All posts by Lars Walker

In which I insult my second-favorite country

Today I went to work, and I worked. Not a single interesting thought sullied the virgin veneer of my mind.

So I’ll pass on this link, (hat tip to Archaeology in Europe) which won’t interest most of you. It’s about a plan to move the famous Viking ships in Oslo, Norway from their present home to a new one, closer to the center of Oslo.

The present location is a little out of the way. It’s on a peninsula called Bygdøy, across the harbor from the downtown. For generations, tourists have been taking ferryboats to Bygdøy to see the Ships Museum, along with its neighbor, the Folk Museum, where you can see buildings (including one of the country’s most impressive stave churches) which have been relocated from the various districts, reconstructed and preserved.

At first I was surprised to read about it. The current building is probably a little small for the size of modern crowds, but it enjoys an almost religious reverence among Norwegians. It even looks a little like a cathedral (the modern kind).

And frankly, I was surprised the Norwegians would want to spend money to bring their nationalistic heritage to the forefront in the current cultural climate. Aren’t all good Europeans supposed to believe that their heritage is evil, after all? Aren’t they taught that Asia and Africa are superior in every way?

Then I figured it out. The Viking ships are heathen artifacts. No taint of Christianity adheres to them. To affirm pre-Christian culture is almost as noble in European eyes as to affirm non-Christian culture.

Uff-da. I was worried there for a while.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

How was Christmas weekend in Iowa? No snow, but otherwise great. A special plus was the presence of the Oldest Niece’s boyfriend’s little daughter. I haven’t had small kids around for very many Christmases in my life, partly because of not having any of my own, and partly because I was living in the wrong part of the country when my nieces and nephews were growing up.

Anyone who was around during the Watergate era has feelings about the late President Gerald Ford. Even though I was a Democrat in those days, I always felt Pres. Ford got a raw deal. Particularly galling was the running joke, fueled by Chevy Chase and Saturday Night Live, labeling him as a stumblebum. The man was in fact one of the best natural athletes ever to occupy the Oval Office. I think some of my disdain for the mainstream media (both the entertainment and the journalism flavors) rises from that old injustice.

This was the Weekend of Autism for me. The Youngest Niece had rented the movie “Mozart and the Whale,” which is a straight-to-DVD film that deserved a better fate. It’s a comedy (really!) about a couple, played by Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell, who meet in a support group for sufferers from Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism). I found the movie pretty uncomfortable, because a lot of the behaviors I observed were ones I can see in myself (I’m not autistic or Asperger’s, but I test pretty high for autistic traits within the normal scale). Good movie, by the way (for grownups).

Then brother Moloch mentioned that he had a book called The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. So I read that too (Despite the discomfort I was fascinated).

The Curious Incident is an unusual and rewarding novel. The title (as most of our highly intelligent readers, I’m sure, already knew) comes from a bit of dialogue from the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze” (“The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes).

The narrator of the novel is Christopher John Francis Boone, a fifteen-year-old autistic boy (and mathematical genius) who lives in a small town in England. One morning he finds a neighbor’s dog killed, stabbed with a large grilling fork. Like most autistic people, Christopher likes animals better than people, and he cradles the dog in his arms. The neighbor woman finds him like that and accuses him of killing the animal. When the police come they try to calm Christopher by touching him, which he cannot tolerate. He hits one of them and is arrested.

His father finally gets him released, but Christopher (in spite of his father’s forbidding it) decides to play detective (he loves mysteries) and solve the killing.

As he tries to emulate the heroes in books, Christopher gives us a vivid tour through the world of the autistic. Talking to people is very difficult, because he doesn’t understand facial expressions or speech inflections. Strange situations panic him—he needs to be able to draw a map of a house before he can be comfortable in it. Loud noises terrify him so that he has to curl up on the ground and groan loudly to try to drown them out.

Yet he manages to travel all the way to London on his own, and solve the mystery.

That his activities cause tremendous pain to the people who love him is something that doesn’t register with him at all. Because feelings and empathy are not part of Christopher’s world.

And that was one of the things I found most interesting in the book. The narrative includes numerous asides in which Christopher explains complicated mathematical problems or meditates on how “stupid” it is to believe in God or the afterlife. Christopher’s mathematical expertise almost gives his atheist arguments credence, but then the reader (or at least this reader) remembers that Christopher has no conception whatever of love. Numbers and animals are more real to him than people are. And when, at the end of the book, Christopher is able to report total success in his investigation, he is completely unaware of the devastation he has wrought in his father’s and mother’s lives.

I could have read something more cheerful over Christmas, but this book was certainly educational and fascinating. Even if (in autistic fashion) I’m not entirely sure I got from it the meaning the author intended.

A Child of the Snows

I stopped at the grocery store on my way home tonight. The girl at the cash register asked me how I was, and I said fine, how are you?

“I’m great,” she said with a smile. “Santa’s coming in about three days!”

Then she went on to tell me how she’d watched “Miracle on 34th Street” (the classic version) with a friend last night. The friend had never seen it before. Imagine that, she said.

That was enough to bring a smile even to my face.

On consideration, I suspect she told me all this because of my resemblance to Edmund Gwenn.

This will probably be my last post for a few days. I generally can’t be troubled to post on weekends, and I’ll be spending Monday (and maybe Tuesday too) down in Iowa with Moloch and his family.

So I wish you all a merry, blessed Christmas.

Special thanks to everyone who’s sent me fan mail (I’ve gotten a couple particularly nice e-mails recently). As long as someone, somewhere, is still reading my novels and enjoying them, it’s almost as if I were still alive.

My Christmas card to you is this poem from G. K. Chesterton:

A Child of the Snows

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,

And never before or again,

When the nights are strong with a darkness long,

And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,

The place where the great fires are,

That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth

And the heart of the earth a star.

And at night we win to the ancient inn

Where the child in the frost is furled,

We follow the feet where all souls meet

At the inn at the end of the world.

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,

For the flame of the sun is flown,

The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,

And a Child comes forth alone.

Lutefisk Lament

It all changed today.

Yesterday it was just cold. Today it’s Father Christmas Land. We have a nice carpet of snow on the ground, and we’ve also got that photogenic ice-coating over all the tree branches, making everything look like crystal. Wonderful to look at, as long as the powerlines don’t get overloaded, plunging you into a blackout.

First it rained. It rained pretty hard, which isn’t a bad thing after our dry fall (except for what it does to the street surfaces).

Then it turned to snow. Big, clotted flakes, like crumbled Styrofoam dropped out of a sack. That went on for a while, then diminished and stopped. We’re supposed to get a few more inches in the next few days.

Almost like the movie “White Christmas,” except that it didn’t happen on Christmas Eve. Pretty close though. I haven’t polled any children, but I suspect they’re pleased.

I’m going to talk to you about lutefisk.

The legend of lutefisk is that it’s an inedible Scandinavian delicacy, deadly to smell and disgusting to eat. Sort of comparable to 100 Year Old Eggs and live monkey brains.

This is an example of Scandinavian overcompensation. Lutefisk really isn’t that bad. It’s a product made of dried codfish, rendered in lye and washed in water, then boiled for eating. It has a strong, fishy smell when you cook it, and tastes extremely bland when you eat it. Its consistency, if cooked right, is closer to jello than anything else I can think of. It’s an odd food, and most people who didn’t grow up with it don’t care for it much. It helps to eat it with plenty of melted butter (for Norwegians) or cream sauce (for Swedes). But all the moaning is highly exaggerated.

I don’t care much for it myself, but my dad loved it, as did his parents and grandparents. Sometimes we make it for Christmas just for the sake of tradition. I doubt if the next generation will eat it at all, after we’re gone.

My favorite lutefisk tribute is the following poem. It can be found in a number of places on the internet, and most of the sites attribute it to either Boone & Erickson (a team of Twin Cities radio announcers who recorded it years back) or “Anonymous.” The actual author is a man named Dan Freeburg, who copyrighted it in 1978 but seems to have given up on enforcing it. Well, he’ll get credit here, by golly.

LUTEFISK LAMENT

‘Twas the day before Christmas, with things all a bustle.

As Mama got set for the Christmas Eve tussle.

Aunts, uncles, and Cousins would soon be arriving,

With stomachs all ready for Christmas Eve dining.

While I sat alone with a feeling of dread,

As visions of lutefisk danced in my head.

The thought of the smell made my eyeballs start burning.

The thought of the taste set my stomach to churning.

For I’m one of those who good Swedes rebuff,

A Scandahoovian boy who can’t stand the stuff.

Each year, however, I played at the game,

To spare Mama and Papa the undying shame.

I must bear up bravely. I can’t take the risk,

Of relatives knowing I hate lutefisk.

Then out in the yard I heard such a clatter.

I jumped up to see what was the matter.

There in the snow, all in a jumble,

Three of my uncles had taken a tumble.

From out in the kitchen an odor came stealing,

That fairly set all of my senses to reeling.

The smell of the lutefisk crept down the hall,

And wilted a plant in a pot on the wall.

Uncles Oscar and Lars said “Oh, that smells yummy,”

And Kermit’s eyes glittered while he patted his tummy.

Mama announced dinner by ringing a bell.

They rushed to the table with a whoop and a yell.

I lifted my eyes to heaven and sighed,

And a rose on the wallpaper withered and died.

Then Mama came proudly with a bowl on a trivet.

You would have thought the crown jewels were in it.

She set it down gently and then took her seat.

And Papa said grace before we could eat.

It seemed to me, in my whirling head,

The shortest of prayers he ever had said.

Then Mama raised the cover on that steaming dish,

And I had to face the quivering fish.

The plates were passed for Papa to fill,

While I waited in agony, twixt fever and chill.

He dipped in the spoon and held it up high,

As it oozed to plates, I thought I would die.

Then it came to my plate, and to my fevered brain.

There seemed enough lutefisk to derail a train.

It looked like a mountain of congealing glue,

Yet oddly transparent and discolored in hue.

With butter and cream sauce I tried to conceal it,

I salted and peppered, but the smell would reveal it.

I drummed up my courage, tried to be bold,

Mama reminds me, “Eat before it gets cold.”

Deciding to face it, “Uffda,” I sighed.

“Uffda, indeed,” my stomach replied.

Then summoning the courage for which we are known,

My hand took the fork as with a mind of its own.

And with reckless abandon the lutefisk I ate,

Within 20 seconds, I’d cleaned up my plate.

Uncle Kermit flashed me an ear-to-ear grin,

As butter and cream sauce dripped from his chin.

Then to my great shock, he spoke in my ear,

“I’m sure glad that’s over for another year.”

It was then that I learned a great wonderful truth,

That Swedes and Norwegians from old men to youth,

Must each pay their dues to have the great joy,

Of being known as a good Scandahoovian boy,

And so to tell you all, as you face the great test,

“Happy Christmas to you, and to you all my best.”

Light in darkness

This time of year, I’m leaving work just about the same time the last light is failing. This is the pattern we live with in Minnesota, the pattern I grew up with. It’s woven in my DNA. This isn’t usually the coldest time of year (certainly not this year—the temperature is peaking around freezing, and we’re still snowless, though there are rumors of maybe a few flakes by Christmas). But it’s the time when the nights are longest. The time when the sun rations out tiny bowls of thin light-gruel to the orphans, and there’s little point in asking for more.

And that’s one reason I love Christmas. Because Christmas is the time when we defy that darkness. We burn up fuel that could be hoarded, feast on food that could be cached, and sing loudly that we believe in Light, and Light is coming back.

Sure, most of our customs have heathen origins. So what? I don’t care about the religion of the first man to trim a Yule tree any more than I care about the religion of the guy who built my house. If it’s a good house that keeps me warm in the winter and provides a place for me to gather with my family, that’s plenty for me.

I figure I know Odin and Thor as well as anybody, and they don’t scare me. Their bad elements don’t hurt me, and their good elements enrich my life. C. S. Lewis thought the old myths contained “good dreams” sent by God, stories that prepared heathens to recognize the gospel when it arrived.

I believe it.

I remember going out to do chores on the farm during Christmas season, when I was a boy. Was it cold? It was biting cold. It was burning cold. I pulled a ski mask over my face, and soon had a beard of ice forming around the mouth hole. It was dark out there—not city dark, where there are lights from house windows and street lamps to give relief, but country dark. Dark you could fall into and never hit bottom. Up above, the stars burned like an ammonia fire behind a moth-eaten blanket.

And as I trudged along, the snow squealing under my feet with a sound of tortured iron, I sang Christmas carols.

And that made the whole thing magic. That put me into a story, a pageant. It didn’t make the killer night warmer, but it made it beautiful. Deadly and beautiful, like a fine weapon.

A sword for the Lord.

Thank God for Christmas, I say.

“What is the greatest commandment?”

I’m eating up leftover pumpkin pie from our Christmas feast, one slice a day (one more slice after tonight).

It amuses me to think back when I was a kid, when my parents sternly commanded me to finish my pie crust, including the fluted strip that sticks up and doesn’t touch the filling. I grumbled and ate it, but it seemed to spoil the pleasure of the thing.

Today I don’t mind pie crust, and would be perfectly happy to eat it. But health experts inform me it’s better to leave it behind.

So the question for me is, is there greater pleasure to be had from defying my parents posthumously, or from defying the experts?

A story my dad told me came to mind last night.

It was about one of his cousins. This cousin was the son of an uncle Dad was fond of, a fellow who owned a small earth-moving business. The uncle’s wife was a harder person to work up warm feelings for. She was a stern woman who believed The Rules Are There For a Reason. All their children rebelled—and rebelled hard—in their teenage years.

This cousin (I’ll call him Cliff) had gone to California and become a musician in a dance band.

You know about that Fundamentalist “No Dancing” rule? It was big in our church. Equal in every way to “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Dad was closing up our house for the last time the last time he saw Cousin Cliff. It was 1979. Dad had sold the farm, and most of his possessions had been auctioned off, including the house furnishings. Mom and Dad had decided to save just a few things, and Dad was packing some of them into a pickup truck he’d just bought (a moving van had already collected the rest). The next day they would drive south to Florida for good.

As Dad was finishing the job a car pulled into the yard. The man who got out was Cousin Cliff from California. Pretty much by accident, he’d chosen just that day to come and visit.

Dad didn’t have any furniture to invite him to sit on, so they sat on the cement front step, looked out over the flat landscape, and talked a while.

Cliff told him a story about his father, who had died a few years before.

His father had taken a trip to California to visit him. Cliff had done all he could to make his father comfortable and to give him a good time.

He’d even bought him a gift—an expensive wristwatch.

His father had seemed to enjoy himself, and they had parted on good terms.

But when his dad had gone home and Cliff had gone to the guest room to clean it up, he’d found the wristwatch lying in an empty dresser drawer.

For all his good will, his dad just wasn’t able to accept an expensive gift purchased with money earned playing dance music.

It still bothered Cliff. And Dad spoke of it to me more than once, so I guess it bothered him too.

Draw what conclusions you will.

A day at the races

I know you’ve been losing sleep, waiting to learn how my Christmas bash went. It went just fine.

We were ten in all at the table, three more than Thanksgiving, which seemed pretty crowded at the time. But ten didn’t seem to crowd the place any more. The youngest niece, who was in Tanzania at Thanksgiving, was with us now, and the oldest niece brought her boyfriend (who passed inspection with flying colors) and his adorable little daughter. Large quantities of food were consumed, and many presents were opened.

Deprived of any disaster to agonize over, I am agonizing over the mistakes I must have made which, I’m confident, people must have kept quiet about, to spare my feelings.

I was going to say something more about the flap raised by talk show host Dennis Prager. Prager has stated that he thinks Congressman Keith Ellison (a Muslim and my soon-to-be congressman, as it happens) ought to have a Bible present at his swearing-in, in recognition of the basic values that have shaped our republic. I’ve already said I disagree with him on this. As far as I understand his argument, it seems he considers the Bible (in that context) a symbolic object, like a flag. I find it hard to take that view.

But former New York mayor Ed Koch has publicly labeled Prager a bigot. This is, frankly, infamous. If there’s a public figure in this country who deserves the label of “bigot” less than Dennis Prager, I can’t think of one offhand.

Prager is my favorite talk show host. And that’s odd in a way, because of all the talk shows I listen to, I probably disagree with his most (except for Michael Savage, but I only listen to Savage while getting ready for bed, as an alternative to lonely silence). I disagree with him on theology (he seems to me a Pharisee in the best sense of the word, understood in its historical context). I disagree with him on “gay” civil unions. And I disagree with him on the issue of heredity.

He was onto heredity today. His view seems to be that, aside from genetic diseases, biological heritage means nothing whatever. Perhaps he’s one of those Jewish people who don’t believe they’re actually descended from Abraham. Or maybe he believes he is and just doesn’t care.

It might be a reaction against the racialism that brought about the Holocaust. It’s easy to understand how a Jew might prefer to hear nothing more about race forever.

But, although it’s a fashionable idea in our time, I do wonder in my secret heart whether race is actually nothing.

Classic racism, it need hardly be said (but I guess I’d better), is complete hogwash. To think that one racial group is “better” or “higher” than another is nonsensical as far as I can see. If experience teaches us anything, it’s that nobody is unqualified for anything in the world on the basis of their race.

But is it purely and solely cultural that Asians, given broad opportunities, still tend (generally) to excel at mathematics and music? That black people run marathons faster than anybody else in the world? That Scandinavians are the world’s chief purveyors of suicide-inducing books and movies?

I have an idea that our current ideas on race stem from a belief, held as a dogma by many, that racism is the root cause of all the evil in the world (just as the Communists used to believe—some still do—that greed is the real source of the poison). I think that’s inadequate. Throughout human history, large portions of the world’s population never saw anyone of a different race in their lives. That didn’t stop the Irish from hating the English, or the Bosnians from hating the Serbs.

And I still don’t understand how the brave new world everyone seems to want—the one where all the colors are mixed and everybody looks Brazilian—will be more beautiful and diverse than the one we’ve got, where you can actually fly to a different country and see people who look different from the folks at home.

Of course, I probably only think these things because I’m a racist.

I’ll go and do my penance now.

Random salad

Brother Baal and one of his sons will come in tonight and sleep here. The rest of the kith will gather here tomorrow. I have every confidence that this will be a Christmas that will be remembered long after I’m dead as one of the most disastrous my nieces and nephews ever experienced.

As you’ve probably noticed, it’s my policy to always expect the worst. I figure it’s a way of cheating the malevolent forces of the universe. I like to think there’s a good chance they’ll choose to get their kicks out of disproving my prophecy, and so let the events turn out OK.

This policy hasn’t worked with the predictions in my novels, so I don’t know why I cling to it.

Yes I do. I cling to it because I’m neurotic.

I listened to Michael Medved driving home from work tonight, and heard part of his interview with Chris Gardner, the guy Will Smith plays in the new movie, “Pursuit of Happyness.” I don’t know how the movie will be, but I’ve rarely heard a guy on the radio I just liked so much, so quickly.

Good news via Libertas: Ennio Morricone is finally getting his Academy Award. There’s a vestigial remnant of justice somewhere under heaven after all.

Also, I’ve been informed by way of the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America that my old publisher, Baen Books, is making books available to the disabled:

“Baen Books (www.baen.com), a publisher of science fiction, will provide its

books to fans who are blind, paralysed, or dyslexic, or are amputees, in

electronic form free of charge, effective immediately.”

My novel Wolf Time is one of those books in electronic form, unless they’ve dumped it (always a possibility).

Privileged Information by Stephen White

A while back I read an article (in National Review Online, I think) that recommended mystery authors conservatives might like. Among them were Jonathan Kellerman and Stephen White, both writers of books featuring psychologist detectives. I took to Kellerman right off. White delighted me less, but I’ve run through the Kellerman in paperback now, and I’ve decided to move on to White. Privileged Information is the book that kicked off White’s Alan Gregory series. Having completed it, I think I may have underrated him on the first book.

Alan Gregory practices in Boulder, Colorado. He is separated from his wife and lives with his dog. He has a healthy practice and likes to take long bike rides for recreation.

One of his patients, a seductive and sexually troubled woman, commits suicide. Somehow her father, a rich, powerful man, gets his hands on information that leads him to believe that Gregory has violated professional ethics by sleeping with her. He calls for an investigation aimed at getting his license revoked.

Then another recent female patient of Gregory’s is killed in an auto accident.

And another female patient is murdered.

A police detective begins to look closely at the psychologist’s life.

Meanwhile Gregory starts dating a local prosecuting attorney who has intimacy issues. And one of his male patients begins to act in a bizarre, threatening manner.

None of this is coincidence. Someone is working out a plan, and Gregory’s life (along with his girlfriend’s) will depend on his ability to analyze the workings of a very dangerous mind. Because the rules of privileged information prevent him from telling the police about certain things he knows. And the killer knows that and uses it.

I can’t think about Stephen White’s books without comparing them to Jonathan Kellerman’s. And in terms of plain fun, for me there’s no contest.

Kellerman’s world is California bright. I picture his scenes in vivid colors and sharp definition. White’s stories leave me with a darker feeling, evening in an impressionist painting. I have a harder time imagining what his characters look like.

To me, White seems more realistic. Alan Gregory isn’t an optimist like Kellerman’s Alex Delaware. He practices psychology more in the manner I’d practice it if I had gone into the field (which would have been insanely wrongheaded). Gregory has trouble leaving his work at the office. He agonizes over minor failures, the sort that lead patients to leave therapy, to say nothing of the big ones where patients kill themselves.

I think that’s the main reason I enjoy Kellerman’s books more. White’s books are uncomfortably close to home.

I haven’t really discerned the conservative elements the National Review promised me. There was a gratuitious swipe at the Reagans in this book. However, one plot element did satisfy my prejudices. A female character turns out to be wrong about a serious matter, and apologizes at the end. When was the last time you read a book where something like that happened?

So I think I’ll carry on with White. I think Alan Gregory may grow on me.

Linking today

Linking: the last refuge of the uncreative. Got some good ones today though.

Ed Veith at Cranach passes on some information about possible evidence that Jesus may in fact have been born on December 25. Probably too good to be true, but few things would satisfy me more than poking a finger in the collective eye of the Scroogeist Church.

Aitchmark sent me the following link which he describes as a “wonderful, amazing timesink”: How Products Are Made.

And finally, continuing in the comprehensive mode, novelist Michael Z. Williamson alerted me to every guy’s dream knife.

Song of a grumpy dwarf

(I don’t write poetry often. Mostly because mine stinks.)

Who needs wizards or witches? I told them all myself

Back at the start. The story front to back.

Well, not the part about the apple. That

Gave even me a shock.

But in the end

It worked out as I warned them.

Princesses! What matters it to dwarfs

How ladies live or die? No princess ever born

Would spend a sigh on any dwarf that lives. Oh,

She might laugh to see

Us trudging up the street

Or spare a moment’s pity.

But in our sagging cottage? To bring a princess in

Is to shift all. Her beauty makes our home

A donkey’s stall. The brush, the broom, the soap

And paint are not enough.

She calls it good,

But dreams of silk and marble.

You think a princess born would be content to bide

In this rude shed? With seven ugly half-men?

When in her head a thousand ballads cry

To fetch her to her own?

You cannot hold

An eaglet in an anthill.

Oh, you may dream in secret things unspoken;

Dwarfs are Ygg’s worms. Sight is not enough.

We yearn to swarm. We lust to hold and touch

The buttery weight of gold,

The silver star,

Or any other heart-sweet.

And now she’s gone. The tall one came and pinched her

Just as I reckoned. Now our house is vast,

And vastly vacant. Spiders drape in corners.

Dust drifts in cupboards.

Dishes welter.

And washing would remind us.

The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning

The Bookman’s Wake is the second book in a detective series starring Cliff Janeway. Janeway is a former cop who gave up police work to become a rare book seller. In this story he is approached by a former colleague, another ex-cop who has become a private detective. Janeway neither likes nor trusts the man, but is tempted by his offer—five thousand dollars to arrest a woman who has jumped bail, and bring her back to Denver for trial. Her picture looks nice, the money sounds good, and her case is interesting. She is accused of stealing (twice) a rare book printed by a legendary small publisher named Darryl Grayson, whose books are famous both for being almost perfect and extremely hard to find.

Things go badly very quickly. Janeway approaches her under an assumed identity (her name is—seriously—Eleanor Rigby), and finds they have much in common. She’s a “book scout.” She makes a precarious living prowling used bookstores and thrift shops for underpriced books she can sell to dealers at a profit. Though very young, she can teach Janeway some things about books. He meets her family, printers themselves (her father worked for the famous Grayson) and likes them too. She makes a sexual advance, but he turns her down, partly because of his deception and partly because of her age.

About the time he decides he can’t bear to turn her over to the police, Eleanor gets arrested anyway. Janeway ends up escorting her as originally planned, but then she is kidnapped by a mysterious thug with an agenda of his own. Janeway must pick his way through the intricate maze of an old mystery in order to rescue her.

I liked Dunning’s writing. He uses words with real skill, and his characters are interesting and mostly well drawn. His knowledge of the book trade makes reading his novel educational in itself.

I had a problem with his hero though. Cliff Janeway is supposed to be both a cerebral book lover and a very tough guy. The combination isn’t impossible or even unlikely, but Dunning didn’t make it work for me here. The contrast between Janeway’s normal narration and the action sequences where he becomes deadly and violent struck me as too extreme. It was as if there were two characters, with no connection between them. I’d have liked to have seen some transition, some reflection of each facet in the other. But perhaps I’m just operating from a preconception about book people.

Also, except for the final showdown, I thought Janeway was just too good in a fight. In particular, he comes up against one criminal supposed to be a shadowy, dangerous, deadly killer, but he handles him with ease. It would have increased plot tension and improved believability if Dunning had made the struggle a little harder.

I was also irritated by Dunning’s politics. He’s entitled to them, of course, and I’d defend to the death his right to work them into his novels, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy his books. Conservatives, here, are uniformly either stupid or venal, all television evangelists are evil con men, and any dissent from environmental causes is a sign of moral turpitude.

I was also amazed by one bad word choice that astonished me in a book so well-written. This is the offending sentence:

“But the deal had to be handled with tenterhooks. The woman was extremely nervous”

A guy who knows words as well as Dunning ought to be aware that tenterhooks are not instruments of delicate manipulation. Tenterhooks were tools in the old weaving industry. Lengths of cloth were hung from them for stretching. “Being on tenterhooks” means to be in a state of tension, not caution.

The Bookman’s Wake has much to recommend it, but I don’t think I’ll be patronizing that particular shop again.

Romper Room wonks

Tonight I cooked one of my brother Baal’s purple potatoes for supper. Did you know there are such things as purple potatoes?

It tasted like a potato. No surprises there, thank goodness. But a purple potato is deeply disturbing on a fundamental level. It’s purple inside and out, with thin of sheath of white between the “meat” and the skin. It looks like some kind of unnatural hybrid of potato and beet, and you can’t help thinking that it’s going to taste like something approved by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Visual cues mean a lot to most of us, and by that standard, I just don’t… (ready for this?) dig purple potatoes.

But it was interesting. Definitely interesting. Maybe three-year-olds will like them, if you tell them they’re dinosaur livers.

Rodham Devon, it was cold today. Cold out of a clear cerulean sky, so that if you kept your window shades open you got a nice solar rebate on your fuel oil bill. But the ambient temperatures more than adjusted for that. On a day like today, there’s nothing between us and the interstellar wastes except a little rind of planetary atmosphere. The sunlight drops in and bounces right back where it came from. Minnesota. A nice place to visit, but even sunlight doesn’t want to spend time here in the winter.

Lots of talk about the Iran Study Group report today. From what I hear and read on the web, it seems pretty much like what everybody expected.

I keep flashing back to my childhood. Elementary school. Green chalkboards and linoleum. A “cool” teacher telling the class, “Today we’re going to have a discussion on current events.”

And he would ask our opinions on how we thought various issues in the news ought to be handled.

The answers were always the same.

In domestic affairs, the answer always was, “The government should make a law…”

In international affairs, the answer always was, “We should sit down with other countries and talk about it.”

“That’s very good. Very thoughtful,” the teacher would say.

(Thomas the weird kid, of course, would say something like, “I think we ought to drop an atom bomb on ‘em.” But the teacher would tell him sternly that if he had nothing appropriate to offer, he should just be quiet.)

Fifty years later, it seems like most of us are still trying to impress that teacher.

Maybe it’s because our culture has bought into the myth of the Wisdom of Children (an opinion that seems to gain adherents as the birth rate decreases).

Or maybe it’s because we’re just culturally stuck in an infantile mode, dressing even in middle age like kids in an Our Gang feature, and bragging loudly about the toys we’ve accumulated (like Viking live steel gear, I know).

But I think a lot of us—even the old codgers of the Iraq Study Group—stopped refining our thinking about public affairs back in elementary school, and we haven’t noticed that the world is a little more complex than we knew in fifth grade.

What was your suggestion again, Thomas?

Grave meditations

It’s cold in the Twin Cities now, but we’ve only had light flurries of snow, flurries that left small trace behind. It’s kind of academic anyway, because it’s supposed to get up to about forty on Saturday, and anything we’d gotten, short of a major blizzard, would melt then anyway.

It felt even colder yesterday, out in the cemetery at the committal service. Especially bareheaded as I was. I wore my full winter Sunday regalia to the funeral, including my black homburg hat. I wore the hat in particular so I could take it off at the cemetery. And that’s why I’m taking zinc to fight a head cold today.

I feel that every person has a right to have some man in a black homburg hat at their funeral, to take it off at the appropriate time. In the past such uncoverings were taken for granted, but nowadays you’ve got to find an eccentric like me to give the proceedings that particular classy note.

Perhaps its part of the ancient tradition of human sacrifice at funerals. The Romans, as you may know, held gladiatorial combats to say goodbye to the dead. The Vikings liked to strangle a slave or two to keep King Gunnar company in his funeral mound.

And up until recently, we had men taking off their black homburgs at our funerals in the dead of winter, so that there was a good chance one of the older ones would contract pneumonia and follow after shortly, along that long, lonesome road.

This by way of Archaeology in Europe: Vatican Archaeologists Unearth St. Paul’s Tomb.

Vatican archaeologists have unearthed a sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the Apostle Paul that had been buried beneath Rome’s second largest basilica.

I wonder if they’ll find the skull with the body (Paul is said to have been beheaded, so that part could be missing). I’d like to see a forensic recreation, to learn how close to the traditional description he really was. I have to think the traditional picture is right, because I can’t imagine any reason why anyone would make up such an unattractive image. Paul is said to have been short and bowlegged, with a large, domed head and a prominent nose. He is also supposed to have been bald and to have had thick lips, which would probably be harder to determine working from the bones.

I love skull reconstructions. Somebody find me St. Olaf’s skull, or Chaucer’s. Give me a face to look at. If I can’t have a time machine, I’ll take whatever I can get.

In memoriam: Cousin Amos

I took off work today and drove down to my home town for a funeral.

My dad’s cousin Amos had died, old and full of years. He was probably Dad’s best friend among his cousins. His farm was only about two and a half miles from ours. We went to the same church, and he was one of the small group of farmers, dad among them, who helped one another fill their silos every year (an activity that nearly killed several members one year, when a steel silo collapsed. I wrote about a silo like that in Wolf Time).

Amos was almost an archetypal Norwegian farmer. He didn’t say much, although he liked to joke when he was with family and friends. In the community he was wholly overshadowed by his wife, a formidable woman who ran our church Sunday School like a general and was not afraid to step on toes as a crusading member of the local school board.

But he was loved. Our old church was filled to the rafters today, by people saying goodbye. Amos’ only granddaughter stood up to give a tearful and moving eulogy. She told how, in her last phone call to him, she had thanked him for the wonderful heritage he had left them, and then had felt ridiculous because nobody in her generation ever talks about “heritage.”

The pastor gave a simple, solid gospel sermon, saying that Amos had made his work easy, because he had been sure where he was going. Even my brother Moloch, who drove up from Iowa, was impressed with the sermon.

I was more deeply moved than I expected to be. I think I was mourning more than Cousin Amos. I was mourning my own parents, and a part of my life, and a way of living that is passing forever. The town isn’t the same, and farming isn’t the same. Even Norwegian Lutherans aren’t the same. And we are the poorer for it in many ways.

But I’m grateful for my heritage too. And, if nothing else, I also know where I’m going.