Montana Book Reviews: Worth a Read
By Doug Mitchell
A blue suitcase full of memories at the center of a poetic work of fiction. A thought-provoking book about business that challenges readers to tilt their perspectives. A set of stories that help with reconnecting, dealing with death, a visit to heaven and offer a twist on the classic Western novel. Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a multifaceted set of books as broad as the Big Sky is wide.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Hogarth – 2014
I was introduced to Anthony Marra’s extraordinary book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by my college-age son Andrew. We were visiting my brother in Washington, D.C., and we took one of those father-son walks to catch up. We were wandering down Connecticut Avenue and stopped into a bookstore called Politics and Prose.
As we were browsing, my son went to the fiction section and took a moment to rearrange a shelf so one of the books – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena as it turns out – would have its full cover facing outward instead of just the spine.
Curious, I asked about this peculiar practice. He told me the book he was rearranging was the first novel written by one of his professors and that, although he hadn’t read it yet, whenever he went to a bookstore he tried to highlight the book by giving it a bit more shelf space.
While I had never heard of either the book or the author, I thought it only appropriate that I purchase a copy. Boy, am I glad I did.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is one of the best, if not THE best book I’ve ever read. Period. It is startling, challenging, important and poetic. Every page is a gift – even the cover – and I found myself regularly putting the book down in the middle of a chapter just to give myself time to reflect on the writing and to spend time with the feelings and thoughts the writing inspires.
Set in war torn Chechnya, the book follows the actions of Akhmed, an artist turned failed physician turned reluctant activist, as he turns his life upside down to save Havaa, the 8-year old daughter of a neighbor.
Havaa’s single-parent father, Dokka, has been taken by the secret police in the dark of the night, leaving Havaa and her blue suitcase behind; alone and afraid.
This is where the book begins and where the book’s center can be found; in turmoil, relationships, decisions, despair and hope. From that center, we as readers go on a journey with Akhmed, Havaa and a cast of compelling, complex and very authentic characters who weave a tale that is at the same time depressingly stark and astonishingly rich.
The cover of my version of the book captured this dichotomy perfectly. The entire cover was black and white except for Havaa’s blue suitcase. Perfect.
I’m not going to tell you much more about the story, because doing so feels a bit like cheating you out of the many, many gifts Marra has in store.
Take the suitcase. I’ve already mentioned it, and it’s on the front cover, so I think it’s OK for me to talk about it. In a lesser writer’s hand, the suitcase could just be a suitcase. But Marra transforms it and its contents into a story all its own.
Havaa collected in the suitcase gifts given to her and her father by refugees seeking shelter in their home. Many of these items have special meaning to our story. You’ll be astonished by the connectivity between even little things in the book.
The author has chosen every word carefully, and in so doing shows such a deep respect for the reader and for the characters he brings to life through his prose.
A couple of weeks ago I went into Book Passages, my favorite bookstore in the San Francisco Bay area, and found myself rearranging the display, much the way my son did in Washington, D.C.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena deserves a prominent place in bookstores and on the “must read” list of fans of good literature everywhere.
Tilt: Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers
By Niraj Dawar
Harvard Business Review Press – 2013
For those of you familiar with my reviews, this book may seem a bit of a departure from the norm. In some ways it is, and in others it isn’t.
I like books that challenge me to think and I really treasure writing – fiction or nonfiction – that challenges me to think differently.
Tilt, published by the Harvard Business Review Press, challenges the reader to both think differently and to use that new knowledge to inform organizational growth.
Before you dismiss Tilt as just another “how-to” business book, give me a moment of your time to convince you otherwise.
Is it a good business book? Yes.
Is it more than that? Indeed it is.
For me, and I think for many, the message author Niraj Dawar delivers so effortlessly in Tilt is transferrable to the work of community building, nonprofit work and advocacy. In its essence, the book is about taking a fresh look at how we do things and for whom we are doing them.
I guess it’s kind of like the old time movie that shows the art connoisseur closely examining a painting and exaggeratedly “tilting” his or her head to one side to get the full picture.
Without giving away the book’s premise, let me give you a CliffsNotes example. One of the stories Dawar tells is about the competition in the explosives sector as it relates to the sale of explosives to create gravel. The gravel producers need explosives to turn rock into certain sizes of gravel. They use explosives to do this and the competition for that business is fierce and highly price driven. One of the competitors, tiring of consistently having to reduce prices, decided to “tilt” their head and think a bit about what their customer really wanted. In thinking about it, they decided the company only wanted explosives as a mechanism to break rock into specific sizes. The company decided to “tilt” its business model away from selling explosives and toward the customer’s need – guaranteed gravel of a certain size.
This changed the competitive playing field from explosives as a product, to explosives as a service. On this new playing field there was now only one competitor; the one that “tilted.”
This is game changing stuff. Think about it. What if we took a similar approach to thinking about what “customers” want in the area of education? In the nonprofit world? In government?
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of business-speak in this book.
You’ll learn about “playing in the consideration set” and about “cognitive inertia” and even get a primer on “network effects.”
Thankfully, you’ll get that information in a way that makes Tilt read much more like a set of stories than a textbook. Dawar’s writing style is engaging and accessible, and I argue, very translatable.
One of the first chapters demonstrates this transferability and sets the tone for the book.
In it, Dawar walks the reader through an exercise to determine if an entity is “tilted” upstream or downstream. In his terms, upstream means tilted toward infrastructure and capacity and downstream means toward the end customer. This is a test in which nearly every enterprise can and, I would argue, should engage on a regular basis.
There are good reasons to “tilt” both directions, but one should understand which way they are “tilting” and own and capitalize on that intentional decision.
Dawar and his exciting book Tilt don’t presume to tell us how to think, but it provokes us to think, to wonder and to grapple with new ideas. Isn’t that exactly what a good book should do?
Moving Through Grief, Reconnecting with Nature
By Jay Dufrechou
Muswell Hill Press – 2015
While I count Jay Dufrechou and his family as friends, (our kids went to school together here in Helena) I have to admit I have not been intimately familiar with his work. That’s why I was delighted when Dufrechou wrote me and asked if I would consider taking a look at his book Moving Through Grief, Reconnecting with Nature. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about his work and to delve into an area with which I don’t have a great deal of familiarity.
Initially, I feared the book might be a clinical text that would be above my pay grade. Dufrechou has both a doctorate and law degree, and is a professor of transpersonal research ethics at Sophia University. So you can see how I might think I was out of my depth.
But in the end, I was pleasantly surprised. Dufrechou’s writing style is bright and refreshing.
He takes his subject – but not himself – very seriously and fills the book with personal stories that make the subject matter very easily accessible.
The content won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the topic of connecting our emotional selves with the nature that surrounds us will resonate with all of us – especially those of us in Montana.
Moving Through Grief, Reconnecting with Nature is a spiritual journey that has power, grace and a message that will be transformative for many readers.
Lucy’s Biggest Fish to Fry
By Tom Stockburger
iUniverse – 2013
I read this book in two big bites. Author Tom Stockburger is a talented writer and University of Montana graduate who shares his story of losing his wife to cancer.
Lucy’s Biggest Fish to Fry gives voice to a story all too common in today’s world. All of us know families we care about who are today going through what Tom, Lucy, Keely and Kyle Stockburger went through beginning in 2009 when Lucy was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
While I am sure the book was a catharsis for Stockburger to write, it is much more than that.
It is a wonderful and frank discussion about the decisions, emotions, victories and defeats this disease brings to people and families and communities around the world.
I want my kids to read it. My wife, Julie, and I are healthy now, but who knows. By sharing his experience so openly and eloquently, Stockburger provides a road map of sorts from which we can learn a great deal.
While I cried when Lucy died, Lucy’s Biggest Fish to Fry is not in any way a sad book. In fact, it is inspirational and empowering in its focus on hope and family and love.
Just Over The Ridge
Sweetgrass Books – 2015
Fort Smith native and current Reed Point resident Aud Steinfeldt’s debut novel, Just Over The Ridge, is at its best painting the magnificent landscape of Montana.
Set in north central Montana, the novel is on its face about the life and times of its main character John Tousette. Under the surface though, like Montana itself, it covers a lot of ground.
While it wasn’t my favorite book of the summer, Just Over The Ridge is a good story and Steinfeldt is clearly a writer gathering her considerable talents.
If you think for a minute, though, that you are picking up a modern day Loius L’Amour feel-good western story, you will be sorely mistaken. This book is dark at times, and the hero doesn’t act the way we expect our fiction heroes to act. While I found myself uncomfortable at times with the direction of the story, I tip my cap to Steinfeldt for not letting Just Over The Ridge be just another formulaic novel.
That said, this book has plenty of the things we have come to expect in a western story – guns, hunting, love, lust and alcohol.
In the end though, I think it is a book about redemption and I’m interested to see what Steinfeldt has in store next.
Doug Mitchell is the Montana Magazine book reviewer. He writes from Helena.
Montana Book Review: Bookshelf gems
By Doug Mitchell
A pair of outside-the-box mysteries by a veteran writer and local newcomer. The story of one man’s lifelong quest to find Sasquatch – who ran off with his mom. A superhero picture book perfect for bedtime, the story of a boxing warrior, a historical look at Montana roadways and great gardening tips. Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a versatile set of books that should be on everyone’s reading list.
Open Road Integrated Media, New York – 2015
The best way for me to describe how I consumed William “Gatz” Hjortsberg’s latest book, Mañana, is that I devoured it. The act of reading the first page is an almost conspiratorial act that had me grabbing for the coffee pot to prepare for what promised to be a long evening of reading.
As I did so, I harkened back to Bette Davis’ famous line in All About Eve, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Hjortsberg is one of Montana’s premier writers. His 1978 classic, Falling Angel, launched a career that has included the publication of a broad spectrum of work including significant success as a screenwriter with major Hollywood films Angel Heart (Robert De Niro) and Legend (Ridley Scott, Tom Cruise).
With Mañana, Hjortsberg roars back on to bookshelves with a book that I believe will find both critical and commercial success.
Let me be clear though, this book will not be for everybody. Within the first pages we meet the book’s main character (Tod) as he wakes up in a cabana in Mexico next to a dead prostitute (Frankie) – and remembering that the previous evening he had taken heroin for the first time. Bazinga!
Set in the 1960s in the Mexican beach town of Barra de Navidad, Mañana is a novel over 40 years in the making and in part comes from the first-person places and experiences of the author. Hjortsberg actually owned a bright yellow Volkswagen bus called “Bitter Lemon” and used that memorable vehicle, and icon of the 1960s, to transport Tod as he careens through the pages of this amazing story.
Part murder mystery, part tale of discovery, Mañana is filled with unapologetic prose that transports the reader to a different place and time with characters that will more likely repulse than charm most readers.
You’ll meet Linda and Nick, Doc and Shank, and the mysterious Freddy.
You’ll go to bull fights and chicken fights as Tod tries desperately to find both Linda and the answer to exactly who killed Frankie – hoping against hope that it wasn’t him.
I described my feelings about the writing in a conversation with the author as though T.C. Boyle and Hunter S. Thompson had run headlong into each other and created a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-type combination of styles that turn out to be delicious.
The sculpted, elegant prose of Boyle colliding with the revolutionary urgency and honesty of Thompson to create something only a truly gifted author like Hjortsberg could fashion.
On its face, Mañana is a murder mystery – and a good one at that.
But in Hjortsberg’s elegant hand, the job of unravelling this potentially one dimensional story quickly becomes a game of three dimensional chess. If this makes the book sound complicated, I’ve misled you. A better word for it is “unexpected.”
My guess is that for many readers of this magazine, Hjortsberg may be one of the best writers you’ve never read. If true, I highly suggest changing that.
San Bernadino, California – 2015
- Read an author Q&A with Ramirez here
I had arranged to meet a friend at the Blackfoot River Brewing Co. for an IPA after work one day and stumbled upon a book signing.
It turns out L.A. Ramirez was at the brewery that day to sell and sign copies of her first novel Big Sky Siren.
I bought a copy on the spot and started it that night.
Consumer warning: Big Sky Siren is a bit like eating potato chips – once you start it’s hard to stop.
For me, one of the charming parts of this book was that it is clearly set in my town, Helena. Although Ramirez uses the moniker “Capital City” to officially describe the location, there’s no doubt where the novel is set.
Big Sky Siren is to be the first in a series of novels for Ramirez and you can tell from the outset that at least a couple of the characters, and the relationships between them, can be a strong recurring theme.
This book is a good, old-fashioned crime mystery. A little bit on the dark side, I would give the book a TV equivalent of Criminal Minds.
In Big Sky Siren, we encounter a troubled stalker bent on kidnapping the “siren” of our story – Keeva Ryan – in a manner and psychology reminiscent of the Dan Nichols/Kari Swenson odyssey of the early 1980s.
Thankfully, the Capital City police department has the talented and handsome single parent, Detective Tony Salazar on the case.
Ramirez avoids the obvious traps that ensnare too many lesser writers. The romance you are predicting just from these few paragraphs does indeed develop, but it does so in an interesting way with a well-crafted and compelling supporting cast.
One warning though, this is not young adult fiction. There are a couple of what I’ll call “romantic” scenes that, to use movie vernacular, are “intended for mature audiences only.”
You will not find Big Sky Siren in the “literature” part of your local bookstore, but that shouldn’t be the measure for whether it belongs on your summer reading list. I am a big believer in spreading my reading time between genres, and with Big Sky Siren, Ramirez gives us a page turner that, for me, compares best to the Kay Scarpetta series of novels by Patricia Cornwell.
Self-Published, Bozeman – 2015
Bedtime reading to our kids ended long ago at the Mitchell household, but that doesn’t mean I’m still not a sucker for a good children’s book. Bozeman mom, entrepreneur and now author, Sara Crow, has just published Even Superheroes Need to Sleep, a picture book that does a neat job of sharing with kids how mom and dad’s day job really just might be the work of a superhero. Summer is baby gift season and this is a good one.
Henry Holt and Company, New York – 2015
Another of the University of Montana’s talented master’s of fine arts graduates, Sharma Shields presents a fascinating and beautifully written story in The Sasquatch Hunters Almanac. The book is about the life of a boy whose mother runs off with Sasquatch – known in the book as Mr. Krantz – when the boy is 8 years old. We follow the boy to adulthood, through two marriages, while he continues his life journey to find Sasquatch. The writing is top notch and it’s neither a story nor a style of writing that you’ll come across every day.
Riverbend Publishing, Helena – 2015
I’ll admit up front that I am a boxing fan – or at least used to be in the halcyon days of Ali and Frazier and Leonard and Hagler. In Warrior in the Ring, Montana writer Brian D’Ambrosio brings out of the shadows a story more Montanans and more boxing fans ought to know; the story of Native American world champion boxer Marvin Camel. Camel’s mother was Salish and Marvin grew up in Ronan with 13 siblings. Camel won the first cruiserweight Championship of the World in 1979. In this compelling biography, D’Ambrosio tells Camel’s story in a forthright and compelling way that makes this not only a good read but an important one too.
History Press, Charleston, South Carolina – 2015
Making history accessible through the written word is a gift, and Jon Axline has it. You have read in these pages many of Axline’s compelling articles and in Taming of Big Sky Country, Axline brings us a feature length look at the story of the construction of Montana’s highway system. If this sounds boring, think again. Axline’s incredible ability to tell a story makes this book a must have for anyone even slightly interested in Montana history.
Cheryl Moore-Gough and Bob Gough
Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Connecticut – 2015
It’s that time of year. Gardening is in full swing and I’ll admit to being somewhat intimidated by gardening books. You see, I’m more “weeder” than “gardener” and my experience with hobbyist books like this one is that they make the reader who most needs the information, the novice, feel stupid. The Montana Gardner’s Companion does the exact opposite. From the first pages, I felt empowered by the common-sense approach and the can-do spirit the writers take to approach the often daunting and unpredictable task of gardening in Montana. My copy is dirty and dog eared already and I’m betting yours will be too.
Doug Mitchell is the Montana Magazine book reviewer. He writes from Helena.
MT Mag book reviews: Premium page turners
There’s probably not a lot of people who read more than Montana Magazine’s ace book reviewer Doug Mitchell, who writes the Montana book features for each issue.
But if you’re looking for some good readin’ here’s Doug’s reviews for our May/June issue.
Make sure you scroll all the way to the bottom so you can read a really great Q&A with Badluck Way author Bryce Andrews. Doug asks Andrews about his motivations to write the books, and about Andrew’s conflicting feelings about the role of ranching and the role of wolves across Montana’s farmlands.
As Doug writes:
In Badluck Way author and ranch hand Bryce Andrews moves the debate from policy to practice as he shares with us his year working on the Sun Ranch in the magnificent Madison Valley. In doing so, Andrews challenges us to see these debates differently because, as is often the case, the reality of a real-life decision is very different than an intellectual one.
But to describe Andrews’ book as a useful and interesting academics-meets-real-life story is to significantly diminish the accomplishments of this first book from a very gifted writer.
You can read more of Doug’s reviews here.
Montana Book Review: Literary Thrills and Chills
By Doug Mitchell
A dark new novel from one of Montana’s most well-known master of thrillers, a heartfelt history from the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, and a western-themed page-turner with a hearty heroine.
Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a handful of books based in or about Montana.
Light of the World
By James Lee Burke
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013
One of America’s premier fiction writers, James Lee Burke sets his 20th Dave Robicheaux novel, Light of the World, near his ranch home just south of Missoula.
For those not familiar with Burke’s work, Dave Robicheaux, a deputy sheriff in New Iberia, La., is the main character in as good a set of mystery stories as you’ll ever find. A deeply flawed, but an intensely human man, Robicheaux is the kind of imperfect character in whom we as readers can easily believe.
In Light of the World, Robicheaux is vacationing in Montana with his family and his ever present sidekick, Clete Purcel, when strange things begin to happen.
This dark, hard tale isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is a first-class page turner that will keep you on the edge of your seat. More than that, it is a beautifully written book with the kind of memorable, elegant language that separates Burke from most of his peers in the fiction genre.
For long-time Burke fans, it is another great read.
First-time readers: Be prepared to get hooked and to develop an oddly strong opinion about whether your favorite character is Dave Robicheaux or Clete Purcel.
A Cheyenne Voice – The Complete John Stands in Timber Interviews
By John Stands in Timber and Margot Liberty
University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 2013
More than a half century in the making, A Cheyenne Voice – The Complete John Stands in Timber Interviews represents a significant contribution to the history and culture of the American West. In this dense and rich volume, author Margot Liberty presents a full transcription of the recorded interviews she did with Stands in Timber in the 1950s. The interviews were the basis of her 1967 book Cheyenne Memories. In the book, Liberty provides a rare and intimate window to an all too often forgotten past.
Born in 1882, John Stands in Timber sat for these interviews late in his life.
And what a life it was. An orphan, Stands in Timber was sent to a boarding school but returned to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation at the age of 23, where he became a dedicated tribal historian, story collector and protector of the native language.
There is no way not to be moved by this book. Although at times a difficult read because it is a direct transcription, the stories and history shared by Stands in Timber, as elicited through the capable questioning of Liberty, take the reader to a very special place. It is the kind of book you will want to keep by your bedside table and read in reflective moments because the stories are so warm and significant that they demand the attention of a treasured moment.
By K.C. McRae
Midnight Ink, Minnesota, 2013
I was prepared not to expect much of Shotgun Moon when it got to the top of the pile of books by my nightstand. I had not heard of the author and was not familiar with the publisher, but I liked the premise of a female heroine in a western novel and figured I would give it a whirl.
I’m glad I did.
Shotgun Moon is a breath of fresh air from a talented writer who, I later learned, has an accomplished career writing under other names. This is her first novel writing as K.C. McRae.
On the first page of the book we are introduced to our heroine, Merry McCoy, recently released from prison and headed back to her home in the fictional rural Montanan town of Hazel.
Merry is as refreshing and original of a character as I have come across in a long time. From the moment she returns home we are on a 300-page thrill ride that is filled with amazing characters.
I had the chance to ask McRae some questions about Shotgun Moon.
Here’s what she had to say about the book and her work.
Q: You are already a successful author through your two series Magical Bakery Mysteries (writing under the name of Bailey Cates) and Home Crafting Mysteries (Cricket McRae), what made you decide to take a chance with Shotgun Moon.
A: I’ve always been drawn to western writers and to stories that depict the unique sensibilities of western life. As much as I enjoy the work of authors like Doig, Duncan, Kittredge or McGuane, I’m a mystery writer at heart and am also a big fan of James Lee Burke, Dana Stabenow, Craig Johnson and C.J. Box. The idea for Shotgun Moon had been percolating for years, and when I found myself with an opening in my writing schedule I decided it was time to bring it to life. It certainly is a departure from my two cozy mystery series, which is one of the reasons it was so enormously fun to write. Cozy mysteries are typically lighter fare with little actual violence, sex or even bad language. In the world of Shotgun Moon the story couldn’t be told that way, and I loved the opportunity to write a little darker.
Q: Merry McCoy is quite a character. Where did she come from?
A: I have had the luck to know many women who meet adversity – both the everyday stumbling blocks and life-altering enormities – with quiet strength. They take a deep breath and do what needs to be done, from putting down a horse to changing a bed pan, from protecting their children to living in constant pain. These women taught me how gentle strength can be and how brutal as well. They showed me, and continue to show me, that it’s possible to get through life without letting it wear you away, that success can simply mean retaining the ability to be compassionate in the middle of it all while not giving into bitterness or self-pity. The journey to reach that equanimity is rarely pretty or smooth, but it’s worth it. Some of these people are friends and others are members of my family. These women all inspired my flawed but persistent main character. One of them was my great-grandmother, Essie McCoy, whose name I borrowed for Merry.
Q: You have a new Bailey Cates book coming out, Some Enchanted Éclair, in July. Tell us a bit about the transition as a writer from writing a book like Shotgun Moon, then moving back to a Magical Bakery Mystery.
A: Some Enchanted Eclair is my 11th novel, and the fourth Magical Bakery Mystery. In some ways it’s the polar opposite of Shotgun Moon – set in the Deep South, featuring a young witch who owns a bakery. The tone is lighter, and there’s an emphasis on food – especially savory pastries. In some ways that makes it easier to write than something like Shotgun, simply because the story is not as layered. However, the mystery still needs to work in an interesting and coherent way, and Katie Lightfoot, the witch in question, is actually an old fashioned herbal healer whose father is descended from Shawnee medicine men. Like Merry, she’s resourceful, cares about her friends and family, and takes care of business. I’ve found that the luxury of being able to switch from one kind of mystery writing to another keeps things fresh and interesting.
Q: Why did you choose Montana as the location for Shotgun Moon?
A: Both of my parents were born in Montana. My dad worked at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, and I have family in Billings. I grew up mostly in northern Wyoming and Colorado. Then, when I lived in Seattle I visited the Bitterroot Valley and fell in love with the place. For years I wanted to live there, and one day that still might happen. In the meantime, Shotgun Moon gave me the opportunity to partially live my fantasy on the page.
Q: Will fans of Shotgun Moon we see more from K.C. McRae and if so, can you give us a sneak peek?
A: I have several projects in the works, among them a couple more K.C. McRae adventures. One is set in a primitive living school and another in a cult-like compound in the Yaak Valley. However, neither is presently under contract, so my priority in the next six months will be on my current obligations.
To another book review by Doug Mitchell, click here.
Mysterious story of Copper King’s daughter makes for one good book
It’s always funny how closely connected we are here in Montana. What’s the saying? In Montana, it’s not seven degrees of separation, but three?
It’s something like that.
Montana Magazine book reviewer Doug Mitchell found some surprising connections to the Huguette Clark’s story, detailed in the new book “Empty Mansions” by Bill Dedman. It really is a fascinating story about Huguette and her highly unusual lifestyle. She spent decades in a New York City hospital room while various, sweeping mansions sat empty. She was the daughter of infamous Copper King W.A. Clark, who made his fortune in Butte.
Doug, from Helena, found that during his travels with his wife, he’d been close to many of the mansions. We weren’t able to print Doug’s entire story inside the Jan/Feb issue, but you can read the full edition online at MontanaMagazine.com.
We’ve also posted the extended version of Doug’s chat with Bill Dedman. Among a ton of other great behind-the-scenes details, Dedman told Mitchell that he drew much of the story from 20,000 pages of correspondence Huguette wrote and 20 years of nurses notes. It’s always fascinating to hear more about how an author finds, crafts and presents their story.
Empty Mansions book has important story to tell
In this extended version of the Montana Magazine story about the New York Times best selling novel “Empty Mansions,” Montana Magazine book reviewer Doug Mitchell tells the story of his connection to the mysterious story of Huguette Clark.
He also asked author Bill Dedman a set of questions about the fascinating book.BY DOUG MITCHELL
It really is quite incredible how a book can gather together the separate strings of our daily lives and tie them into a nice, neat bow. Empty Mansions did that for me from nearly the moment I opened its pages and began the tale of Huguette Clark, her family and her life. In just the past few months, my wife Julie and I have taken some time to travel. We have visited family in Kalispell, flown to see our two boys in the San Francisco Bay Area and taken a journey back in time to our earliest married days 30 years ago to Washington, DC. Without knowing it at the time, with each journey we picked up a string from Huguette Clark’s own journey.
On a rainy day in September we stood inside the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and watched a video on the restoration of the museum’s Salon Dore’, captivated by the care given this treasure and blissfully unaware that a nearly identical room existed in the Clark Mansion in New York City over a century ago. Likewise, as we strolled hand-in-hand in the failing light of Washington, D.C. on a beautiful fall night watching the monuments and museums come to light, we walked directly past the Corcoran Museum, to which Senator Clark donated hundreds of paintings, sculptures and antiquities upon his death in 1925. Last, but most embarrassing to me, was our trip from Helena to Kalispell where we drove by and appreciate the historic Legendary Lodge at Salmon Lake, for what must be the 500th time in our marriage, never knowing until I read this amazing book the connection between this landmark of our family travel and the family of Huguette Clark.
Published in late 2013, Empty Mansions is the result of the combination of the random personal discovery and dogged journalistic curiosity of writer Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigating journalist. Dedman began reporting on his emerging discoveries about the mysterious Huguette Clark for NBC News and those of us in Montana saw glimpses of the emerging controversy about the reclusive daughter of the late copper magnate and controversial United States Senator W.A. Clark in local newspaper mentions that trickled back to Montana beginning about three years ago.
The story seems implausible at first glance; a 100 year-old heiress with hundreds of millions of dollars, voluntarily lives in a spartan hospital room in New York while her grand homes across the country sit vacant. A captivating story no doubt and one that became for Dedman and NBC News the most popular feature in the history of its on-line news service.
However, a popular set of on-line articles does not automatically translate into a meaningful book. In this case it did. Empty Mansions is much more though than a compilation of Dedman’s NBC News stories. A meticulously researched book, Empty Mansions in Dedman’s skilled hands goes back to the beginning to tell the current day tale of Huguette Clark. Dedman creates an important, compelling and easy to read narrative that begins with a young W.A. Clark getting his start as an entrepreneur in Colorado during the early 1860’s. Think about the scope of this book for a moment. Between the stories of just father (W.A.) and daughter (Huguette), we have a tale that spans from the Civil War to 2011. The breadth of such a story could be overwhelming, but in Dedman’s deft hands it flows easily and logically with a journalist’s eye toward accuracy and leaving judgments and conclusions to the reader.
In this effort, Dedman had help. During his work on the story, Dedman became acquainted with one of Huguette Clark’s cousins, Paul Clark Newell, Jr. Newell had been in contact with his aunt over the years and throughout the book one is treated to small inserts called “In Conversation with Huguette” where Newell provides often verbatim transcripts of his conversations with his cousin Huguette.
This is not an epic history book in the style of Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, but it is an important, well written book that has a story to tell, a lesson to teach and a history to unveil.
I had the chance to ask the author some questions about his remarkable book. Here’s our conversation.
Montana Magazine: Your book is filled with incredible and beautifully told stories about Mrs. Clark. When you are asked to pick one, what is your “go to” cocktail party tale?
Bill Dedman: Thank you. Paul Newell and I are ecstatic over the warm reaction that “Empty Mansions” has received. At a cocktail party I might tell, not one of the stories that shows Huguette’s eccentricity, but one of her relentless generosity. For a shy artist, a recluse, playing with her dolls and castles, it’s surprising how focused she was os charity to friends and strangers. I think of the home health aide, Gwendolyn Jenkins, who never met Huguette but who had taken care of someone Huguette knew. Gwendolyn was surprised at home by a lawyer bearing a beautiful card. As she told me, “I was telling my daughter that night, I couldn’t believe how this woman, an older woman she was, had written such a nice card, a proper note. … And she included a ‘little gift,’ she said, a check for three hundred dollars! I couldn’t believe it. I was going to tell them all about it at Bible study. I’ve been blessed! And my daughter, she said, ‘You’d better sit down, Mother, and let me read this letter over to you. This check is for thirty thousand dollars!'” Huguette lived a life of many charities, down to having an account at the corner grocery in Normandy so she could send treats to her friends. The book raises many questions for the reader to ponder, but a central one is, if I were born with the same advantages and disabilities, would I have lived the same way that Huguette did. Few of us would make the same choices she did — it’s easy to see that we would travel more, would have a beautiful view, would wear the jewels and fine clothes. But would we also be as generous as she was?
Montana Magazine: The diversity and depth of the story must have been a challenge. How did you accomplish writing in a range that included the founding of the Paganini Quartet, arcane but important Montana electoral history and the Smurfs?
Dedman: Our method in reporting was to explore every cul-de-sac and to enjoy where it led us. Huguette and her family were being revealed to us, too, in those details. Just to take a few paragraphs: The story of the magnificent pipe organ in the old Clark Mansion on Fifth Avenue — I was surprised by its purchase for $120,000 in 1910 dollars, and then by its ultimate sale for the price of a single good cigar. We learned surprising information about Mark Twain. Like W.A. Clark’s political career, it was all a series of surprises.
In the writing, we chose to tell it straight, to emphasize clarity and not literary fireworks. And most of all, not to speculate. We didn’t put any thoughts into anyone’s heads, we didn’t psychoanalyze. We give the readers more than enough clues — drawing facts from 20,000 pages of Huguette’s correspondence, twenty years of nurses’ notes, and the testimony of more than fifty witnesses — for the readers to think through the possibilities themselves. The readers’ speculations are likely to be as good as ours. We let the readers make up their own minds about the motives and ethics and feelings of Sen. Clark, of his young wife and daughters, of the relatives seeking Huguette’s fortune, of the hospital and the $31 million nurse. It seems that readers appreciated us sticking to non-fiction and letting them do the imagining.
Montana Magazine: If you had been given the opportunity to meet with Mrs. Clark, what would you have asked her?
Dedman: First I would have asked why she was not comfortable going out of the house or dealing with strangers — click, I can hear our conversation ending now. Paul, who is Huguette’s cousin, was able to speak with her, and they had dozens of chats over nearly ten years. Paul was careful and wise enough not to quiz her or interview her — although he had approached her by making clear that he was writing a family history, they were cousins chatting. Although she was so comfortable and chatty on the phone, Paul sensed that she would not have reacted well to being interviewed. If he had pushed her, she might well not have called him again. Remember, he didn’t have her number. He would call her attorney, and Huguette would call him back. He had no idea she was living in a hospital for twenty years.
Still, their conversations show her capabilities and gentle strength. Not only are portions of those talks excerpted in the book, but in the audiobook (from iTunes or Audible) you can hear her voice in sections of their recorded conversations. She sounds so clear and lucid. She remembers having unused tickets on the Titanic’s return trip in 1912, and she recalls the name of the hotel where she stayed at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu in 1915.
If I had talked with her, I’m sure I would have blown the opportunity by trying to get her to talk about what it was like to move from Paris to New York at age four, moving into the biggest house in the city, with 121 rooms for a family of four. What was life like with all those maids and servants, and a father that traveled so much, and a mother who was quiet and private? What was it like having the home flung open for charity parties and for gawkers to tour the five art galleries of the Clark mansion? I also would like to hear her view on relationships — here was a woman who was reclusive, shy, yet she maintained friendships that lasted decades, including with her ex-husband and with a boyfriend in France. What was her view of human contact and relationships, of the nourishment necesssary for a full life? She certainly got that through letters and phone calls, but was too uncomfortable, except with a few people, to have those relationships in person.
Montana Magazine: Not long after your book was published a settlement was reached regarding Mrs. Clark’s estate. In your view, what do you think Mrs. Clark would have thought of both the process and the outcome?
Dedman: Based on her actions and fierce protection of her privacy, it seems she would have been upset that her nurse, Hadassah Peri, was put through the publicity, and that her last will was being questioned, that her relatives were claiming she was mentally ill and defrauded. Solace may have come from the fact that the settlement, in the end, left the largest bequest to an arts foundation at her oceanfront estate, called Bellosguardo, in Santa Barbara, California, just as directed by the will she signed. Perhaps one day we can all tour that home, which she so lovingly preserved in her mother’s memory. More than $25 million was squandered, however, on legal fees, and Huguette was proven right — she had told her best friend that her relatives were out to get her money. Right now litigation is continuing as her family and estate are suing the hospital and her doctor — it’s hard to imagine that the prospect of her doctor being sued, so her distant relatives could benefit, was not something Huguette would have endorsed.
Montana Magazine: Late in the book you compare what some thought were Mrs. Clark’s eccentricities to someone who “can name the shortstop for the Boston Red Sox in 1967.” Is that reference autobiographical?
Dedman: My game is baseball, and that’s the sort of fact that baseball fans enjoy recalling. (The answer is Rico Petrocelli, who that year made the All-Star game and hit two home runs in the World Series, so he’s not even that obscure.) We know people who don’t quite recall the names of their children’s friends but can name the backup tight end for a football team. Our larger point, of course, was that having an eccentric hobby or passion or obsession — stamp collecting, trivia, Beatles memorabilia — is not a mental illness, no matter how foreign it seems to outsiders. Huguette’s life, including the doll collecting, makes good sense when viewed from close up.
Montana Magazine: Your book has received wide, and in my view, well deserved acclaim. What’s next for you and for us as readers?
Dedman: You’re very kind. The paperback version will be out in the spring with updates on the legal settlement and a discusison guide for book clubs. We’ll also be releasing more photos at that time. There also seems a good chance that someday you’ll get to see Huguette Clark and her family in a film on the big screen. As for other projects, I’m working on stories for NBC News. I suspect that Paul and I will write other books, but it would be good for work and family life to settle back into normalcy first. Writing a book of this length and detail in two years is an uphill sprint, but I’ll bet, like the pain of childbirth, it wears off soon enough and one starts to think, wouldn’t it be fun to have another little one.
Montana Magazine: One last question, you started your quest when you and your wife were looking for a house AND YOU SPOTTED HER EMPTY MANSION FOR SALE IN CONNECTICUT FOR $24 MILLION. We never heard how that came out? Did you find one?
Dedman: Yes, our family found a modest house, though not in Madame Clark’s price range. Somehow we’ve been able to manage without fifty-two acres and a room strictly for drying the draperies. Her home in Connecticut, however, remains for sale, and it’s a steal, now priced at $15 million, so feel free to call the Realtor.
Talk about a Dream: Book raises money for Whitehall’s Star Theatre
Most first novels are short, tentative works. Not this one.
Talk About a Dream is a 613 page tour de force written night after night from a recliner in Whitehall by a former smalltown newspaper owner.
The book was designed not for publication, but as a story for his kids. You see, author Glenn Marx and his wife, Terri, had just become empty nesters. They had sold the Whitehall Ledger and Glenn wanted to find a way to communicate with his adult children.
Like any good father might do, he decided to tell them a story. And it’s quite a story.
First, a brief disclaimer: Glenn is a friend of mine. He is kind, thoughtful and shockingly smart. These facts made this particular reviewing assignment both tricky and risky. I am generally quite skeptical of self-published books, and of books written by friends. I was worried that I would have to find polite words to say the book was “interesting” and “well intended” – code for not very good.
Within pages of starting Talk About a Dream, I knew my worries were unfounded.
Now, I can add to the things I think about Glenn. He is a very gifted writer and much funnier than I had known.
Talk About a Dream is, on its surface, a fictional account of a year in the life of small town Whitehall. It’s told through the eyes of Lance Joslyn, a local newspaper publisher (sound familiar?). The book is set around a magical football season and a mystical character named Jerry “Jersey” Conte who appears seemingly out of nowhere and becomes the head football coach and much more.
Talk About a Dream is one of those books you want to savor. Glenn has crafted a set of characters so rich and familiar that reading the book feels like an intimate act of being inside the story. I found myself rationing my reading to make the story last longer, an admittedly odd reaction to a book that is epic in its length (and weight).
Therein lay the genius of the author who somehow has taken a story meant for his adult son and daughter and turned it into a tale for all of us.
On top of that, Talk About a Dream is being used to help a worthy cause.
Whitehall’s Star Theatre is one of the places that provides a home to some of the book’s scenes and without the local effort to “Save the Star” we may never have been gifted the opportunity to read Talk About a Dream.
Glenn agreed to allow for the publication of his work only if all proceeds went to the benefit the historic Star Theatre. Glenn told me over lunch he thought his book “had a good heart.”
It does and so does he.
Doug Mitchell is a frequent Montana Magazine contributor. He writes from Helena.