A Tale of Two Cities


The two covers above, considered side by side, are a wonderful comment on the marketing psychology of respective publishing operations. On the left we have the original U.S. hardcover and on the right, the French language version of the same book. So, let’s see…what’s the reader’s first impression going to be upon perusing the artwork and design?

American readers are apparently in for a hard-edged trek somewhere between Scott of the Antarctic and Call of the Wild. Cold, mean and macho.

And those jaded French surrender monkeys are, as usual, lacking in sufficient testosterone reserves and go all girly on us.

Or, to look at it another way; the French publisher figured out there are women in the book.

Somewhere along the line I developed a penchant for strong female characters; perhaps because so much of my formative education involved surviving encounters with them. Partially this goes back to a muddy, rainy night in Vietnam on which we were roughly handled by a Vietcong unit. After things quieted down we swept the area and discovered that all our adversaries had left behind were two bloody bras.

So there be Amazons.

To be fair, Absolute Zero does not always portray the kind of woman you’d want passing the Brie at your book club. Jolene is something of a gamer and a scrambler and is a former stripper and hoodlum as well as a recovering junkie. (For purposes of maintaining moral trim I did include a righteous nurse to serve as a counter weight.) All of which reminds me of an incident that is humorous only in hindsight. Once, at a sub-zero north woods retreat, I was surrounded by a group of women who had a decidedly politically correct bias. So they objected to Jolene as a character. It ended on a sour note when, backed into a corner, I tried to explain that it would be difficult for me to contrive a thriller scenario with the kind of female they’d approve of. Like, the thrills might be hard to come by…

Huck with Chuck



When my daughter was in the second grade a teacher approached me about leading a Great Books class for advanced readers. Upon agreeing, I was handed a thick syllabus that outlined, in fulsome detail, how the instructor should best approach the project. The line about having the students make culturally appropriate Paper Mache masks and costumes to accompany the diverse assignments sticks in my mind.

After wading through several selections I tossed the teaching aid aside and decided we’d read Call of the Wild by Jack London. That first session was an experiment in mini crowd control – Buck’s sled dog adventures pretty much got lost in my attempts to evolve a strategy to keep bright, exuberant seven-year-olds on task. I backed off the project until the kids were older.

jmp huck with Chuck

I came back more organized for grade six. The kids were more mature. The group was larger. The principal agreed – if the parents signed off – to let me tackle the Unabridged Huck Finn. Let’s be clear, this was a group of white kids in small Stillwater, Minnesota. Over the last 120 years no pat answer has emerged to resolve the controversy about the N-word that occurs 215 times in the text. We weren’t reading aloud or bandying the term about. I’m mindful that changing demographics could establish new standards of taste regarding the past and Twain may wind up shunted into a quaint corner alongside apologists for the Confederate battle flag.  That hasn’t happened yet so I proposed to take Huck Finn neat and skip the watered-down version and to approach the story in a larger literary and historical context.

History is pretty dull stuff to sixth graders. So I sought to sprinkle some pixie dust on the musty pages. There’s a statue in front of the old Stillwater court house that remembers local men who went into the First Minnesota Regiment during the Civil War. On the second day of Gettysburg, 262 Minnesotans crashed headlong into 1600 Alabamians and held them in check for ten crucial minutes. Only 47 came back.  Some historians argue that they plugged a hole that saved the battle and the war. If they’d failed? Probably there would have been no Gettysburg Address. And maybe no Huck Finn? And it’s possible that one of the few survivors of that regiment came home to this town and, in 1885, read the same book we would be reading. The idea was to unlimber the imagination to connect the dots.

But the real reason I wanted to tangle with Huck was the earthy vernacular and characters Twain used to bust American writing away from the genteel straightjacket of the English Novel. (For years I’ve been arguing with grammatically-correct copy editors: But that ain’t the way people talk!) Huck tells his story in a voice not heard in lecture halls and drawing rooms. Twain expressed the moral and social contradictions of the antebellum south in the words of an uneducated river kid. His presumption shocked the literary establishment of the time. Sort of like a gunshot in the theatre. Imagine Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy being called to his regiment and leading an attack at the Battle of New Orleans. And picture Huck having a fictitious grandfather – an illiterate backwoods rifleman – who drilled the fine English gentleman through the brains with a well-aimed shot. Not the most pleasant thought to go with your Masterpiece Theatre but it does contain a whiff of real history.

Highfalutin gestures to history and literature aside, how do you impress on 11-year–olds the dilemma of conscience faced by roughneck, redneck Huck Finn? What’s the equivalent today of helping a runaway slave escape to freedom? How about you bump into an escaped convict on the way home from school and decide to help him make a dash for the Canadian border?

In the limited time available I sought to promote critical thinking which, I tried to demonstrate, was different than the thinking of critics. Thousands of critics have savaged Huck as being uncouth and vulgar going back to 1885, and more recently, as being racist. Their names are lost. Gotta be a reason Twain’s book keeps chugging on, despite its contextual baggage. Maybe because it’s a profoundly human American story.

Other class notes: I made the kids stand up on their desks when they read their mini-essays to overcome stage fright. They had to sit up straight during class. I told them every word they set down is like a bullet, it goes somewhere and has to be accounted for. Anybody who got out of line was out the door, period. No appeal, no coming back.

I was trying to get them to stretch their imaginations and trust their instincts about the way people really talk, think and act. I asked them: What strikes you as special about your world at eleven? You’ll only be here once. Write it down.


Seventh grade meant Junior High, a more structured world than the “open” elementary school where I’d started the group. I met with the English teachers, listened politely to their recommendations and informed them I’d like to try Catcher in the Rye. They were slightly rattled so I went to the principal who agreed to the Salinger, if the parents would.

Stringing Huck and Holden Caulfield together starts to suggest a theme of two dead-eyed kids puzzling their way into the adult world. Okay, let’s pretend Huck and Holden are sitting in the desk next to you as we consider the basic question: Where are we, what’s going on and why should anybody care? And sit up straight and pay attention because you can’t balance a razor on a limp noodle. Think!

I sent them home for the summer with a pound of fudge and a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and Rules of Style by Shrunk and White.


In eighth grade the kids were organized enough to seize the initiative because they correctly sensed I was angling to read Moby Dick. In self defense they lobbied for The Book Thief. So we got into the story and I asked them what they had in common with the young heroine. At first they were puzzled; this German girl in a bombed World War II city whose family offered sanctuary to a Jewish refugee? Slowly it dawned that they, too, were living in a country that was at war. So we engaged that subject for a while until they caucused and decided to stop reading the book. They didn’t buy the somewhat whimsical voice of the narrator, DEATH. It didn’t work, for the group, as a device equal to the Holocaust subject matter. The young razors were starting to hone their edges.


In ninth grade, encouraged, I threw an ornery little volume at them; A Reader’s Manifesto. An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose by B.R. Myers. The long essay engages in what the Wall Street Journal called “useful mischief” as it cheerfully pole-axes literary sacred cows like DeLillo, Proulx and Cormac McCarthy. Myers suggests that if you think the writing seems over-cooked and the story drags – you may not be inadequate to fathom current literary standards – you may be right.

So in the spirit of Socrates “corrupting the young,” the group became a general bull session with subjects like: consider that the popular movie The Social Network co-exists in the same time frame as the independent film story Winter’s Bone.

At the end of junior high the little gang took the Principal’s Award, the Orchestra Director’s Award and the Excellence Awards in English, Math, Science, Spanish and AP Geography.

Minnesota Writer’s Deep Woods Workshop…

…Fails Big Time!

So there I am, November, 2011, sitting in my hidey hole in the north woods up on a granite ledge overlooking a clearing. The previous year I’d shot a twelve point buck from this spot. So I came back and remodeled the site. I put up a rough frame with overhead cover, added a desk platform and brought in a camp chair.

The weather tending moderate I figured I could get some work done.

So I was hunched over my notepad scribbling away when I caught movement from the corner of my eye. My rifle was propped up on the far side of the blind. And I was so taken with my little condo in the woods that I didn’t use enough brush for camouflage, which in effect had Comp 1 ( reaching across a picture window. Mr. Deer, who had much better eyes than I did, just stepped off the trail and by the time I got the rifle on line all I saw in the scope was a flash of hindquarters disappearing into the Superior National Forest. See picture of empty meat pole.

Last season I tossed out the writing desk and the chair and paid more attention. Eight point buck.

Lesson learned: When you write write. When you hunt hunt.

Footnote to the 2012 season. I was hunkered down on the morning of November 6 and my cell phone buzzes because they just put up a tower across the lake. It’s 8 a.m and the Republican National Committee is asking if they can count on my vote? I told them I was in the woods with a loaded rifle hunting white tail deer and I’d already voted the other way. In the next month I would regret the cavalier remarks juxtaposing guns and politics.

While I’m not much of a gun guy, I believe that deep woods venison is better to eat than some poor cow that was fattened on corn and spent its last days on a feedlot knee deep in manure. So I fired the rifle six times in Minnesota during 2012. Four times at the rifle range to check the zero. And twice in the woods. Then I put the thing away –  after removing the bolt and storing separately –  until next year.

Bottom line, the heated arguments about the second amendment scare me off. The left side is usually ignorant about weapons and too many times the right side is waving a bloody flag in your face – a flag with someone else’s blood on it in most cases.

Guns and rhetoric are far too easy to come by right now in our country. Less obvious is the common sense insight that gun ownership, coupled with a political stance and a firearms safety course, does not confer skill in the chancy business of gunplay. Recall the scene in the movie, Glory, when the crack-shot squirrel hunter is braced by an officer and put under real world pressure and falls apart?

Maybe there’s a reason why veterans are portrayed as going careful around replacements – who certainly show up in a combat zone better trained than anybody buying self defense courses on the wide open market. The “FNGs” – the effing new guys – ain’t been out where the targets shoot back yet.

Writing a wall…


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Photos by Jean Pieri

Building a book

Over the last couple years I‘ve been shaping and reshaping a novel. During the same period I converted a pile of old Stillwater, Minnesota limestone into a series of retaining walls on my side lot. I came away thinking that the process of fitting stones together is not unlike getting words to function side by side.

Okay, there are formulas you can employ. Prefabricated stone is available with tabs and slots that can be stacked snug as Legos. But then you get a wall with the same motif repeated endlessly. This technique works just fine for builders to clean up the exterior of an insurance company or a car lot. And not a few writers successfully use the method to generate content to keep readers coming back for more.

But why do anything easy? I had a picture in my mind of a wall that would look like it was left behind by Caesar’s Tenth Legion 2,000 years ago. So I started with about sixty tons of rock dumped in a heap. May I suggest that 110,000 words that eventually become a novel will involve the same amount of heavy lifting as sixty tons of limestone. Footnote: A cubic foot of limestone weighs 163 pounds. (That’s why Chris Kobs, a strong young guy with a flair for stonework, is in some of the pictures to backstop me. Geologist Brian Lentz helped with the final courses along the sidewalk. I was going on 68 when the project kicked off and I have severe arthritis in both thumb joints. Pass the Aleve.)

So how do you translate the idea in your head into a freestanding dry stone wall? Or a 400 page book that’s made out of paper and glue or digital bits?

If you aspire to reach beyond assembling a formula – read instructions, insert tab a into slot b –  an important lesson I learned the hard way is to avoid big mistakes at the beginning.

When I first started writing I would get up every day and type a thousand words. An accomplished writer buddy would then go through a stack of pages, draw a diagonal line across ninety percent of it and at the end render the verdict, “Nah.” The operative advice was along the lines of: “There’s a story in here but it’s encrusted in bullshit.”

So keyboard masturbation equals overwriting. Where’s the simple declarative sentence? What’s with this modifier that mixes sour with the metaphor? Your character has blue eyes on page 16 and brown eyes on page 63? Getting a handle on the craft will help you make the cut from “good try” to “good job.” Think fifty rejection letters.

So rather than just jump in and start moving stuff around you spend a year evaluating this pile of rocks and thinking of ways they could fit together. You scribble napkin sketches with patterns. You put in hours of research that are informed by scars on mashed fingers and toes acquired slinging tons of rocks on learning projects.

Like with writing, you keep going because you have to.

You’re convinced that there’s a wall in that heap of limestone waiting to tell itself. You just have to keep arranging the pieces until they talk to you.

You don’t get to look at a pile of a hundred thousand words and see a story staring back at you. At least not right off. But you do get to untangle your pile of rocks and start to sort them out, looking for a theme. The shape of the big ones will be the anchors that determine the structure. Then you start assembling the secondary stones. Some will complement, others will accent or transition or even take off in riffs of nuance. Then you prepare the ground…

(I was working in a hardpan driveway that had never been paved since it saw its first Model T. Wagon wheels and hooves packed it down before that. The place was homesteaded before the Civil War. It defied a Bobcat. We had to break it up with a 90 pound jackhammer.)

Then you place the foundation stone. Next you wander through your chaotic limestone field and look for that second rock that will work along side the first one.

If you glance through the gallery above you’ll see some close fits. Sometimes this is sheer serendipity. More likely the stones were placed, leveled and then discarded a dozen times or more. When luck deserts you it’s time to reach for the chisels and the mash hammer and the rock pick and the shims. Maybe Flaubert had a poor neighbor who worked in stone. Picture him on a search for  “the right rock.”

I’m more fond of the story where the guy asks Hemingway why he rewrote the ending twenty times and he says, “to get the words right.”