth in June of 2022. Barb later moved to Diamond Willow Assisted Living in Lester Park, residing there until her death on September 26, 2023: five days after her ninety-fifth birthday.

            Barb was preceded in death by her parents, her sister Sukie, husband Duke, ex-husband Harry, and special friend Charles “Chuck” Ralph. She is survived by her son, Judge Mark (René) Munger, son David (Diane) Munger, daughter Anne (David) Sarvela, ten grandchildren, thirteen great-grandchildren, beloved nieces Julie (Brad) Shafer, and Heidi (Nick) Kipp, numerous Kobe/Barber cousins, and oodles of friends from the Rat Pack, the Ski Hut group, DAR, and the Episcopal church.

            The family thanks the staff at Scandia Homes, St. Luke’s Hospital, the Bendictine, Ecumen, Diamond Willow, and Ecumen Hospice as well as Dr. Zach Lundstrom (and his nurse Patty) at St. Luke’s Internal Medicine for their thoughtful care of Barbara Jean.

A special thanks to Mark and Mary Bolf who watched over Barb after Duke’s passing and to Kathleen Smith and Angie Shambour who drove Barb to St. Paul’s for worship.

Visitation will take place at the Dougherty Funeral Home (600 E 2nd St, Duluth) from 5:00pm-7:00pm on 10/5/2023. A Celebration of Barb’s life will be held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (1710 E. Superior St., Duluth) on 10/6/2023 beginning at 11:00am.

In 2018, Barb and Sukie were present as guests of honor when Buena Vista Resort became the Northern Lights YMCA Family Camp. Memorials to the camp (YMCA of the North, P.O. Box 1450 Minneapolis, MN 55485-5901) or to the Greater Denfeld Foundation Memorial Fund (401 44th Ave W, Duluth, MN 55807) are appreciated in lieu of flowers.

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As Promised …

A Promised Land by President Barack Obama (2020. Crown. ISBN 9781524763169)

I’ll be upfront. I am a Liberal reviewing a memoir penned by one of my favorite Liberal politicians. But I’m not here to evaluate President Obama’s politics (though I deplore those who simply call him “Obama”). I’m doing a review of his latest book. So on with it.

A Promised Land’s early pages take you behind the scenes of lawyer Barack Obama’s formative years, highlighting his time as an organizer, his romance with Michelle, his beginnings in politics, and his affiliations with noted iconic figures such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The book’s beginning is concise, well written, reads at a fairly brisk pace, and leaves the reader waiting to turn the page.

The middle section of the memoir, wherein President Obama chronicles his leap from a single, unfinished term as a United States Senator to the Oval Office, begin with the same fevered, can’t-stop-reading, pace. But when the storyline merges with the administrative and legislative agendas of the first term of the Obama Presidency, the narrative gets a bit into the weeds, leaving the reader wanting the pace to pick up and return the story arc to its earlier adrenaline rush. Despite this slight lag in the memoir’s narration, the final chapters, when President Obama places you in the Situation Room as Navy Seal Team 6 breaches the security of Osama Ben Ladin’s Pakistani compound (the mission having just slightly better than fifty-fifty odds, memories of President Carter’s failure to rescue the Iranian hostages and Blackhawk Down (a rescue mission in Somalia under President Clinton)) are riveting. You’ll want to cheer aloud again when the madman behind 9/11 is found, killed, and dropped into the sea after his DNA is confirmed. At the book’s conclusion, the storyline is pulsing, swift, and uniquely hard hitting.

One thing I will add here is that (and this is coming from my Liberal bias) it’s amazing we once had a two-term president who actually can spell, write elegantly, and publish a fine piece of history without the need of a ghostwriter. That trait alone makes this book a winner and makes me wish the man who wrote it had come out stronger against the fraud who succeeded him in office.

4 stars out of 5. Every Faux News aficionado should be placed in a locked room and forced to read this book.



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