A meditation

For Good Friday (via Dave Lull) a meditation from National Review on Holy Week by the late D. Keith Mano:

Again, I think not. God prefers, when He can, to conserve terrestrial order. He has a dramatic instinct. And His own peculiar unities. The Passion is as naturalistic as frail wrist tissue shredded by a spike. Jesus could ferment water. He could infinitely divide the loaf and the fish. But here He had need of a furnished apartment. His colt might have come about providentially, as Abraham’s ram came about, caught in some thicket. But God wanted a known colt: one that had memorable references in Jerusalem. It was His purpose to leave a clear and historical track behind — evidence that might stand up in court. The presence of transcendent power among modest instruments is more persuasive than any bullying miracle could be.

He is risen!

‘The Star Fox,’ by Poul Anderson

The Star Fox

What I liked best about this book was that it’s a military science fiction novel written before political correctness. Thus, Poul Anderson’s The Space Fox is blessedly free of tiny little girls with mystic ninja skills who throw 200-pound men around in the manner of Summer Glau.

Centuries in the future, the earth is ruled by a Federation, which also has jurisdiction over various space colonies. One of the most promising of those colonies, New Europe (settled by Frenchpeople), has been conquered by an alien race, the Alerians. The Alerians report that all the human settlers have (unfortunately) been killed. The earth government, dominated by pacifists, is inclined to accept the fait accompli and cede the planet to them.

Gunnar Heim, industrialist, is not so sure. He knows New Europe and doesn’t find the Alerian story plausible. He expects that the humans there survive in the wilderness, and are waiting for relief from earth. When he meets a Hungarian folk singer who has brought evidence of just that, but can’t get a hearing from the government, he starts moving. With the help of a combative French (!) legislator, he concocts a scheme to exploit a loophole in the law to set out in his own war ship, the Space Fox, becoming a latter-day privateer.

The Star Fox was recommended to me by a friend as right up my alley, and it has numerous theoretical attractions for me. It was written by a Danish-American who grew up partly on a Minnesota farm. The hero, Gunnar, is a Norwegian-American who lapses into Norwegian in his conversation from time to time. And it was written as a commentary on the Vietnam War, which Anderson supported, as did I.

And yet, I didn’t love it as much as I should have. I don’t know what it is that puts me off about Poul Anderson. I’m in the habit of criticizing his characters, but I couldn’t really find fault with the characters here. Gunnar especially is very well drawn, and I was even moved by his troubles from time to time. Yet when I was finished, I had no great yearning to pick up another Anderson. So I guess it’s just me.

On that understanding, I recommend The Star Fox. In keeping with publishing norms in its time in history, it has no elements that make it unsuitable for any age of reader likely to enjoy it.

What Did Judas Actually Do?

Judas throws the money back at the chief priests.

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd. (Luke 22:3-6 ESV)

Judas gave his name to the world as the greatest traitor to ever live. And for what? For pointing Jesus out when he was relatively isolated. Jesus even points this out when the gang came to get him at night, “Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me” (Matt. 26:55 ESV). The temple rulers feared the crowds, so they didn’t try to seize him in the middle of the day, but they didn’t have anyone follow him either. Without Judas, they appear to have been stymied.

But that doesn’t change the fact that what Judas did was almost nothing. He said, “I’ll show you who Jesus is. This is him right here.” If anyone had walked into the garden that night, even a Roman soldier, and asked if the Master was present, which of the disciples would have asked, “Who wants to know?” Any of them probably would have pointed him out himself.

Great evil is often committed with the most boring actions. Apathy is the frontrunner. Laziness, sloppy work, deliberate ignorance, truthful gossip, all have their place in the hallway of boring evil.

Even Judas was horrified by the results of his decision. I can’t imagine what he thought would happen or even his motive, except that asks this of the chief priests when he first goes to them: “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matt. 26:15 ESV).

Your favorite Bible teacher John Calvin writes:

It is particularly worthy of notice, that the cause and source of so great blindness in Judas was avarice, which makes it evident that it is justly denominated by Paul the root of all evils, (1 Timothy 6:10.) To inquire here whether or not Satan entered into Judas bodily is an idle speculation. We ought rather to consider how fearfully monstrous it is, that men formed after the image of God, and appointed to be temples for the Holy Spirit, should not only be turned into filthy stables or sinks, but should become the wretched abodes of Satan.

‘Murder in the Mind,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder in the Mind

‘Do you catch by logic, Daniel – or is it gut feel?’

Skelgill turns to her, blinking.

‘You mean fish?’

‘Fish – or criminals. Is there a difference?’

Now Skelgill is forced to contemplate the distinction.

‘After I’ve caught a fish – when I’m thinking about it – maybe driving home, walking the dog, whatever – I can explain how I did it.’ He pulls of his Tilley hat and absently combs back his hair with the fingers of one hand. ‘I can’t honestly say I always see it at the time.’

I think I have a codependent relationship with Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill mysteries, set in England’s Cumbria county. The man is annoying by design, and he does annoy me. He’s obsessive, exploitative of his underlings, and insensitive to others generally. And yet I keep coming back to the books.

In this outing, Murder in the Mind, Skelgill is more irritating than usual (even after appearing to make progress in the previous book). He and the long-suffering Sergeant Leyton drive out to a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane. The complaint is – apparently – a trivial one. Some supplies have gone missing. Yet before long two patients are dead, and later two more escape, one with a hostage. Continue reading ‘Murder in the Mind,’ by Bruce Beckham

Is Publishing Too Liberal?

Publishers Weekly asks, “Is Book Publishing Too Liberal?” They talk to several anonymous industry people about it–anonymous people. Doesn’t that strongly allege the answer to their answer is yes?

“Politics is a dangerous thing to be candid about,” said one agent, who has worked with conservative authors. “It’s now acceptable to ban speech on college campuses; this is the world we live in.”

Marji Ross of Regnery Publishing says many conservative authors are dismissed by mainstream publishers or treated contemptuously. An unnamed literary agent said you can tell the industry is too liberal by the mere fact that you have a few “conservative” imprints and no “liberal” imprints. Liberal ideas are treated as normal and published through the majority channels. (via Trevin Wax)

Country & Northern

From PJ Media, via Dave Lull: This New Yorker Grew to Love Country Music — in the Last Place You’d Ever Think.

And, yes, they adore country music. It speaks to them. Because it’s the real America, if you like, speaking to the real Norway. And guess what? Listening to that music here, I’ve undergone a long-delayed conversion. I’ve finally realized that of all the popular music produced today, it’s country songs, by far, that are most likely to have real melodies and real lyrics, to speak honestly and movingly about love and friendship, to exhibit courage and humor in the face of adversity, and to show appreciation for everyday comforts and pleasures. All in all, they’re the closest thing around today to the standards by Kern, Berlin, Rodgers, and company that I grew up on.

This story may surprise you. But to one who, like me, has spent time at the Hostfest in Minot, North Dakota, it’s just part of life. Like trains, dogs, pickup trucks… and lutefisk.

MIT Presents Communism for Kids


This is not a joke.

From the book page: “Once upon a time, people yearned to be free of the misery of capitalism. How could their dreams come true? This little book proposes a different kind of communism, one that is true to its ideals and free from authoritarianism.”

Historian Philip Jenkins has looked into it and found it isn’t tongue-in-cheek. It’s deeply ignorant. Does it point to Stalin or Mao Zedong as examples of pure communism at work? Of course not. Labor camps? We’ll do it right next time.

Should it not be said that a solid scholarly consensus now accepts that this record of violence and bloodshed was a logical and inevitable consequence of the communist model itself, rather than a tragic betrayal or deformation? Evil Joseph Stalin did not distort the achievements and goals of Noble Vladimir Lenin: rather, he fulfilled them precisely. Pursuing the “for kids” framework, should we not see some equally cheery volumes such as A Day at the Gulag, and even (for middle schoolers) Natasha Is Shot as a Class Enemy? How about Springtime for Stalin?

(via Prufrock News)

Film review: ‘The Case for Christ’

The Case for Christ wasn’t what I hoped it would be, but on consideration, I don’t think such a thing is possible. I liked it anyway. I think it’s one of the better Christian films I’ve seen.

Granted, that’s a low bar. But this is pretty good, within its limitations.

If you don’t know already, it’s the story of how Lee Strobel, hotshot young Chicago Tribune reporter, came to write the famous book of the same title.

In 1980, Strobel’s daughter’s life is saved by a nurse who gives the credit to Jesus, who (she says) told her to be there at just that place and time.

Lee’s wife is intrigued by the woman’s faith, and befriends her. She goes to church with her, and is drawn into the fellowship.

For Lee, this is a major betrayal. He’s a confirmed atheist who refuses to believe anything not based on reason (though his resistance to faith, we will learn, also has other, more emotional roots). Fearing that he’s losing his family, he sets about writing a book to prove, once and for all, that the Resurrection never happened.

And you know how that turns out.

The acting is excellent, the script good. I particularly liked the recreation of the world of 1980, as Lee fusses with his long hair and depends on a pager to keep in touch with his wife. The filmmakers may not have recreated the period perfectly, but it’s pretty much how I remember it.

The problem with the film is that it’s kind of a mixed offering. The book it’s based on is an attempt to do a dispassionate, rational examination of the relevant evidence. You can’t really do that in a feature film – you’d have to make it a documentary longer than anyone would sit through. So the focus has been changed from the objective logical argument to the subjective lives of Lee Strobel and his friends and family. That’s certainly appropriate – it’s what a feature film does – but it’s a different thing from the book. If you’re looking for proof of the Resurrection, you’ll need to read the book. The movie is not that.

But it’s good. A superior film in the low-rent neighborhood that is Christian cinema. No doubt there are people out there for whom The Case for Christ will be just the thing they need to see.

The Fist of Iron and Clay

Marvel’s latest Netflix series Iron Fist has its moments. There’s a fight with a hatchet-wielding gang that’s reminiscent of the hallway battle in Daredevil’s first season only a step less exciting. I don’t know if that’s because it reminded me of the earlier scene or the hatchet fight was less dramatic. But it may be that this fight would have been better in a better context. As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

I don’t want to write a negative review of Iron Fist. I want to love it, but somewhere in the middle I began wondering if the story could be told differently, and by the end I thought it was relying on clichés. How many master warriors or chosen heroes say they need to complete their training? Just about all of them nowadays. Did a gunslinger ever say, “I need to get back to the Broken Hand Ranch to complete my training”? This is the story of a man who has been given the mantle of The Iron Fist, living weapon, protector of a holy city against an eternal enemy.

Before I finished the series, my wife and I watched Jackie Chan’s 1994 action-comedy The Legend of Drunken Master. It’s hilarious overall and increasingly intense. The finale was amazing, somewhat comical, and exhausting. When Chan’s character confronts the strongest henchmen, a tall man who relies on kicking, you wonder if Chan can really win. I know Iron Fist is a completely different show with different skill sets, but it didn’t have fighting anyway close to this.

In many Kung Fu movies, someone confronts the hero with his gang, and they begin fighting two on one, then four on one, then eight or sixteen. A formula like that would have been perfect for a gauntlet run Danny undertakes in the series’ first half. He does start against two, but then he moves to a one-on-one of a very different nature and then another one-on-one with a type of weapons master. That last one is pretty good, but could we not bring in eight or more guys in the middle of that fight to increase the intensity?

Another common scene in Kung Fu movies is when the master happens into a gang of thugs who won’t let him go without a fight. He takes them down without breaking a sweat. Danny sweats through every fight. Maybe the writers considered similar ideas and left them in rehearsal. Perhaps they considered them cliché.

Continue reading The Fist of Iron and Clay

‘You’re Next,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

You're Next

“And it means the world to Mike. I’m worried about him. He’s been really… angry. I’ve never seen him like this.”

“You don’t worry about Mike when he’s mad,” Shep said. “You worry about him when he’s quiet.”

Mike Wingate, the hero of You’re Next, by Gregg Hurwitz, doesn’t know his real last name. As a boy of four he was abandoned by his father at a playground, with a promise that he’d come back to reclaim him someday. Mike waited, but he never returned.

Growing up in a group home, Mike learned to survive. He and his friend Shep formed a simple code: “Endurance. Loyalty.” Shep becomes a criminal but Mike, after a brief term in prison, goes straight. He marries and fathers a daughter. Eventually he becomes a property developer. He builds a “green” community that gets his picture in the papers with the governor of California.

And that’s when everything starts to go horribly wrong.

Someone has been looking for Mike all his life. Someone who wants him dead, along with his daughter. Mike will see his perfect life shattered, and he’ll have to call on Shep to help him protect his family and solve a decades-old mystery involving land and bloodlines and merciless greed.

The plot is Hitchcockian, the stakes high, the tension tight enough to snap steel. Honestly, these novels by Gregg Hurwitz are almost more than I can handle (but I’m kind of a wimp, as you know). Just when you think the danger can’t get worse, it does. Just when you think the mystery is solved, a new wrinkle appears. I was scared and I was moved. When it was done, I bought a Bruce Beckham novel to read next. I can’t handle too much of this all at once.

Cautions for language and violence. There are a couple of political barbs, but they point both ways. Highly recommended, unless you have a weak heart.

Lit By the Numbers

Do you want more math in your literature? Do you enjoy statistics (or is it damn statistics (or should it be damn yankees and their statistics?)?)?*

Well, Ben Blatt has you covered.

The first literary mystery to be solved by numbers was a 150-year-old whodunit finally put to rest in 1963. Two statistics professors learned of the long-running debate over a dozen contested essays from The Federalist Papers, and they saw that they might succeed where historians had failed. Both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison claimed to have written the same 12 essays, but who was right?

The answer lay in how each writer used hundreds of small words like but and what, which altogether formed a kind of literary fingerprint. The statisticians painstakingly cut up each essay and counted the words by hand—a process during which “a deep breath created a storm of confetti and a permanent enemy.” And by comparing hundreds of word frequencies, they came up with a clear answer after so many years of speculation: the contested essays were distinctly the work of James Madison.

Blatt crunches the numbers on many works to see if writers follow their own rules and other trivia he learn. For instance, does Elmore Leonard follow his rule on sparse use of exclamation points? No. No, he doesn’t.

Scene from my youth

Somebody mentioned on the radio today that it’s been fifty years since the 1967 Israeli Six-Day War.

I remember that summer well. The live telecasts of UN meetings, the speeches. Abba Eban addressing the General Assembly.

But mostly I remember my summer job.

I didn’t generally have summer jobs as a kid. I lived on a farm. That was my summer job. Hoeing thistles and pulling mustard weeds, fence repair; there was pretty much always something to do.

But that summer I was an orderly. For my mother.

Mom had broken her leg. She’d stood on the kitchen table to clean an overhead hot air register, and the table collapsed. The break was bad, and she came home with a big cast on her leg.

The folks asked me to take care of her for the summer. They’d pay me for it. So I jockeyed bed pans down to our basement bathroom for three months.

One day I was given some job or other to do up in the hay loft above the barn. I forget what I was doing – probably just re-stacking the hay bales. Sometimes that had to be done. I don’t know where my dad and brothers were that day. Mom didn’t need me for a while; I’d left her with the TV on and a book to read.

I heard a car pulling into the driveway.

I stuck my head out the hatch, looking out over the top of the ladder I’d climbed to get up there. Our guest was our pastor. Continue reading Scene from my youth

Dracula Revised and Updated for Iceland 1900

Dracula was published in 1897 by Archibald Constable and Company of Westminster, UK. It was released in the US in 1899 and ran as a serial in the Charlotte Daily Observer for the latter half of that year. In January 1900, Iceland’s newspaper Fjallkonan began its serialization of the novel, translated by the paper’s editor Valdimar Ásmundsson. He gave it the title Makt Myrkranna (Powers of Darkness), and according to The Times Literary Supplement, it was eighty-five years later before anyone noticed the significant changes Ásmundsson made to Bram Stoker’s work.

Powers of Darkness: The lost version of “Dracula” has roughly the same bone structure as Stoker’s original, but is split in­to two parts, the first being the journal of Jonathan Harker (his name is changed to Thomas Harker), recounting his stay in the castle in the Carpathians. In the latter part, however, there is no epistolary element, and the story is taken up by an omniscient narrator. Part One reads like a long first draft, in which the author maps out his characters and surroundings – it is, in fact, almost twice as long as the original.

(via Prufrock News)

‘Tell No Lies,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Tell No Lies

Everyone’s got a con, a pinch of deceit, a green light at the end of the dock. And a dream, however grand or modest. A way they want it to be and an angle to get there.

Daniel Brasher is the scion of a San Francisco elite family. He turned his back on all that, and on his egregious mother’s wishes, to marry a “community organizer” and become a counselor to parolees. He’s tough on them. No lying in his group. He’s good at his job, and his marriage is happy, especially after his wife survived cancer.

The mail room in the moribund building where he works is little-used, so Daniel is surprised, visiting it one day after ignoring it a while, to find several envelopes addressed to other people in his box. He takes them home, planning to forward them the next day. Then he learns that one of the addressees was murdered. Opening the envelope, he discovers a letter threatening that person, giving them a now-expired deadline to “tell what you done.”

Daniel calls the police, but that’s not the end of his involvement. As further murders occur, he finds that a circle of violence is coming to center upon him personally. Fighting to save his own life and his wife’s, he’s forced to confront his own secret wrongdoings – his own kinship with the criminals he counsels. That’s the premise of Tell No Lies.

Gregg Hurwitz does not disappoint in this thriller. The writing is great, the tension merciless, and the characters throb with life. I sometimes find Hurwitz’s books almost more suspenseful than I can handle. And yet I keep coming back.

I might mention that there are political themes in Tell No Lies, but they’re handled right. Both conservatives and liberals get held up to scrutiny and are generally found wanting. The author is looking for a deeper truth here than mere party slogans.

Highly recommended. Cautions for language and violence.

New Podcast Is Both Curious, Repulsive

S-Town is the to-rave podcast of the month. It comes from the people who make This American Life and the podcast that spawned 100 imitations, Serial. I heard about Serial at some point in the middle of the run, I think. Maybe it was at the end of its first season. I heard many good things from many people, but I never listened to it. Podcasting, developed in 2000, just hasn’t been my thing, because portable tech hasn’t really been my thing. Whenever I heard a podcast, it was through my PC, kind of like the cans-and-string method. Only in the last few weeks have I begun to use a loaner iPad for something it’s actually good at.

So I was ready when I caught word of the new S-Town, which released all seven episodes on March 28. That initial word described a true crime podcast, but S-Town is a different story. (spoilers)

It begins with the wildly colorful, possibly genius John B. McLemore reaching out to Brian Reed about a murder that happened in his home town, Woodstock, Alabama, about which he needed a barrel of venom to describe. Everyone, including himself at times, was a loser, a failure, an idiot, and many more vulgar labels. His old school was Auschwitz. The police were corrupt. The county had one of the highest rates of child abuse and molestation anywhere. At least a couple people asked John why he didn’t move away since he hated the place so much.

John B. can work himself into a fit by thinking of how no one is outraged over countless liberal talking points, and this murder is a prime example. Everyone knows who did it. The man himself has bragged about it. Why doesn’t anyone give a rat’s rear-end?

The story shifts from that question to focus on John B., which isn’t a selling point. He’s a babbling brook of liberal outrage and profanity. He can’t tell Brian about the many flowers and butterflies on his property without worrying that they’re dying off. By episode two, I was already telling him to shut up. Two of the people who may have cared about him the most pushed him away because they couldn’t bear up under the weight of his poisonous worldview. Continue reading New Podcast Is Both Curious, Repulsive

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