All posts by Lars Walker

Memories in store

The other day I thought about the Moland Store. A footnote in the history of a very obscure place, but in my mind kind of emblematic. A relic of a former time, on its last legs, but I was there briefly at the end of the era.

I’m sure my family bought groceries at the Moland Store when my dad was a boy. Back then, there were little country stores scattered around the prairie, at strategic intervals. Inventories were small (though storekeepers tried to cater to their regular customers’ preferences). It was a long way to town, and the high prices were a trade-off for time saved.

One of my earliest memories is of a day when my aunt and her boyfriend took my brother and me to a circus in the Twin Cities. On the way back we were caught in a snowstorm and forced to take refuge in a different country store, some miles north of town. It was the first adventure of my life, and I did not acquit myself with distinction. Cried until I fell asleep.

Our nearest store was the Moland Store, located at the intersection of a couple of gravel roads. The community of Moland boasted a church, a brick creamery (still in operation when I was a boy, I think), a swamp, and the store, a clapboard building with a false front (I think; memory might be deceiving me), just like in the westerns. Continue reading Memories in store

More fake Viking news

Not Kufic

It’s getting so there’s a new bogus, agenda-driven story about the Vikings every week or so. Not long ago it was the story about the “female Viking warrior,” which seems to have been far less than advertised. This week it was the name “Allah” “discovered” in a piece of Viking embroidery. From the English paper, the Independent:

The silk patterns were originally thought to be ordinary Viking Age decoration but a re-examination by archaeologist Annika Larsson of Uppsala University revealed they were a geometric Kufic script.
They were found on woven bands as well as items of clothing, in two separate grave sites, suggesting that Viking funeral customs had been influenced by Islam.

I was skeptical about this story from the git-go. In the first place, the pattern looked like a fairly standard geometrical pattern, very much like the kinds you get from tablet weaving, common in the Viking Age. Secondly, even if the pattern was derived from Muslim script, that does not imply belief. The Vikings had strong trade contacts with Baghdad, to whose representatives they sold thousands of slaves every year. Arabic silver coins (dirhems) are one of the most common objects found in Viking hoards, especially in Sweden. Arabic coins have no pictures, in keeping with Islamic law. Just the flowing, graceful Arabic script. It would be no surprise if the shapes of the letters might have inspired a Viking embroiderer. No religious motive should be assumed.

Now, as expected, there’s been a rebuttal, even more categorical than I expected.

…now a leading expert in mediaeval Islamic art and archaeology has disputed the claim and said the inscription contains “no Arabic at all.”

Stephennie Mulder, a professor from the University of Texas in Austin, said the error stems from a “serious problem of dating”.

She claims Kufic script did not occur until 500 years after the Viking age.

“It’s a style called square Kufic, and it’s common in Iran, C. Asia on architecture after 15th century,” she wrote on Twitter.

Listen archaeologists – I know you want to see your names in the papers. And I know it’s good for your careers to make the most exaggerated claims you can, in the service of multiculturalism. But stop trying to promote your causes by exploiting history.

That’s the job of historical novelists. Like me.

Tip: Dave Lull.

‘Cold Harbor,’ by Matthew FitzSimmons

Cold Harbor

Matthew FitzSimmons’s Gibson Vaughn series of novels has generally been a pleasure to follow. The new third entry, Cold Harbor, is satisfying – more so than the previous book, Poisonfeather, which irked me a bit by ending with a cliffhanger.

When Cold Harbor begins, Vaughn, ex-marine and computer hacker, is finally set free from confinement, but he’s not quite ready. For eighteen months he’s been a “guest” of the CIA, and aside from being physically weaker, he’s now slightly insane. Ghosts out of his past appear to him and nag him to fulfill his duties, duties which pretty much contradict each other.

His first item of business is to get revenge on the CIA agent who kidnapped him – something he accomplishes, but which provides less satisfaction than he expected. His other priority is to reunite with his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife. But he comes to realize that would not be good for her.

Instead, an old friend shows up asking for his help in rescuing a mutual friend. That friend has been kidnapped by Cold Harbor, a sinister military contracting company. There’s only one chance to get the man free – a slim one – and it depends on cooperating with his greatest enemy in the world.

The writing in the Gibson Vaughn novels is very good, but the characterization is the most interesting part. Good and bad characters are textured and multi-leveled. We get to see Vaughn’s friends and enemies in their best and worst lights, and hard choices force him to make strange bedfellows. As a moralist, I suppose I should demand white and black hat stuff, but complexity, when applied to people, provides excellent moral exercise, in my view.

And this book doesn’t end in a cliff-hanger.

Recommended, with cautions for the usual.

‘A Dark So Deadly,’ by Stuart MacBride

A Dark So Deadly

I keep reading Stuart MacBride novels, unintentionally. I had followed his Logan McRae books for a while, but then they got kind of… icky for my taste, and I dropped them. Then I read another, by oversight. It was OK. Now I picked up this stand-alone, A Dark So Deadly, by another oversight, and I was extremely impressed. This is a good novel, and a unique one.

It starts out very like the Logan McRae books, following a long-suffering, decent cop through various humiliations. DC Callum MacGregor, a detective in the city of Oldcastle, Scotland, has been assigned to the “Misfit Mob.” That’s a squad where the department dumps morons, goldbricks, screw-ups, and the corrupt. Callum is considered one of the latter, after confessing to contaminating a crime scene in an important case against an organized crime boss. Everyone thinks he took a bribe to do it. In fact, he wasn’t even guilty. The mistake was really made by his girlfriend, another officer, and he took responsibility because she’s pregnant with his child and would have lost her salary at a time when they can’t afford it. Continue reading ‘A Dark So Deadly,’ by Stuart MacBride

Free book news!

One of the most complex matters they made us study in library school was copyright. Like so many matters of law in the US, it has grown and metastasized to the point where I (personally) doubt that anyone really understands it.

One of the problems in copyright law has been that US statute has extended copyright protection far beyond the original term (it was 14 years at first, as I recall). Now copyright lasts long beyond the author’s lifetime. This may be a boon to the heirs and agents of authors of enduring bestsellers, but in fact most of the books published from the 1920s to the 1940s are now out of print, but still protected. Now the Internet Archive is making a collection of these books (ironically named after Sonny Bono) available, through a loophole in the law. And more are to come.

The Internet Archive is now leveraging a little known, and perhaps never used, provision of US copyright law, Section 108h, which allows libraries to scan and make available materials published 1923 to 1941 if they are not being actively sold. Elizabeth Townsend Gard, a copyright scholar at Tulane University calls this “Library Public Domain.” She and her students helped bring the first scanned books of this era available online in a collection named for the author of the bill making this necessary: The Sonny Bono Memorial Collection. Thousands more books will be added in the near future as we automate. We hope this will encourage libraries that have been reticent to scan beyond 1923 to start mass scanning their books and other works, at least up to 1942.

I expect that this might make a lot of hard-boiled mysteries available again, for free. Good news for me.

Read it all here. Hat tip: Books, Inq., thanks to Dave Lull.

‘What’s In a Name?’ and ‘A Puzzle of Old Bones,’ by P. F. Ford

What's In a Name?

A Puzzle of Old Bones

I’m catching up on reviews here, having been rudely interrupted in my posting schedule by some idiot who insisted that I go to North Dakota. Who was that guy? Oh yeah, it was me.

I’m up to the ninth and tenth in P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater mystery series here. Number nine is What’s In a Name? Ten is A Puzzle of Old Bones. It’s been enough time since I finished them that I’ve gotten a little vague on the details. So this will be a short review, despite covering two books.

Dave Slater, our hero, is a former police detective in the fictional town of Tinton, England. In the last book he quit the force, tired of the politics and backstabbing. Now he’s beginning a private investigation agency with his old partner, Norman Norman. But he feels uncomfortable in that role. At heart he’s still a cop.

In What’s In a Name? he and Norman are asked to discover the truth about an old man who died in his home. It seems like no mystery at all at first, but suspicious elements begin popping up. And now a chief inspector from London appears, offering Dave and Norman the help of a talented female detective, Samantha Brearley, in their investigation. All he asks in return is that Dave consider the offer of a job working for him. Dave likes the idea, but fears he would be betraying Norman.

In A Puzzle of Old Bones, Dave (spoiler alert) has taken the new job, and is working with Samantha, and Norman – a regular in all the books up till now – barely appears. The assignment is to solve the murder of a little boy whose bones have been found in a ditch. It’s a challenge, though not unexpected, when the boy’s presumed parents refuse to believe it’s actually their son. Things get really strange when they are proven right.

As I always say when reviewing these books, they’re not great literature, but they’re fun and engaging and positive. And it’s oddly compelling that author Ford keeps moving his characters around and changing them from sympathetic to repellent for no apparent reason except to change things up.

Anyway, there isn’t much objectionable in these books, and they’re good entertainment.

‘A Killing Sky,’ by Andy Straka

A Killing Sky

In the second book of the very promising Frank Pavlicek detective series, A Killing Sky, set in the Charlottesville area, Frank is hired as an investigator by the daughter of a shady Virginia congressman. Her twin sister has vanished, and although everyone thinks she just ran off, Frank’s client suspects something bad has happened to her. What really troubles her is that the girl had been investigating her own father, some of whose activities have been shady – to say nothing of his serial womanizing and a possible hit and run killing.

Frank starts looking into it all, and the congressman’s “staff” – in classic hard-boiled fashion – immediately raise his suspicions by stonewalling him and threatening violence. But there’s also the boyfriend the girl recently dumped, who doesn’t look innocent either. Meanwhile, Frank is preparing himself emotionally for his daughter’s departure for college, and trying to talk her out of joining him in the PI business. It’s also time for him to release the falcon he’s been training into the wild.

Good book. I still find Frank a little dull as a character, but the story is well told, and the writing is above average. Also, Christianity (represented by Frank’s girlfriend) is treated with respect. I noted one obscenity in the book, which makes it pretty clean by contemporary standards. Recommended.

‘Paris In the Present Tense,’ by Mark Helprin

Paris In the Present Tense

“Look,” he would say, “at home I have a stainless steel drain strainer, which when struck with a spoon produces a perfect, unclouded C with fifteen seconds of sustain. Were I younger I might be able to hear thirty seconds. The quality of beauty is implicit in my kitchen-sink strainer despite its uninspiring form and function – implicit in the steel, implicit in the form, and brought out by what? Accident? Perception? Illusion? Or perhaps by something greater, waiting to spring, that would sound, and sing, forever?”

A new Mark Helprin novel, as a rare an occurrence as that is, is always cause for celebration in my world. His latest is Paris In the Present Tense, a book, on the surface, about music. It’s essentially a caper story and a revenge story, though unlike any such that you’ve read before.

Our hero is Jules Lacour, seventy-five years old, a teacher of music at the Sorbonne. He is a Holocaust survivor, a veteran of the Algerian War, and a widower. A brilliant teacher, he has never advanced far in his career because he cares only for the music, not for fashionable theories.

Today he faces the prospect of seeing his only grandson die of cancer. Once, long ago, he was unable to save his parents’ lives. Now he will go to any length necessary to save this boy. Meanwhile, he kills two Arab boys one night, when he finds them trying to murder an orthodox Jew. The surviving assailant runs away shouting, “Racist!” which makes Jules the subject of a somewhat leisurely police investigation.

I won’t go into the plot any further, for fear of spoilers. The greatest pleasure here, as in all Helprin’s books, is in his digressions, the stories within the story, the flashbacks, the meditations, the long, baroque lists that render the narrative almost tactile.

Paris In the Present Tense is not my favorite of Helprin’s books, and parts of it are morally problematic. But Helprin doesn’t really need my approval, and Jules Lacour certainly doesn’t care about it. This is a rich, beautiful book with much to say to us about music, and about what music tells us about the nature of the universe. Social and political issues are addressed – especially the problem of resurgent antisemitism in France. But sops are thrown to the liberal side as well – a greedy corporation comes in for particular condemnation, and there are probably more sympathetic Muslim characters than strictly necessary.

Highly recommended.

PowerPoint chronicles

I’m finally back from Høstfest.

“Wait!” you reply. Because you’re an intelligent and attentive reader, you seem to recall that I got back a little more than a week ago.

And you are correct, as always. But you know, there’s the physical journey and the spiritual journey. And my spiritual journey lasted through Saturday.

Which is a pretentious way of saying that I wasn’t able to get out of Viking Presenter mode, because I had two – not one, but two – last-minute lecturing gigs last week.

Which, incidentally, explains my blogging silence Thursday and Friday.

Thursday I lectured to a Sons of Norway lodge which happens to meet quite near my house. When I was setting up, I had a (biblical) Job Experience: “The thing which I have greatly feared has come upon me.” Continue reading PowerPoint chronicles

‘A Witness Above,’ by Andy Straka

A Witness Above

…and for the first time I may have caught a glimpse of grace from a higher station, where eyes see earth more clearly and the hunter waits, her quarry known.

The first book of a detective series, Andy Straka’s A Witness Above is a competent hard-boiled story with interesting spiritual elements. The hero is Frank Pavlicek, a former New York City detective. After he and his partner, Jake Toronto, killed a young black man (with an apparently blameless record), they were kicked off the force. They moved south to the Charlottesville, Virginia area, where they keep in touch with another officer also involved in the fateful shooting. They operate as private detectives, and in their spare time they train hunting falcons (I don’t think any literary detective has ever done that before).

One day, out training his hawk, Frank discovers the body of a young black man, killed by a gunshot. He keeps some things back from the police when he calls it in, though, because this young man was known to his daughter, who has recently come to live with him after his ex-wife’s permanent hospitalization. Both the police and the FBI suspect Frank, but he’s determined to discover the truth while protecting his daughter, even at the cost of his life.

This was a pretty good book. I wouldn’t rank it at the very top of the hard-boiled heap, mostly because I found Frank a little flat as a character. He never really came into focus for me. But the story was fascinating, the suspense honest. The writing was excellent. And the Christian characters in A Witness Above (there are several) are authentically and sympathetically drawn. (You won’t find characters like this in a Lee Child book.)

Mild cautions for language, but all in all I’m fairly confident in giving A Witness Above a B+, and recommending it to you.

Como on Helprin

James Como (a noted C.S. Lewis scholar) writes an insightful appreciation of the novels of Mark Helprin at New English Review (by way of Books, Inq., by way of Dave Lull).

He delivers (as C. S. Lewis has put it) a realism of presentation, a high definition intensity of multi-sensory appeal, an imagism that, blurring (as do the Romantics) the line between exterior and interior, inexorably involves the reader in its vitality. Light, blue coldness and ice, but also heat, shimmering foliage, dramatic skyscapes, the ocean, the Hudson Valley with its precipices and bays and bordering towns and pastures, a predilection for knowing how tasks are done (and in detail) and how objects work—these are touchstones of Helprin’s prose, these and a rhythmic, phonic drive. He surely writes for the ear. The style is further marked by analogy, by lists (they can make the man), and by hyperbolic wit (with every now and then a punch line).

‘Shadow Shepherd,’ by Chad Zunker

Shadow Shepherd

I have previously reviewed Chad Zunker’s first Sam Callahan novel, The Tracker. I gave the book high marks for storytelling and values, but thought the writing weak. The second book in the series, Shadow Shepherd, is pretty much the same.

Sam Callahan has now finished law school, and is working for a legal firm. His first big assignment is to interview a potential client in Mexico City. The client insists that he will deal only with Sam, so Sam takes a trip south of the border. Unfortunately, while he’s interviewing his client in his hotel room, an assassin breaks in and murders the man. Sam barely makes it out alive. What’s worse, the police don’t believe his story. So Sam finds himself on the run in a foreign city, without his passport.

But that’s just the beginning. Soon he gets word that his girlfriend has been kidnapped. The kidnappers demand that he meet them in New Orleans in a matter of hours, or she will die.

Fortunately, Sam has the skills and resources to meet those challenges, and to elude the world-class assassin who is stalking him.

I give author Zunker full marks for exciting storytelling. The action in Shadow Shepherd never lets up, even if it sometimes challenges credibility (and I have to say I thought the final resolution kind of hackneyed). But the writing is still pedestrian and clichéd – Zunker twice uses the redundancy “hollow hole,” for instance.

Still, I applaud the enterprise overall. The Sam Callahan books are written from a Christian point of view, without preaching. They are conceptually exactly the kind of Christian fiction many of us have been calling for, for years. The entertainment value is high. I just wish the author would take a composition class.

Another year, another Hostfest

I suppose you’ll want a report of my week at Høstfest 2017 in Minot, North Dakota. You’re demanding that way; I’ve been meaning to discuss it with you.

Hostfest 17a

My major reaction, frankly, is that I’m pretty exhausted. That doesn’t mean it was a bad week. It just means I’m old and too fat, and not as much up to the challenge as I used to be. Back when I was a fighter, I found the fight shows kind of demanding. Now that I’m retired, I miss the action. 11 hour days, surrounded by crowds of strangers. Walking around on concrete floors wearing unstructured medieval shoes. The dusty, dry air of the horse barn which was our venue. It all took its toll.

Hostfest 17b

But the thing in itself was pretty successful. We had a large group of reenactors, most of them of pretty high on the authenticity scale. I met or improved my acquaintance with some interesting people – notably Phil Lacher the wood carver, Dawson Lewis the Saxon moneyer, and – surprising to me – Randy Asplund, an artist who used to work with Baen Books, and now – get this – makes medieval books in the traditional manner.

My basic criterion for a successful Høstfest is whether I make enough money selling books to cover the cost of the Viking bling I buy. I succeeded at that, and I got some pretty cool stuff. One was a finger ring based on a famous Danish arm ring. The other, an even greater delight to me, was a silver crucifix that looks like this:

Birka crucifix

This picture isn’t of mine, it’s the original, but they’re pretty much identical, except that the thong ring on mine is a tad narrower, and mine is – I honestly think – a little better executed than the original. I used to have a rather crude copy of this crucifix, but I lost it last year. This one, I am told, was made by a Polish artisan who once crafted a chalice for Pope John Paul II. It is tiny and perfect and exquisite.

So all in all, a good festival. Now excuse me, I have to lie down.

‘Katharine von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg,’ by Jenna and Shanna Strackbein

Katherine von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg

In the spirit of the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, I have received a free review copy of Katharine von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg, by Jenna and Shanna Strackbein, with illustrations by Emily and Jenna Strackbein.

This is a book for children — intermediate readers, I’d estimate. It narrates the life of the woman who became Martin Luther’s wife, from her childhood to the early years of their married life. The text is clear (with German pronunciations provided, which is a nice touch), and there’s a glossary in the back, as well as a timeline. The colored pictures are numerous and lively.

The story is addressed from a Lutheran theological point of view, so non-Protestants – or even some Reformed – may not appreciate parts of it. But it’s pretty handsome.