Life and Death of Brick and Mortars

Columnist David Leonhardt writes in the NY Times, “It’s depressing to imagine that more than 600 Barnes & Noble stores might simply disappear. But the death of Barnes & Noble is now plausible.” It seems people don’t buy enough books in person, but they do buy coffee and borrow books to read while they drink. (via Prufrock News)

Perhaps running a large network of books retail is no longer sustainable. Some recent report tout the health of independent bookstores around the country. At least six stores are successfully attracting customers in the broad Pittsburgh area.

“I think people want conversation, they want a human connection,” Susan Hans O’Connor, a bookstore owner, states. “They want to talk about ideas; they want to talk about books they’ve already read or that they haven’t read that they should read.”

This agrees with a report from Detroit, which notes the growth of indy bookstores in that city.

Erin Gold writes:

And there are a lot of reasons Detroit and other urban communities should want to keep their independent bookstores around. At a time when face-to-face interactions are becoming less common, independent bookstores act as a kind of community center. They hear first-hand from their customers what is important to the community and respond through book curation, author visits, and community partnerships.

In his recent study on independent bookstore business, Harvard Business Professor Ryan Raffaelli found that independent bookstores have become even more valuable in today’s world where so much of an individual’s free time can be spent online. “People are still eager to connect, and indie bookstores make that happen,” Raffaelli says. “They create a safe space for individuals to debate new and important ideas with friends and neighbors.”

Death of a Newspaper

It’s a truth universally acknowledged by those who don’t let sentiment cloud their thinking that the newspaper’s time will soon pass—except for rare titles like the New York Times and a few others that can attract national audiences. “The old model of a general-purpose newspaper fit the industrial age when advertisers needed mass audiences to sell the products of mass production. But the marketplace no longer supports the model of a few messages to many people. Now it is many messages, each to a few people,” Meyer tells me via email.

Jack Shafer reviews the common story told of a newspaper’s death and how it may be the other way around. He notes the warning signs of the death of this medium have been issued as early as 1976. (via Prufrock News)

‘Suspicion,’ by Joseph Finder

Suspicion

Some time back a commenter on this blog recommended that I read Suspicion, by Joseph Finder. The suggestion fell through the cracks (in my head), but I’ve read it now. It is indeed a powerful, compelling thriller. Maybe too compelling for my delicate nerves.

The set-up is a classic Hitchcockian dilemma, in which a regular, decent guy gets caught up in criminal matters way beyond his experience. Danny Goodman, the hero, is a writer, not outstandingly successful. He’s missed a book deadline, but for good reason. His ex-wife died and left him with the care of his teenage daughter, Abby. Abby loves the private school she’s been attending, but it’s way beyond Danny’s means. He dreads taking her out of it, after the trauma of losing her mother.

And then he gets thrown a life preserver. Abby’s best friend is the daughter of a fabulously wealthy money manager, Tom Galvin. Tom considers Abby a much-needed good influence, so he offers Danny a large loan. After struggling with his pride, Danny accepts. It helps that he genuinely likes Galvin as a friend.

And then the hammer falls. Danny gets pulled in by a couple DEA agents. They tell him Galvin is working for a drug cartel, and Danny’s acceptance of his money makes him a co-conspirator under the law. He has a choice – work with them to build a case against Galvin, or go to prison himself.

Danny now has to be a spy and an informer, balancing his love for his daughter against his conscience and his friendship with Galvin. Gradually he will learn that there are wheels within wheels, and that the situation is more complicated – and dangerous – than he had suspected in his greatest fears. He will also learn that he’s capable of things he never dreamed of.

Suspicion is a well-written thriller, one that pulls you in like a shirt wrapped around a washing machine agitator. I found the perils and dangers genuinely distressing, and I empathized deeply with Danny Goodman. In fact, I’m not sure I’ll read another from this very accomplished author, just because I’m not sure I can handle the tension.

But if you’re looking for a really compelling thriller, Suspicion delivers big time. The usual cautions for adult themes apply.

Ascension Day

Ascension Bamberg Apocalypse
The Ascension of Christ” from the Bamberg Apocalypse, 11th Century

Today is Ascension Day in the Christian calendar. I won’t tell you what it’s called in Norwegian, because you’ll laugh.

All right, I’ll tell you if you insist. But don’t laugh.

Kristi Himmelfartsdagen.

Ascension Day is one of those sadly neglected church festivals that’s actually pretty meaningful. Ascension Day ties up the bow of the Resurrection, you might say. It finishes the operation, resolves the chord.

It has a number of implications. I saw a list today, and there were more than I’d ever thought about.

But I’ll mention the one that I remember, one Francis Schaeffer mentioned in one of his books.

Ascension Day verifies the physicality of Christian faith.

If you believe (and if you don’t, you’re not really a Christian) that Jesus rose from the dead with a body – a functioning body that could be touched and that ate food – then where is that body now?

The Ascension tells us that it’s with God in Heaven. Not some “metaphysical other.” Not the land of spirits and ghosts and legends. Some physical place. You can’t hide a body in a myth.

A place, as He promised, where we will be also someday.

Happy Ascension Day!

Defending the Faith; Denying the Image

This is a moving article on how Christians, particular Reformed believers and Presbyterians, have sat beside the biblical lawyer in justifying themselves by asking who is actually our neighbors, by which we meant who did we not have to love in accord with the second commandment.

tl;dr – Mainstream conservative Calvinism neither caused American chattel slavery, nor cured it, but it capitulated to it, was complicit in it, and cooperated with it. Nineteenth century confessional Calvinism, especially in the South, codified, confirmed, corroborated and was coopted by American pro-slavery ideology, and then perpetuated that ideology in segregation after slavery was gone. While all along, the theological cure for slavery (and its underlying racism) sat quietly ignored in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms: the imago Dei, neighbor love (along with, esp., the WLC expositions of the 6th and 10th commandments), the communion of the saints, and especially justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (see Galatians 2, as deployed by John Newton and William Wilberforce in their arguments against the slave trade and slavery)!

Defending the Faith; Denying the Image – 19th Century American Confessional Calvinism in Faithfulness and Failure

 

‘Flotsam and Jetsam,’ by Keith Moray

Flotsam & Jetsam

It’s nearly pointless to do a review of yet another Torquil McKinnon mystery by Keith Moray. Torquil, as you may recall, is police inspector on the fictional Hebridean island of West Uist. He is a motorcycle enthusiast and a bagpiper, and the nephew of the local priest. He is supported by some likeable constables, and the local newspaper man (off and on).

Flotsam & Jetsam is a rather complicated story, involving the drowning of a young woman, the murder of a famous entomologist, abused cats and dogs, professional sports gambling, a popular television show along the lines of “Antiques Roadshow,” drug smuggling, burglaries, and several other themes. Also a couple members of the cast of characters fall in love above their leagues, and enjoy success – because these are essentially happy stories.

Oh yes – Torquil acquires a pet. You can’t get more cozy than that.

Good fun; nothing much to caution you about. Recommended for light reading.

‘Killer Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Killer Lies

This mystery is part of a series of police procedurals by Chris Collett, starring Inspector Thomas Mariner, who operates in Birmingham, England. Mariner, the hero of Killer Lies, is a divorcee, involved in a new relationship with a remarkably patient woman. She needs to be. It’s not that he’s a bad man, but he has issues. He was raised by a single mother back before single mothers were cool, and his personal list of deflective habits makes it hard for him to sustain a relationship, especially under the kinds of pressure this adventure ushers in.

The story begins with the murder of Sir Geoffrey Ryland, a prominent government official who worked to uncover old police misbehavior and reverse miscarriages of justice. He and his wife are shot in their car one night, but the police believe the real target was their chauffeur, a man once convicted of drug dealing, but whom Ryland had gotten released. Mariner gets involved in the investigation when he learns, through a friend, that there was a puzzling connection to himself.

Then Mariner experiences a devastating event that leaves him shaken and a friend injured. He has never entirely worked through the challenges of his childhood and the death of his mother. Now he’s suffering from full-blown PTSD and refusing all offers of help. If he can’t get some answers and fill in some blanks in his own history, his relationship and his career may be ruined.

I was fascinated by Killer Lies. The plot was complex, and Thomas Mariner was a compelling character. It’s always kind of frustrating when you read a story where a large part of the challenge comes from the main character simply refusing to do some “simple” thing. Mariner might have been very annoying, but author Collett manages to convey his essential vulnerability and fear. At least for me, it made the story a grabber.

Recommended, with the usual adult cautions. Mariner is portrayed as an agnostic, but there’s a decent Catholic priest in the book. The first novel in the series is Deadly Lies, and I’ll be reading that.

How Alice Changed the World

Anyone would have to grant that, if nothing else, Carroll’s books have come to exercise an influence on the English language rivaled only by Shakespeare’s. Not only does Alice echo on in a host of common expressions—Cheshire cat smile, down the rabbit-hole, through the looking-glass, “Curiouser and curiouser,” “Off with her head!” and so on—but even many of Carroll’s nonsense words have become redoubtable fixtures of the lexicon. “Jabberwocky” alone gave us such indispensable locutions as “galumph,” “frabjous,” “chortle,” “mimsy,” “slithy,” “vorpal blade,” “tulgey,” “uffish,” “Bandersnatch,” “Jubjub bird,” “Tumtum tree,” “Calooh! Callay!”—why, the OED even includes “outgrabe” and “brillig”—while Humpty Dumpty’s magisterial exegesis of that mighty poem gave us the concept of the “portmanteau” word. That scarcely touches the surface of the matter, however. In a very real sense, the Alice books, along with all of Carroll’s nonsense verse, constitute a kind of revolutionary manifesto of a uniquely English style of genius: that special capacity for elaborate whimsy, precise nonsense, absurdity burnished to an exquisitely delicate sheen—which the French admire but cannot imitate, the Germans dread but cannot resist, the Italians love but cannot understand. . . . If, for instance, The Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost is the great English epic in the simple sense of being the most distinguished long narrative poem in the language, The Hunting of the Snark is the great English epic in the sense of being a work no other people could have produced. Other examples of the art abound, obviously: Lear’s nonsense verse, Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, and so on. But none achieves quite the purity, tireless wit, and ingenious invention of Carroll’s works.

One point from David Bentley Hart’s 2016 essay on the value and importance of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Did you know there are Wonderland-themed chess sets?  I know themed chess sets abound, but I hadn’t heard of this before.

‘Murder Solstice,’ by Keith Moray

Murder Solstice

We’ve come to volume three in Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon semi-cozy police procedural series, set on the fictional island of West Uist in the Hebrides. I find the books unchallenging, but entertaining. Inspector McKinnon, motorcycle rider and champion piper, has had tragedies in his life, but overall he’s cheerful and optimistic, as are his colleagues. That makes a nice change in the mystery genre.

In Murder Solstice, the laird’s manor on West Uist, which has gone through three hands in as many books, is now home to a New Age cult group. The group anticipates some form of spiritual enlightenment in connection with being present at the Hoolish Stones, a local henge, during the spring solstice. They’ve attracted the attention of national television, but also of a local historian who is livid at their leader’s theories about the stones. Also suspicion is rising that some local farmers are running a dog-fighting operation.

Meanwhile, the police force has been lumbered with a new officer, sent by a resentful and devious chief superintendant on the mainland. But she’s young and attractive, and Torquil possesses certain skills that may help win her over to his side.

Murder Solstice won’t change your life, but it’s an interesting and engaging mystery novel. I enjoyed it. Cautions for mild sexual content and mature themes.

‘Les Bicyclettes de Belsize’

When spring comes, I generally think of this song. It came out about the time I graduated from high school, and followed me into college, performed by various artists. But this is the original version, from the short film of the same name, “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize.”

The film (which I’ve never actually seen) is about a young man in London who falls in love, in rather improbable fashion, with a fashion model. Why is the title in French? I have no idea.

Hernando’s Once Great Library

Like the hierophants of search-engineering, Hernando wanted readers to have an infinitely searchable database ‘that would allow people to wander in places they did not know, perhaps had not even dreamed existed’. Like him, the webmasters have failed to give us that degree of liberation: cyber ghettoes prevail. ‘We are in danger of hemming ourselves into ever smaller enclaves, increasingly oblivious to the infinite … worlds that we simply no longer see.’

Hernando Colón, son of Christopher Columbus, gave us the story of his father’s great adventures, making much of the man and little of the missteps. He built a library with the intention of housing everything long before Ripley tried his hand at a tawdry version of it. The Biblioteca Colombina (pictures) has been a marvel in the past but only about 4,000 of the original 15,000 items remain.  Felipe Fernández-Armesto paints a picture of it in his review of Edward Wilson-Lee’s Harnando biography. (via Prufrock News)

‘The Sandman,’ by Lars Kepler

The Sandman

I took a chance on another Scandinavian Noir novel which looked to be a little different from the usual run. The Sandman, by Lars Kepler, is certainly different.

Joona Linna is a police detective in Stockholm (his exotic name is Finnish). 13 years ago, he faked the deaths of his wife and daughter, and sent them away so that he would have no knowledge of them again. He did this to save them from Jurek Walter, a serial killer who scares him to death, even though he’s confined to the mental ward of a high security prison.

Joona was the one who arrested Walter, when he found him exhuming a living woman from a grave where he’d been keeping her prisoner, with just a minimum of air and water. That is Walter’s modus operandi – to kidnap the loved ones of people who have offended him, and bury them alive. Walter promised to do the same to Joona’s family – and Joona believes him, in spite of his being locked up.

Now another of Walter’s victims, the son of a famous novelist, is found stumbling, disoriented, over a railroad bridge on a winter night. He is malnourished, freezing, and sick. Joona and his team are given the opportunity to investigate, and Joona jumps in. If he can figure out Walter’s crimes and locate his victims, maybe he can settle things and contact his family again.

But is Jurek Walter just a flesh-and-blood psychopath? Or does he possess supernatural powers? How is it that people have seen him looking in their windows at night, even though he’s in prison? Why are his guards warned never to speak to him, for fear that he’ll gain power over them just through a conversation?

The Sandman reminded me of nothing so much as The Silence of the Lambs. It had the same creepy fascination, the same quality of depicting a villain so freakishly intelligent that everyone else is always two or three moves behind him. The book kept me fascinated, and it sucked me in. If I don’t read any more books in the series, it’s just because I don’t care much for horror.

Recommended, if this is your kind of story. Cautions for language, sex, and violence.

By the way, “Lars Kepler” is the pseudonym of a husband-wife writing team, Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture