Simply Grand

Postcards by E. Annie Proulx (1992. Collier. 978002081185)

Sitting on a deck in northeastern Minnesota along the shores of beautiful Whiteface Lake, a serene and quiet environ, sipping a cold beer at height of waning summer, what could be better than to bathe oneself in pure, unadulterated literary brilliance? Get the point? This is Proulx at her very best. It is indeed worthy of all the accolades and awards and praise it received when it was released nearly 30 years ago.

Proulx frames her timeless story of love, loss, and family within a series of postcards, hence the novel’s title. Along this amazing journey, we meet Loyal Blood, his father, mother, sister, and brother and follow them across both time and the landscape as they seek to find relevance and companionship and a sense of belonging in mid-20th century America. There is no hero or heroine in this short, terse, quickly paced tale of angst and desire and longing. For the most part, Loyal is indeed the protagonist of the plot. But he is, as we quickly learn, not a good or kind or exemplary person. He is flawed, fatally so, as are essentially all the members of his immediate family and their neighbors. In the hands of a lesser novelist, that alone could lead one to conclude the book and seek solace in liquor stronger than a cold beer. But, and here is the key to enjoying this dark tale, in the hands of a master storyteller like Proulx, the Loyal family saga sings; if only in a somber, minor key.

If you haven’t read Proulx (The Shipping News, Close Range, and Brokeback Mountain being some of her better known titles), Postcards is a good place to start.

5 stars out of 5. A fine book club selection.



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It’s On!

The launch for the new memoir is set. Music, words, and a night of fun on October 7, 2021 beginning at 6:30pm. Hosted at the Theater of the North in the Fitger’s complex in Duluth by the Bookstore at Fitger’s, the evening will be moderated by former Mayor Don Ness, with music provided by Bill and Kate Isles. Free and open to the public. Here’s the link:

If you can’t make it, pre-order a book above!



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A Fine Bit of History

Stands Before His People: Enmegahbowh and the Ojibwe by Verne Pickering and Stephen Schaitberger (2020. Beaver’s Pond. ISB 978-1-6443-930-3)

Full disclosure. I’m a personal friend of the author, Rev. Steve Schaitberger. He and I worked together to form Trinity Episcopal Church in Hermantown, MN; consolidating two smaller mission churches in Duluth and Proctor. Steve and his late wife Margaret were also pre-readers of at least one, if not more, of my novels. And, if you read the blurbs on this biography’s back cover, you’ll see I gave it a big “thumbs up” before the book was published. That said, here’s what I think.

Enmegahbowh, or John Johnson, is a Minnesota historical figure that few non-Episcopalians have ever heard of. That’s a problem since the total population of Episcopalians in Minnesota is less than 30,000, making it a tiny sect of Christianity within the state. I was once a member of that church, rising to a seat on the Standing Committee, the controlling body of the Diocese of Minnesota. I am now an ELCA Lutheran. I write this history so that you understand my connection to the subject and the off-chance my review of the book may not be entirely subjective. But, after reading this tabletop biography over the past week, I have to say that the authors do an admirable job of detailing Enmegahbowh’s life and times; they have put together an exhaustive history of the interactions between the Ojibwe and the white settlers of Minnesota. That, in and of itself, is a service to anyone interested in Minnesota Native American history. In addition, Pickering and Schaitberger paint a complete portrait of the first Ojibwe to be elevated to the Episcopal priesthood in the state, including his attributes and character flaws as part of their work. The sections dealing with Enmegahbowh’s interactions with Bishop Whipple and Rev. Gilfillan are especially detailed and illustrative.

To be fair, at times, constant references to the various treaties and negotiations between the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the white “powers that be” becomes a tad tedious and drags the narrative. But this is, after all, a history and a biography and as I tried to do in Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story, because it’s likely the only book that will explore Enmegahbowh’s life, times, and relationship to the Episcopal Church in such detail, the authors have included anything remotely connected to his story. In particular, the early sections, dealing with the history of the Ojibwe’s eastward migration and their relationship to the Dakota is very well done and is needed to set the stage for the remainder of Enmegahbowh’s life story.

In the end, and this should be no surprise, despite Bishop Whipple’s steadfast support for Native rights (though always given with a paternal, condescending manner) and his priests’ hard work, the Ojibwe people were never supported by the national government in such a way as to achieve the successful Utopian dream the Bishop expected would take hold on White Earth and other Ojibwe reservations. The authors make this sad point very clear in the concluding chapters of this exhaustive work.

4 stars out of 5. A bit redundant but a must-read for anyone interested in Minnesota Native American and religious history.



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Always Willing to Learn

Writing the Novella by Sharon Oard Warner (2021. U of Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-6255-1)

I taught university courses for five years and I recognize that Ms. Warner is likely a very fine instructor. That having been said, when I bought this book, I was looking for something akin to Bird by Bird or On Writing: a more spiritual, pragmatic look at how to construct a novella. I wasn’t interested in reading a lesson plan for a college writing course. I am, as the title of this review suggests-as a self-taught writer-always willing to try new things, to learn from the masters, to stretch my abilities. But I am not interested in doing writing exercises or following a very rigid lesson plan to rework my creative craft. Maybe thirty years ago, this book would have been the key to me becoming a more successful author. Maybe if I had stuck to journalism at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, instead of bailing after a couple of quarters, I would be seeing my name in lights as a marquee author. I’m not sure. All I know is that, after slogging through this instructional tome, I came away slightly depressed and not really enlightened.

Ms. Warner uses three novellas as guideposts for the lessons she teaches. The constant reference to those three works as exemplars is helpful, for sure, as are the other examples given in the text. And the added quotations and insights from famous and not-so-famous authors regarding the size, format, and structure of novellas is welcome as well. But in the end, I was looking for, as I’ve said, a more cerebral, spiritual, organic look at writing. This book is not that.

2 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



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A Fine Finn

                                                Interview with Stephen Kuusisto

Mark Munger is a writer, journalist, and retired judge who finds Finnish American folks fascinating. He recently interviewed New York Times acclaimed essayist and poet, Stephen Kuusisto.

 MM:  A while back, I read The Planet of the Blind and wrote a very positive review of the book. Talk a bit about the process of writing memoir, about how one chooses what to leave in, what to take out.

SK:  This is a great question. I have a practice of writing more than I need, largely as a way to get scenes on paper. Tom Wolfe once said that nonfiction is much like the novel in that it depends at the primary level on scene writing. So I write as many scenes as I can, then decide what needs to go. In Planet of the Blind I had a long parody of the old TV Guide magazine where I took American sitcoms and turned all the characters into blind people as a kind of schadenfreude exercise. It was funny but didn’t make the book because it got in the way of more impelling moments.

MM: Both in Planet and in a later memoir, Have Dog Will Travel, you reveal family confidences, including reflections about you mother’s struggles with alcohol and your own struggles with bullying and being born with significantly impaired vision. Has your mother read the memoirs?

SK:     My mother read Planet of the Blind and was angry about it. Later she made peace with me by admitting the book was true. That took courage. She didn’t live to see Have Dog, Will Travel where I describe her violence. I was only able to be candid about that because my parents have passed away. It’s very difficult to write about trauma of any kind, whether it’s about sexual violence, bullying, drug and alcohol related distress, or the difficulties of being disabled or yes, a person of color. One often weeps while writing.

 MM: Being a lifelong owner of Labrador retrievers, I think I’ve an inkling of what it’s like to partner with a dog. But your first guide dog, Corky, was obviously so much more than that.

SK:     I’ve had four guide dogs  all of them Labradors. They’ve been equally good at guide dog work—serious, reliable, entirely great, but they’ve all been different in temperament. Corky for instance loved chasing rabbits; my second dog Vidal ate things, many of them not so good. He once at a pair of gym socks! My third dog Nira was the half-sister of Corky and was noble and sweet. My current dog Caitlyn is the one who follows me from room to room because she wants to be with me every minute. They’ve all been soulful, empathetic, and wise.

 MM: I found myself, in writing about my parents that with each draft, my critique softened. Did you experience anything similar as you edited your memoirs?

SK:     It depends on my mood and the needs of the narrative. For instance, how do you explain not getting your act together about your disability until you’re in your thirties? That’s not easy unless you tell the story of being a child of alcoholics who put his energies into a dysfunctional family. I loved my parents and I’ve tried to be generous to them—remarking for instance that they had limited educations and support in the 50’s when I was small. They didn’t know how to manage disability except to pretend it wasn’t an issue. But they were also messed up and I absorbed abuse that’s not OK. You pick and choose what to say and how to say it depending on the requirements of the story, I think.

 MM: Your father was an academic and the descendent of Finnish immigrants. I know you’ve visited Finland. What do you remember about those trips?

SK:     I travel to Finland frequently. In some respects because Helsinki is the first city I remember, the place holds a special position in my imagination. I love the cobblestones, open air markets, the glorious parks, the Baltic in all seasons. As an adult I love the classical music scene, the theaters, opera, and of course the apocalyptic rock and roll.

MM: You are also an award winning poet. Is it easier or harder to write poetry than memoir?

SK:     I can’t say whether one form of writing is easier than another. I tend to write quickly. My first drafts happen fast. Later I amend and edit. I tend to think poems (for me) come out of raw feelings—they can be tender or distressed—but prose is a bit more mediated by internal analyses. I’m not sure how to describe the difference.

 MM: Being of extremely impaired vision, what’s your process like in terms of writing? What physical process do you employ to write?

SK:     I used to write longhand with a pen and paper but I shifted to the computer. I just go into the cave of making (as Auden called it). I type and use screen reading software to read the pages back to me. For reasons I don’t understand I can’t dictate though the software for this is now exceptionally good.

 MM: In your memoirs, you’ve discussed the importance of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

SK:     I love the photo of Enrico Caruso guiding Helen Keller’s finger tips across his throat as he sings Samson’s aria about Samson losing his sight. Caruso was a peasant who grew up in poverty but, by the time of the photograph, he was as famous as Teddy Roosevelt. Helen Keller was also a public figure. There they are, having what a later generation might call a “Vulcan Mind Meld”. Whenever I think of this photo I want to be Helen’s fingertips. Imagine! Touching Caruso’s throat! Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say that the ADA makes things like this more likely, but it’s not much of a stretch. Not long ago, I was permitted to spin the bicycle wheel that is part of Marcel Duchamp’s famous sculpture. That’s the ADA.

MM: I love this quote from Stephen King: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write …” You must be a voracious reader.

SK:     I read voluminously, mostly by downloading books on the Mac. I read poetry, fiction, history, nonfiction, memoirs and noir murder mysteries. I just read Oscar Wilde’s “de Profundis” which he wrote during and after his unjust and cruel imprisonment. It broke him. Yet it’s a deeply affirming book about the life of the mind and the soul. I also recommend “Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears” by LÁSZLÓ F. FÖLDÉNYI.

 MM: My dream is to attend the Helsinki Book Festival and hawk my books to Finns. Any desire to attend the festival?

SK:     I’ll go with you!

MM: You’ve written about the importance of the Kalevala to one’s understanding of Finnish history, culture, and literature.

SK:     I talked to trees when I was six years old. There really were men inside those pines and I didn’t have to tell anyone. Years later, reading the Kalevala, I’d see I was a minor character in an ancient poem about wizardry. My job, the work of the inner life, is to never forget what the wizards have passed down. At the very least, I should distrust standard-issue transactional materialism. Even a simple pine tree is more interesting than is commonly supposed. The Kalevala is not for everybody but I know a Finnish banker who talks to a certain rock in the deep woods!

 MM: What are you working on right now?

SK:     I’m putting the final touches on a new book of poems. Here’s a poem from that book, due out later this summer:

Lamento (After Tomas Transtromer)

So much that can neither be written nor kept inside!

Such thin wrists; such brittle feelings.

I want to lie down behind the furnace

While outside springtime fusses with leaves.

 I can add more—like how the weeks go by

And how the little kit of my heart beats

 Or what avails from morning studies,   

Two moths on a sill with messages.

 I see how it is to not have much.I hear a winch groan in the next street.

 What is this whistling, birds or wires?

I want this month  to hurry.

 I write things like: “weeks go by,”

“Apple trees have sorrows too,”

 “Don’t lie about your writing…”

© 2021, Stephen Kuusisto

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Another Gem from Texas

Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry (1975. Pocket. ISBN 978-0-671-75872)

There’s no doubt that McMurtry’s best work stands next to his fellow Texan’s, Michener’s, as some of the best storytelling and writing in American letters over the last half of the 20th century. All of us grew up watching the Oscar-winning (Best Picture, Best Actress (MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Best Director (Brooks)) film. That’s great, the fact that McMurtry’s work received even wider acclaim. But the notoriety of the movie and its success creates a problem, at least for this reader. Shirley MacLaine, more than even Nicholson, is the most memorable character in the film because of her great performance. So when reading the book forty years later, trying to get MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway out of my head and allow McMurtry’s prose to fully form the story’s iconic protagonist became an issue, though, in the end, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this domestic drama.

Set in Texas, the plot and setting and every other character in this morality play take a back seat to Aurora. She is a force of both nature and privilege; a woman hell-bent on charting her own course. In the process of telling her story, and the story of her daughter Emma, the author has created a classic female leading character that won’t be forgotten whether it’s due to MacLaine’s performance on film or the imagery created by the novelist’s words. The novel is stunningly brilliant with one exception.

Whereas, at least in memory (spoiler alert), the affliction that brings Debra Winger’s Emma to her final climactic scenes in the movie captures a larger role on film and, if my memory serves me, propels the plot, in the book. McMurtry introduces Emma’s illness near the end of the lengthy novel, making it seem like the author couldn’t quite figure out how to bring the story to a close. It’s still a beautiful, tortured portrayal of mother and daughter but this one small thing, in my mind, keeps the book from being on the level of perfection attained by McMurtry in Lonesome Dove. That book. to my mind, is indeed flawless in every way.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. If your book club hasn’t read it, it should!



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The Siblings …

Foster Child: A Biography of Jodie Foster by Buddy Foster. 1997. Dutton. ISBN 9780525941439)

The short version of why I read this “tell all” about one of my favorite actors is that the author once appeared in my courtroom in Duluth, MN. I’ll flesh that out in a future memoir about my time as a writer and judge, but that event, along with my life-long adoration of Ms. Foster (not in a creepy way, like Hinckley but in a platonic, adulating way) compelled my curiosity. It took nearly 20 years for me to track down the book but I finally read it. Here’s my take.

The writing is fairly simplistic and without much heft, making this a breezy read. There is much repetition in Buddy’s constant drumbeat of how dysfunctional his childhood was, how absent his father was, how mean and sometimes crazed his mother was. It’s a bit distracting, reading the same allegations and failings over and over and over again, all of which makes it pretty hard to miss Buddy’s main point: Jodi Foster is tough, no-nonsense survivor, not unlike many of the characters she portrays. Given this significant flaw in the book (and the fact that Buddy had assistance from co-writer Leon Wagener in creating this family portrait) it would be easy to dismiss the book as Buddy’s attempt to earn a payday off the slender shoulders of his little sister. There might be some of that at work here. The sister was not pleased when the book was released: “I feel sad for him. Mostly, I feel sad for my 69-year-old mother, who has spent her life struggling to raise four children on her own … Buddy has done nothing but break her heart his whole life. That’s a kind of sadness no mother will ever get over.” (Quoting Ms. Foster from a 1997 CNN interview.)

As I said, there’s likely some element of seeking to regain his own fame (Buddy was the original Foster child actor; starring in both Hondo and Mayberry RFD before watching his career disintegrate and watching his sister become a household name) as well as a significant financial incentive for someone so close to a movie star to write a revelation of their shared childhood. And yet, despite all its flaws and potential conflicts of interest, the book draws you in because, well, she is Jodi Foster, a seemingly impenetrable fortress of female determination whose private life is virtually unknown while her public roles, from Taxi Driver to Silence of the Lambs to The Panic Room to The Mauritanian (2021) make it seem like we know the woman Jodi Foster has become. It is the portrait of Ms. Foster’s enigmatic nature, together with her brother’s reflections on her dedication to task, fierce independence, and intellect, all set against the backdrop of shared troubled lives (Buddy’s more so than hers) that makes this book a worthy read if you are interested in trying to discern “what makes Jodi tick”. That secret isn’t revealed in any sort of exactitude; just as the mystery of Ms. Foster’s sexual preference (or preferences), while touched upon ever-so-briefly, doesn’t lead the reader to any sort of obvious conclusion. Quite frankly, the woman is such a brilliant talent and mind, I don’t care who she loves (just as I don’t give a damn if Kevin Spacey is gay; I do care if he is a pedophile who abused his power). Her sexual orientation is her own damn business.

In the end, Foster Child is not nearly as hateful, nor revelatory as Ms. Foster’s contemporaneous remarks suggest. There’s value in what her brother has to say about their shared history. Yes, sometimes the arc of the story gets bogged down in repetition and yes, references to Jodi’s work are dated (she’s had further, great success in films following Contact, where the story ends, both as an actor and director). But there’s the gist of a story here for those who care to dive in.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



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Two from Kuusisto

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto (2019. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781451689808)


Old Horse, What is to be Done? by Stephen Kuusisto (2020. Tiger Bark. ISBN 9781732901260)



Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author/poet of these two books for the Finnish American Reporter. I’d run across Steve’s work when I picked up a copy of his first memoir, Planet of the Blind (see review in the archives of this blog) and was, frankly, blown away by the man’s command of language. Here, Kuusisto is at it again, chronicling his experiences with his first guide dog, Corky, in Have Dog. Crisp, succinct in language, the depictions of a family in turmoil and parental ignorance (how else do you explain a mother insisting her blind son is able to to ride a bicycle in traffic?) coupled with Kuusisto’s admiration and love for the gift of mobility Corky provided makes for a compelling, if tragically short (for this reader, anyway!) memoir that is a fine follow up to Planet.

4 and 1\/2 stars out of 5.

Old Horse is a slender collection of poems and prose poems based, not only in Kuusisto’s imagination and the Northeast of the United States where Kuusisto hangs his hat, but also with allusions to and scenes set in his  grandfather’s Finnish homeland. Clever, tender, and with bits of Finnish wit sewn into the fabric of this short, vibrant wording of his work, Kuusisto makes reading poetry, something I rarely do, a pleasure. I only wish, as with the author’s memoirs, this book was longer so I could spend more time in blissful enjoyment of words.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Both books are solid, engaging reads in their own way.





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Four Quick Hitters

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019. Random House Audio)

This is not The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a sequel in search of a purpose and organization. What do I mean, considering this book has been acclaimed as the conclusion of the story that was revealed in Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece? As a historian and political scientist, I’ve enjoyed reading stories of alternative societies and worlds presented by that master of fantasy, Ursula LeGuin. Atwood’s original plotting and characterizations in The Handmaid’s Tale sought and reached such lofty writerly heavens. This book does not. Since this is a snippet of a review, I’ll simply say this: The political and societal realities presented by the Gilead crafted in this sequel don’t add up in terms of military, political, and historical accuracy. With no nuclear weapons, without an air force or navy, how is Gilead, a oligarchy of misogyny, able to remain outside the former United States? That fundamental question is never really addressed by Atwood. Though the writing and dialogue are crisp and admirable, the plot, in my opinion, including the author’s failure to suspend my disbelief regarding political reality, renders this tale far less compelling that the original.

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

Mountain Time by Ivan Doig (1999. Scribner. ISBN 978-0684865690)

I was introduced to Doig by a Facebook friend because I’d reviewed Wallace Stegner’s work in various columns. While wandering around Kaua’i on a recent vacation from retirement, I stopped in at Talk Story Bookstore and picked up a used copy of Mountain Time. The tale of a magazine reporter, Mitch Rozier and his girlfriend is full of emotion and beautiful scenery echoing my own personal love for Montana, where most of the story takes place. A simple, yet compelling plot draws Mitch and Lexa (the girlfriend) and Lexa’s gadfly sister back to their shared home and their past. That said, this is not Stegner. Doig is a good writer, at least in this outing, but not a genius. Wallace Stegner, for me, remains exactly that.

4 stars out of 5.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (2004. Vintage. ISBN 978-1-4000-3342-3)

After plowing through all the magazines and books I’d brought along on my Kaua’i vacation, I needed a book to read on the plane coming home. I convinced my buddy Ron McVean to stop at the Womb Bookstore in Kapa’a. While the store is tiny, maybe 100 titles in all, I managed to find something to whet my readerly appetite. I’d devoured The Bluest Eye, one of Morrison’s best works, and wasn’t disappointed by Song of Solomon. Morrison’s lyrical, somewhat magical way of telling the story of Milkman Dead, a Black man on a quest to understand his past, his upbringing, and his history, is filled with compelling characters, sadness, humor, and angst. It wasn’t quite up there with The Bluest Eye but is a worthy read; one that would serve book clubs well.

4 stars out of 5.

In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin (2012. Mariner. ISBN 978-0544102606)

In terms of style and literary heft, Helprin remains one of America’s best. This tale of a Jewish veteran of WW II, Harry Copeland, and his love for heiress Catherine Thomas, is close to a masterpiece of craft, language, and story. Of all the books I read on my Hawaiian vacation, this one was the most compelling. Harry’s descent, from law-abiding business owner to criminal, takes time. The reader is required to exercise patience as Helprin slowly reveals the plot, the twists and turns of circumstance, and the inner lives of his characters. And as the skin of the literary onion is peeled away, the reader is rewarded with literature in its most elegant form.

4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.



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A Treat of an Interview






Non-Finn Mark Munger interviewed Finnish actor and musician, Irina Björklund to catch up on the busy artist’s latest projects.

MM: Let’s start with your new streaming series. What can you tell readers of FAR about the ideas/themes behind Peacemaker and the character you play, Ann-Mari?

IB: Peacemaker is the most important role I’ve had far. There are different kinds of entertainment – the kind that you make for the simple reason of pleasing the audiences (comedies, horrors etc), and the kind that have a deeper goal – to generate discussion. Peacemaker is a peek into the world of peace negotiators – people who deal with crises, wars, mass graves – and try to help those affected find a peaceful solution to their problems. I play Ann-Mari Sundell, Finland’s former minister of foreign affairs, sent on a mission by the UN to help negotiate peace between Turkey and the Kurds – not an easy goal to attain.

MM: Our mutual friend, Gerry Henkel, gave me a heads’ up about Peacemaker. As a fan of Ambush and other films you’ve done, I’m glad I got a chance to watch Ann-Mari’s character unfold. Talk about the transition from being a young actor playing the romantic lead in Ambush to playing Ann-Marie a mature, confident, intelligent diplomat charged with a daunting task?

IB:  It’s funny you would mention my role in Ambush as a romantic lead since it’s a war epic. At the time (in 1998) it was my most important role to that point – as it brought the details of the Continuation War to younger filmgoers. Over 20 years have passed since Ambush; I’ve made some good and some not-so-good choices along the way.  My main objective as an artist stays the same – to concentrate on works that have a message somewhere, and to contribute to making this world a better place.

MM: Fill FAR readers in about the settings used and the cast of Peacemaker.

IB: We filmed most of the series in Gran Canaria because of the versatile landscapes the island offers. Some shorter episodes were shot in southern Spain. Ann-Mari’s home is set in the western Finnish archipelago, in Nauvo – beautiful! Other main characters include Richard Sammel (Inglorious Bastards), Louise Peterhoff (The Bridge), Mikko Nousiainen, and Kardo Razzazi.

MM: I just watched Kate Winslett on CBS Sunday Morning talk about her struggle to secure meaningful roles as she ages. She’s but one of many female actors who’ve pushed back against the lack of roles available for women of a certain age by finding their own projects to produce, by adding director to their resume, and the like. How has it been for you, both in Europe or elsewhere, in finding roles that are appropriate for your craft and talent? Have you directed?

IB: Personally, I’ve had to wait to be nearly 50 in order to start getting truly interesting proposals. Sure, there may still be more out there for younger women to play, but as in everything in life, it’s not the quantity; it’s the quality. I did feel it was important to portray a middle-aged woman who’s not afraid of showing her age. Ann-Mari carries her gray hair with pride and doesn’t use make up; her person is enough. I’ve never directed, and I don’t think I will. Acting is not my only aspiration in life. When I’m not acting, I’m working on music projects. A balance between all of those things, along with finding happiness in enjoying my family, my home, and the nature I’m surrounded by… is what I’m looking for in life.

MM: How has the public reaction to Peacemaker been? What will it take, do you think, to make the fiction of Peacemaker into reality?

IB: The message that Peacemaker sends is that an outsider alone can’t fix things. Ann-Mari is just a facilitator. As Finland’s former President Martti Ahtisaari said in his brilliant 2008 Nobel acceptance speech – “Peace is a question of will”; the parties have to find the will to come to peace. I’m just an actor. I really shouldn’t be asked about these things! But to be serious, Peacemaker has gotten a great response from people who work in the field and from audiences, too. It’s been nominated for five Golden Venlas in Finland. I couldn’t be happier.

MM: I found Peacemaker on the streaming service Topic. Are there other ways for FAR readers to connect with the series? Will there be a season two?

IB: Topic or Amazon Prime are the ways to go. I’m hopeful for a second season, but I can’t promise anything yet. If it were up to me, I’d gladly make playing Ann-Mari my personal retirement plan!

MM: You’re also an accomplished musician. Your latest album, Barely Ann-Mari reflects your Peacemaker character in song.

IB: Barely Ann-Mari is unique in that it’s written from the point of view of the character I play in Peacemaker. It reflects her inner thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears; feelings she’s not allowed to show in the series. I started writing lyrics as I prepared for the role in order to get to know the character and realized I had material for an album. The collaboration with Pauanne came about naturally, as the members of the group have been members of my own band for years. We found a new sound for this album by letting Finnish folk music portray Ann-Mari’s Finnish roots and English lyrics highlight her international expertise. As an artist, I like to explore new styles but I recognize my limits: I wouldn’t attempt hard rock or opera! 

MM: Where can FAR readers find the album?

IB: It’s distributed by Nordic Notes and available digitally worldwide through the link below. You can also find it on iTunes, Amazon, and other listening platforms. Amazon also carries the physical CD.

MM: Hopefully, someday the limitations imposed by COVID-19 will be lifted and you can perform the music from the album live.

IB: I happened to get lucky. I booked the release tour for the album (in Finland) last October. Despite the pandemic, only one show was cancelled. The venues were mostly sold out within the limits allowed. It was a touching experience – as we knew that the people who came to hear us thought it worth the risk of possible contamination to attend.

MM: You’ve recorded music, I believe, in Finnish, Swedish, French and, in Barely Ann-Mari, English. Talk a bit about the flexibility of language and how that assists in your art and your world-view.

IB: I grew up traveling with my family and living in Sweden, Finland, and France. I later spent fourteen years in California before moving back to France. I had to learn Turkish for Peacemaker. That was incredibly hard. But knowing other languages helped understand the logic behind Turkish. I enjoy playing with accents in my work. For Ann-Mari, I use the typical English accent of a Swedish speaking Finn – rather than the one of a Finnish speaking Finn. These details make a difference in the character.

MM: What’s in the immediate future for Irina?

IB: After three years spent in the world of peacemaking, I couldn’t be happier taking time off. At home in France I’m concentrating on my personal peace, which includes growing vegetables, caring for farm animals, and homeschooling our son. Ideas are brewing. I recently read David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet, which was life-changing. It’s a must-read for all of us. Another lovely and thought-provoking French novel I always recommend to readers of all ages is Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees. We all can make a difference for the future of the planet and humanity if we act now. Following the novel’s theme, I’m going to plant one hundred and sixty acorns next week. I dare you and the readers of FAR to do the same!


Peacemaker Topic watching link:

Barely Ann-Mari album sales link:

Peace is a Question of Will music video by Irina Björklund & Pauanne featuring President Martti Ahtisaari:




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