The cold facts on Colfax

If you’re in the neighborhood of Colfax, Wisconsin tomorrow, I’ll be playing Viking at a community celebration there. Noon to five. Be there or be somewhere else.

I’ve been thinking about walnuts. In Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings, which I reviewed recently, he talks about walnuts as an exotic treat in Scandinavia at the time. He describes them as tasting sweet.

Walnuts do not taste sweet to me. They taste like slightly crumbly bits of wood.

I’ve long been pretty sure my sense of taste is defective. I seem to be particularly insensitive to sweet-tasting things, which would be why I crave sweet stuff that’s cloying to other people. While mildly sweet things (like walnuts, apparently) don’t register with me at all.

Do you find walnuts sweet?

‘No Coming Back,’ by Keith Houghton

No Coming Back

In the wake of Vidar Sundstøl’s “Minnesota Trilogy” books, which did not send me over the moon, I tried a different mystery novel, also set in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region – No Coming Back, by Keith Houghton.

Alas, I did not love this one either. While Sundstøl’s books are stylish but (in my opinion) perverse, Houghton’s book seemed to me over-beaten and under-baked. Though not without promise.

Jake Olson returns to his (fictional) home town of Harper, Minnesota after nearly 20 years gone. He’s been in prison, convicted as a teenager of killing his girlfriend, Jenna. He didn’t do it. Now (and this is one of the first of many improbabilities that abound in this story) the local newspaper publisher, who has always supported him, hires him to re-investigate the murder and identify the real killer.

On the same day Jake comes home (another improbability), a large tree, a local landmark, is toppled by a storm. Under the roots a skeleton is found. Jake is convinced it’s Jenna’s. Now he’s on a mission, but he has lots of opposition. Jenna’s brother has promised to kill Jake. The local sheriff has always hated him, and is just waiting for an excuse to bust him and send him back to Stillwater on a parole violation.

And there are larger challenges. Everybody in this book – everybody – is lying. Everybody has something to hide.

The whole thing was too much for me. Too many conspiracies, and too complicated. Too many lies. Too much violence for the setting. Too many villains. Toward the end I didn’t even care about Jake, which is a major narrative failure.

I think Keith Houghton shows promise as a novelist. He can turn a good phrase when he’s on his game (though his diction can be sloppy too). But this book was just too convoluted and nihilistic for its own good, in my view.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult situations.

‘The Secret of Wild Boar Woods,’ by P. F. Ford

The Secret of Wild Boar Wood

At this point, my ongoing reviews of P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater novels are more in the line of reading reports than reviews. You already know what I think of them – not top-level literature, but amusing entertainment.

In The Secret of Wild Boar Woods, Detective Sergeant Dave Slater is landed with a new partner – a cute little female detective. To make it even more precious, her last name is Darling (and yes, comic hay is made out of that). They are called to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, last scene waiting for her mother outside her school. When the missing person case becomes murder, they’re faced with a confusing tangle of intertwining relationships, familial and sexual, among the girl’s family and their friends. Meanwhile Dave patiently attempts to teach his green and volatile new partner how to act like a grown-up cop.

As always, the story was entertaining. As always, I’m a little annoyed by the author’s treatment of his characters. He changes his mind about them between stories, so that someone we’ve been taught to like in the last book because a bad’un in the present book. That, in my opinion, is not playing entirely fair with readers who faithfully follow the series.

Still, The Secret of Wild Boar Woods was pretty good reading, and it’s not expensive in Kindle. Recommended, with cautions for adult themes.

Medieval Women Were Not Waifs

A new exhibit at the Getty offers a revealing look at women from the Middle Ages.

With an understandable weariness, the exhibition’s creators acknowledge, both on the introductory museum label and catalogue book jacket, that most people imagine medieval women as damsels in distress, being rescued perhaps by a dragon-­hunting St. George. One has to meet the popular mind, fattened by dismissals of the Middle Ages (“a world lit only by fire”), where it unfortunately lags. But to slay this myth as surely as St. George speared his dragon, the curators unfurled manu­scripts of a different, lesser known legend, that of St. Margaret. Consumed by a dragon, Margaret ripped her way out of his stomach herself with a crucifix. Like Jesus, it seems, Margaret could be born (from a dragon at least) without the help of a man.

Two-thirds of Vidar Sundstol’s ‘Minnesota Trilogy’

The Land of Dreams

Kind of like Sigrid Undset, only anti-Christian.

That’s my reaction after reading the first two volumes of Norwegian author Vidar Sundstøl’s “Minnesota Trilogy” – The Land of Dreams and Only the Dead.

Lance Hansen is a “forest cop” – a policeman in the Superior National Forest, in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. He’s a good man, devoted to his (broken) family and fascinated with genealogy and local history. One day, while checking out an illegal camping spot, he finds a naked man babbling in a foreign language. At length he recognizes it as Norwegian, his father’s native tongue. Nearby he finds another naked man, viciously battered to death.

The case is quickly handed off to the FBI, as the crime scene is on federal land. But Lance keeps poking around the edges. Not to find the truth – he’s very much afraid he knows the truth – but because he saw something that day, something he has not told and will not tell anyone, for personal reasons. Continue reading Two-thirds of Vidar Sundstol’s ‘Minnesota Trilogy’

News from the frontier

Natty Bumppo

Today is my birthday. I could tell you how old I am, but then I’d have to kill you.

All in all, it hasn’t been a bad one. A friend had me over to grill on Saturday, and on Sunday I had lunch with another friend. And today at work, three guys from the seminary came to my office and sang “Happy Birthday.” But in a whisper, because it was the library.

Very good, guys.

You know what getting older is like? I have a Metaphor. It’s like you’re walking in the woods, and following the path just like the maps said. And then suddenly you’re off the path, and you don’t know where the heck you are. And there’s no point trying to find the path again, because you’re never going back to the path. It’s deeper into the woods from now on.

Henceforth, don’t call us Senior Citizens. Call us Pioneers.

Mark your calendars

99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) patch

On August 12, the Vikings and I will be attending the 75th Anniversary of the Activation of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), also known as the Viking Battalion, at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota. The address is 15000 Highway 115, Little Falls 56345.

I’ve told you about the 99th before. They were a “foreign legion” brigade recruited mostly from stranded Norwegian merchant sailors and Norwegian-Americans, after the Occupation of Norway. They served with distinction in the Battle of the Bulge, and participated in the “Monuments Men” operation. At the end of the war they were in charge of the transition back to civilian rule in Norway. A few of them were siphoned off for special duty, and became part of the original core of the OSS (later the CIA).

The event will be open to the public from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The organization’s web site is here. There’s also a Facebook group.

New Gawain and Green Knight Translation

James Wilson praises a new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Ridland, calling it a “startling success.”

Most translators have either abandoned the [loose alliterative lines of the original] altogether or tried to replicate its alliterative movement in hopes of conveying its harsh, Germanic energy. Ridland, in contrast, renders the poem in loose iambic heptameter, thereby giving us a form that sounds both native and natural to our ear. He also introduces sporadic and spritely alliteration to preserve a hint of the poem’s exotic roughness.

He offers an excerpt, which you might compare with this translation (from the first stanza of part two):

a year turns full turn, and yields never a like;
the form of its finish foretold full seldom.
For this Yuletide passed by, and the year after,
and each season slips by pursuing another:
after Christmas comes crabbed Lenten time,
that forces on flesh fish and food more simple.

(via Prufrock News)

‘The Red Telephone Box,’ by P. F. Ford

The Red Telephone Box

The Dave Slater mystery series from P. F. Ford continues. In The Red Telephone Box, Detective Sergeant Slater’s partner, DS Norman, disappears. Norman has been taking secretive calls for some time, and Dave hasn’t wanted to poke into his affairs. Now he has to.

At the same time, a “new broom” has arrived in the police station in Tinton, Hampshire. Detective Inspector Goodnews (seriously, that’s her name) has been sent in to straighten out the somewhat chaotic organization of the department. Dave gets off to a rocky start with her, but gradually comes to appreciate her leadership qualities and detective skills. Also, she’s quite attractive, and they’re soon both hard at work denying to themselves their mutual attraction.

I’ve spoken condescendingly about the writing in this series, and in truth it’s not top notch. But there’s an interesting metanarrative in view here – minor subplots in the various books form an overarching narrative which (one assumes) will be made manifest in books to come. That helps keep the reader’s interest up. And author Ford isn’t afraid to mess with the cast. The characterizations, on the other hand, are a little ham-handed. Characters seem to do drastic things for inadequate reasons, just to move the plot along.

But I’m enjoying the series. I’ll read a couple non-related books now, and come back to Dave Slater. Mild cautions for adult situations.

A case of mistaken identity

Last night was a memorable one in the never-ending, pulse-pounding drama that is my life. I was briefly mistaken for another man.

I had an appointment to get a dental filling replaced. When I came into the office, the receptionist greeted me happily, but – and here’s where the conductor should cue the ominous double note from the horns – she didn’t greet me by name. I said hello and sat down with my Kindle to wait. She said the doctor was running a little behind.

A few minutes later the (very beautiful) dental hygienist came out and said they were ready for me, but again (bum BUUUM) without saying my name. I was a little surprised that she was assisting with a filling, but I went along (frankly, I’d follow her anywhere). I sat down in the Comfy Chair, and she put the bib around my neck. She asked if I’d taken the antibiotics required after my hip replacements. I said my doctor had rescinded that order, and that I’d had them fax an affidavit to that effect to the dentist’s office. The dentist, from the other side of the partition, yelled, “Yes, I got that!” So the hygienist changed the record on the screen suspended just to my left.

“OK,” she said then. “Just a cleaning and check-up tonight, right?” she said.

No, I answered. I came to get a tooth filled.

A few moments of confusion followed, until we established that she’d been expecting a guy whose name sounds kind of like mine. So I retired to the waiting room again. The receptionist laughed (with some embarrassment). Apparently she’d mistaken me for this guy with the similar-sounding name who, she said, had a gray beard like me, looked kind of like me, and wore a hat. And also had had his hips replaced. I told the hygienist she’d probably better change the guy’s record back on the antibiotics thing.

And a few minutes later, in walked a guy who did look kind of like a taller version of me. Limping slightly. And he was wearing a hat. (A cowboy hat, but you get the idea.) In order to explain our laughter, I explained to him that he’d nearly gotten my tooth filling.

So if I disappear suddenly, somebody should check this guy out to see if he faked his death. I know from my mystery reading that that sort of thing happens all the time.

‘The Wrong Man,’ by P. F. Ford

The Wrong Man

Another Dave Slater mystery from P. F. Ford. I’m working my way through the series, but I can’t read too many in a row because they make for same-same reviews. The Wrong Man is fast-food literature, enjoyable but without great substance.

Diana Woods was a beautiful housewife. All her friends and neighbors praise her as a wonderful friend. But her ex-husband and a few others tell a different story – that she was devious, two-faced, greedy, and sexually promiscuous. In any case, she’s dead now, stabbed with a knife in her kitchen.

Detective Sergeants Slater and Norman, of the fictional small English town of Tinton, quickly find evidence that points to the ex-husband. But he seems genuinely distraught by Diana’s death. DS Slater is uncomfortable with charging him, even in spite of pressure from his commander.

P. F. Ford’s forte is in fooling the reader. There are surprises and counter-surprises right to the end. I was baffled and thoroughly taken in (though I’ll admit I’m not the cleverest mystery reader). The writing, as always, is average, and the characterizations uneven, but the puzzle was highly enjoyable.

Recommended with mild cautions for adult themes.

Has Christian Opposition to Harry Potter Vanished?

Stephen Burnett asks whether Christians have gotten over their opposition to Harry Potter. Although he has always been a fan, many of his connections have not and were not at some point in the past.

“Most of my Christian friends must agree with me. In the last week I’ve seen only Harry Potter positivity: quotes, memories, and glee over the Facebook magic-wand app tricks.”

He offers a few ideas on what may have changed, if anything. I suspect I saw many knee-jerk reactions to the series in the beginning, and now that book seven has been read and discussed we see Rowling’s full story. Many respectable leaders have praised the series for its Christological elements, making it difficult for someone who has not read the books to argue against them. How many people who oppose Harry Potter also oppose Lord of the Rings? That’s a hard sell for many believers.

‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

The Conversion of Scandinavia

It’s a little disappointing, after my glowing review of Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings (reviewed a few inches south of here), to deliver a less than enthusiastic review of his earlier work, The Conversion of Scandinavia. Of course it’s ridiculous for me, an amateur historian and fantasy novelist, to challenge a scholar of Winroth’s stature. But this is my area of interest, blast it, and I’m going to defend it with whatever flimsy weapons I’ve got.

The thesis of The Conversion of Scandinavia is fairly easily stated. In Winroth’s view, the conversion essentially never happened – not in the way we’ve been taught. All those cultural clashes and crusader atrocities are just the fancies of Icelandic storytellers. What actually happened (in this view) is that various chieftains and kings realized that Christianity offered both prestige and (in the Church) a bureaucratic model that could be expanded and adapted to solidify their own power. The kings were baptized, and their kingdoms declared officially Christian. Other than that, the changes were few, but the people gradually adapted to the new religious order.

One thing that immediately struck me was that Winroth completely bypasses the institution of the Things, the Viking democratic assemblies that balanced and limited royal power. He writes of the Scandinavian kings as if they were autocrats, ruling by decree. Although he doesn’t explain this omission, I imagine he considers the idea of the Thing another invention of Icelandic saga writers – and in his view (apparently) the very fact that a saga writer says it is conclusive proof of falsehood. He does not recognize the recent work of scholars in the field of folklore studies, who argue that useful information can be preserved in pre-literate societies for three centuries or more through traditional mnemonic devices, before being written down. Continue reading ‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

Reviewer Receives Cease and Desist Letter

Vincent “Vino” Malone fuels his blog with a love for Olive Garden pasta. It’s called “All Of Garden – One Man’s Quest to Eat All the Pasta.” He appears to have ended this quest, having eaten all the pasta he can stomach. I could be wrong.

Olive Garden Corporate has not rolled out any lasagna for the man who may be their biggest fan. Instead they’ve sent him a cease and desist letter, demanding he remove their name from his site.

And Vino replied.

>>to: brandenforcements@mm-darden.com
>>date: Wed, Jul 19, 2017 at 8:47 AM

>>Mr. Forcements — may I call you Branden? Since this an asynchronous mode of communication, I’m going to assume you are magnanimously acquiescing, and I will refer to you as Branden forthwith — I received your email yesterday.<<

Someone deep within the garlic-filled halled of OG Corp. says this D&C letter was sent by a bot and no one will actual free will intends to followup with legal action. Presumably they also will not reply to Vino in limerick form, as he requested.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture