"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it."

- C.S. Lewis
Death's Doors, Snippet 1

(As best I can figure out, we're close to releasing my next novel, Death's Doors. To whet your appetite, here's a snippet. lw)


We have no use for barns anymore, but are ashamed to tear them down. So the lofted sheds stand here and there across the land on derelict farmsteads, redundant, their backs swayed like old horses’.

The woman tossed her cigarette away. It arced like comet spit in the dark. She went into the ruined barn through a dutch door, pulling open first the upper panel, then the lower. The granulated hinges screamed and the bottom scraped an arc in the earth. She was afraid the noise would wake the baby she cradled in her left arm, but it did not. Such a good baby.

The law said she could be rid of a baby up to the age of eight weeks. She would never have let this one go except for something like this – something terribly, cosmically important.

Her flashlight showed her a low-ceilinged side-shed with animal stalls along its inside wall, its dividers and wooden posts scaly with brown flakes of ancient, petrified manure.

The old woman she’d come to see sat so still that she overshot her with the flashlight beam and had to back it up. Once fixed by the beam, the old woman smiled – a smile of radiant beauty that brought to mind a Renaissance Madonna gone wrinkled and white-haired.

“You – you’re the one I was to meet?” the younger woman asked. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Mrs. Olson, abortonist

Scandinavians are so culturally identified with coffee that one of America's foremost brands actually made a Scandinavian (of unspecified nationality) their spokeswoman for more than twenty years, a period of time popularly known as "our long national caffeine-induced nightmare."

From 1965 to 1986, Virginia Christine, an actress of Swedish extraction, played "Mrs. Olson" in one of the longest-lived commercial campaigns in history. Throughout those years this diabolical old harridan, obviously unhappily married herself, insinuated herself into other people's domestic problems, like this.

According to her Wikipedia page, Ms. Christine spent her declining years as a Planned Parenthood volunteer, which explains a lot, it seems to me. Clearly she was slipping contraceptive drugs into these people's coffee. Which obviously accounts for the dropping birth rates that characterized the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

Coffee. A clear and present danger to the republic.

Brewing Coffee for Watercolor-style Painting

Angel Sarkela-Saur and Andrew Saur have been painting with coffee for years. This video introduces them and their artwork. They mention sending their work to the U.S. Embassy to Malawi in the video. Now they are sending three pieces "Drained,” Dabble,” and “Voyage to Valhalla” to our ambassador to Columbia for a three year stay.

Is the Coffee World Getting Better?

With all the coffee choices we have now, are coffee farmers making more money or expanding their markets like they could not 20 years ago? It doesn't appear so. Oscar Abello writes about the pitfalls of Fair Trade certification and the clash between what professes to do and reality.

If Fair Trade certified coffee is intended to be sold at a fair price to give workers a fair wage, then why are farms larger than 10 acres allowed to be certified, when they can afford to pay their workers better than small farms.

When Aida Batlle she took over her family’s 38-acre farm in El Salvador in 2002, it was too large for fair-trade certification, even though Batlle claims to pay her workers three times what everyone else is paying, plus transportation and food. After winning El Salvador’s inaugural Cup of Excellence competition in 2003, Aida became something of a celebrity in the “Third Wave” movement of coffee, even getting her own profile in the New Yorker.

One of Batlle’s longest-running buyers is Counter Culture Coffee, founded in 1995 in Durham, N.C. Ten years ago, Counter Culture was still mostly a smaller regional roasting company, trying to get a market foothold by handing out samples in grocery stores. Customers would ask why one coffee from Nicaragua was certified fair-trade and this other one from El Salvador (the coffee from Batlle’s farm) wasn't. In reality, Batlle's workers were among the highest paid of all of Counter Culture’s suppliers.

"The idea that this was somehow unfair because there’s no certification on it, no seal, was just maddening,” says Counter Culture Kim Elena Ionescu.
Maybe certification is merely another way to pay bureaucrats for the privilege to say what they want us to say.

In other news, Dunkin Donuts now offers a coffee-flavored doughnut, which makes me ask why they didn't have this before. Particularly since DD is known for their coffee, I assumed they already had a coffee-flavored doughnut, just as I would assume they zip up their pants. When you notice you point it out like a mistake, not a new idea.

Coffee delenda est

Coffee week, huh? That's what I get for being gracious, in a moment of weakness.

Getting into the spirit of the thing, I want to recommend to you Mark Helprin's masterful novel, Memoir From Antproof Case. It's a moving story about a man who goes into violent rages whenever he smells coffee, or sees anyone drinking it. Needless to say, he's a sympathetic character.

I wanted to re-post my review, but it seems to be on the old blog, where I can't search.

Also, on another note, I want to thank Loren Eaton for giving me a mention in his latest review. I have trouble commenting over there, so I'll say it here.

Now get some sleep. Helpful hint: It helps if you lay off the caffeine.

Craft Coffee's DNA of Your Taste Buds

It's coffee week here on Brandywine Books. Come back everyday for wonderful posts and links to coffee-related information bound to bless your taste buds and have you leaping like Arabian goats.

Are you looking for new roasts to try? Startup company Craft Coffee already has a large database in pursuit of their goal to become the Pandora of coffee flavors. Fill out their survey, try their service, and they will apply their algorithms to your tastes to help you find a cup of coffee you love to death.

10 Fictional Coffee Scenes

Benjamin Obler has collected ten scenes or lines which include coffee, like this one from Muriel Spark's The Comforters.

"Tell me about the voices," he said. "I heard nothing myself. From what direction did they come?"

"Over there, beside the fireplace," she answered.

"Would you like some tea? I think there is tea."

"Oh, coffee. Could I have some coffee? I don't think I'm likely to sleep."

Isn't it terribly English of the Baron to offer tea to Caroline, who's just fled a religious centre (not a nunnery, not a retreat), has separated from her husband, and is now suffering delusions - hearing the clacks of typewriter keys and a voice narrating her very thoughts! Take comfort in tea. It is in character of the Baron to think so: he's a man of affected intellectualism, calling the sections of his bookshop "Histor-ay, Biograph-ay, Theolog-ay," and addressing everyone as "my dear". But only coffee is up for the job. This is coffee as antidote to madness. What else to clear her head in this fix? They've already had Curaçao - that didn't help. Coffee as realignment. Coffee to reconnect with your own synapses, to reset the senses and solidify reality in the forefront.

Of Norwegians and coffee

Coffee has been a subject of some uneasiness on this blog from the time I climbed on. There used to be a mission statement around here somewhere that said (I quote from memory), “Book reviews, creative culture, and coffee.” It’s no secret to any fair-minded reader that Phil has discriminated against me constantly because I don’t consume the vile stuff.

My isolation is increased by the importance of coffee in Norwegian-American culture. If I had a nickel for every time somebody has said to me, “What kind of Norwegian are you? You don’t drink coffee!” I’d be able to afford… a cup of coffee, I guess, because they cost a lot of nickels these days. But how did coffee get to be so important to Norwegians? I now know the answer, thanks to a book I’m reading.

I was recently given, as a birthday present, an interesting work by Kathleen Stokker, Remedies and Rituals: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land. It’s mostly about the superstitious – but sometimes scientifically valid – remedies Norwegians have used through history, and the sometimes celebrated, sometimes persecuted, but always feared people who practiced them.

One of the subjects covered is the use of brennevin (distilled spirits), which held an important place in folk medicine. That touches on the subject of the general use of alcoholic beverages in Norwegian history. The Norwegians, like all Europeans, were drinkers from the earliest times. But they mostly drank beer, and often quite weak beer. Later brennevin appeared, but its use was generally restricted to medicine and celebrations. But in 1817 a law was passed giving every Norwegian farmer the right to distill as much liquor as he liked whenever he wanted.

The result was disastrous. Celebrations became drunken brawls, ending in injury and death. Accidents increased. Productivity decreased. More and more individuals became hopeless slaves to drink.

By the mid-19th Century, people were forming temperance and abstention organizations, and the distillery law was repealed. One of the substitutes suggested to people who wanted to kick the brennevin habit was coffee: Read the rest of this entry . . .

Lauren Bacall on Writing Memoirs

Lauren Bacall wrote three memoirs over the years. The last one was released in 2005. She said of loving Bogart, "I'd suddenly had this fairy-tale life, at such a young age, who would have thought something like that could happen?"

"Writing a book is the most complete experience I've ever had," she said.

Whit Stillman's 'The Cosmopolitans'

Whit Stillman's next work will be on Amazon.com. A TV pilot episode for a potential series, "The Comopolitans," will be available through Amazon Studios on August 28. See a cute preview here.

“This has elements of all three of the first films,” he tells Vanity Fair, referring to his 1990 debut, 1994’s Barcelona and 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. “It’s very much like the fourth film, of those three.” He says one has to earn a living, and TV is where one can do it.

He also says he doesn't watch TV with violence and sex, "so it knocks out almost everything." Others say he only watches TV on airplanes.

On the Job

Job's Tormenters, by William Blake, 1793.

Thought thunk today: The Book of Job is the oldest book in the Bible, one of the oldest books in the world.

What does it say about humanity that in the 8,000 years since, we haven't managed to surpass it in terms of wisdom?

Update: Ori, tedious pedant that he is, pointed out that my numbers are off by slight margin of maybe 5,000 years.

I wish I were surprised. I'm always doing that with numbers. A counselor once told me that the problem wasn't in my brain, but in my emotions. Somewhere along the line I developed a fear of numbers that blossomed into functional innumeracy.

But with education, support, and billions of tax dollars you can make a difference. Give today through the United Fund.

Or just buy one of my books. Or double that and buy three.

These Books Were Most Influential on Tolstoy

"This summer on my way to work," writes The Public Humanist at The Valley Advocate, "I found something just for me in a box of cast-off books on a sidewalk in downtown Northampton . . . a yellowed and fragile New York Times Book Review clipping, from April 2, 1978: a list of the books that Tolstoy was most impressed by, organized by the age at which he read them."

The list was written in 1891 and includes selections such as Puskin’s poems: Napoleon, Gogol’s Overcoat, The Two Ivans, Nevsky Prospect, Rousseau's Confessions, all of Trollope's novels, and all of the Gospels in Greek. (via Open Culture)

Fact-check Your Pastor and Politician

Bob Smietana suggests we may want to fact-check our pastor's sermons, but don't do it during the service.

(Did you know that the father of the inventor of penicillin did not save young Winston Churchill from drowning? The things you learn!

R.I.P. Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Robin Williams greets the troops on a USO tour.

You’ve probably already heard the news that Robin Williams is dead at the age of 63. I sat thinking about which of his movies I’ve seen, and I realized I’ve only seen one – Popeye, a film of which I am, as far as I know, the only fan in the world (it helps to appreciate it if you know about the original comic strip, not the animated cartoons).

But the man had an unquestionable gift. Nobody ever did “off the wall” improvisational, stream of consciousness comedy like he did. He always admired Jonathan Winters, but he was better than Winters. He hit the bullseye more often.

Reports are that he died by his own hand, having struggled with depression and substance abuse for many years. One always suspected that he needed artificial stimulation to maintain that manic comic delivery. But he also seemed to be able to work just fine when he had dried out. Still, we don’t know the pressures he was under. I can speak from experience about the pain of depression. Someone like me can always tell himself that if we achieved this or that we’d feel better. What do you do when you’ve reached the top and still don’t feel good about yourself?

I had always assumed – stereotypically – that Robin Williams was Jewish. But his Wikipedia page says he was raised Episcopalian, and remained a member of that church.

We sacramentalists put great faith in the keeping power of God’s grace in baptism and holy communion. Let us pray that Robin Williams has found his long-sought peace in the grace of the Lord Jesus.

Amazon: "Lower Prices!" Hachette: "Profit Margin!"

The Amazon.com dispute with Hachette continues with full page ads in the New York Times and emails aplenty. Hachette's Michael Pietsch writes, “This dispute started because Amazon is seeking a lot more profit and even more market share, at the expense of authors, bricks and mortar bookstores, and ourselves.

“Both Hachette and Amazon are big businesses and neither should claim a monopoly on enlightenment, but we do believe in a book industry where talent is respected and choice continues to be offered to the reading public.”

Many authors are throwing their weight into the fray. "As writers--most of us not published by Hachette--we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want." Amazon argues that when paperbacks came out, publishers hated them just like cheap ebooks.

In related news, Amazon is disputing its contract with Disney and withholding pre-orders on select movies.

You know, when you find everyone around you acts like a jerk, the reason could be the common denominator--you.

Secularism Isn't Destined to Win

James K.A. Smith sets up the next issue of Comment by asking, "What if secularism is loudest precisely because it is a final cry before it is unveiled as implausible and unsustainable? Doesn't the emperor shout loudest about the beauty of his raiment precisely when he least believes it himself?"

The Vision of St. John by El Greco

From our sports desk

I am given to understand that the Minnesota Vikings pre-season game tonight will feature a new attraction: Viking reenactors in authentic costumes doing... something or other between plays.

These reenactors will in fact be members of my own group, the Viking Age Club and Society of the Sons of Norway. We've been discussing this deal for some time, but I didn't want to announce it before I had definite confirmation.

However hard you look, however, you won't see me. My mobility problems, plus my looming study schedule in the future, make it imprudent.

Still, just so you know, these are my friends. Maybe when they're rich and famous they'll remember me.

Samuel Johnson's Works All Online

Yale now offers a digital edition of the works of Samuel Johnson, which include this prayer recorded in 1752:


"NOVEMBER. Almighty God, in whose hands are all the powers of man; who givest understanding, and takest it away; who, as it seemeth good unto Thee, enlightenest the thoughts of the simple, and darkenest the meditations of the wise, be present with me in my studies and enquiries.

"Grant, O Lord, that I may not lavish away the life which Thou hast given me on useless trifles, nor waste it in vain searches after things which thou hast hidden from me.

"Enable me, by thy Holy Spirit, so to shun sloth and negligence, that every day may discharge part of the task which Thou hast allotted me; and so further with thy help that labour which, without thy help, must be ineffectual, that I may obtain, in all my undertakings, such success as will most promote thy glory, and the salvation of my own soul, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen." (via Thomas Kidd)

An announcement and an appeal

I've been keeping a secret from you. We plan, God willing, to release a new novel of mine within the near future. This is a draft of the cover, with a lovely painting by our friend Jeremiah Humphries, and cover design by our own Phil Wade.

How is this possible, you ask, when I keep complaining of having no writing time because of graduate school? Well, this is a book that's been pretty much finished for some time, except for a couple plot problems. I took my brief study hiatus this summer to work on those holes, and now I think she's ready for launch.

The novel, entitled (obviously) Death's Doors, is sort of a sequel to Wolf Time, but not what you'd call a close sequel. The location is the same, the town of Epsom, Minnesota, but a few years later, and with only a couple of the same characters showing up. In the world of Death's Doors, assisted suicide has become a constitutional right. The main character, Tom Galloway, is trying to keep his depressed daughter from exercising that right, with no help from the authorities. On top of that pressure, a stranger drops into his life -- the Viking nobleman Jarl Haakon (whom you may remember from The Year of the Warrior), who has passed through a door in time.

What we're asking of you, at this point, is just your opinion on the cover above. Phil isn't sure he's satisfied, and would appreciate your input.

Thank you for your support.

The Thomas Prescott novels, by Nick Pirog

Nick Pirog’s Thomas Prescott novels are worth reading just to watch a writer learning his craft. The first book in the series, Unforeseen, is even admitted by the author, in his introduction, to be a freshman effort. Still (I’m not sure why) he offers the Kindle edition without alteration. And yet… in spite of its faults I liked it enough to read the sequels, which show considerable progress and offer many rewards.

At the start of Unforeseen, Thomas Prescott, former cop, former FBI consultant, and current criminology professor and millionaire, is living in Maine with his sister Lacy, an artist with Multiple Sclerosis, and their narcoleptic pet pug, Baxter. Thomas is recovering, physically and emotionally, from a struggle with a serial killer which ended in a fall off a cliff into the ocean. Everyone thinks the killer is dead except for Thomas. Sure enough, soon identical murders begin to occur, and all the victims are women with whom Thomas has been, or is now, associated.

The story is lively, though there are improbable elements, but the big problems are Pirog’s occasional bad diction (“The building was large, gray, and projected a cadence of death”), and a problem with the main character. Pirog’s trying to write a thriller with comic relief here, but he seems to think the formula for such a work is equal parts dramatic tension and jokes. Too many jokes, especially when innocent people are suffering, just comes off as callousness.

Still, I was intrigued enough to move on to the next book, Gray Matter. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Nerds in a Magic Land

Yvonne Zipp says Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land reminds her of Lewis' The Last Battle while remaining original.

“I bet it’s because of heresy like that that the world is ending. Your earthy, irreverent sense of humor has doomed us all,” King Josh tells Queen Janet. (If Peter was “The Magnificent,” and Edmund was “The Just,” in Narnia, Janet of Fillory should just be known as “The Awesome.”)

If that’s not enough of a selling point, The Magician’s Land also features a motto that should be emblazoned on T-shirts, embroidered on pillows, and hung on walls in dorm rooms everywhere: “Give a nerd enough time and a door he can close and he can figure out pretty much anything.”

Does 'Novel' Mean 'Book' Now?

"When Truman Capote called In Cold Blood a 'nonfiction novel,' he meant something very specific: that the book used the techniques of fiction but was completely factual," explains Ben Yagoda, but today many people appear willing to talk of fiction or nonfiction "novels" as if that word means a bound work of any form. In high school, this usage is everywhere, and it's prevalent in college too. Have you ever done it or seen it done? (via Mark Bertrand)

Viewing report: 'Ripper Street,' 'Single-Handed,' and 'Jack Taylor'

I took the past week off from work, and spent it at home, “pottering,” as they say, though no pots were in fact potted. I expected to blog more than I did (sorry about that), but relaxation is a demanding discipline. I spent a lot of time watching English and Irish mystery series on Amazon Prime and Netflix. Descriptions follow.

I had intended to watch the modern cop series Whitechapel, which had been recommended to me, but after one episode I realized I’d started with the second season instead of the first, and the end of the first season had been spoiled. I decide to leave it for a while, until my memory of it fades, which my memories are wont to do.

So I turned, without high expectations, to a series set in the same neighborhood but a different age – Ripper Street, a BBC series about policemen working in the wake of the Jack the Ripper scare. Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew McFadyen) is an inspector recently returned to work after a steam ship accident in which his daughter was lost. Her body was never found, and he’s convinced she’s still alive, though he can’t find a clue as to her whereabouts. He’s assisted by Sgt. Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn) a sort of Little John character, not especially bright but strong and brave, and soft at heart. Also an American doctor, Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), formerly of the Pinkertons, who serves as Inspector Reid’s forensic expert.

There’s a lot more action than you usually expect in a British mystery series – in fact you might call it an English western. There’s a lot of talk about the poverty of Whitechapel, and so some leftist themes come in, but they didn’t drive me away. I found it a lot of fun. Cautions for language, themes, and brief nudity. Read the rest of this entry . . .

eBooks Projected to Outsell Print/Audiobooks by 2017

Amazon owes 2/3 of the eBook market in part because they have followed their dreams to reach the unreachable star. Now we all may get burned.

Fantasy author Brent Weeks says the reality for many readers is that if they don't see a book on Amazon, they assume it isn't available. With eBooks, they may not know where to else to go to buy them. Amazon is also attracting authors as a publisher, not just a distributor. with promises of high royalty percentages. This and other factors are hurting big and small publishers alike.

“We're at the point now where the publishing houses are being undercut by the river of indie publishing, and at some point in time the front porch is going to drop in the river. At that point maybe they'll have to acknowledge it, but right now they just don't want to,” attorney David Vandagriff said.

The Trouble with the World

Earlier this morning, I read some a piece on how smart phones and similar tech have banished boredom from our lives and caused the very same problem for us. We don't know how to be bored, or better said, we don't know how to go without entertainment. Some say it comes from having small minds, but more than that, it trains us in small instant pleasures that will not build us up.

Have you ever asked yourselves why no one notice something wrong, perhaps something horrible, happening right under our noses? Whatever the reasons may be, we are polishing up our blind spots so that we will miss even more of those problems with our mobile tech and other distractions.

We don't have to check email while waiting on the cashier. We don't have to give our kids movies while we do errands around the city. It isn't that children shouldn't play when they are essentially waiting on us. It's how we are training them to play--what we're telling them is important.

Patrick Kurp wrote about this last year. He said, "T.S. Eliot claimed most of the trouble in the world was caused by people who want to be important. I would add a corollary: Most of the people in the world who want to be important have convinced themselves they are bored and that life is boring."

These self-important people do not see the value in small things or quietness. They want the exotic orchid, not the difficult research and travel to obtain it. But then, am I any better?

WWI and Tolkien's Fantasy

John Rhys-Davies on how The Lord of the Rings may have been influenced by World War I.

"Tolkien's experience of war left him with 'a deep sympathy and feeling for the "tommy," especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties.' He based the character of Samwise Gamgee on common soldiers that he had known during the war, men who kept their courage and stayed cheerful when there was not much reason to hope.

'Calvary' Isn't for Hipsters

World magazine is praising a new Irish movie called Calvary, which depicts a Catholic priest whose life has been threatened by a parishioner who suffered abuse by another priest in the past. Writer and director John Michael McDonagh wanted to talk about serious issues in this film, not smirk like a hipster at anyone who claims to believe something.

The film is not made for ironic hipsters who are slouching through life, never coming up with any emotional or intellectual response for anything. As if that’s too—‘Oh, I don’t want to get into all that, let’s just watch some TV show.’ To me, it’s a film made for those people, who I assume is all of us, who are striving for some kind of philosophical decision about why we’re here. Fox Searchlight probably won’t like me saying this, but it’s a film about death. There’s lots of references to death all the way through, and it’s coming to terms with what’s going to face us at the end of our lives.”

He goes on to describe his love for Flannery O'Connor.

How English Has Changed: Psalm 23

Psalm 23 in English

'The King's Hounds,' by Martin Jensen

This one should have been a winner. Certainly for me. A hard-boiled mystery set in the Viking Age, written by a modern Dane to illuminate King Cnut (or Canute, or Knut) the Great, conqueror of England, a remarkable man mostly forgotten by history. I really wanted to like this book.

Sadly, I was disappointed with The King’s Hounds by Martin Jensen. Not that it was awful. It just didn’t grab me much.

Our detectives in this story are Winston, an English illuminator (he paints pictures in books) and Halfdan, a half-Danish nobleman’s son, recently deprived of his family estates.

They join forces while on their way to the city of Oxford, where King Cnut has called an assembly. A noblewoman has summoned Winston to draw a portrait of the king for her. But when they get there the patroness is gone. Instead they meet the king who (for somewhat unconvincing reasons) decides Winston is just the man to investigate the recent murder of a Saxon nobleman. They have a three day deadline, or the king will Be Displeased, and probably kill them.

So they start wandering around the town and its many visitors’ camps, asking questions. Along the way Winston falls in love, Halfdan kills a couple assassins and saves a pretty girl’s life, and a bewildering number of nobles are forced to reveal their secrets.

It’s hard to say why it all bored me, but it did. The authenticity level wasn’t bad. The royal deadline on the investigation should have raised dramatic tension. But it seemed like just one repetitive scene after another. Characters blurred into one another; even Winston and Halfdan didn’t really come alive for me.

I don’t think I can blame the translator. I was impressed with the absence of the stiffness I generally note in translations from Scandinavian novels. In fact, the prose kind of reminded me of my own – except that I would never put neologisms like, “bugging me,” “debriefed,” and “gold digger” in a story set in the 11th Century.

Didn’t work for me, to my great regret. Your mileage may vary. Only mild cautions for language and mature content.

12 Books on the Bible

Twelve books that present the grand scope of Scripture.

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