Promises Not Made

I’ve seen many critical comments about “purity culture” this year from strangers on the Internet. I didn’t know exactly what they were referring to, but that’s normal when you come into the middle of someone’s conversation, which is what social media allows you to do all day, every day. And you can’t bring a pot of coffee with you. Last week such conversations couldn’t be avoided as everyone on my side of the Internet cafe took up talking about the announced divorce and apostasy of the author of a 1990s bestselling book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

The criticism has been as open-ended as the label. I think much of what I saw was from people who were pushing back appropriately on a shame-based rationale they were taught, but many critics seemed to be attacking biblical sexual ethics as a whole. The latter is ridiculous, but I’d like to write about the former for a minute.

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‘Dead Eye,’ by Mark Greaney

Moving along through Mark Greaney’s implausible but enjoyable The Gray Man series, we come to Dead Eye. I have to say that, though the temptation to fall into tropes is probably strong, author Greaney manages to keep the concept fresh.

The concept, in case you missed previous reviews, is this: Court Gentry is the world’s greatest assassin. Former military, former CIA, he was suddenly targeted for death by his former employers, he doesn’t know why. Now he lives as a professional hit man, but he only kills people he considers genuinely evil. He is totally isolated, with no family, no living friends, no fixed address.

Like all action heroes, Court is effectively infallible, always one step ahead of his enemies, capable of sustaining injuries that would stop a lesser man. But as Dead Eye begins, he makes a mistake. He’d be dead because of it except for the intervention of an unexpected ally – a member of the hit squad sent to kill him, who suddenly changes sides. Court is grateful but skeptical. The guy seems a little off.

His savior, Russell Whitlock (code name Dead Eye) is almost Court’s clone. He moves like him, thinks like him, even resembles him physically. And he’s been a student of Court’s career. He wants to team up. Together, he says, they’ll be unstoppable.

But that’s not what Whitlock really wants. His true plan is devious and ruthless. Court rushes through northern Europe to catch and stop him, forming an uneasy alliance with a female Mossad analyst, until the Gray Man and Dead Eye meet in one final showdown.

Dead Eye was, like all the Gray Man books, completely preposterous. But highly readable (in spite of some slips in diction). I highly recommend Dead Eye, if you don’t mind some bad language and lots of violence.

‘Les Bicyclettes de Belsize’

You could probably tell that my birthday yesterday left me a little melancholy. I pursued music on YouTube to soothe my savage breast, and came on a version of “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize” sung in 1969 by the French singer Mireille Matheiu. I’ve always loved the song, which first appeared in my college years, but I’d never heard this singer before. She’s sort of a successor to Edith Piaf, and her performance kind of blew me away.

According to Wikipedia, Miss Mathieu is a major star in France. She is a devout Roman Catholic (though famously superstitious) and politically conservative. She has, regrettably, ties to Vladimir Putin in recent years.

The song comes from a 1968 short film directed by Douglas Hickox. In spite of the name, it’s an English film, not French. Nor does London’s Belsize Park appear anywhere in it.

Beauty doesn’t have to make sense.

‘This very day was Cassius born…’

Photo credit: Sophie Elvis @thetechnomaid

In case you missed the parades and fireworks, today is my birthday. I won’t tell you how old I am, for online security reasons. Let’s just say I don’t think I can get away with calling myself middle-aged anymore.

It’s a challenge to write about one’s birthday without sounding self-pitying — probably because I am pitying myself to a degree. Birthdays, especially when one is alone, are mostly opportunities for ruthless self-examination. And those are seldom occasions for merriment.

My brother and his wife bought me lunch the other day. I took myself out for lunch today. I thought about buying a little cake, but I’d already sabotaged my diet pretty ruthlessly. And events beyond my control are coming up that promise to subvert it even more.

What are we to do? Longevity is its own punishment.

And then I exchange emails with a friend who happens to have the very same birthday. And he tells me he highlighted his day by scheduling a biopsy.

Perspective. Ah, well. Thanks to everyone who sent greetings on Facebook. I do appreciate them.

‘Ballistic,’ by Mark Greaney

If you’re looking for realism, Mark Greaney’s The Gray Man series is probably not for you. If you’re looking for pulse-pounding action entertainment, you could hardly do better.

Years ago, Eddie Gamboa went far beyond the second mile in Southeast Asia, to save the life of CIA operative Court Gentry. Later on, Eddie returned to his native Mexico, where he became a drug enforcement officer, one of the few honest ones trying to stop the cartels. Not surprisingly, that got him killed, along with most of his team.

As Ballistic begins, Court, now “The Gray Man,” international assassin without a country, is passing through Mexico, on the run after a pretty hairy mission. He stops by Eddie’s grave to pay his respects, and accidentally meets his widow. She insists he must come with her and the family to a memorial service in Puerto Vallarta the next day. But the service turns into a bloodbath when cartel gunmen start firing on the crowd. Court is able to save most of the family and get them away, but now he has two big problems – he has innocent people to protect with limited resources – and his picture was taken and published, meaning his many enemies around the world know where to find him.

The situation looks impossible, but impossible is what Court is good at.

I was about three-quarters of the way through Ballistic when I realized what it was. It’s A Fistful of Dollars.

Which is Yojimbo. Which is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.

The plot is a hardy perennial – and as far as I’m concerned, Ballistic is as effective a retelling as any.

This book has an interesting and somewhat strange subplot involving religion. Court is puzzled but attracted by the Catholic faith of his charges, especially that of Eddie’s beautiful sister. A very odd scene involves her explaining her faith to him in a very winsome way – but that testimony leads into to a sex scene, which was a little weird.

Nevertheless, I thought Ballistic worked very well. Cautions for language, violence, and mild sex.

A Cambridge education

Photo credit: Ann Bergum Saterbak

Quite a weekend. A real Viking weekend, in the sense that a real Viking weekend consists of unloading a heavy boat, dragging it and carrying all its cargo over a Russian portage, and then loading it all up again. I’ll stipulate that the real Vikings were stronger than me and worked harder, but it was a pretty grueling time for an old man who lives by the keyboard.

The Viking Age Club and Society was invited to set up an encampment at the Isanti County Fair in Cambridge, Minnesota (not to be confused with Cambridge, England, which had its own Viking problems a thousand years ago). The local Sons of Norway lodge, known as Rumelva (Rum River) Lodge, invited us to come, bring our Viking boat, and set up for the public. They paid good money for our presence, and provided generous help in getting us set up and torn down.

They also wanted Viking fights. As it turned out, only one of the young fighters was available that weekend. Which meant that, as it takes two to tango, an old fighter had to step into the gap. And that old fighter was me.

Photo credit: Ann Bergum Saterbak

I can’t complain about the results. I won most of my matches, against a young man recently out of the military. Of course it helped that I was wearing full armor for the first set – helmet, gambeson, mail shirt, and fighting gloves. (Omitted the mail the second time around.) And he had only helmet and gloves.

But it was hot. And humid. Adrenaline took me through the fights, but afterward I was fairly well drained – literally. I’d brought a good supply of water, and I drank it all up. Added some salt too. Even begged some potato chips off the nice ladies at the food stand. And I took a little nap in the Viking bed we had in one of the tents in between bouts.

I’m too old and fat for that kind of nonsense.

On the other hand, if I’d died on the field of honor, I’d be revered by every reenactor in the world. So there’s that. No downside, really.

I sold a fair number of books. Not great, but it could have been worse. Traffic was kind of disappointing – the lodge people said they’d been promised advertising that never happened. More than one person happened by and was surprised to learn there were Vikings there at all.

Still, it was a stimulating weekend, one I won’t soon forget. I hope the Rumelva Lodge people don’t regret their investment in us. I’ll do it again next year if we’re invited.

But I hope younger men will do the fighting.

The prospects are fair

In case you’re in the vicinity of Cambridge, Minnesota, I’ll be playing Viking at the Isanti County Fair there tomorrow. The event goes on until Midnight, I guess, but I don’t think I’ll be there that long. I’ll have books to sell and sign.

Unless my car breaks down. Or I have a heart attack. Or fall down a well, or something. You never know.

For your Friday treat, here’s something delightful I think I haven’t posted here before — though what do I know? It’s Sissel singing “Sukiyaki.” A bizarre fusion of cultures here — a Norwegian girl in a folk costume singing a Japanese song in Norwegian. But you can’t deny it works. She was born to sing this song.

I suppose this counts as cultural appropriation, and is therefore evil. But if she sang it in Japanese, that would be cultural appropriation too. In fact, how can you avoid the conclusion that learning any foreign language at all is cultural appropriation? Hey you, liberal, trying to be multicultural by learning Spanish! Who gave you permission to plunder somebody else’s language?

The Traveling Bookstore of France

Jean-Jacques Megel-Nuber’s first drawing of his imagined bookstore on wheels had little in common with its final design. “It looked like the cabins in a Christmas market,” says Megel-Nuber, who is from the Alsace region of eastern France, known for its festive seasonal markets. He had originally thought about opening a brick-and-mortar bookshop but decided he wanted one that could travel to French country towns whose bookstores have often closed. He also wanted a space where he could live during his travels.

So he commissioned a young design firm to construct a cute, little store on a trailer that travels through rural France with 3,000 books, typically stopping at festivals. He’s dubbed his shop Au Vrai Chic Littérère (The Truly Elegant Literary).

‘being judged by our children as morally corrupt’

British author Sofka Zinovieff, 58, has written a book set in the 70s about a relationship between a child and an adult who is twenty-five years older. It has been called “a Lolita for the era of #MeToo.” In The Guardian this month, she writes about how her daughter’s generation think they have this morality thing all figured out.

When I asked my 23-year-old daughter whether there was sometimes too much emphasis on consent, she retorted: “You can’t debate the importance of consent when rape is still such a big issue. It’s confusing priorities.”

I tried again with my 26-year-old daughter. “It must sometimes be hard these days for sensitive, intelligent, young men,” I said. “They have to be so careful about what they can say and do.”

“It’s only about not being an ****##$*,” she replied curtly. “That’s not so difficult. It’s just speaking and behaving with respect.”

Zinovieff doesn’t spell out exactly what she’s defending. Perhaps we’d have to read her book to get a better idea. But I wonder if both she and her daughters are saying the same thing: whatever happens in a physical relationship, if everyone continues to say her or she approves of it, then it’s good or at least difficult to oppose; only when someone says he or she has been hurt does the relationship become a problem.

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‘Dead on Arrival,’ by Jeff Shelby

I’ve liked most of the Jeff Shelby novels I’ve read. He seems to be proliferating series, and they span several sub-genres, from humorous cozy all the way to hard-boiled. So I figured I’d check out the first book of his Capitol Cases series, starring Washington DC-are private eye, Mack Mercy.

This series is a spin-off of a series starring “Rainy” Day, who was Mack’s office assistant, but has now moved out on her own. At the beginning of Dead on Arrival, Mack is searching halfheartedly for a replacement for her. He’s having trouble finding anyone competent, and he hates office work in general. A middle-aged bachelor, he’s not the most organized guy in the world.

So when Glen Pulaski, an insurance agent and passionate home gardener, calls him about following his wife to see if she’s cheating, Mack is happy to jump on that case instead. Except that when he goes to see Glen at his home, he finds him dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, an apparent suicide. But Mack is suspicious. He doesn’t have any strong evidence, but he has a sense that something’s off. Might Glen’s wife have killed him? Or her lover? Or someone with more obscure motives?

In the course of the case Mack finds a new assistant, a near-clone of the departed Rainy, and he gradually starts trusting her to help him with actual investigations, beyond office work.

Dead on Arrival was a pleasant mystery in the “cozy” tradition. I found it amusing, but I  also found Mack a little dull as a character – laid back, non-motivated people don’t generally make good fictional heroes. I also figured out the culprit early on – though I didn’t guess the motive.

Dead on Arrival was okay. Cozy fans may enjoy it very much. It looks like some romance may develop between Mack and his new assistant, and I might even read another book to see where that’s going. But it’s not at the top of my reading list.

The past may change, again

Reconstructed Norse house at L’Anse Aux Meadows. My own photo. lw

There’s news in the Viking world this month. New excavations at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, have uncovered traces of occupation that suggest the Norse remained at the site for a couple hundred years, rather than just one or two seasons, as had been thought.

But it’s not a slam dunk, in spite of the sensationalist headlines you might have seen. The new stuff might not be Viking at all. This from the Canadian Broadcasting Company:

As Ledger explained, what they found is not necessarely Viking, “it’s more likely that this material relay to an Indigenous occupation on the site based on the radio carbondates from the material we got from this layer.”

But what is interesting is that this cultural horizon is where the researchers know that Norses used to be. If archaeologists find evidence that these series of layers that appear to have been trampled by humans or animals come from Vikings, this could be evidence that they stayed longer in North America than we thought.

(Who did that horrible transcription? “relay to?” “necessarely?” I have no idea where the word “Norses” comes from; the proper term is “the Norse.”) But the discoveries are very intriguing. Ever since the early excavations, we’ve been fairly certain the houses at L’Anse Aux Meadows were occupied only briefly, then abandoned. A longer occupation would suggest what a lot of us have believed for a while: that the whole Vinland enterprise was a bigger, more serious thing than Helge and Anna Stine Ingstad, the original discoverers, thought.

What exactly was the site’s function? I’ve been telling people that the best evidence suggests it was a boat repair station. However, I read in Nancy Marie Brown’s book The Far Traveler that there’s actually evidence of only one boat being repaired there. She suggested it was a “staging site” for further exploration and settlement.

I’ve been to L’Anse Aux Meadows (as I never tire of telling people), and even shook the hand of Birgitta Wallace, the second chief archaeologist there (though that didn’t happen at L’Anse Aux Meadows). The picture above is one I took there. I forget the year, 2004 or so.

A while back they found a spot that looked like a second Viking site not far away, but subsequent digging proved it not to be so. Now we’ve got something fresh to hang our hopes on.

Personally, I think the real settlement – where Thorfinnn Karlsefni and Gudrid the Far-Traveler lived, exists somewhere, but may never be found. But I think it’s there.

‘Deep Water,’ by Jeff Shelby

I really like Jeff Shelby’s Noah Braddock mystery series, and am delighted that he’s revived it after a brief hiatus. Deep Water is the second book in the new “season,” so to speak, and I think it’s my favorite to date.

I would have never thought I’d warm up to a series about a surfer detective, but author Shelby makes it work with Noah Braddock. Noah went into a tailspin a while back, after a personal loss. He avenged the loss, and then went back to work because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. In the previous book he found a new girlfriend, and step by step he’s coming back to life.

In Deep Water, he gets an offer from San Diego State University to investigate a student death. A young woman, Emma Kershaw, died as a result of falling down some stairs at a fraternity party. It looks like a clear-cut accident, with the only culpability being Emma’s own for being extremely drunk. But the university wants to be sure they won’t be surprised by any unguessed liability. Noah is to ask questions and find out about Emma and her world.

It’s quite a world. It turns out Emma was almost universally disliked. As an officer in her sorority, she was bullying and tyrannical. Her romantic relationships were volatile. Lots of people wished her harm, but did anyone hate her enough to push her down those stairs?

This book was a nice change in literature for me. There was precious little violence; just systematic questioning and analytical thought (not really what you’d expect from a surfer, but preconceptions exist to be punctured). Noah is a sympathetic person, and his final resolution of the mystery was an empathetic one that made me want to stand up and cheer.

Also, the book contained a plot element that mirrored (at least for me) a similar element in the overarching plot line of several of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books. I didn’t like the way Parker handled it (one of the main reasons I stopped reading him), but I loved the way Jeff Shelby dealt with it here.

So Deep Water gets my unreserved endorsement. Minor cautions for language and adult themes.

‘On Target, by Mark Greaney

I’m grateful to my friend Mark for recommending Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series of thrillers. Thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea, but these are very satisfying.

In the first book, The Gray Man, the hero, Court Gentry, was kind of a force of nature. Single-minded, relentless, highly skilled, this legendary assassin will let nothing stop him from completing a job – so long as he thinks the job is justified. No odds deter him, no setback dismays him, no injury stops him. It was very exciting, but a little fantastic. On Target, the second book in the series, mixes the formula up a little.

This time, Court has weaknesses. Still feeling some pain from the horrific injuries he suffered in The Gray Man, he’s gotten hooked on pain killers. He’s been reduced to taking work from a man he distrusts – a Russian who idolizes assassins. But the target is a “worthy” kill – the president of Somalia, a venal monster with the blood of thousands on his hands.

Only the game changes when one of his old CIA comrades contacts him. They know about the deal, and want Court to alter it somewhat. If he helps them kidnap the president, bring him out for trial, Court will be reinstated. The “Shoot On Sight” order that now stands against him will be revoked. He’ll be part of the team again.

How can Court say no?

In the days that follow, everything will go wrong. Court will be diverted on a quixotic detour to save a lady in distress. Friends will become enemies, and vice versa. Never has Court been so alone, in so much danger, so far from any help.

This book almost defines the phrase, “page-turner.”

The tension never lets up. This new, slightly vulnerable Court is more interesting than the earlier one. There’s considerable pathos in his constant fight, not only to survive, but to do what’s right – if he can just identify it among all the lies.

Highly recommended. Cautions for violence and language.

‘Murder at Shake Holes,’ by Bruce Beckham

Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill series continues to deliver. Rather old-fashioned, like their hero, they’re heavy on character and puzzles.

Murder at Shake Holes is the 13th in the series (you don’t have to read them in order). I believe they’ve done a “desert island” mystery once before, but it happens again here. Skelgill and his trusty sidekicks, female detective Jones and male detective Leyton, who work in Cumbria, have all been down to London for the presentation of an award for valor. On the train home, a freak blizzard blows up, and the train gets halted by snow drifts in the mountains. Carbon monoxide build-up forces them to abandon the train. Fortunately Skelgill, an experienced mountain rescue team member, knows they’re not far from the Shake Holes Inn, named for the numerous, dangerous potholes in the limestone terrain.

Matters turn sinister when it’s discovered that one of the passengers, a famous economist, is suspiciously dead in his car. He had been carrying a manuscript rumored to carry bombshell evidence against certain international money men. That manuscript has now gone missing.

The group that holes up in the run-down inn is an elite one – a former international model, some Russian business people, a journalist, a young Englishman with clandestine operations experience named Bond. At least one of them is a murderer, and once the snow melts they will certainly scatter. Skelgill must identify the culprit, hopefully before he or she panics and strikes again.

Skelgill is an amusingly quirky and occasionally surprising hero. He seems to have mellowed a bit from the early books – he’s hardly empathetic, but he’s a little less insensitive to his co-workers these days. All the Skelgill books are enjoyable, and I got everything I expected from Murder at Shake Holes. I might note that the author goes to considerable effort to avoid profanity – at one point even mentioning that he’s edited what a character really said. An obligatory hat-tip to contemporary social mores was brief and quickly done with.

I’m less delighted with the present tense mode of narrative, but all the books have been in the present tense and after a while I admit I stop noticing it.

Recommended.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture