Do Celebrity Book Clubs Sell Books?

Reese Whitherspoon has taken up the challenge of recommending books to fans and followers. Vox says it is an extension of her personal image. “Witherspoon’s star image is based on the idea of Witherspoon as smart and driven and bookish — in a funny way, a likable way.”

Some of her selections have sold hundreds of thousands, which is very exciting for those select authors; but this article has a remarkable detail about the book industry as a whole. It says that with 300,000+ new titles published in the US every year and 2,200,000+ published worldwide, readers want to get recommendations from celebrities they trust.

But here’s the shocker. Though sales of selected books soared when Oprah picked them, the overall sale of books that year stayed within expectations. “Exactly as many people bought books as were already going to buy books.” More readers are reading certain books, but apparently more people are not reading. Or at least they are not buying books to read.

In 2018, Pew Research reported that three out of four Americans read one book in any format last month, and that rate has been steady since 2012.

‘Bury the Dead in Driftwood,’ by Scott William Carter

The gray sky, which often broke up or dissolved by midmorning, remained as solid as fresh paint.

I had read and reviewed a previous novel in Scott William Carter’s Garrison Gage mystery series, and decided not to read any more. I don’t clearly recall why; it likely had something to do with the main character’s open (though not obnoxious) atheism. But Bury the Dead in Driftwood sounded intriguing, and I bought it. I have to admit, it was pretty good.

Garrison Gage is a small-time private eye who relocated to Barnacle Bluffs, a town on the Oregon coast, to get away from his past. He walks with a limp (often with a cane), due to an old knee injury. A widower, he has adopted a daughter, who is now away in college. He finds, to his amusement, that he’s become a local character, “the detective.”

He didn’t know Harriet Abel, the high school teacher whose body was found under a pile of driftwood on the beach. But she had his name on a piece of paper in her possession, and apparently wanted to hire him. Gage is curious what she wanted from him, and impressed with the universal respect she seemed to command. So he decides to investigate, even without a client.

Property and development money will appear as motives, but things aren’t as simple as they appear. Amusingly, Gage finds beautiful women – including the police chief’s daughter – throwing themselves at him in an almost embarrassing way. A mysterious professional killer appears to make chilling threats. And the one woman Gage cares about more than life itself – his adopted daughter – refuses to keep a safe distance.

I enjoyed Bury the Dead in Driftwood far more than I expected. The one scene involving religion – in a syncretistic Universalist church – took no skin off my nose. The multiple women with Gage in their sights worked up to a very funny scene of embarrassment. And at the end, Gage was able to deliver a fairly non-PC defense of a man’s sense of obligation to protect women.

Mark Twain said of Huckleberry Finn that he had attempted to do a book without weather. Bury the Dead in Driftwood is nothing like that. The weather and geography of coastal Oregon are active characters in this book, beautifully described. Readers will feel as if they’ve been there.

Cautions for the usual, including one “sex” scene that actually involves no sex at all. Pretty good.

Reviews Are not Strictly Evaluations

John Wilson of Books & Culture, the Christian review of books published bi-monthly 1995-2016, talks about book reviewing with FORMA.

Is it harder to control the “gush” for a book you really like or the harshness for a book you think has major problems?

Wilson: Ha! It’s not so much a matter of “controlling” gush (just say no); it’s rather a matter of finding a way to single out a really good book at a time when people are acclaiming “masterpieces” right and left, cheapening the conversation. I don’t often review books that I think are terrible, or that are entirely uncongenial to me, but a reviewer who’s never critical—sometimes sharply so—is letting the side down.

But having said that, I’m reminded of another widespread misconception: that reviews are all about “evaluation,” the reviewer—from his or her lofty perch—saying “5 stars” or “2 stars” or whatever. There’s so much more to it.

‘Bad to the Bones,’ by James Harper

I took a chance on the first novel in an unfamiliar detective series, Bad to the Bones, Book 1 of James Harper’s Evan Buckley series.

It held some interest, but didn’t work for me.

Private Eye Evan Buckley (I never really noticed where he lives) suffers a shock and vows to end his meat and potatoes work – investigating unfaithful spouses for divorce cases. His original motivation for becoming a PI was to find missing people, like his own wife who disappeared without explanation. A (surprisingly) friendly police detective refers him to a woman whose son and husband both disappeared some years earlier. She believes the police found an easy explanation and dropped the case without really solving it. Evan vows to discover the truth for her.

Which he does. But the journey to the explanation seemed weird to me. Character relationships struck me as unrealistic – people start by snarling at each other, then suddenly become bosom buddies. The police don’t operate like real police at all.

And the final “resolution” was so horrific that I couldn’t at all comprehend the sense of closure we’re supposed to believe both Buckley and his client feel at the end.

So I don’t really recommend Bad to the Bones. I saw potential in the author, so maybe the following books will be better.

‘Mission Critical,’ by Mark Greaney

There really isn’t much to say about a new Gray Man novel, except that it’s a Gray Man novel. One knows what to expect – rising levels of implausible, cinematic action, improbable endurance of injuries by the hero, and a running cast of characters who, if not profoundly portrayed, are interesting and amusing.

Mission Critical (Number 8 in the series) offers a couple fresh elements – new developments in the Romeo-and-Juliet-with-guns romance between hero Court Gentry and the former Russian agent Zoya Zakharova, and the introduction of a new villain whom Court, with all his skills, actually fears.

Court is catching a ride on a CIA transport flight when a covert team transporting a hooded prisoner comes on board. Later, when the prisoner is being transferred on a tarmac in England, the team is attacked by unknown foreign agents – Court kills some of them, and is then sent by his handlers to try to retrieve the prisoner.

Meanwhile Zoya, still being “debriefed” in a safe house in the US, learns that her Russian spy father, whom she had believed dead, is still alive. She makes a snap decision to escape and find him – thus narrowly avoiding an attack on the house by hired assassins. Now she’s in the wind, and the CIA is uncertain whether to consider her friendly or hostile.

There’s a big plot underway to deliver a devastating blow to the intelligence services of all the English-speaking nations at a conference in Scotland. It will take all Court, Zoya, and their teammates can do to stop it – and there will be a price to pay.

Mission Critical was as good as any book in the Gray Man series, and they’ve all been good. High in entertainment value. The usual cautions apply for language, violence, and sexual situations.

Milton Wrote in Margins of Shakespeare Folio

After Shakespeare’s death his works were collected into a folio and printed. Two hundred thirty-three editions out of the seven hundred fifty originally printed still exist, and some of them have notes and marking from early readers. Now a Cambridge fellow believes he has compiled enough evidence to identify one annotator’s handwriting as belonging to the great John Milton.

Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren made the discovery in response to research conducted by Pennsylvania State University English professor Claire Bourne. Naturally he hesitated to suggest this, because it’s too easy to see what you want to see.

But he soon found that other scholars were agreeing with him. “Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,” said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. “Shakespeare is our most famous writer, and the poet John Milton was his most famous younger contemporary. It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived — and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive. This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.”

Another Girl’s Diary from the Holocaust

You know what Anne Frank wrote about her experiences under Nazi oppression. Now another diary from a Jewish girl living under the Nazis is being released this month. Renia Spiegel lived in Przemyśl, Poland, and she started writing about Nazi attacks and family disappearances in 1939. Renia’s Diary has been translated by her sister, who lives in New York City.

The Smithsonian published an excerpt last November. Here’s a very small sample from it.

What a terrible night! Horrible! Dreadful. I lay there with my eyes wide open, my heart pounding, shivering like I had a fever. I could hear the clanking of wheels again. Oh, Lord God, please help us! A truck rolled by. I could hear a car horn beeping. Was it coming for us? Or for someone else? I listened, straining so hard it felt like everything in me was about to burst.

I heard the jangling of keys, a gate being opened. They went in. I waited some more. Then they came out, taking loads of people with them, children, old people. One lady was shaking so much she couldn’t stand, couldn’t sit down. The arrests were led by some fat hag who kept yelling in Russian, “Sit, sit down now!” She loaded children onto the wagon. The whole night was horrific. I couldn’t wait for the dawn to come.

Some of the people were crying. Most of the children were asking for bread. They were told the journey would take four weeks. Poor children, parents, old people. Their eyes were filled with insane fear, despair, abandon. They took whatever they were able to carry on their slender backs. They are being taken to Birobidzhan. They will travel in closed, dark carriages, 50 people in each. They will travel in airless, dirty, infested conditions. They might even be hungry. They’ll travel for many long weeks, children dying as they pass through a supposedly happy, free country.

And how many will reach their destination? How many will die on the way from illness, infestation, longing? When they finally reach the end of this deportees’ route somewhere far into Asia, they will be stuck in rotting mud huts, hungry, exhausted, ironically forced to admire the happy workers’ paradise and sing this song:

A man stands as the master
Over his vast Motherland

July 6, 1940

Praying without a List

Author Ed Cyzewski writes about learning to pray in a contemplative manner and the pushback it gets.

Christian leaders have attacked contemplatives on and off for centuries, banning their books and threatening contemplatives with prison, exile, or death. The more concentrated church power became, the more it opposed contemplation. This type of prayer is beyond the scope of leadership’s control because it is interior and personal, even if it is cultivated and supported in community or through spiritual direction.

Mystics of all stripes probably should be pushed against, because they tend to encourage a loosely defined Prozac spirituality that leaves religious distinctives in favor of personal inner peace. Contemplative prayer habits step into the space of mystical Christianity. But I suspect the modern evangelical criticism of it comes largely from modernist thinking, not solid biblical interpretation.

For generations we have been taught that segments of the Christian life can be accomplished in a few clear steps. For prayer, some teach the pattern of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Such a pattern can be helpful in directing our prayers, but as with so many things we may hold to the pattern more than we hold to the Lord. And whether we pray this way or another way, we may hold to the answers we receive more than we hold to our Lord, even telling each other that our prayers were answered because we delivered them in a specific way. Contemplative prayer puts those things aside, so we have very little to hold onto and ask whether we’re doing it right.

If this is a habit that can cultivate a deeper satisfaction in Christ, then we need not neglect it.

Adjusting to the world

Thinking about history, philosophy, and theology.

I have enough thoughts for a lecture (if anybody wanted a lecture), but I’ll lay some of them out very briefly here.

The Church adjusts to the world. It isn’t determined by the world – or shouldn’t be – but we have to relate to people as they live, and we have to live in the world as it is. So we adjust our message to the tenor of the times. We have to. It’s not necessarily bad.

But it can be bad when it goes off the rails.

The modern world, I think, began with Isaac Newton. Newton occupied the role of prophet in European civilization, sparking what we call the Enlightenment. “God said let Newton be, and all was light,” as Alexander Pope wrote. The Enlightenment achieved the level of religion – and that religion was Deism, where God was sublimated into a cosmic Watchmaker. Intellectuals believed they now understood the laws of Nature, and soon all questions would be answered.

The Church followed the Enlightenment to an extent. Great emphasis was now placed on correct doctrine. Cold reason was elevated, in some quarters, to a theological virtue.

But the Enlightenment didn’t last long.

In practice, it was inadequate to actual human life. Enlightenment thought was like trying to feed people with vitamin pills only. Technically all the necessary nutrients might be there, but people need more than that. They need flavor and texture and scent. They need the whole human experience. The Enlightenment didn’t feed the soul.

So the Enlightenment was replaced. It was replaced by two movements (you could call it one of them a sub-movement, but I like the sub-movement too much to subordinate it).

The secular reaction was Romanticism. Romanticism reacted against cold formalism and logical reductionism. Romanticism centered on passion. Life was to be lived with intensity. Love and freedom were what made life worthwhile.

But there was a theological corollary to Romanticism (some, as I mentioned, would probably call it a sub-movement). This was Pietism (the forerunner of contemporary Evangelicalism). To the rationality of Enlightenment Christianity, the Pietists replied, “That’s not enough! Jesus’ greatest commandment was not to understand God, but to love Him!” They emphasized a personal experience with Christ and a life of growing sanctification, learning to love Him more.

Now an argument can be made that Pietism led directly to the Liberalism of today’s mainline churches. It’s argued among Lutherans, in some quarters, that Pietism’s emphasis on personal experience led people to set their subjective feelings at the center of their faith – which is what Christian postmodernism is all about.

And there’s probably a measure truth in that.

But I would relate it, once again, to the Church’s habit of imitating the world. Christian postmodernism (I maintain) is mostly the fault of secular postmodernism. The nihilism and despair that followed the World Wars led secular thinkers to existentialism and moral relativism. The mainline churches followed suit, rejecting all authority, including that of the Bible and orthodox doctrine. (Leaving both the Pietists and the orthodox out in the cold.)

It wasn’t the Pietists’ fault, in my view. But they did get sucked in.

The one unifying principle of all these theological fashions, it seems to me, is following the world. We have to adjust to the world, but we must not let it set our agenda.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12;2, ESV)


Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Trapped,’ Season 2

The second season of the Icelandic miniseries, Trapped, (I reviewed Season One below) was – in some ways – superior to the first (in my view). There were parts I didn’t care for, but I admit that was mostly due to my personal opinions and tastes.

Two years have passed since we last saw our bearded hero, Andri Olafsson (Olafur Darri Olafsson). He’s moved back to Reykjavik to be a cop there again, one assumes to be close to his daughters, who were living with his ex-wife. Only the older one, Thorhildur, has returned to the small town of Siglufjordur to be close to her friends – especially a particular boy. She is now a rebellious teenager, and in the tradition of teenaged girls in thrillers, is a complete idiot when it comes to her personal safety.

Andri is called back to Siglufjordur when a local farmer one day appears near Parliament in Reykjavik, sets himself on fire, and tries to ignite the Minister of Industries along with himself. She is, in fact, his twin sister, a Siglufjordur native who long ago turned her back on the place. He had been involved in protests against the expansion of an aluminum plant near his home, as well as with right-wing nationalist groups. Shortly after Andri is reunited with his old team of local cops, a manager at the plant is murdered, setting off a string of crimes and arrests that culminate in a kidnapping and a pursuit across the heaths.

There were several elements in the series that rubbed me the wrong way. One was the involvement of right-wing groups – though when I think of it, they were treated with surprising understanding. Another was the cliché of the predatory industry that thinks it can make money by killing its customers. Most uncomfortable of all was a subplot about homosexuals. Instead of the brief heterosexual sex scene we saw in the first series, this time we got two men involved in displays of affection – at one point in bed together. These are my principles – I care about whether homosexuals live or die. I care that they not be railroaded for crimes they didn’t commit. But I cannot be made to care whether the boy gets the boy. There is no microscope sensitive enough to detect my interest in that subject.

Another problem is the family relationships. Most of the suspects (and victims) are bound (in classic saga style, I’ll admit) by a bewildering tangle of marriages, divorces, and irregular liaisons. Everybody is a cousin or an in-law of all the others, and for the life of me I couldn’t keep it all straight.

On the other hand, there were some fine elements here. Because this story is set in the fall, we lose the claustrophobia of the snowed-in town that so permeated Season One. Now we’re treated to vistas of Icelandic heaths and mountains, herds of horses and flocks of sheep. Conscious tribute is paid to the sagas, especially in a plot thread where a local boy flees the police on horseback across the fells, looking for all the world like an outlaw of old.

The resolution worked out in the same spirit as Season One – the mystery is solved, the hostage rescued, but in a general environment of ancient injuries, unhealed psychological wounds, and the shock of an Episode 8 plot development that blindsided me (at least).

All in all, fascinating TV, and pretty watchable. Cautions for language and all the stuff I talked about.

The Tale of Tormod, KolBrun’s Skald

A stupid 19th Century conception of a Viking skald.

In Trapped, the Icelandic miniseries I reviewed last night, both in the first season (which I reviewed) and the second (which I’m watching now), there’s a female character named Kolbrun. It was a familiar name to me, and by coincidence I came to the Tale of Tormod Kolbrunarskald in my reading of the Norwegian translation of Flatøy Book. Obviously this was a sign from heaven that I should share Tormod’s story with you.

Tormod Kolbrunarskald is an important character in the Saga of St. Olaf. He doesn’t appear in my novel, The Elder King, but I expect he’ll show up in a later book, because he’s an important character and has one of the most memorable deaths in saga literature. But that’s not my topic tonight. My topic is his backstory.

I’d always assumed that he got his nickname, which means “dark-brow poet,” because he had dark eyebrows. Turns out that’s not true. His nickname actually means, “Dark-Brow’s Poet”

This is the tale (in highly condensed form).

Tormod Bersesson was living at his father’s farm in Laugabol, Iceland. Nearby, at a farm called Ogr, there lived a widow named Grima who had a beautiful daughter named Tordis. Tormod got in the habit of visiting Ogr, and spending time in private with the girl.

Eventually Grima, the mother, took Tormod aside and suggested that he should either ask for the girl’s hand honestly, or leave her alone for the sake of her reputation. Tormod hemmed and hawed, so to show she was serious, Grima sent a thrall to kill Tormod, but the poet escaped with a wounded hand.

After that, Tormod relocated to a fishing station his father had at Bolungarvik. Nearby lived another widow, named Katla, who had a daughter named Torbjorg, who was nicknamed Kolbrun because of her dark eyebrows.

Tormod thought Kolbrun not quite as pretty as Tordis, but nevertheless he started spending time with her. To gain her favor he wrote a series of poems, the “Kolbrun Poems.”

Later, when winter came, Tormod moved back to Laugabol, and renewed his visits with Tordis. At first she was distant. “I heard that you wrote a series of poems for a girl at Bolungarvik named Kolbrun,” she said.

“Oh, no!” Tormod lied. “That story is completely wrong. I didn’t write those poems for Kolbrun. I wrote them for you.” He immediately recited them for her, but changed the words so they now praised Tordis. Tordis was pleased with this.

But that night, Tormod had a terrible dream. He saw Kolbrun floating in the darkness in front of his bed. She said, “You have broken your word to me. It’s dangerous to break your word to a witch. I will now lay this curse on you – your eyes will swell up and grow terribly painful. They will swell so that if it isn’t stopped they’ll pop right out of your head. The only way you can prevent this from happening is by announcing in public that the poems are mine, not Tordis’s, and that you lied.”

Tormod woke in terrible pain, and slept no more that night. As soon as he could he assembled family and friends and confessed his lie. Immediately his eyes improved, and soon he was well again.

But forever after he was known as Tormod, Kolbrun’s Poet.

Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Trapped’

My part-time job keeps me generally aware of Scandinavian miniseries, but somehow this Icelandic one, a few years old now, had escaped my notice. Trapped (Ófærð) is a crime series that has much in common with so many European crime series these days (except that the main character, instead of being a plucky single mother, is a plucky single father). But it‘s interesting in its own right, and the locations are fresh and scenic.

On a winter‘s day in the small northern Iceland town of Siglufjordur, a headless, limbless torso is fished out of the fjord. Since the ferry from Denmark just came in, the police have to detain the boat and all its passengers – displeasing the passengers, the crew, and the Danish government. The “big boys“ from the Reykjavik police are supposed to come in to investigate, but a sudden blizzard grounds all aircraft and road travel. So the responsibility falls on the three-person local force, most especially on the chief, Andri Olafsson (played by Olafur Darri Olafsson, surely a contender for some award for the most generously bearded TV detective in recent memory).

But Andri’s problems aren’t limited to solving the torso murder. There are the difficulties associated with the blizzard, as well as an avalanche that follows. Questions arise anew over a crime from the past – the death of Andri’s ex-wife’s sister in a fire in a fish factory, for which a young man went to prison (unjustly). There’s also a human trafficking investigation, involving two young Nigerian girls wandering lost in the snow. And there is political chicanery on the part of the town’s governing authorities, all involved in a shady land scheme with the Chinese.

It all works out to be pretty fascinating. The main character is a compelling and principled presence on screen, and the production values are high (this was the most expensive miniseries ever made in Iceland). The resolution ties up loose ends pretty well, though it’s typically Scandinavian in being rather downbeat and bleak. The Icelandic title has a broader meaning than the English word – it also refers to a blocked road. A running theme is the discontent of the town’s young people, who feel trapped in one of the remotest towns in a generally remote country.

But I enjoyed Trapped, and recommend it, with cautions for language, sex, brief nudity, and disturbing themes. There’s a second season, too.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture