All posts by Lars Walker

Back from Minot

Got back last night from my more-or-less annual trip to Minot, North Dakota for the Norsk Høstfest. I haven’t made as much of it this year — sorry if you were curious — but everything went fine. As one of my friends said, “Nobody got hurt and nobody yelled at anybody.” And I sold most of the books I bought.

My heart wasn’t really in it, though, for reasons I won’t explain here. (Don’t ask in Comments; I won’t discuss it publicly). Enough to say that I’m looking for a side gig again. Suggestions welcome.

Back tomorrow with a book review.

‘Bury the Dead in Driftwood,’ by Scott William Carter

The gray sky, which often broke up or dissolved by midmorning, remained as solid as fresh paint.

I had read and reviewed a previous novel in Scott William Carter’s Garrison Gage mystery series, and decided not to read any more. I don’t clearly recall why; it likely had something to do with the main character’s open (though not obnoxious) atheism. But Bury the Dead in Driftwood sounded intriguing, and I bought it. I have to admit, it was pretty good.

Garrison Gage is a small-time private eye who relocated to Barnacle Bluffs, a town on the Oregon coast, to get away from his past. He walks with a limp (often with a cane), due to an old knee injury. A widower, he has adopted a daughter, who is now away in college. He finds, to his amusement, that he’s become a local character, “the detective.”

He didn’t know Harriet Abel, the high school teacher whose body was found under a pile of driftwood on the beach. But she had his name on a piece of paper in her possession, and apparently wanted to hire him. Gage is curious what she wanted from him, and impressed with the universal respect she seemed to command. So he decides to investigate, even without a client.

Property and development money will appear as motives, but things aren’t as simple as they appear. Amusingly, Gage finds beautiful women – including the police chief’s daughter – throwing themselves at him in an almost embarrassing way. A mysterious professional killer appears to make chilling threats. And the one woman Gage cares about more than life itself – his adopted daughter – refuses to keep a safe distance.

I enjoyed Bury the Dead in Driftwood far more than I expected. The one scene involving religion – in a syncretistic Universalist church – took no skin off my nose. The multiple women with Gage in their sights worked up to a very funny scene of embarrassment. And at the end, Gage was able to deliver a fairly non-PC defense of a man’s sense of obligation to protect women.

Mark Twain said of Huckleberry Finn that he had attempted to do a book without weather. Bury the Dead in Driftwood is nothing like that. The weather and geography of coastal Oregon are active characters in this book, beautifully described. Readers will feel as if they’ve been there.

Cautions for the usual, including one “sex” scene that actually involves no sex at all. Pretty good.

‘Bad to the Bones,’ by James Harper

I took a chance on the first novel in an unfamiliar detective series, Bad to the Bones, Book 1 of James Harper’s Evan Buckley series.

It held some interest, but didn’t work for me.

Private Eye Evan Buckley (I never really noticed where he lives) suffers a shock and vows to end his meat and potatoes work – investigating unfaithful spouses for divorce cases. His original motivation for becoming a PI was to find missing people, like his own wife who disappeared without explanation. A (surprisingly) friendly police detective refers him to a woman whose son and husband both disappeared some years earlier. She believes the police found an easy explanation and dropped the case without really solving it. Evan vows to discover the truth for her.

Which he does. But the journey to the explanation seemed weird to me. Character relationships struck me as unrealistic – people start by snarling at each other, then suddenly become bosom buddies. The police don’t operate like real police at all.

And the final “resolution” was so horrific that I couldn’t at all comprehend the sense of closure we’re supposed to believe both Buckley and his client feel at the end.

So I don’t really recommend Bad to the Bones. I saw potential in the author, so maybe the following books will be better.

‘Mission Critical,’ by Mark Greaney

There really isn’t much to say about a new Gray Man novel, except that it’s a Gray Man novel. One knows what to expect – rising levels of implausible, cinematic action, improbable endurance of injuries by the hero, and a running cast of characters who, if not profoundly portrayed, are interesting and amusing.

Mission Critical (Number 8 in the series) offers a couple fresh elements – new developments in the Romeo-and-Juliet-with-guns romance between hero Court Gentry and the former Russian agent Zoya Zakharova, and the introduction of a new villain whom Court, with all his skills, actually fears.

Court is catching a ride on a CIA transport flight when a covert team transporting a hooded prisoner comes on board. Later, when the prisoner is being transferred on a tarmac in England, the team is attacked by unknown foreign agents – Court kills some of them, and is then sent by his handlers to try to retrieve the prisoner.

Meanwhile Zoya, still being “debriefed” in a safe house in the US, learns that her Russian spy father, whom she had believed dead, is still alive. She makes a snap decision to escape and find him – thus narrowly avoiding an attack on the house by hired assassins. Now she’s in the wind, and the CIA is uncertain whether to consider her friendly or hostile.

There’s a big plot underway to deliver a devastating blow to the intelligence services of all the English-speaking nations at a conference in Scotland. It will take all Court, Zoya, and their teammates can do to stop it – and there will be a price to pay.

Mission Critical was as good as any book in the Gray Man series, and they’ve all been good. High in entertainment value. The usual cautions apply for language, violence, and sexual situations.

Adjusting to the world

Thinking about history, philosophy, and theology.

I have enough thoughts for a lecture (if anybody wanted a lecture), but I’ll lay some of them out very briefly here.

The Church adjusts to the world. It isn’t determined by the world – or shouldn’t be – but we have to relate to people as they live, and we have to live in the world as it is. So we adjust our message to the tenor of the times. We have to. It’s not necessarily bad.

But it can be bad when it goes off the rails.

The modern world, I think, began with Isaac Newton. Newton occupied the role of prophet in European civilization, sparking what we call the Enlightenment. “God said let Newton be, and all was light,” as Alexander Pope wrote. The Enlightenment achieved the level of religion – and that religion was Deism, where God was sublimated into a cosmic Watchmaker. Intellectuals believed they now understood the laws of Nature, and soon all questions would be answered.

The Church followed the Enlightenment to an extent. Great emphasis was now placed on correct doctrine. Cold reason was elevated, in some quarters, to a theological virtue.

But the Enlightenment didn’t last long.

In practice, it was inadequate to actual human life. Enlightenment thought was like trying to feed people with vitamin pills only. Technically all the necessary nutrients might be there, but people need more than that. They need flavor and texture and scent. They need the whole human experience. The Enlightenment didn’t feed the soul.

So the Enlightenment was replaced. It was replaced by two movements (you could call it one of them a sub-movement, but I like the sub-movement too much to subordinate it).

The secular reaction was Romanticism. Romanticism reacted against cold formalism and logical reductionism. Romanticism centered on passion. Life was to be lived with intensity. Love and freedom were what made life worthwhile.

But there was a theological corollary to Romanticism (some, as I mentioned, would probably call it a sub-movement). This was Pietism (the forerunner of contemporary Evangelicalism). To the rationality of Enlightenment Christianity, the Pietists replied, “That’s not enough! Jesus’ greatest commandment was not to understand God, but to love Him!” They emphasized a personal experience with Christ and a life of growing sanctification, learning to love Him more.

Now an argument can be made that Pietism led directly to the Liberalism of today’s mainline churches. It’s argued among Lutherans, in some quarters, that Pietism’s emphasis on personal experience led people to set their subjective feelings at the center of their faith – which is what Christian postmodernism is all about.

And there’s probably a measure truth in that.

But I would relate it, once again, to the Church’s habit of imitating the world. Christian postmodernism (I maintain) is mostly the fault of secular postmodernism. The nihilism and despair that followed the World Wars led secular thinkers to existentialism and moral relativism. The mainline churches followed suit, rejecting all authority, including that of the Bible and orthodox doctrine. (Leaving both the Pietists and the orthodox out in the cold.)

It wasn’t the Pietists’ fault, in my view. But they did get sucked in.

The one unifying principle of all these theological fashions, it seems to me, is following the world. We have to adjust to the world, but we must not let it set our agenda.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12;2, ESV)


Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Trapped,’ Season 2

The second season of the Icelandic miniseries, Trapped, (I reviewed Season One below) was – in some ways – superior to the first (in my view). There were parts I didn’t care for, but I admit that was mostly due to my personal opinions and tastes.

Two years have passed since we last saw our bearded hero, Andri Olafsson (Olafur Darri Olafsson). He’s moved back to Reykjavik to be a cop there again, one assumes to be close to his daughters, who were living with his ex-wife. Only the older one, Thorhildur, has returned to the small town of Siglufjordur to be close to her friends – especially a particular boy. She is now a rebellious teenager, and in the tradition of teenaged girls in thrillers, is a complete idiot when it comes to her personal safety.

Andri is called back to Siglufjordur when a local farmer one day appears near Parliament in Reykjavik, sets himself on fire, and tries to ignite the Minister of Industries along with himself. She is, in fact, his twin sister, a Siglufjordur native who long ago turned her back on the place. He had been involved in protests against the expansion of an aluminum plant near his home, as well as with right-wing nationalist groups. Shortly after Andri is reunited with his old team of local cops, a manager at the plant is murdered, setting off a string of crimes and arrests that culminate in a kidnapping and a pursuit across the heaths.

There were several elements in the series that rubbed me the wrong way. One was the involvement of right-wing groups – though when I think of it, they were treated with surprising understanding. Another was the cliché of the predatory industry that thinks it can make money by killing its customers. Most uncomfortable of all was a subplot about homosexuals. Instead of the brief heterosexual sex scene we saw in the first series, this time we got two men involved in displays of affection – at one point in bed together. These are my principles – I care about whether homosexuals live or die. I care that they not be railroaded for crimes they didn’t commit. But I cannot be made to care whether the boy gets the boy. There is no microscope sensitive enough to detect my interest in that subject.

Another problem is the family relationships. Most of the suspects (and victims) are bound (in classic saga style, I’ll admit) by a bewildering tangle of marriages, divorces, and irregular liaisons. Everybody is a cousin or an in-law of all the others, and for the life of me I couldn’t keep it all straight.

On the other hand, there were some fine elements here. Because this story is set in the fall, we lose the claustrophobia of the snowed-in town that so permeated Season One. Now we’re treated to vistas of Icelandic heaths and mountains, herds of horses and flocks of sheep. Conscious tribute is paid to the sagas, especially in a plot thread where a local boy flees the police on horseback across the fells, looking for all the world like an outlaw of old.

The resolution worked out in the same spirit as Season One – the mystery is solved, the hostage rescued, but in a general environment of ancient injuries, unhealed psychological wounds, and the shock of an Episode 8 plot development that blindsided me (at least).

All in all, fascinating TV, and pretty watchable. Cautions for language and all the stuff I talked about.

The Tale of Tormod, KolBrun’s Skald

A stupid 19th Century conception of a Viking skald.

In Trapped, the Icelandic miniseries I reviewed last night, both in the first season (which I reviewed) and the second (which I’m watching now), there’s a female character named Kolbrun. It was a familiar name to me, and by coincidence I came to the Tale of Tormod Kolbrunarskald in my reading of the Norwegian translation of Flatøy Book. Obviously this was a sign from heaven that I should share Tormod’s story with you.

Tormod Kolbrunarskald is an important character in the Saga of St. Olaf. He doesn’t appear in my novel, The Elder King, but I expect he’ll show up in a later book, because he’s an important character and has one of the most memorable deaths in saga literature. But that’s not my topic tonight. My topic is his backstory.

I’d always assumed that he got his nickname, which means “dark-brow poet,” because he had dark eyebrows. Turns out that’s not true. His nickname actually means, “Dark-Brow’s Poet”

This is the tale (in highly condensed form).

Tormod Bersesson was living at his father’s farm in Laugabol, Iceland. Nearby, at a farm called Ogr, there lived a widow named Grima who had a beautiful daughter named Tordis. Tormod got in the habit of visiting Ogr, and spending time in private with the girl.

Eventually Grima, the mother, took Tormod aside and suggested that he should either ask for the girl’s hand honestly, or leave her alone for the sake of her reputation. Tormod hemmed and hawed, so to show she was serious, Grima sent a thrall to kill Tormod, but the poet escaped with a wounded hand.

After that, Tormod relocated to a fishing station his father had at Bolungarvik. Nearby lived another widow, named Katla, who had a daughter named Torbjorg, who was nicknamed Kolbrun because of her dark eyebrows.

Tormod thought Kolbrun not quite as pretty as Tordis, but nevertheless he started spending time with her. To gain her favor he wrote a series of poems, the “Kolbrun Poems.”

Later, when winter came, Tormod moved back to Laugabol, and renewed his visits with Tordis. At first she was distant. “I heard that you wrote a series of poems for a girl at Bolungarvik named Kolbrun,” she said.

“Oh, no!” Tormod lied. “That story is completely wrong. I didn’t write those poems for Kolbrun. I wrote them for you.” He immediately recited them for her, but changed the words so they now praised Tordis. Tordis was pleased with this.

But that night, Tormod had a terrible dream. He saw Kolbrun floating in the darkness in front of his bed. She said, “You have broken your word to me. It’s dangerous to break your word to a witch. I will now lay this curse on you – your eyes will swell up and grow terribly painful. They will swell so that if it isn’t stopped they’ll pop right out of your head. The only way you can prevent this from happening is by announcing in public that the poems are mine, not Tordis’s, and that you lied.”

Tormod woke in terrible pain, and slept no more that night. As soon as he could he assembled family and friends and confessed his lie. Immediately his eyes improved, and soon he was well again.

But forever after he was known as Tormod, Kolbrun’s Poet.

Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Trapped’

My part-time job keeps me generally aware of Scandinavian miniseries, but somehow this Icelandic one, a few years old now, had escaped my notice. Trapped (Ófærð) is a crime series that has much in common with so many European crime series these days (except that the main character, instead of being a plucky single mother, is a plucky single father). But it‘s interesting in its own right, and the locations are fresh and scenic.

On a winter‘s day in the small northern Iceland town of Siglufjordur, a headless, limbless torso is fished out of the fjord. Since the ferry from Denmark just came in, the police have to detain the boat and all its passengers – displeasing the passengers, the crew, and the Danish government. The “big boys“ from the Reykjavik police are supposed to come in to investigate, but a sudden blizzard grounds all aircraft and road travel. So the responsibility falls on the three-person local force, most especially on the chief, Andri Olafsson (played by Olafur Darri Olafsson, surely a contender for some award for the most generously bearded TV detective in recent memory).

But Andri’s problems aren’t limited to solving the torso murder. There are the difficulties associated with the blizzard, as well as an avalanche that follows. Questions arise anew over a crime from the past – the death of Andri’s ex-wife’s sister in a fire in a fish factory, for which a young man went to prison (unjustly). There’s also a human trafficking investigation, involving two young Nigerian girls wandering lost in the snow. And there is political chicanery on the part of the town’s governing authorities, all involved in a shady land scheme with the Chinese.

It all works out to be pretty fascinating. The main character is a compelling and principled presence on screen, and the production values are high (this was the most expensive miniseries ever made in Iceland). The resolution ties up loose ends pretty well, though it’s typically Scandinavian in being rather downbeat and bleak. The Icelandic title has a broader meaning than the English word – it also refers to a blocked road. A running theme is the discontent of the town’s young people, who feel trapped in one of the remotest towns in a generally remote country.

But I enjoyed Trapped, and recommend it, with cautions for language, sex, brief nudity, and disturbing themes. There’s a second season, too.

‘An Advancement of Learning,’ by Reginald Hill

I think I tried to watch one episode of the long-running BBC series, “Dalziel and Pascoe,” based on Reginald Hill’s mystery novels. It just didn’t grab me. But I thought I’d try one of the original books, to see if I caught the magic there. The formula’s pretty familiar – old, grizzled detective teamed with young, callow detective – only these books are old enough that the young detective is allowed to be male.

An Advancement of Learning (the title comes from a book by Sir Francis Bacon) takes place at Holm Coultram College, a fictional school in Yorkshire. A statue is being moved from the spot where it has stood for five years, when human bones are discovered under its base. They turn out to be those of the former Principal of the College, Alison Girling, who was assumed to have died in an avalanche in Switzerland, also about five years ago. Detective Inspector Andrew Dalziel and his assistant Peter Pascoe are assigned the case. Dalziel is an old working-class type, contemptuous of intellectuals and the academic life. Pascoe is a college graduate who once considered a scholar’s life – indeed an old college girlfriend turns out to be on the faculty here. They will encounter partisan instructors, politically radical students (who seem pretty mild by current standards – this was the early ‘70s), drugs and satanic rituals. And there will be more murders. All in all, Dalziel’s view of academics seems to be validated when all is revealed.

There were things I liked about An Advancement of Learning. It was written long enough ago that social norms were a little more conventional – homosexuality is still scandalous, and most people seem to be nominally Christian (though the only vocal Christian in the book is pretty unattractive).

But I didn’t care for author Hill’s writing technique. He spends a lot of pages telling us people’s thoughts. I’ve learned to expect to see plot advanced through dialogue and conflict, rather than interior monologue. So I found it kind of slow going. Also, although I was prepared to like Insp. Dalziel, I didn’t. His personality didn’t seem to go very deep. The ending was moderately satisfactory, though.

You may like this book more than I did. The language was pretty mild, and the violence and sex were mostly off stage.

List of recommended sagas

From thedockyards.com: A list of “10 Medieval Icelandic Sagas One Should Absolutely Read.”

However, these medieval literary creations innovated in that they revolved around the lives and deeds of real common people and their genealogies, as opposed to the largely moralistic, fairytale-like writings of the time in mainland Europe, where the main characters were knights or princes. The legacy of the sagas continues to live on up to our times, having inspired, among others, the setting and the mythical races of major high fantasy novels such as those from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s a pretty good list. I’d suggest reading Eyrbyggja Saga as a companion to Laxdaela. But that would bump one of the others from the list, and I’ll admit Laxdaela is the better of the two.

Blessed aches and pains

It’s one of the most delightful and inspirational stories of American history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who started as political allies in the Continental Congress – where they worked together on drafting the Declaration of Independence – became the bitterest of political enemies after independence had been won. Their approaches to government were very different, and their perceptions of dangers to the republic widely separated. The lies and vitriol both men (and especially their spokesmen) employed against each other in election campaigns make the ugliness of today’s politics look courtly and tame.

And yet, in their old age, the two men began corresponding, and became friends again. Amazingly, they died on the very same day – and that day was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration. (Seriously. It’s true. Look it up.)

I’m recalling that story today, not for political purposes, but just to talk about old age – a subject of increasing interest to me.

I haven’t read the Adams-Jefferson letters (I know, I should). But I wonder if part of their reconciliation, beyond the fact that they were nearly the sole survivors of their generation, was the reconciling power of shared aches and pains.

I had opportunities recently to spend time with a couple of people from my youth. One of the particular tribulations to which a just Providence has subjected me in my dotage has been that pretty much every one of the friends of my youth, the people I was closest to, have walked away from the beliefs we shared. I have not changed (much). They have changed their views in almost every way.

And yet we spent time together in amity. Thinking it over afterward, I realized that we spent a lot of the time discussing our health complaints.

This is a topic that never fails among the old.

I remember being young (my memory is still that good), and I recall that one of the things we laughed about when talking about old people was how they couldn’t shut up about their aches and pains, their digestions and their prescriptions.

And I understand. I have no wish to impose tales of my dry skin and digestive habits on the healthy young, who should have their minds set on higher things.

But when we oldsters are together, ailment talk is great. It bridges divisions, awakens sympathy, and arouses our helpful instincts.

All part of God’s plan, no doubt. He has a wry sense of humor.

‘Agent In Place,’ by Mark Greaney

One more book in Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series, and it’s as good as its predecessors. In fact, I think I’d rate Agent In Place as one of the best.

It seems like an odd assignment for the world’s greatest assassin, but Court Gentry, the Gray Man, has been hired by a group of Syrian expatriates in Paris to kidnap a supermodel. Bianca Medina is the mistress of a fictionalized president of Syria, Ahmed Azzam, and she has secretly borne him a son. The Syrian patriots who hired Court hope to use her to get to the tyrant.

Court succeeds, but as usual there are wheels within wheels. Azzam’s wife in Damascus is plotting against Bianca with her Swiss lover, a ruthless security expert who is himself plotting to get himself out of Syria. Just as the Syrian army, the Syrian resistance, the Russians, the Americans, ISIS, the Iranians, the Kurds and others are fighting for various purposes in the desert, one faction is fighting another in Europe, each trying to leverage the instability for their own purposes, noble or ignoble or purely mercenary.

In the style of all the Gray Man books, situations that start out complex rapidly unreel into tangles and twists and betrayals that threaten to bring Court’s storied career to a sudden and bloody end. But whatever happens, in Europe or in Syria, Court will find his moral center and do what he sees as right, even to the point of death.

Lots of fun. Agent In Place had a climactic fight scene as deeply satisfying as any I’ve ever read in a book. Cautions for violence, language, and high dramatic tension.