Kirk on Scott (not Star Trek)

Sir Walter Scott.

The public library has always been a boon to the impecunious reader. The utility that permits me to download e-books from my library is a particular blessing (not least in these days when Pestilence stalks the land). My library’s system is a little cumbersome, but less cumbersome than driving to the physical building, so I’ve got no gripe coming.

My main problem with my library’s e-book collection is selection. Mostly I read mysteries for light reading, and when I pull up “mystery” on the library site I always get the very same list of books. I don’t know if they’re arranged by popularity or date of acquisition, or some other criterion. But I have to page through screens and screens of listings before I find one that a) interests me, and b) isn’t being read by somebody else.

Last week I tried a new approach. Instead of looking for mysteries, I thought, why don’t I try one of those “important” books I’ve always heard I should read, but have never gotten around to? I’ll bet nobody’s waiting in line for those.

So, on a whim, I searched for Russell Kirk. Several books were available, and I selected The Conservative Mind.

Brilliant. Masterfully written. Illuminating.

And long. Dear, sweet jasmine tea, it’s a long book. I started it last week, and I’m not half way through yet. I complained a while back about the length of Walter Scott’s The Pirate, but that was an Amazon review compared to this.

The nice part is that my book-buying expenses have plummeted for the duration.

So… of what shall I blog until I finish this thing?

I think I shall discuss the reading as I go.

The first thing that struck me as potential blogging material was Mr. Kirk’s assessment of Sir Walter Scott, mentioned above.

In the Waverly novels, Scott makes the conservatism of Burke a living and a tender thing—in Edie Ochiltree, showing how the benefits and dignity of hierarchical society extend even to the beggar; in Balfour of Burley, illustrating the destructive spirit of reforming fanaticism; in Montrose among the clans, “the unbought grace of life”; in Monkbarns or the Baron of Bradwardine, the hamely goodness of the old-fashioned laird…. Delighting in variety like all the Romantics, repelled by the coarsening pleasure-and-pain principle of conduct, Scott clearly saw in Utilitarianism a system which would efface nationality, individuality, and all the beauty of the past. Utilitarianism was the surly apology for a hideous and rapacious industrialism.

(More after jump)

‘Rollover,’ by James Raven

Thrillers as a genre are different from mysteries, but there tends to be a lot of overlap. Thrillers concentrate on building tension and unease in the reader, but a mystery element adds to that tension. Me, I’m more of a mystery person than a thriller person, and Rollover, by James Raven, kept me reading, but took me far beyond my comfort zone. Which will have been, of course the point.

Danny Cain is a journalist, partner in a struggling independent news agency in Southampton, England, with his friend Vince. One evening he gets a call from Vince – he has to come right over. Vince has won the national lottery! Their troubles are over!

But when he gets there, Danny finds Vince dead, bludgeoned to death on the floor. Before he can telephone the police, he gets a call from his wife’s mobile phone – a strange man’s voice says to get out of there and wait for further instructions. They have kidnapped Danny’s wife and 6-year-old daughter; if he doesn’t follow instructions, they will die.

Then begins Danny’s ordeal – once of those situations where things start impossible and then get worse. He has no resources to call on, and his enemies seem organized, omniscient, and remorseless. Doing what he’s told might be impossible, and even if he can, chances of survival are low.

Meanwhile, Hampshire Detective Jeff Temple is called to the crime scene. Danny Cain looks like the obvious culprit, but Jeff isn’t sure. Things don’t add up, but he has no idea what awful revelations will come to light before it’s all over.

Taunt, tense, and remorseless, Rollover is a masterful thriller. It worked so well that I’m scared to continue on with the sequel.

‘Now Thank We All Our God’

Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenberg, Germany during the 30 Years War. Eilenberg was a walled city, and so a place of refuge, but the number of refugees strained local resources. Rinkart took many into his own home, and had to scavenge for food and supplies. The city was overrun by enemy armies three times.

And then came the plague. Rinkart was left as the only pastor in the city, doing as many as 40 or 50 funerals a day, including that of his wife. He himself did not live to see peace.

Nevertheless, sometime before 1648, he sat down and wrote a poetic table prayer that began, “Nun danket alle Gott,” “Now thank we all our God.” Soon after a tune was composed by Johann Cruger. Our English translation came from Catherine Winkworth in the 19th Century.

More on the hymn here.

I’m not sure who’s singing in the clip above, but the venue is the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Amazon Prime video review: ‘The Adventures of Jim Bowie’

Sometimes, as I said when I reviewed the series, “Yancy Derringer” a while back, you can watch a beloved childhood show and be pleasantly surprised. And sometimes the show is just as dumb as you expect. Such is the case with “The Adventures of Jim Bowie,” a two-season series that ran from 1956 to 1958. I streamed it on Amazon Plus.

Simplified and sanitized for a half-hour time period and a kids’ audience, “The Adventures of Jim Bowie” is sort of Bizarro-Jim. A lot of what happens is based on actual events – but they’re usually portrayed the wrong way around.

The very first episode, for instance, explains how Jim designs his knife and gets it made by a blacksmith. His kid-friendly reason for this is given as a need to protect himself from bears. (Wilderness survival tip – this does not work.) In real life, Jim acquired his knife because he’d been in a life-and-death fight with a man and his pistol misfired. Stories vary as to who designed the knife – it may have been his smarter brother Rezin – but it probably wasn’t Jim himself.

Aside from his efforts in the Texan War of Independence, which are genuinely impressive, Jim Bowie’s main accomplishments mostly consisted of criminal activity. He and his friend, the pirate Jean Lafitte (who appears in several episodes), conspired to exploit a loophole in the laws forbidding the importation of slaves. This allowed them to effectively “launder” their human merchandise, and then sell it at a premium. (Look up the details if you’re interested; it’s complicated.) In this series, the issue of the slave trade is generally avoided, except for one episode where Jim risks his life to rescue a slave he has freed from being sold again.

Jim’s biggest scam, though, involved forging old Spanish land grants, which the US government had agreed to honor. Jim created a large number of fake grants (not very skillfully), and managed to tie up quite a lot of land titles for a long time. He eventually lost all his claims in court, but not before many innocent people lost a lot of money. In my memory, there was one episode of the show that dealt with false land grants, but in which Bowie uncovers rather than perpetrates the fraud. However, that must be the one episode that Amazon Prime skips in its rotation, because I didn’t see it here.

The knife that bore the Bowie name, his great trademark, gets flashed a lot in the show, but doesn’t actually get used much for its proper purpose. He throws it often, frequently to disarm other men. But only one opponent gets stabbed as far as I can recall, and that’s pretty much by accident.

A number of historical characters show up – John James Audubon, Andrew Jackson (whom Bowie didn’t support, contrary to the show), Sam Houston, Johnny Appleseed, Jefferson Davis. They are often portrayed in fairly authentic ways (they take particular pains to make Davy Crockett look right. The Walt Disney series was a recent memory then). You could actually learn some fair basic history by watching this show, if you discount the main character himself.

Beyond that, the writing is simple and the plots dumb. This is a garden variety TV western aimed at kids, but without revolving pistols. It’s OK for mindless entertainment, but your life won’t be impoverished much if you give it a miss.

A note on the star: Scott Forbes was an English actor who learned his southern accent from a female voice coach whom he went on to marry. He plays the party pretty broadly. According to one source, he walked off the set just before the last episode was filmed, on hearing that the show had been cancelled. They covered by hiring another actor (not a famous one) to play an outlaw who gets a pardon for going on a mission to Texas in Bowie’s place.

Empty Streets

The last time Vegas shut down was Nov. 23, 1963 out of respect for the death of a president. Yesterday Nevada’s governor said they needed to shut down for thirty days. People had been staying home for a while anyway.

“You see all these massive buildings that are meant to have 10,000 people in them and no one is there,” one interactive gaming exec said.

That means gamblers will have to find other ways to, uh, invest, like, say, the weather. Bookies are taking bets on high temperatures in select cities, rainfall, and events on American Idol. Of course, other countries have sports too, so maybe we’ll see a spike in soccer interest.

Two major movie theater chains have closed until better health prevails. I just learned my local library will be closed until April 1; they are encouraging us to use their digital borrowing service, Hoopla. Perhaps the librarians won’t have to go on unpaid leave, like those of retailer Tattered Cover of Denver, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country.

We’re living in troubling times. I’ve seen more people walking through our neighborhood, but the warm weather could have inspired that. Three of us took that walk after sunset tonight. Dark, empty streets can be nice.

‘Murder at Flood Tide,’ by Robert McNeill

A woman is strangled in an out-of-the way spot in Edinburgh. Detective Inspector Jack Knox is surprised to learn that the case has been taken over by a “more sophisticated” police team from western Scotland. Their leader, however, turns out to be a decent and sensible fellow. He puts Jack in operational command and makes his people available to reinforce the local cops, who know the territory.

Crime scene investigation, witness reports, and CCTV suggest that the killer drove a delivery van, so the team begins a systematic investigation of delivery companies and their drivers. Slowly the noose tightens, but surprises are in store.

That’s how Robert McNeill’s Murder at Flood Tide goes. It’s not a thriller, but a fairly realistic police procedural, like the previous volume in the series, The Innocent and the Dead, which I’ve already reviewed. The drama is mostly low-key, but along with the threat of the serial killer, there is an insubordinate team member to be dealt with.

I like the realistic approach of this series, but I can’t pretend I find these books compelling. They are entertainment with a moderate level of dramatic tension; nothing to keep you awake at night.

‘Redhead,’ by Stan Jackson

I used to be a beanpole, just below six foot of skin, muscle and bone, but now, when I showered in the morning, it was like navigating the Yorkshire Dales.

It is a melancholy thing to come to the end of a book series you’re enjoying a lot. I don’t know if Stan Jackson intends to write any more Perry Webster novels – he’s kind of running out of hair colors. Peroxide? Titian? Dishwater?

Anyway, Redhead is the fourth in the series, and perhaps the best, depending on your preferences. Author Jackson gets better as he goes.

At the risk of spoiling it for people who haven’t finished the previous book, I have to tell you that Perry is married now, to Julia Emburey, the headmistress of a prep school. Julia thinks she has no relations, but is startled to learn she has a cousin – in France. Perry and Julia travel to the home of this woman, Gabrielle Dupont (originally Gale Emburey) who is very rich. Julia had known of Gabrielle’s father, her uncle, who was accused of murdering his wife and disappeared with his baby daughter. Now she learns that he went to France, where he changed his identity and had considerable business success.

Gabrielle says that her late father was innocent of the murder. She would like Perry to investigate the cold case. If he can vindicate her father, Gabrielle will make a major (and much needed) contribution to Julia’s school.

Both of them dislike Gabrielle from the start, but the money is tempting, and what harm could there be in righting an old injustice?

There was another suspect in the case, the “redhead” of the title – a French au pair who also disappeared at the time of the murder. But she had no apparent motive. Perry begins questioning friends and associates from those days, asking questions that most of them find puzzling, but that one of them finds absolutely threatening…

I enjoyed Redhead, as I have enjoyed the whole series. The writing has always been good, and the plotting has improved from book to book.

I’m happy that Perry has found a satisfying marriage, though I’m not entirely sold on Julia. She’s great most of the time, but occasionally she exhibits a prickly, feminist humorlessness that puts me off. No doubt female readers will react differently.

There’s an odd element in this one related to religion. Perry visits a sort of modern hippie commune, where they teach what seems to be a rationalized Christianity. “Grace” is their watchword, but without all that supernatural stuff. No doubt that seems positive to the contemporary English; I don’t think it holds up in practice. You’ve got to deal with original sin – a topic which, ironically, gets mentioned in passing.

I should note that at one point author Jackson uses the phrase “begging the question” correctly. Full marks for that! A rare pleasure in contemporary books.

Also, there’s a chilling anticlimax.

Good book, and recommended. I’ll read the next, if there is one. Mousy? Bald?

For your Spectation

They posted another of my articles at The American Spectator Online on Sunday. It’s called A Message to the Young: Beware the Groove.


It was around 1973, and I was attending a small Midwestern college. This being the ’70s, the school was already busy debriding itself of its past Christian tradition and regenerating as a sort of flyover Dartmouth.

I was in a Christian Ethics class, listening to presentations on the topic of sex. A young woman had already informed us that the Roman Catholic Church saw no value in women except as baby factories — I was kind of pleased with myself for asking her how she accounted for nuns.

Read it all here.

‘Raven,’ by Stan Jackson

Like the raising of the Mary Rose, Suzie’s words, and now Cyl’s, had brought it to the surface and like the Mary Rose, the thought emerged covered in stuff I didn’t want to delve into.

I’ve been calling this series of mysteries by Stan Jackson the “Ste Webster” series, because that’s what everyone’s been calling the character up to now in the books. But in the present volume, Raven, “Ste” and his friends have started referring to him as Perry. Which is also what the series is called on the Amazon pages, so I guess that’s what I ought to be calling him now.

Ste, or Perry, Webster is, as you may recall, a professor of philosophy at the University of York. His fiancée was murdered in the first volume, Blonde, and he managed to identify the killer. This has given him a reputation as a detective, and occasionally people ask him to solve other crimes.

This time out, Perry is approached by a former student, Laura “Raven” Wellbourne. She tells him that as a girl she attended St Barnabas School, a prestigious nearby institution, comparable to an American prep school. During her time there, she tells him, she was blackmailed and serially abused in secret by the headmaster, Dr MacDonald. As an adult, now with an academic degree, she changed her identity and appearance and returned to the school, getting a job as an instructor. Her plan was to somehow find evidence of MacDonald’s true character, and expose him.

But now Dr MacDonald has been murdered, found floating in the school swimming pool with his head smashed. Raven is the police’s chief suspect, but she swears she didn’t do it. Since she’s been relieved of duties, someone is needed to cover her classes. Could Perry fill in for her, on a pretext, and try to find the real killer?

Perry is so appalled by what she’s been through that he agrees to do it. Before long an audit reveals that Dr MacDonald has been involved in massive misappropriation of school funds, to the extent that its future is jeopardized. This is of great concern to the acting interim headmistress, Julia Emburey, a very attractive woman who has raised an interest in Perry that he hasn’t felt since his fiancée died. But is MacDonald’s embezzlement the motive for the murder?

I’m enjoying this series of novels immensely. Sometimes you just “hit it off” with a series or a character. I like Perry Webster, and enjoy spending time in his company. Also, author Jackson has fixed some of the writing problems I’ve identified in earlier books.

So I recommend Raven, along with the whole series. Mild cautions for adult themes.

Keys to Mediocrity

“Only the mediocre are always at their best.”

Jean Giraudoux

Having different strengths as individuals, we will take different writing advice, uh, differently. Put that on a t-shirt.

Thinking of my own strengths, I can point to two solid words of writing advice that have helped me maintain the level of mediocrity you’ve come to expect from my posts on this blog.

  1. No dedicated writing space. By using this laptop and my tiny desk for many activities aside from occasional mediocre writing, I encourage distraction and my habitual multitasking. I may be a fairly gifted multitasker, actually. I get all kinds of stuff done. Not thoughtful blog posts that build an enduring readership, but tasks, man! tasks get done. With a dedicated space, one can mold physical habits to aid the dedicated task, so when I sit down to write, I actually write. Often I open the blogger, and all my thoughts sneak out the back.
  2. No writing notebook. I’ve used writing a notebook in the past for many things, including review notes on books I read. I don’t think going back to any of that would interest me today, but notetaking helped me think and remember observations far better than my current non-method. I’ve had a few good blogging ideas recently that were nowhere to be seen later in the day. When I first thought of this post, I thought I could rattle off these other ideas, but no, I don’t have any other ideas. I am a stranger to them.

Now, I’m on the loveseat with the laptop and Splatoon on the big screen: no distractions at all, words flowing like cold butter.

Speaking of multitasking, I’ve avoided social media for a few weeks and feel somewhat liberated. I’ve fueled their accounts with too much of my attention.

Photo by Marcelo Novais on Unsplash

‘A Fatal Liaison,’ by David Pearson

On a country road near Dublin, a wealthy property developer is found dead in a crashed car. It wasn’t the crash that killed him.

Not far away, in a shed in the woods, a young man is found naked and stabbed to death.

Detectives Aidan Burke and Fiona Moore are on the case. The books at the older victim’s office look fishy, and his company’s labor force seems dodgy. But his family situation was odd as well. No lack of motives here, but lots and lots of secrets.

That’s the premise of David Pearson’s A Fatal Liaison, second in his Burke and Moore mystery series. I’ve reviewed the previous volume before, and this one completes the series to date. No doubt there will be more, because these books work pretty well.

As a Typical Male ™, I assumed at first that Aidan Burke, the senior detective, was the main character. But he’s really not. Aidan is smart enough and knows his job, but he has a drinking problem and has lost a step or two. He doesn’t treat Fiona badly, according to his somewhat Neanderthal lights, but his younger sergeant is actually smarter than he is. More than once she suggests a line of inquiry that he barely notices, which turns out vital once she’s followed it up.

A Fatal Liaison is a solid entry in a solid series. It’s not one of my personal favorites, but I have no cause to complain. Cautions for language and mature subject matter. Also implied criticism of traditional Christian morality.

‘Brunette,’ by Stan Jackson

Stan Jackson’s Ste Webster mystery series continues with its second hair color title, Brunette. Once again Ste, a professor at the University of York, has a murder to solve… for reasons of his own.

Mackenzie West was, despite her brown hair, a golden girl at the University. Beautiful and popular, she was a good student and a star athlete, a prospect for the British Olympic fencing team. Until one morning she plunged down a stairwell to her death.

It could have been an accident, or suicide, but the police suspect murder, and Inspector Allen would like nothing better than to pin it on Ste Webster. Failing that, there’s another faculty member he has his eye on, Matt Harper, head of the Philosophy Department. Matt’s a friend, and Ste doesn’t believe he did it. When both Mackenzie’s parents and Matt ask him to look into the matter, he hesitates but agrees, partly to appease his personal demons. He’ll have to keep out of Inspector Allen’s way, but he’ll try.

It soon appears that Mackenzie had dark secrets no one guessed. Ste finds not one but several people who had plausible reasons for killing her. Which gives them reasons for silencing Ste as well…

As with Blonde, the previous book in the series, I enjoyed Brunette quite a lot, but had reservations. The prose is very good, and I like Ste and his supporting cast. As an added bonus, both Chesterton and C. S. Lewis get quoted (though Ste is not religious).

On the down side, I’m still annoyed by Ste’s tendency to walk into danger without protection, and the author’s tendency to rescue him through sheer luck. That’s a plot strategy that can’t be sustained forever. Also, the conclusion of the book was a little bit ambivalent in moral terms.

Still, I’m going on to the next book. The pleasures outweigh my reservations. Minor cautions are in order for language and subject matter.

The Dream I Knew

While still I may, I write for you
The love I lived, the dream I knew.
From our birthday, until we die,
Is but the winking of an eye

W.B. Yeats wrote fondly of his native Ireland and the pagan faerie roots he supposed it has. These lines from his poem, “To Ireland in the Coming Times,” published in 1893. Composer Thomas LaVoy arranged the last stanza into this choral piece, performed by The Same Stream.

I cast my heart into my rhymes,
That you, in the dim coming times,
May know how my heart went with them.

Living in Fantastic Times

We have the privilege of living in a time when contemporary authors are creating quality fantasy stories that are funny and inspiring and that say true things. Adults and children need Jonathan Rogers’s feechie folk, S. D. Smith’s rabbits with swords, Jonathan Auxier’s courageous chimney sweeps, Andrew Peterson’s brave and flawed Wingfeather children, and others to incarnate truths for us. Battling the forces of evil and experiencing a “eucatastrophe,” a moment of redemption, with a character in a story gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to know goodness and love truth.

Ginger Blomberg, “Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga and Why We Need Fantasy”

My kids and I have enjoyed some of the books Blomberg commends. I reviewed a few in posts from days on the olden internet. Good fantasy is a marvelous thing, and these are good titles, if you haven’t looked into them. Links in the original article.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture