All posts by Lars Walker

Pod people

If you’re geographically underprivileged in such a way that you can’t listen directly to the Northern Alliance Radio Network on WWTC the Patriot (AM 1280) each weekend, you probably missed my appearance on the show with host Mitch Berg (of Shot in the Dark blog) this past Saturday.

You can listen to it on a podcast here. I’m in the first half-hour of the hour marked “7/28/18 Lars Walker.”

I was, of course, plugging Viking Legacy. I think it’s a pretty good exercise except for the very end, where I kind of went deer in the headlights. Still, all in all a good show and thanks to Mitch.

Reading report: ‘En Herse, Tre Konger,’ by Edvard Eikill

En herse tre konger

What was I reading while I spent the week in Decorah, Iowa doing back-to-the soil, Mother Jones craft stuff? No doubt you’ve been wondering. Obviously it would have to be something pretentious, to show off my erudition to other participants, to compensate for my abysmal artisanal skills. And so it was.

I was reading a Norwegian novel sent to me by the author: En Herse, Tre Konger, (One Hersir, Three Kings) by Edvard Eikill. Mr. Eikill is a retired dentist who has turned his energies to fiction and translation. He’s the translator of the massive, elegant Norwegian translation of the Icelandic Flatøybok that I’ve written about here before. We’re friends on Facebook, and he asked me if I’d read his novel about Erling Skjalgsson. I didn’t know anyone else had ever written fiction about Erling, so I was interested to read the book, which he kindly sent me.

Edvard Eikill is a rather different kind of novelist than I am (though he is a Christian). He spends less time with details and setting scenes. His book surveys Erling’s life more or less at the 30,000 foot level, moving fast through Erling’s life, hitting the highlights. Oddly (to me), far more time is spent on Olav Trygvasson’s five-year reign than Olav Haraldsson’s reign of about twelve years.

But it had to be useful to me to read a book about Erling by someone who lives in Erling’s area (though I did catch what I believe to be one historical error – Mr. Eikill thinks they harvested grain with scythes in Jaeder in the Viking Age, but my research indicates they only ever used sickles). There were historical details and relationships that had sailed over my head. I’ll probably clarify some things in my Work In Progress based on this book.

Also, Erling’s priest was an interesting contrast. Here, Erling’s priest is an Englishman named Alvgeir (which seems to be the name written on Erling’s memorial cross). Eikill imagines him as a slave, taken by Erling on a raid, and freed by him after his conversion by Olav Trygvasson.

Thanks to Mr. Eikill for sending En Herse, Tre Konger to me. It was enjoyable and illuminating.

Craft aftermath

In museum
Owen Christianson describes original melkerings to class members.

Home is the sailor, as the poem goes, and the hunter home from the hill. I got back to Blithering Heights after 8:00 p.m. last night, having driven over three hours, and just didn’t feel up to blogging. So here, now, is my report on my course at the Vesterheim Folk School in Decorah, Iowa.

Decorah is a nice little town, located in a picturesque, hilly area of northeastern Iowa. The Vesterheim Norwegian immigration museum is one of the town’s economic and cultural mainstays, and the town was setting up for the annual Nordic Fest, which began today (I never planned to attend, being pretty sure I’d be played out after the class. I was more right than I knew.)

I’m very glad I took the four-day class. It was even more demanding than I expected – planing wood, especially, uses a lot of upper body strength (at least the way I do it. They tell me practiced woodworkers have economical methods that are far less taxing). Our class was called “Stave Vessels From the Past to the Present.” The teacher was Owen Christianson, who is a cryogenic engineer by day, but does historical wordworking in his spare time. He’s been studying the Viking Age recently, which made his instruction invaluable to me.

Our project was to produce a relatively simple stave vessel – what’s known as a melkering (milk ring). They were used to separate cream in old times, back to Viking times.

Owen provided us with short staves (12 each), pre-cut to save time. So the angles of the edges were no problem. He used bass wood (to make it easy), though the originals were usually pine. Our tasks were: Continue reading Craft aftermath

Further dispatch from Decorah

I didn’t expect to get an upper body workout when I signed up for this class in making a stave vessel. Turns out planing wood for several hours takes a lot out of you.

This morning went pretty well. I moved on to the part of the process I’d dreaded most – pegging the individual staves to one another. Turned out it was easier than I thought, and I kind of got into it. Even had moments of a heady sense of accomplishment. But once that was done, the next step was taking the vessel (think of a small wooden tub) apart and planing down the outsides of the staves, which we’d previously shaped on the inside. I was still working on that when the class day ended.

Tomorrow is the final day, and I’m about three steps behind all the others. The last step is decorating the completed vessel, which is not mandatory. I have a suspicion I won’t get to that one. I have a further suspicion the instructor will have to help me finish the thing.

Maybe I’ll get a participation trophy – senior division.

Dispatch from Decorah

Reporting from Decorah, Iowa, where I’m taking a class in stave vessel making at the Vesterheim (Museum) Folk School. My instructor is a gentleman I already knew slightly, having run into him at Høstfest in Minot a few years back.

It’s a disorienting experience, taking a craft class. I’m accustomed to working with my brain, for many reasons. I’m not comfortable making things. I don’t feel like what John Bunyan called “a man of his hands.” So I’m out of my element, which is probably good for me. I’m the most inexperienced of all the students (there are 6 of us), so I’m 2 or 3 steps behind the others. But the instructor says I’m actually on schedule — the others are just running ahead. Nonetheless, I’m gradually improving as I repeat various tasks. I’m reluctant to say that though, because I firmly believe that if I allow myself to think I’m getting better at something, the universe will punish my hubris.

Our teacher is a low-key, patient fellow, which is good. I’ve only cut myself twice, and only one of those required a bandage (not a big one). Manual work and standing most of the day are novelties in my life, and I’m pretty beat by the time I get home.

But I did work up the nerve to approach the museum bookstore people about selling Viking Legacy.

I’ll share pictures after I get home, when I can get my hands on my Photobucket password.

‘Shut Your Eyes Tight,’ by John Verdon

Shut Your Eyes Tight

To begin with, they occupied radically different boxes on the Myers-Briggs personality grid. His instinctive route to understanding was primarily through thinking, hers was through feeling. He was fascinated by connecting the dots, she by the dots themselves. He was energized by solitude, drained by social engagement, and for her the reverse was true. For him, observing was just one tool to enable clearer judging; for her, judging was just one tool to enable clearer observing.

I’m truly enjoying John Verdon’s series of mystery thrillers starring David Gurney, retired New York police detective now living in the Catskills. Shut Your Eyes Tight is as good as Think of a Number, which was very good indeed.

In this adventure, David is contacted by a very rich and beautiful – and dangerously crazy – woman, whose daughter has been murdered. The young woman was beheaded in her wedding dress, on her wedding day. All clues point to an enigmatic “Mexican gardener” who worked for her fiancé (a prominent expert on child abuse) and who has disappeared. But the clues at the scene are confusing, and the police are making no progress. Find my daughter’s killer, the woman tells him. I’ll pay you anything you ask.

Despite his wife Madeleine’s misgivings, Dave throws himself into the case. In so doing he will run the risk of losing both his reputation and his life, and put Madeleine in danger as well. In order to solve the case he’ll need to reexamine all his presumptions, to overcome a master of two skills of which he thinks himself the master – misdirection and deception.

The ongoing tension between David and Madeleine lays a foundation of unease that permeates the story and makes it irresistible. It would have been easy for author Verdon to make Madeleine simply a wife who “doesn’t understand,” trying to turn David into something he’s not. But she’s wiser than that. She’s trying to save his soul. She knows that in his obsessive pursuit of solutions to crimes, he’s staring into Nietzsche’s abyss. David has deep unresolved issues, and his detective work is a way of running away from them. On the other hand, he performs a social good, taking monsters off the streets. It’s complicated. And fascinating.

Cautions for troubling sexual themes and a good amount of obscene language. But if you can handle that, Close Your Eyes Tight is a very rewarding read.

Staving off panic

Workbench
Photo credit: Philip Swinburn

I may or may not be posting intermittently next week. I decided to take a craft course at a certain institution in Iowa, whose name I guess I won’t mention, because I have a criticism to make about one of their practices.

The course is in making a stave vessel. A stave vessel is something like an old wooden bucket, with staves and bands like a barrel – though I won’t be making a bucket, but a traditional Norwegian vessel for separating cream from milk. Cooperage – the construction of watertight containers from staves, has always intrigued me. Knowing my aptitude for any kind of handwork, I’m sure I’ll be no good at all at it. But it might be something worth knowing about, for reenactment and novel writing purposes.

My complaint with the unnamed school is how long it took them to get me a list of the tools I’d need. I waited patiently, and it finally turned up by email on Sunday, too late to do any weekend shopping. But hey, I figured, I’ll go to the big hardware center and pick them up after work one night.

I went last night, and discovered that, thought they had a couple items I needed, your modern hardware center is a little light on cooperage tools. I’d have to try a specialty woodworking store in Minnetonka, they told me.

So tonight I drove out to Minnetonka after work. At that store I found one of the two items I needed. For the other, they told me, I’d need to go to a hobby store in Bloomington, on the far side of town from my home.

I guess I’ll see if I can pick it up on my way south, when I leave (on a date I’ll keep to myself).

My great fear is of showing up at the school without the proper tools, like a foolish virgin without the nightly minimum requirement of lamp oil.

Also that I’ll chop a finger off, of course.

Mr. Whicher’s hat

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

In the proud tradition of historical dilettantes everywhere, I shall devote this post to nitpicking a dramatic production.

I’ve watched a couple of English TV movies in a series entitled “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.” The original film, “The Murder at Road Hill House,” is based on a book by Kate Summerscale, describing a sensational murder inquiry in 1860. A young girl named Constance Kent was accused of the murder of her infant half-brother, on evidence presented by Inspector Jack Whicher, a respected Scotland Yard detective. The court found his evidence insufficient, but Miss Kent eventually confessed, years later, at the urging of her clergyman. She served a sentence in prison and then emigrated to Australia, devoting her final years to good works.

The series then parts company from history. In the subsequent movies, Mr Whicher has been discharged from the Force and investigates crimes as a “private inquiry agent.” In real life he continued as a police detective, and retired well-respected. He was an inspiration for Dickens’ Inspector Bucket and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff, among others. Continue reading Mr. Whicher’s hat

‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

Think of a Number

It was a curious thing about the past – how it lay in wait for you, quietly, invisibly, almost as though it weren’t there. You might be tempted to think it was gone, no longer existed. Then, like a pheasant flushed from cover, it would roar up in an explosion of sound, color, motion – shockingly alive.

And we have a winner. I have the pleasure of recommending to you an author and a novel that I can heartily recommend. Think of a Number by John Verdon is a remarkable book, not only a superior mystery-thriller, but also a story told in a fresh and interesting way.

David Gurney is a retired New York City police detective, a decorated hero. He had a reputation for finding and stopping serial killers. But he took early retirement to move to a farm in the Catskills with his wife. It’s her turn, so to speak – she put up with New York life, which she hated, for his sake. Now they’re living in the country, where there is scenery and trees and flowers and animals, a place where she thrives. But David is unhappy there. He has an intense, analytical mind, a need to solve puzzles and bring order out of chaos, that rural life doesn’t satisfy. Although they love each other, it’s not certain their marriage will survive.

One day David gets a call from an old college acquaintance, Mark Mellery, who has grown rich running a religious-self-help retreat center. Mellery is desperate. He tells David that he got a letter containing a small sealed envelope. The letter, hand-written, told him to think of a number between one and 1,000, and then open the envelope. He found the random number he’d chosen written on the note inside. After that he got more letters, hand-written in verse, threatening him with death in vengeance for some unstated crime in the past. Continue reading ‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

‘Perdition,’ by Pete Brassett

Perdition

I was happy to find a new release in Pete Brassett’s DI Munro series. I found Perdition amusing and entertaining, as its predecessors have been.

Detective Inspector Munro, a rural Scottish policeman, is slightly hampered this time out by the fact that his long-impending retirement has finally come to pass. However, he finds retirement boring in the extreme, and soon begins meddling – unofficially – in a current investigation by his team. An investment bank employee is found dead in his car, killed by a powerful painkiller. Eventually they learn that the man was involved in loan sharking, but not before another man is found dead from the same cause, and one more nearly beaten to death.

Also, someone kills a goat with a crossbow.

The whole thing is fairly complex, with intertwining and backtracking trails and plenty of red herrings. Throughout the investigation DI Munro, as unobtrusively as possible, attempts to guide his successor, “Charlie” West, a female detective he’s been mentoring for some years now. Munro is a charming character, self-possessed, opinionated, and mildly curmudgeonly.

Lots of fun. There’s a minimum of violence and bad language. Some opinions were expressed that I don’t agree with, but I really have no serious cautions to deliver about Perdition.

‘Mirror Mirror,’ by Nick Louth

Mirror Mirror

I’m enjoying reading Nick Louth’s novels. I enjoyed reading Mirror Mirror too, but found it a tad disappointing in the end.

Mira Roskova (who, in spite of her name, is English), is currently acclaimed as the most beautiful model in the world. She appears on countless magazine covers and in dozens of ads, she has hordes of fanatical fans, and she’s dating England’s most popular “footballer.”

Unfortunately, the footballer is jealous and possessive and prone to violent rages. So her management company hires Virgil Bliss, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, as her personal bodyguard. As Virgil accustoms himself to the profoundly shallow world of international modeling, he begins to understand that Mira faces dangers far more serious than having an abusive boyfriend. The most dangerous criminal in the country has claimed her as his own – and merely being confined to a high security mental hospital will not stop him from taking her.

As usual with Louth, the dramatic tension was satisfying and the characters interesting. But he does have a weakness for over-relying on coincidence in his plots, and that’s especially true in Mirror Mirror. The ending featured a surprise twist, which didn’t entirely surprise me (I’d noticed the clues with my writer’s eye), and I found the ending a disappointment.

On the other hand, some bleeding heart liberals in the book are made to look like complete idiots, which is always fun.

Cautions for language, violence, and fairly explicit sex. Not Louth’s best.

‘Samarkand’

What a useless post this is going to be.

I’m going to criticize a song you’ve almost certainly never heard. And when you watch the video, below, you won’t understand it, because it’s in Danish.

But I thought of it last night, during one of my ever-popular sieges of insomnia. I hadn’t heard it since I stopped playing my vinyl albums, back in the ‘90s. So I checked out the video. And the more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me. Because I think it’s a really pretty and sweet piece. But also wrongheaded and soul-killing.

The singer is Birgitta Grimstad, as well-known Danish folk singer. This number, adapted from a modern Swedish popular song, was a big hit for her in that country. What it describes, in brief, is how the singer wakes up on a beautiful morning to find herself alone in her bed. And she immediately understands that “it happened, what we talked about.” Her lover has moved on – he’s searching, metaphorically, for “Samarkand,” which apparently symbolizes some transcendent dream that won’t let him settle down.

Except that’s not exactly it. She says, “…and another will be what I can never be.” In other words, her lover is looking for a new – presumably better – lover. She is sad about it, and cries. But she’s very accepting and hopes he finds what he’s looking for “if you ever find your way to Samarkand.”

There it is, the ethic of the 1970s. “Love” means sex, and sex is temporary. Nobody is obligated to stay in a relationship if some better prospect shows up. I first heard this song on the “Prairie Home Companion” program, and I remember Garrison Keillor praising its “sweet reasonableness.” Well, from what we’ve now learned about Keillor, it’s no surprise he’d consider the song reasonable. The perfect lover is one who lets you go without complaining, when you get offered an upgrade.

So here I am again, railing against sins I never got the opportunity to commit. But I’ll say this – I suspect that a lot of the anger we see in radical feminism today springs from women who were expected to play this kind of submissive game back during the Sexual Revolution years.

Tote that barge, lift that bale

Today was a big day in the history of my little library. A day long anticipated. We began our project of moving our bookshelves closer together, so that we can put in one or two new units in the space we’ve got. The minions of our Maintenance Department at the schools came up with an ingenious system for clearing one unit at a time and sliding them over a few feet using boards and ropes. And it works. So far.

Moving the shelves

I’m fairly sure the pyramids of ancient Egypt were constructed in much the same way.