Category Archives: Non-fiction

‘Strange Tales of Scotland,’ by Jack Strange

Broichan may have been put out by this blatant display of Christian power in his own back yard, so he predicted that a storm would batter the saint on his return to his west. The prediction was proved correct, but as Columba lived on a Hebridean island he was used to foul weather and returned home safely. Anyway it was a pretty safe bet to predict stormy weather in western Scotland; it would have been more impressive had Broichan said there would be a lasting spell of fair weather.

There are ancient ties between Scotland and Norway, which are next-door neighbors in maritime terms. That may explain why I’ve always had an interest in old Albion. Or not. In any case, Jack Strange’s book Strange Tales of Scotland caught my eye. I remember reading books of legend and folklore with great interest in my younger years.

Broadly speaking (though other kinds of tales pop up) the stories in this book deal with monsters like the Loch Ness monster (which is not the only one of its kind), supernatural beings like various kinds of elves or fairies, and ghosts. Ghosts are often associated with the histories of ancient castles, so you get the stories of the castles too.

I didn’t enjoy Strange Tales of Scotland as much as I hoped to. That may be partly the author’s part – I thought the book could have been organized better; it’s kind of a hodgepodge, jumping around the map at random. But more than that, all the stories seemed sadly familiar to me – folk tales tend to be repetitive. You have an infinite loop of abused and cast-off mistresses, innocent women convicted of witchcraft and guilty witches who escaped punishment, murdered babies, and bloodthirsty local Bluebeards. It all kind of depressed me after a while.

However, if you’re not familiar with the field, and appreciate the glamour of Scotland, you might enjoy this book more than I did. One could do worse.

Oh yes, he mentions the Fairy Flag of the McLeods (reputed to be Harald Hardrada’s banner). I appreciated that.

‘The Rescue Artist,’ by Edward Dolnick

“The big-picture thefts are all motivated by bragging and stupidity. The crooks just move the things around until some sap gets landed with them, like the last guy with a chain letter. The paintings will always have great intrinsic value, so the saps will always dream on.”

In the early morning of February 12, 1994, while an excited Norway prepared for the opening of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, two burglars climbed a ladder to the second floor of the Munch Museum in Oslo, broke a window, crawled in and took Edvard Munch’s The Scream, one of most iconic paintings in the world, out into the night (falling off the ladder twice in the process). The window was not alarmed, and though the thieves were caught on a security camera, the sole guard on duty was engrossed in paperwork and didn’t notice.

It was a moment of national embarrassment. The Norwegian police searched for clues, but there was little they could do except wait for a ransom demand. Weeks passed and none came.

All this caught the attention of Charlie Hill, star detective on Scotland Yard’s art theft squad. Unfortunately the case was not in their jurisdiction. But Charlie Hill was not a man to be put off by technicalities like that. Half American, half English, a former seminarian and sniper in Vietnam, he’d been a loose cannon in the police service until he found his niche – doing undercover work for the art squad. A natural actor and thrill-seeker, he lived for challenges like this.

So he found a pretext, and the Norwegians requested help, and he plunged in, traveling to Oslo to pose as an American representative of the Getty Museum of Modern Art. What followed was, apparently, more Keystone Kops than Thomas Crown Affair. The great danger in retrieving stolen art, we learn, is not from sophisticated criminal masterminds, but from stupid thugs who are easily spooked and might break something. Abetted, sometimes, by equally stupid policemen.

That’s what The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick is about. I have to admit I enjoyed it less than I hoped. It’s true crime, after all, and that’s always less entertaining than the fictional variety. And I’m afraid that (although there are hints that he might be some kind of Christian) I got kind of tired of Charlie Hill. Hyperactive and mercurial, a man who favors instinct over logic, he’s not my kind of detective.

But it’s an educational book for anyone interested in the (apparently) booming industry of art theft. And it has an ironic coda.

Moderately recommended for those inclined. Cautions for language.

Cherokees in the Civil War

The Trail of Tears is a horrible stain on our country, but the story of the events and decisions that led to it is not straightforward. World has republished the introduction to Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation by John Sedgwick, a history of what the Cherokee did before, during, and after the war, distinguishing themselves above all other Native American tribes.

At first, virtually all the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy, identifying with the Southern plantation owners, and proud of the black slaves they themselves had bought to pick their cotton. And, complicit with the state of Georgia, the Union had been responsible for the land theft that had cost them their ancestral territory and packed them west in the forced migration known as the Trail of Tears three decades before.

But why did the Cherokee not stay united against a common enemy? How could they have divided against themselves? To answer this, we need go back three decades to the terrible winter of 1838 and the issue that would never go away. Removal—the cruel shorthand for the Trail of Tears—was to the Cherokee Nation what slavery was to America, an issue so profound as to be bottomless and unending.

The Personal History of Mr. Sunshine

We recently finished a 24-episode historical drama created for South Korean television in 2018 and distributed this year through Netflix. Set at the end of the Joseon kingdom, while Korea tried to move into the 20th century as subjects of a king, Mr. Sunshine is essentially a fiercely patriotic story. It begins with loyalists attempting to defend their peninsula from colonialists, despite obviously being outgunned. It ends with rebels raging against the rising tide of Japanese occupation.

We first see Choi Yoo-jin (Lee Byung-hun) as the son of slaves, who runs to avoid being killed and makes it to New York City. He grows up to become U.S. Marine Captain Eugene Choi, deployed to the American embassy in Joseon. He’s an American soldier with Korean skin; most people don’t know what to make of him. But he’s glad to be back in Joseon so he can find the people who murdered his parents and take his revenge.

On a risky American assignment, he encounters the beautiful Lady Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) doing something distinctly unladylike. He won’t know about her family until long after his interest in her has grown. But two other men are interested in her too: a Korean samurai, who is thought to have sold his soul to Japan, and the son of the second richest family in the country, who happens to be Lady Go’s fiancé. The three men are drawn together by their proximity and held by various mutual interests.

It’s a beautifully filmed drama told reservedly and works as a personal story of love and duty as well as a historical tribute to Korean independence. Americans will find many things to love about it.

If you know a bit of the history of Korea, you’ll be able to guess the story doesn’t have that happy of an ending; if you don’t know the history, you’ll be able to guess the tenor of the end by the prominent place of “Greensleeves” or by the first English words Lady Go learns: gun, glory, sad ending.

‘The Innocents Abroad,’ by Mark Twain

Syrian travel has its interesting features, like travel in any other part of the world, and yet to break your leg or have the cholera adds a welcome variety to it.

The organizers of the “Great Pleasure Excursion,” which sailed from New York on the steamer Quaker City in 1867, must have come to regret their decision. I mean their decision to include in their party the journalist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), who was traveling on assignment for a San Francisco newspaper. This was (I believe) one of the earliest international pleasure cruises in history – made possible by the capacity of a steam ship to travel on a more predictable schedule than a sailing ship. The notes Twain kept on that voyage would emerge as The Innocents Abroad, his most popular book during in his lifetime.

Although described as a pleasure excursion, the main purpose of the voyage was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, then under Ottoman rule. Along the way, however, they would take in parts of North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and Constantinople (still called by that name). On the way home they would see the sights of Egypt. It was quite a journey, and physically demanding by the standards of travel in our own day.

Mark Twain, only then becoming a celebrity, was prepared to subject everything he beheld to a typically American scrutiny. It seemed to him that in a lot of cases, when his fellow travelers exclaimed over the beauty or wonder of some piece of art or scenic vista, they were only parroting the responses their guide books had provided them. When Twain found something a disappointment or a humbug he said so – and seems to have delighted in shocking his fellow travelers. Which is not to say he lacked appreciation. When something impresses him, he says it. At some points he grows almost reverent.

Twain divides his fellow travelers into two parties – the “sinners” and the “pilgrims.” That doesn’t mean they broke up into cliques. He has a group of friends he keeps company with, and some of them are pilgrims. He confesses to admiring them in some respects. But when they appear hypocritical to him (as when they lengthen their overland journeys on a couple of days in order avoid traveling on the Sabbath, in spite of inconvenience to fellow travelers and cruelty to their horses), he seems to take satisfaction in pointing it out. The man is clearly keeping score. (He is also frustrated – rightly – by members of the party who insist of chipping pieces off monuments as souvenirs.)

The Catholic Church comes in for a great deal of criticism – he is appalled by the display of wealth in cathedrals, contrasted with the miserable poverty he saw in European streets. However, when he observes real virtue displayed by churchmen, such as the Dominican monks who cared for the sick during a cholera epidemic, or the desert monks who gave his party hospitality in the Palestinian desert, he does it justice. It seems to me (and this is my take on him in general, though I’m not an expert) that he was a man who wrestled with God. He could not be an atheist (in part because he’d have no God to be angry at), but he considered himself too smart to be taken in by any revealed religion. A very American attitude, that, and one that would grow influential.

The humor of The Innocents Abroad arises partly from Twain’s characteristic style – flowery Victorian prose constantly stumbling into premeditated bathos – and his Missourian “show me” attitude. He is not much impressed, for instance, with the artistic works of the Old Masters, but grants that he may have simply been overwhelmed by the numbers of them in places like Rome and Florence. He loves to describe the filth of European cities and is positively scandalized by the tiny size of the Holy Land.

Almost any subject is interesting when described by an interesting man. An expedition like this one, full of material fascinating in itself, can hardly fail to engage the reader when a man like Mark Twain chronicles it. And that’s what we get with The Innocents Abroad.

I read The Innocents Abroad in the linked Kindle edition, which is not a particularly good one. Although it’s described as illustrated, the illustrations in this version are not the ones that properly go with the book. They are images of 19th Century paintings with no particular connection to the text, and even those only show up in the first section. Also there are no proper paragraph breaks.

“As Individuals, We Can Never Be Happy”

To label [novelist Marilynne] Robinson a postmodern conservative or a conservative postmodernist seems to invite boundary policing and accusations of claiming the novelist for a political agenda she does not share. Perhaps a turn away from the language of modern politics can allow us to state what Robinson and [Peter Augustine] Lawler hold in common. Their respective postmodernisms represent, above all, returns to humanism. Specifically, the recognition of the human as a created being is found both in Robinson’s “radical anthropocentricity” and in Lawler’s “whole human being.” The intellectual terrain they share might be called a postmodern humanism (or a humanist postmodernism), joined in the understanding, in Lawler’s words, that “to the extent we understand ourselves as individuals we can never be happy.”

J. L. Wall writes about the big ideas behind Robinson’s stories and essays and how she and Lawler both believe we have lost the language to communicate our deepest longings. We can still ask the right questions, but our attempts at answers fall short.

Also on this subject: “So why are humans in the secular age so unhappy? Calasso says it is because they find something ominous in the insubstantiality they feel both within themselves and in the world around them.” From a review of The Unnamable Present by Roberto Calasso.

Willing to Fail: Adorning the Dark

Author and musician Andrew Peterson has written a book on artistic creativity for everyone, called Adorning the Dark. It will be released in four days. (Already Amazon’s #1 seller in Music Encyclopedias. What?)

On his promotional site (from which I pulled this graphic above), Peterson describes the book.

This isn’t a technical “this is how you write a song” kind of book. There are plenty of those, and I don’t happen to think they do much good. I wanted to write something that would be helpful to all manner of disciplines: songwriters, novelists, poets, painters and pastors—but also parents and teachers and accountants and carpenters. One of my soapboxes in the book is that everyone’s creative. Everyone. And my hope is that the principles I cover in “Adorning the Dark” can be helpful no matter what field you’re in.

We Can Read Anything, But Do We Read Well?

Imagine there’re no novels
No books for us to buy
No bargain basement deals
Just notes to apply
Imagine no one reading more than daily tweets

Sings the would-be profound poet in the corner coffeeshop.

Has the virtually infinite access to written resources improved or inhibited our reading? To put it another way, are we wiser as a society for having so much more information? Author Sven Birkerts doesn’t think we are, and he’s written a book that celebrates reading and warns us against forgetting how much fun it is.

We know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. . . . [But] inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture. Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information. . . .

Access may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.

from The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

Photo by Perfecto Capucine from Pexels

Brief Review of History Books

SOME TRADITIONAL Christian publishers don’t do much in history. After years of reading overstatements from both left and right concerning America’s founding, I enjoyed the calm and thorough analysis of Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? (Thomas Nelson, 2019). Those who read minds and extrapolate diaries may still fight over questions of sincerity and personal faithfulness, but Hall clearly shows what’s most important: that Christian ideas profoundly influenced the Founders, and through them all of us.

World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky offers many quick evaluations of new history books in this week’s issue, pointing out trends from select publishers like the above. He notes Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn, which we highlighted earlier this year.

Motel, Miracles May Be Likely to Occur

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a new documentary on the making and lasting influence of Fiddler on the Roof. It first appeared on Broadway in 1964, was released as a movie in 1971, and has been on stages around the world ever since.

Through cast, crew and luminaries’ commentary, [Max] Lewkowicz examines the play’s time-transcending magic as he wonders why “mainstream America is interested in a bunch of Jews living in a pale of Russia of 1905.”

“Tevye is from the shtetl, but his message is universal,” Lewkowicz told The Jerusalem Post from his New York home. “He could be a family man in Honduras, or anywhere in the world for that matter – a father whose children rebel and want to go a different way against his will. He is a man whose tradition is being seriously challenged.”

Motel may have believed marrying Tzeitel to be a miracle of miracles, but many smarter-than-thou philosophers have argued against miracles being a thing (FWIW, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is now playing on my Your Classical stream). Michael J. Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary has a post about a popular view on miracles, that “given how unlikely miracles are, it is always more likely that a miracle did not occur.”

But we must remember the context of every “miraculous” event. If God is living and active in our world, then miracles will occur. They may even be likely.

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

Can Christians Write Good Satire?

A popular fact-checking, myth-busting website has been in something of a stare-down with a popular Christian satire site over everyone’s favorite topic since 2016–fake news. Worries flare over the possibility that readers will take headlines like this, “Portland Police: ‘We Wish There Were Some Kind Of Organized, Armed Force That Could Fight Back Against Antifa’,” as actual reporting.

Christianity Today’s “Quick to Listen” podcast interviewed an editor of the biggest Christian satire and humor magazine in our lifetime on that topic and what Christians should expect from satire.

The Wittenberg Door and other Christian satire at its best would be like the little boy in the old fable who was the only one who would say the king is buck naked. Everybody else was just nodding about how well-dressed the king was. Well, good satire is sometimes that little boy who points out what we’re all either afraid to say or just overlooking.

‘The 12th Man,’ by Scott and Haug

A multitude of stories of courage and endurance come out of World War II. Surely one of the most remarkable is that of Jan Baalsrud (pronounced “Yon Bowls-rood”), the subject of the book, The 12th Man by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug. (If you see a book called Defiant Courage, it’s the same book. They changed the title to go with the release of a 12th Man movie a couple years back.)

Jan Baalsrud was one of a team of 12 saboteurs who sailed to Norway from Scotland in a fishing boat as part of a “Shetland Bus” operation in 1943. They were to deliver arms, munitions and supplies to the Resistance, and to attack some air bases. Tragically, a missed connection led to their betrayal, and a German patrol ship attacked them. They managed to blow their boat up, but the whole team except for Baalsrud were either killed on the spot or captured, tortured, and executed. Baalsrud himself escaped into the mountains with one foot bare and wounded.

Then followed months of working his way eastward toward the Swedish border through some of the roughest terrain in the world. He endured an avalanche, starvation, frostbite, gangrene (he amputated his own toes) and snow blindness. He received help and supplies from scattered farms along the way, but when he finally came to the great mountains around Manndalen he was unable to go further under his own power. He then became dependent on a team of Resistance sympathizers in the area who – in spite of killing weather and repeated missed appointments – refused to let this brave man die.

It’s a harrowing, almost unbelievable story. It was first publicized (I believe) by David Howarth in his book The Shetland Bus. Later he devoted a whole book, We Die Alone, to the tale.

Unfortunately (the authors report) Howarth didn’t get the whole story. Apparently, the Norwegians he interviewed were suspicious of him, and did not tell him everything they knew. Authors Scott and Haug spent five years interviewing surviving participants and combing the records, in order to provide what they believe to be an accurate account.

Sadly, their book isn’t very well written. Ms. Scott and Dr. Haug describe themselves as co-authors, but to me The 12th Man reads exactly like a bad translation (and I know bad translations). The phrasing is consistently Norwegian (hence awkward in English), the word choice poor. I wish I could say otherwise, but the book needed a good editor badly. I’m not quite satisfied with a few passages in Viking Legacy, but I felt better after reading this.

But if you can deal with the clumsy writing, it’s one heck of a story. Cautions for intense situations.

The True Crime book Harper Lee never finished

Author Casey Cep writes about a true crime story Harper Lee could not complete. “Harper Lee always said that she was ‘intrigued with crime.’ She grew up surrounded by stacks of the magazine True Detective Mysteries, cut her teeth on Sherlock Holmes, watched trials from the balcony of the local courthouse as a kid, and studied criminal law at the University of Alabama.”

The story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a man accused but not convicted of murdering and collecting death benefits from five family members, was as compelling as any story Lee had grown up with. But she could not pull it together. Perhaps the characters were too much larger than life.

Part of why true crime stories are so appealing is that they force us to confront the limits of what can be known, and eliding those limits, whether by fabricating motives or means or inventing someone’s inner life, doesn’t just cross the boundary between fiction and nonfiction; it transgresses something deeper.

For His Lovingkindness Endures Forever

A great way to remember the Lord’s work in your life is to write down your prayers and experiences. My pastor has recommended a mementos box to remind you of the stories of God’s faithfulness. Others have recommended keep a diary. I know a ministry leader who has filled up dozens of journals with daily devotions, prayers, and their answers.

World News Group reports on a great-grandmother, Ernesta Wood, who has been writing letters for many years.

Wood’s home displays photos of her 53 descendants, nearly all Christians. Once a week for the past 16 years, she has sent them letters—777 in all, as of July 1—filled with stories. Some are dramatic: Her blind grandmother miraculously saw Wood’s grandfather minutes before he died. Other stories cultivate a sense of God’s presence in less dramatic moments: Once, her parents’ pet birds escaped but returned to their cage before dark, just as her mother had prayed.