“Bill” by Wodehouse

Were you aware that, aside from being the funniest writer in history, P. G. Wodehouse helped invent the American musical comedy?

He and another Englishman, Guy Bolton, came to America early in the 20th Century to write for Broadway. At that stage, the theaters were running translated, Americanized versions of Viennese operettas. And that’s what Wodehouse and Bolton did at first. Then they branched out and began to write original plays of their own.

For one of those (now forgotten) shows, Wodehouse wrote the lyrics to a song named “Bill.” The production failed, but years later Jerome Kern (one of their collaborators) and Oscar Hammerstein dusted it off and inserted it into their production of “Showboat.” Thus it became the only Wodehouse song that remains in the songbook today.

Here it is.

“Let bookworms gnaw his entrails…”

Are you troubled by “friends” who borrow your books and never return them? Or return them soiled and dog-eared? Atlas Obscura reports on a book that describes the drastic measures medieval librarians employed — placing curses on the heads of book thieves and mutilators.

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

Read it all here.

Does Voracious Consumption of News Consume Us the Most?

A period of “debilitating postpartum anxiety” led Abigail Favale to drop out of social media and stop watching the news.

I steered clear of Facebook, which is its own strange minefield, photos of chubby babies and too-flattering selfies alongside headlines of horror – headlines of articles that few actually read, but we share them anyway, to at least feel like we’ve done something; we’ve shown that we’re woke, we’re aware.

Now she asks a particularly Lenten question. “Is the voracious consumption of information a virtue? Is seeking not to know a vice?”

This question has increasing importance. Most of us already suffer from an info glut and many people view this as normal life. But I won’t be surprised when news comes of the next generation rejecting all of this and seeking what some may call a new puritanism of personal responsibility and local (mostly offline) living. I’m pretty sure it’s happening already.

‘Little Girl Gone,’ by Brett Battles

Little Girl Gone

I’ve become a fan of thriller writer Brett Battles, especially his Jonathan Quinn novels. I get the impression that Little Girl Gone is an early novel, penned before he really found his narrative feet. It’s OK, but was not a grabber, for me.

Logan Harper works as a mechanic in his father’s garage, in his home town in California. Not so long ago he was a mercenary, working for a Blackwater-style military contracting company. But one awful day things went very wrong, and Logan’s best friend got killed. Logan was made the scapegoat. In the bad dreams that have tormented him ever since, he also blames himself. So he went home to lick his wounds.

One morning on his way to work he stops at the café run by “Tooney,” his father’s Burmese immigrant friend. Logan intervenes just in time to save Tooney from being murdered – but Tooney insists they mustn’t call the police. Eventually he learns the truth – Tooney’s granddaughter, a student, has been kidnapped by agents of the Myanmar government, who want to stop the girl’s mother from political activities. At his father’s request, Logan promises to bring the girl back. He doesn’t know at that point that this will involve traveling to Thailand and connecting with underground forces. But he’s made a promise, and he also needs to prove something to himself.

There was nothing really wrong about Little Girl Gone, but I didn’t find it compelling. The plot seemed artificial to me, and the characters were pretty black and white. Author Battles can do better, and has proved it since.

But it’s not a bad book. It’s lightweight. I can recommend it in a mild-mannered way. I don’t recall any seriously bad language or subject matter inappropriate for, say, teenage readers.

‘The Never-Open Desert Diner,’ by James Anderson

The Never-Open Desert Diner

I picked this one up on an impulse, wild and crazy book-consumer that I am. I found James Anderson’s The Never-Open Desert Diner a book with many virtues, but not enough of them to be entirely satisfying.

Ben Jones is an independent trucker, not quite making a living as the sole delivery service for a particular stretch of highway in Utah. He has this monopoly, not because of superior business skills, but because nobody else wants the route. It’s very remote, its few inhabitants mostly cantankerous loners. His best friend is Walt Butterfield, the ornery old owner of The Well-Known Desert Diner, which is never open. Walt faithfully renews his restaurant license every year, but if a customer shows up he runs them off. He’s been that way since his wife was raped and murdered decades ago.

Ben hasn’t been in the area long enough to be entirely accepted by the locals, but they like him OK. He figures he knows the area pretty well, but one day he’s amazed to discover, just across the highway from the diner, over a hill, a large abandoned housing development, where a model home still stands. He looks in a window and discovers a beautiful woman there. Continue reading ‘The Never-Open Desert Diner,’ by James Anderson

Jane Austen, the Teacher We Need

John Mark N. Reynolds encourages us to learn from Jane Austen, because she is a woman made in the image of God. “Jane Austen is the teacher we need, the thinker we ignore at our peril.”

Women don’t think the same way men do, generally speaking. That’s good and even godly, because the Lord created us in his image, male and female in his image. Our differences matter as mature adults designed to worship the Lord on earth.

If there is a tendency to value enduring relationships over abstract ideas in the ethics valued by most (though not all) women, then Austen is an educator in that voice. She must not be reduced to entertainment, though she is good fun. She is wrestling with status, relationships, and how to morally negotiate status ethically.

‘Hellbent,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Hellbent

She felt like an anchor to him, not dragging him down but mooring him to this spot, to this moment, locking his location for once on the grid. For the first time in his life, he felt the tug as something not unpleasant but precious.

In the course of Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, which I reviewed a few inches south of this location, he mentions that thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz is a friend of his. This reminded me to check on what Hurwitz has been doing lately. Lo and behold, he has a new Orphan X book out. I snatched it up greedily, and was richly rewarded. Hellbent is a humdinger, the best (in my opinion) of a superior series.

As you may or may not recall, Evan Smoak is Orphan X, the Nowhere Man. He was recruited out of a group home as a boy, to be part of the CIA’s ultra-secret Orphan Program. The Orphans, all people without families, were trained to be deadly assassins and commandos. Not only were their actions deniable by the government, their very existences were deniable.

Around the time Evan’s lifelong nemesis Van Sciver (Orphan Y) took control of the program, Evan managed to escape, with the help of Jack Johns, his mentor and surrogate father. Now, still with access to secret bank accounts, he lives a hidden life in a large LA apartment. His existence is spartan, his apartment almost empty of adornment. He spends his time helping people, but actual human relationships would give Van Sciver – who’s still searching for him – points of access, so Evan doesn’t have any.

But now Jack has asked him for a favor – to collect and protect a young woman in danger, Joey. Joey was scrubbed out of the Orphan program, but Van Sciver is still trying to hunt her down and kill her, along with another ex-Orphan and the boy he has been mentoring. In order to carry out Jack’s wishes, Evan will have to allow another human – and a pretty disorganized one – into his ordered life. And for him, that may take more courage than fighting a team of Orphans and Secret Service mercenaries, plus the MS Thirteen street gang (which he’ll also have to do).

Exciting, clever, and very moving in parts, Hellbent delighted me. I recommend it very highly. Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes.

Comparing King and Coates

Scott Allen compares what he sees of the diverging worldviews of Martin Luther King and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The former advocated for a biblical application of justice and neighborly love; the latter appears to see only power.

The civil rights movement that King led had a clear agenda: End Jim Crow and bring about a change in America whereby people would be judged not by skin color but by character. It succeeded overwhelmingly, garnering support from people of all ethnicities. It led to the passage of the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to the greatest period of equality and harmony between races that the nation had ever known.

Coates is very muted about the positive changes that King brought about. He prefers to paint race relations in America circa 2018 as little changed from America in 1850 or 1950. He puts forward no real positive agenda for improved race relations. Rich Lowry comments that his writing “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair.”

’12 Rules for Life,’ by Jordan B. Peterson

12 Rules for Life

Ideologies are simple ideas, disguised as science or philosophy, that purport to explain the complexity of the world and offer remedies that will perfect it. Ideologues are people who pretend that they know how to “make the world a better place” before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within…. Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.

Ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there’s been a war between “science” and tradition. (I put science in quotations because the science involved is often just ideology, and it keeps changing. Nevertheless the ideologues are always convinced that they have finally mastered all important knowledge, and are in a position to lecture the rubes). Intellectuals, basing their arguments on what they called science (often just a theory of science), have explained to their inferiors that all the old traditions and mores are the products of superstition – which we have now happily transcended. From this day on, we will base our actions and policies on “enlightened” ideas. And because science is infallible, utopia will inevitably follow.

What Jordan B. Peterson does in the seismic book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is to deconstruct such arguments through the application, not of religion, but of Darwinian biology – plus his extensive experience as a psychologist.

He’s an open-minded thinker. He doesn’t rule out the possibility that the “old” rules of society might conceivably have a divine origin. But that’s above his pay grade. The evidence he cites is actual research in such fields as biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and history.

His contention is that the traditional rules – which he considers the fruits of millions of years of evolutionary refinement – exist for a reason. He has distilled his list to twelve, and he explains why he believes in them.

Essentially, Peterson is the little boy who cried, “The emperor has no clothes!”

His book is fascinating, well-reasoned, inspiring, and sometimes moving. (There were some sentences that were badly constructed and confusing, needing an edit; that ought to be done.) Its naturalistic world view will be irritating to many Christians, but this isn’t a Christian book. This is a book about secular virtue. I read it in the light of Jesus’ statement to His disciples that “the one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50).

For Dickens, Good People Drink Tea

British food historian Pen Vogler has brewed up a book of sixty recipes that appear in Dickens’ stories or figured into his life. She suggests Dickens put coffee into the hands of wicked people and tea in cups of the right, moral, and good.

Take Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House.

“She neglects her feminine role as mother and wife, whilst she writes coffee-fueled letters long into the night, to promote her coffee-growing charity,” says Vogler. “It is funny, but, as with all Dickens’ bad mothers, it has a chilling ring of his own unhappy experience. He could never forgive his mother for wanting him to continue to work at the blacking factory, rather than go to school, even after his father was released from debtors’ prison.”

By contrast, Joe Gargery in Great Expectations is “as truly humble and good as Uriah Heep is not” and “a natural tea-drinker.” (via Prufrock News)

Reading ’12 Rules’

12 Rules for Life

I’m still reading through Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Here’s a nice excerpt:

Absolute equality would therefore require the sacrifice of value itself—and then there would be nothing worth living for. We might instead note with gratitude that a complex, sophisticated culture allows for many games and many successful players, and that a well-structured culture allows the individuals that compose it to play and to win, in many different fashions.

That Maddening Book

That Hideous Strength

At that moment the door opened and a voice from behind it said, “Well, go in then, if you’re going.” Thus admonished, a very fine jackdaw hopped into the room, followed firstly by Mr. Bultitude and secondly by Arthur Denniston.

“I’ve told you before, Arthur,” said Ivy Maggs, “not to bring that bear in here when we’re cooking the dinner.” While she was speaking Mr. Bultitude, who was apparently himself uncertain of his welcome, walked across the room in what he believed (erroneously) to be an unobtrusive manner and sat down behind Mrs. Dimble’s chair.

Some people have been discussing C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength lately on Facebook, and I thought I’d make a few comments on the blog tonight – though I’m relatively sure I’ve said these things here before.

That Hideous Strength may be my favorite of all C. S. Lewis’s works – though the competition is fierce. And yet the book has maddening weaknesses – which nevertheless contribute in their way to the ultimate success of the work.

The commenter on Facebook had exactly my experience reading it. First of all, it’s a much longer book than the previous entries in the Ransom trilogy. It’s also a very different kind of book, not at all what the fan of Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra is probably expecting. Instead of mystical space opera, we’re confronted with an earth-bound, genre-bending urban fantasy, consciously modeled after Charles Williams’s novels.

And here’s the killing thing – the first few chapters are undeniably dull. The first time I read them, it was plain work to slog my way through. Many, many readers, I’m sure, have just given it up. Continue reading That Maddening Book

Reading report: ’12 Rules for Life,’ by Jordan B. Peterson

12 Rules for Life

If society is corrupt, but not the individuals within it, then where did the corruption originate? How is it propagated? It’s a one-sided, deeply ideological theory….

Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing….

I’m reading Jordan B. Peterson’s bestselling juggernaut, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. It’s a book remarkable for restating the obvious – which is a revolutionary act in the 21st Century West. I’m not ready to review it yet, but it’s so interesting I thought I’d share a couple thoughts.

The book contains elements that make me want to stand up and cheer, and elements that trouble me – particularly in its treatment of Christianity. To be sure, there’s no denigration of Christianity here – in fact, Christian doctrine and morality come in for a lot of praise. But the book is written from a naturalist, Darwinian perspective that would make me furious if the same statements came from, say, the leader of a liberal church.

But of course, the source is what makes the difference. I’ve noted before that a man walking toward me may be farther from me than a man walking away from me. But the man walking toward me may reach me in time, while the man walking away will get further and further away. Peterson has, by his own account, gone from Christian faith to atheism in the past. Then he started thinking his way through the great questions, and gradually began to see the simple, practical wisdom of Christianity (and other great religions, to be sure), which he sees as the beneficial fruit of evolutionary processes.

I hope and pray that Jordan B. Peterson will come to faith in Jesus Christ in time. But it seems to me that his current agnosticism places him, for the moment, in the ideal place to do an important work. If he were a believer, his book would be cordoned off in the “Christian Literature” section, and nobody would notice it. His skepticism gives him credibility.

‘Do We Not Bleed?’ by Daniel Taylor

Do We Not Bleed?

The joke is that I was the one who was retarded. I’m the one lagging behind. I have a moderately higher IQ than Judy. I don’t have any extra chromosomes. I can tell time. But she knows how to live and I don’t. She knows how to treat people and I don’t. She knows how to be happy and I don’t. She knows how to give and receive love and I sure don’t.

Daniel Taylor’s second Jon Mote mystery continues a superior, unconventional Christian mystery series. In the first installment, Death Comes For the Deconstructionist, Jon, a former English scholar who heard self-destructive voices in his head, solved the murder of his former academic mentor. He also experienced an exorcism – though he probably wouldn’t call it that. It’s true that the voices have stopped and show no signs of returning, but he knows Scripture well enough (as a lapsed Baptist) to know the story of the swept and garnished room.

As Do We Not Bleed? opens, Jon’s mentally retarded sister Judy, who lived with him in the last story, has returned (by her own choice) to New Directions, a group home in Wayzata, Minnesota. Having no better prospects, Jon has taken a job as a counselor there, permitting him to spend time with her. He finds that life in a care facility for Specials (the current favored euphemism for the retarded) has some similarities to life in the English Department. Everyone is obsessed with politically correct language, as if you can change reality by making up new names. But Jon enjoys working with his group, who are colorful individuals and see the world in interesting ways.

Then one day one of the residents, the brain-damaged daughter of a very rich man, disappears. Soon her body is found in a nearby wetland. Neighbors are inclined to blame the group home residents. Tragically, after the woman’s body is found, evidence is discovered pointing to J.P., a member of Jon’s group. Jon finds it impossible to believe that gentle J.P. could have done something like that, but it takes a troubling conversation with an old nun and the innocent (and legally useless) testimony of another resident to persuade Jon to take the risk of confronting the true murderer. Continue reading ‘Do We Not Bleed?’ by Daniel Taylor

‘The Winter Fortress,’ by Neal Bascomb

The Winter Fortress

I think I first heard of the World War II Norwegian Resistance sabotage at Vemork and Rjukan when the Kirk Douglas movie, The Heroes of Telemark, came out in 1965. I didn’t see the movie then, but I read reviews and articles in the paper. I finally saw the movie in college. I think I realized even then that it probably bore as much resemblance to real events as a Lego figure bears to a real person.

Later I read accounts in books, and saw a TV documentary (which stated, somewhat snarkily, at the end that recently discovered documents proved that it was all unnecessary, as the Germans never intended to build an atom bomb at all. This was a premature and exaggerated claim). Then there was the Norwegian/British miniseries, “The Heavy Water War,” which was more authentic than the movie, but also highly fictionalized.

I think I’ve got the genuine story, within reasonable tolerances, now that I’ve read Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress.

The Norsk Hydro hydroelectric plant at Vemork, Telemark had a small, profitable, almost exclusive sideline manufacturing deuterium – “heavy water” – an ingredient in fertilizers. That operation became the focus of international intrigue when German scientists chose deuterium as a moderating agent in their atomic experiments – which did indeed have the goal of producing a super-bomb, though of course not every Nazi in the government supported the project. When the Norwegian Resistance, after the Occupation, discovered the Germans’ intentions for the stuff, they alerted British Intelligence, and halting heavy water production became a prime war objective.

The story of how a small group of Norwegian commandos, supplemented by an ill-starred company of British Army saboteurs, endured police searches, betrayals, horrific winter weather, separation from their families, and plain bad luck to carry out two highly successful sabotage operations forms the story of The Winter Fortress. The characters (particularly commander Leif Trondstad, Joaquin Rønneberg, and Knut Haukelid) come to life, and the times and circumstances are vividly painted. A lot of painstaking research went into this book, and it was not wasted. The story is exciting, and poignant, and often tragic.

Highly recommended. Not for the faint of heart.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture