‘A Witness Above,’ by Andy Straka

A Witness Above

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

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

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

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

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

The Conflicted, Divided Mr. Lear

A new biography of English poet and artist Edward Lear will be released next year from historian Jenny Uglow. A.N. Wilson reviews it.

In the case of both Lear and Tennyson, Uglow gives the sense that their introspection and private melancholy – their very non-public selves – were what enabled them to speak so effectively to an enormous audience, both in their own time and since. Of the two, however, it is Lear, translating the numbness of private sorrows into nonsense, who seems the more modern. Uglow wisely analyses this limerick:

There was an Old Man of Nepaul
From his horse had a terrible fall
But though quite split in two, By some very strong glue,
They mended the Man of Nepaul.

‘The glue of the rhyme sticks the pieces together,’ she writes, ‘but in the drawing the man’s two halves are still wide apart.’ That, really, is the essence of this psychologically brilliant portrait of Lear. There was at his core an unmendable dissonance, reflective of his times.

Perhaps this dissonance is always present in every society, but it’s sad to take note of it in some individuals. See the “Old Man of Nepaul” illustration on Lear200.

Here’s a little more on Jenny Uglow, who accidentally became an “adviser on every worthwhile period drama” on TV and some movies as well.

(via Prufrock News)

Self-Consciousness And Can a Machine Have It

Hugh Howey explains Theory of Mind and how it relates to artificial intelligence. He says AI can do marvelous feats of computation, but it can’t and probably will never think like we do. He says it’s fun to describe our minds as computers, but that’s misleading.

Computers are well-engineered devices created with a unified purpose. All the various bits were designed around the same time for those same purposes, and they were designed to work harmoniously with one another. None of this in any way resembles the human mind. Not even close. The human mind is more like Washington, D.C. (or any large government or sprawling corporation).

Parts of our brain can compete with each other, and what we call the mind is all of the brain and more combined. He describes seasickness as part of the brain believing it has been poisoned and vomiting to defend itself, even though you may know without doubt you have not been poisoned.

Not only are we unable to control ourselves completely, we also talk to ourselves incompletely. “The explanations we tell ourselves about our own behaviors are almost always wrong,” Howey says, because we defend ourselves even against our better judgment.

All of this leads to how AI machines will not and should not become so man-like as to pass for human beings. “The only reason I can think of to build such machines is to employ more shrinks.”

Howey has a book of new and collected sci-fi stories out this month.

Como on Helprin

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

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

‘Shadow Shepherd,’ by Chad Zunker

Shadow Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worse Than You’ve Heard

Tullian Tchividjian has started blogging again.

“As Charles Spurgeon once said, ‘If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him. For you are worse than he thinks you to be.’ This statement is painfully true. The truth is, I selfishly wrecked my life and the lives of many others.”

He tells the story of seeing his endorsement on the cover of a book and feeling renewed guilt over the blotch of his name.

Having resigned his ministries in 2015, he has remarried and his family now attend a Lutheran Brethren church in Florida.

Another year, another Hostfest

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

Hostfest 17a

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

Hostfest 17b

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

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

Birka crucifix

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

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

What Banned Book Did You Read?

Last week was Banned Books Week in America. I hope the loyal readers of this blog enjoyed their local book burning fires and a witty tête-à-tête with a stranger over a cup of pumpkin spiced something. I was somewhat busy last week, so I ignored the festivities entirely, which I hasten to say is in keeping with the holiday spirit.

Matthew Walther wishes all of this would just go away. They urge him to read a banned book. Which book? he asks. Mein Kampf? If that old Hilterian classic appeared in readers’ hands throughout a city during Banned Books Week, would librarians and bookstore owners be slapping each other on the back for a successful campaign? Heil, no, they would not. Walther writes,

In my experience, those with the strongest emotional investment in Banned Books Week tend to be people whose idea of literature is something called “Y.A.,” which they can continue to enjoy well into their 20s, plus whatever they found themselves forced to slog through as liberal arts majors in college in between tweeting and watching prestige cable and old Buffy reruns on Netflix.

(via Prufrock News)

God Has Designed Us to Sing

We have three young daughters, and it has surprised us with each of them how early they could sing. Simple melodies with mumbled words grew into phrases like “O sing happylujah,” or a bizarre mixture of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Keith and Kristin Getty say, “Your ability to sing is fearfully and wonderfully made,” which is the reason God has called us to sing in worship. They say it isn’t your talent for carrying a tune that’s most important; it’s the tenor of your heart.

National Coffee Day: Get Coffee by Drone

Today is national coffee day. I don’t know why this very special day is always overrun in the stores by Halloween or Fall decorations. Where are the family values?

Mercedes-Benz is testing a drone-delivery system in Zurich, Switzerland, to speed up coffee delivery. Their current plan combines drones and vans to get the coffee into your hands, which in a world without flying cars is about what we should expect. When I first saw this news, I hoped they would be testing a system of delivering coffee to your moving car during your morning commute. But maybe self-driving cars would be a prerequisite to avoid collisions.

In honor of the day, let me recommend some coffee roasters you may not have heard about. These guys have skills and unique personalities behind their companies and coffee.

  1. Lagares Coffee Roasters, the proud sponsors of the Happy Rant Podcast. Hector Lagares is one of those marvelous men in a small community who works an uplifting magic that can smooth away your worries. He offers a few blends and a few single origin coffees, so check him out.
  2. Mad Priest Coffee uses their business to employ refugees resettled in the Chattanooga area. As the name suggests, they’re a little crazy. Here’s how they describe their Dark Night of the Soul blend. “It’s been a dark night. A very long dark night (St. John of the Cross thought so). But never fear, this dark roast blend will help awaken you to the dawn of a glorious new day. Flavor Notes: Sunshine, Sigh of Relief, Puppy Kisses.”
  3. Goodman Coffee, also Chattanooga-based, is definitely a good-to-the-last-drop roaster. Ian Goodman raised the bar for delicious coffee in our city back in 1995 with the establishment of Greyfriar’s on Broad Street. This is my favorite brand.

You can order from any of these companies at the websites I’ve linked, but deliveries will not come by drone this year. If you’re ordering from Minnesota or Iowa, you’ll have to use your typical pony express.

Learning English in North Korea

In Pyongyang 1989, a man greeted Theodore Dalrymple in an open square, asking if he spoke English.

“I am a student of the Foreign Languages Institute,” he said. “Reading Dickens and Shakespeare is the greatest, the only, joy of my life.”

Dalrymple says, “I think I understood at once what he meant. In Dickens and Shakespeare, even the poorest and most downtrodden person speaks in his own voice. His utterances are at least his own, and are the product of his own brain. In North Korea, with its endless speeches in the most rigid of langues de bois, to speak in your own voice was impossible. All speech is either compulsory or forbidden.”

Rice on the Spirit of Democracy

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to Hugh Hewitt last May about her book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom and the many accounts of democracy, mostly in Eastern Europe and Russia. This is from the transcript of their talk.

Hewitt: At the bottom of my notes, I wrote you have to be willing to accept defeat, and you have to really believe that political campaigns and political warfare are much more preferable to the real thing with bullets and artillery. And that the democratic spirit is just the people you hold up to admire, embrace it, and the people that you scold, and sometimes not so gently, don’t.

Rice: Right. Right, because democracy is really right perched, sort of perched between authoritarianism and chaos. So democracy’s that sweet spot. It’s the place where you have institutions where people can carry out their concerns, their interests, they can change their leaders peacefully. I say in the book that democracy is built for disruption, because what we do in democracy is we say okay, you want change? Go and vote in a new candidate, a new president or a new governor or a new senator. You want change? You think your rights have been violated? Take it to the courts. And by the way, take it all the way to the Supreme Court if you want to, Brown V. Board of Education. And because we have this spirit of constitutionalism, or spirit of democracy, we are willing to use the institutions of disruption rather than going into the streets and fighting it out in the streets. And that’s a tremendous gift from our founders, from the people who have sustained that system over the more than 250 years or so of our existence. And we sometimes lose patience with those who are just starting that process. You know, Hugh, democracy is a pretty mysterious thing that you get people to say I’m going to rely on this abstraction called the Constitution rather than my family or my clan or my religious group. And we’ve been very fortunate that we have those institutions, and I think part of our greatness is to be able to help others find them, too.

Honoring Theologian Robert W. Jenson

Throughout modernity, the church has presumed that its mission was directed to persons who already understood themselves as inhabitants of a narratable world. Moreover, since the God of a narratable world is the God of Scripture, the church was also able to presume that the narrative sense people had antecedently tried to make of their lives had somehow to cohere with the particular story, “the gospel,” that the church had to communicate. Somebody who could read Rex Stout or the morning paper with pleasure and increase of self-understanding was for that very reason taken as already situated to grasp the church’s message (which did not of course mean that he or she would necessarily believe it). In effect, the church could say to her hearers: “You know that story you think you must be living out in the real world? We are here to tell you about its turning point and outcome.”

But this is precisely what the postmodern church cannot presume. What then? The obvious answer is that if the church does not find her hearers antecedently inhabiting a narratable world, then the church must herself be that world.

Mars Hill Audio calls Robert Jenson, who taught at at Luther College, Mansfield College (Oxford), Lutheran Seminary, and St. Olaf College, one of our “greatest living theologians.” He passed away early this month. The above quotation is from his essay “How the World Lost Its Story,” which Ken Myers reads in this recording.

Death Wish Coffee Could Kill You

Demonstrating that the gods of irony will not take time off, Death Wish Coffee‘s cans of nitrogen-infused cold brew coffee are being recalled for possible botox contamination. Yes, apparently our federal watchdogs are okay with allowing it to be injected in your face but not growing in your coffee. The toxic effects of Botulinum include but are not limited to death.

But then, you’re drinking Death Wish Coffee, so…

Actually, the lede is far stronger than the reality. The coffee is being recalled because a tester raised a flag on the possibility of botulinum growing. He did not find it there and no one has become sick… yet.

Of course, this could end up being a publicity boon for the company.

In completely unrelated news, Atlanta’s newspaper asks if it’s possible to overdose on caffeine. They say it would be very hard to die by drinking too much coffee, adding that people can safely consume ten cans of cola per day. Really? If it’s not caffeine that makes ten cans unhealthy for you, maybe it’s the sugar.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture