Danish Day, 2017

I apologize for standing you up last night. My service provider, apparently, suffered a major outage in my area. At least that’s their excuse.

I wanted to tell you about Sunday. I’ve done this almost every year pretty much as long as I’ve been blogging. Danish Day at the Danish American Center in Minneapolis. The first big event of the summer for the Viking Age Club & Society.

As you know (or if you don’t, pay attention!) I finally broke down and got a smart phone last winter. I’m cautiously learning the pleasures associated with that device (though I never plan to tweet. I fail to see the charm of tweeting, or of following tweets).

On Sunday I did my first Food Selfie. I’d bought what they call a Danish Hot Dog (or pølse), and I thought I’d take a photo with my phone and post it to Facebook.

Poelse

Got lots of responses. Amazing what fascinates people nowadays. Our lives must be very dull.

But amidst all the discussion, in which I defended (for instance) the use of ketchup on hot dogs against the authority of Clint Eastwood himself, I got a response from my distant cousin in Denmark, who had intelligent and enlightening things to say about the Danish hot dog tradition.

It’s all quite silly, but I have to concede it’s fun. And if we can have international fun in these troubled times, why not? Continue reading Danish Day, 2017

‘Among the Dead,’ by Kevin Wignall

Among the Dead

‘…A death, it’s quite something to deal with. Ultimately that was our problem – we were shallow, just not shallow enough.’

The most profoundly moral kind of book, I think, is a genuinely realistic story about immorality. It’s easy for moralists (even, or especially, Christian moralists like me) to say what people ought to do in this or that situation. But the disturbing question is, “Would I really do the right thing? Especially if it was hard and embarrassing? Or how far would I go to cover it up?” Those are among the questions raised by Among the Dead, a fascinating novel by Kevin Wignall.

Ten years ago, five university student friends in England were driving from a party, all of them a little drunk, when their car struck a young woman who darted into the street. Since she was dead anyway, they agreed they couldn’t do anything to help, and reporting the accident to the police would only cause unnecessary trouble, doing no one any good.

Now, ten years later, they are generally out of touch with each other. They’ve tried to forget the past – with mixed success. When one of them dies of an overdose, Alex, a sleep researcher who suffers from insomnia and night panics, tries to get in touch with the others, to let them know.

But more deaths are coming. Is it coincidence? Or is someone killing the group off, a decade after their crime?

Among the Dead wasn’t a cheery read, but I found it fascinating and challenging. I recommend it for serious readers. Cautions for language.

‘The most famous and pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech’

Oliver Wendell Holmes gave us the phrase about shouting fire in a crowded theater. Most people are against such shouting, despite today’s audiences being more likely to look around with irritated curiosity than to panic. Pulling the fire alarm in a crowded theater would cause a problem, and this censorship of free expression is the law. (Why can’t you pull a fire alarm to express yourself? Why can’t you call 911 to talk to give your opinion? Is this 1984?)

Here’s what Justice Holmes actually wrote. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

He gave this opinion in support of the Supreme Court’s conviction of Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, for writing a pamphlet in opposition to the WWI draft. Two similar cases came up that year and were decided the same way. Calls to “assert your rights” were compared to inciting panic in entertainment houses.

Back in 2012, Trevor Timm wrote about how abused the shouting-fire phrase has become and how much damage it has done to America’s concept of free speech. “Its advocates are tacitly endorsing one of the broadest censorship decisions ever brought down by the Court. It is quite simply, as Ken White calls it, ‘the most famous and pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech.'”

NY Times Fires Public Editor, Plans to ‘Listen’

Listening to the wallWhen a much-praised reporter for the New York Times was found to have plagiarized and fabricated several reports, the newspaper that still holds a position in the public imagination as being “a paper of record” created its public editor position. The public editor is meant to be a visible face for journalistic ethics, a person who regularly criticized his employer for bias, editorializing the news, and other ethical slips.

Wednesday, the New York Times terminated its contract with Public Editor Liz Spayd for what National Review‘s Kyle Smith calls “resisting the Resistance.” For the foreseeable future, any public editing will be handled by the public in the comment section, about which Alan Jacobs tweeted:

I don’t think the @nytimes really plans to turn itself into a trollocracy; enabling comments is make-believe “listening to our readers.”

Smith offers several examples of fair-minded comments from Spayd, saying she “did her best to be even-handed in the eleven months she held the job. The angry Left could not forgive this.”

In a column entitled “Why Readers See the Times as Liberal,” she noted that many a liberal and centrist acolyte of the Times told her that they were seeking other outlets for balance. “A paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission,” she said. That such a statement is now considered “controversial” does not reflect well on the media.

But maybe the Times doesn’t see a need for a public editor. Maybe it recognizes its innate fairness in every report it prints. I mean, look at the state of journalism today. These guys stick to the facts.

‘People Die,’ by Kevin Wignall

People Die

He did feel bad for burdening her, yet at the same time he’d wanted to tell her much more: that he was lonely, that he felt like indistinct bits of him were dying, that nothing was clear anymore. It was enough though, what he’d told her was enough, like a gasp of pure oxygen, burning the tissue of his lungs.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of People Die, Kevin Wignall’s debut novel. It’s not exactly amoral, but not exactly moral either. I suspect it’s one of those sophisticated books not intended for middlebrows like me.

JJ Hoffman is a freelance hit man, based in Geneva. He has an impeccable reputation in his field – he does his work efficiently and dispassionately, leaving no metaphorical messes behind.

But now he has found his handler murdered, and rumor says that several others of his colleagues have been killed too. Almost by coincidence (I think it counts as a minor deus ex machina) he is contacted by an American who tells him he knows what’s going on. He wants JJ to come and visit him, at an inn in New England.

The problem is that the inn is owned by a woman whose husband JJ murdered a few years ago.

People Die is a well-written tale. I thought it passed the bounds of plausibility a few times – and not in the normal way of thrillers, on the action side. The implausibilities here are psychological. And the resolution just made no sense to me. There’s a kind of grace at work here (in fact the book could be seen as a sort of Christian metaphor), but there’s an amorality at the same time. I couldn’t work out what to think about it in the end.

Worth reading though. Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes.

We call them ‘wall hangers’ nowadays

Viking sword
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Via Dave Lull: An article from J-Stor by James MacDonald, on new Danish research that indicates that some Viking swords were never meant for a fight. “The trick to creating an ideal sword using this technique is to distribute different types of metal that balance hardness and flexibility—durable enough to hold an edge while absorbing the shock of contact. The scanned swords were not made in such a way that they can both cut and flex.”

I mentioned the story to a reenactor friend last weekend, and he wasn’t greatly surprised. The sagas do not speak of swords made entirely for show — what we call “wall hangers” today. But we know that sword making was an iffy proposition. The “Havamal” says, “Praise no sword until it has been tested.” And one unfortunate character in one of the sagas comes proudly home from Norway with a beautiful sword with gilded furniture. But when he tries it in a fight, it bends, and he has to set the tip on the ground and try to straighten it by stepping on it.

So it’s not unreasonable that a status-conscious Viking might have bought a sword purely for show, as a status symbol, but would depend in battle on his trusty axe, which was easier to use anyway.

‘The Missing and the Dead,’ by Stuart MacBride

The Missing and the Dead

I swore I wasn’t going to read another Stuart MacBride novel.

The last time I read one of his Logan McRae books, it went in a very, very creepy direction, and I dropped it before it could get any worse. I mentioned on this blog that I was done with it.

But one day I was looking for another book to read, and I had a momentary lapse of memory. By the time I remembered what I thought of the series, The Missing and the Dead was on my Kindle. I figured I’d give it a chance.

It didn’t offend me the way the last one did. And I stayed with it to the end. But I’m still not a fan.

Logan McRae used to be a Scottish police detective. But somewhere since the last story I read, he got demoted to uniformed policing in the far north – centered at a station in the town of Banff, on the North Sea. He’s in charge of a small squad, but of course the plainclothes detectives get to do the interesting work. Continue reading ‘The Missing and the Dead,’ by Stuart MacBride

Autographing eBooks

In our last post, we looked at a new problem for Californian booksellers who hope to attract buyers with autographed editions. Though I didn’t say it then, the law appears to apply outside the state as well as inside, because it defines Californian dealers as being in or from the state. It’s like original sin. The stain of being born in California can never be removed in this life.

I don’t know whether the law applies to digital book editions, but if you’ve been thinking eBooks wouldn’t have this problem because they can’t be signed, allow me to open the door of enlightenment for you. Authors can sign eBooks.

Two sites allow authors to list their eBooks and offer them for signing. Autography.com allows customized signing pages in their cross-platform app. You can sign an eBook remotely or at a book signing. Autographed pages can even be shared on social media. Authorgraph.com offers a similar service with less customization. In fact, it doesn’t appear to be actually signing eBook, but a page associated with the it. Readers can request signatures from authors who are using the service and can buy books through the site.

Has anyone developed a digital autograph book for fans to collect signatures on iPads? I’d think there would be a market for it, except in California.

California Wraps Book Signings in Red Tape

A new law in California, if enforced, would make book signings at local bookstores extremely tedious on both readers and booksellers. A bookseller with three stores in the San Francisco area has filed a suit against the state this month to argue the law, which was promoted last year by actor Mark Hamill, will crush his stores. He’s capitalized on signed books and book signings over the last several years as a unique feature of his business. He hosts roughly 700 of these events each year.

In January, a state law went into effect that would require a record of many details related to a signature on any item sold for over $5. It’s not enough to stand before the author and watch him sign your book, nor can you go to the store the next day to buy a leftover signed copy. If the law were enforced (and so far I don’t know that it has been), a bookseller who sells an autographed book for a Lincoln plus will have to provide a certificate of authenticity with a description of the item signed, date, price, warranty, size of item, size for future editions, number of items signed, number of items intended to be signed in the future, state-issued serial number, and other details. Pawnbrokers are exempt as well as those who sign and sell their own stuff (because no fear of fraud there, obviously). These records will have to be kept for seven years.

One comic book dealer, who says they have authors sign every copy they have for later sale (and no markup for autographed copies), tells California Political Review, “To have to generate and track individual ‘Certificates of Authenticity’ for each and every book (let alone trying to identify potentially hundreds of existing items in our inventory) would make already break-even business even less tenable.”

The penalty for running afoul this law is 10x the value of the item sold plus legal fees.

The law doesn’t target booksellers. It apparently was intended to kill off expensive sales of fake signatures on sports and movie memorabilia. But the law says all autographed items sold for over $5, and once again lawmakers demonstrate that they slept through the course on unintended consequences.

Memorial Day 2017

On Memorial Day, it is customary to remind people, in the midst of their barbecuing, to take a moment to remember the sacrifices made by soldiers in many wars, so that we might enjoy our freedom.

I think it would be more appropriate, this year, to take the ashes from our barbecues, strew them on our heads, dress in sackcloth, fall to our knees, and beg forgiveness for the uses to which we’ve put that freedom.

‘The Girl from Kilkenny,’ by Pete Brassett

The Girl from Kilkenny

Good writing. Disturbing story. That’s Pete Brassett’s The Girl from Kilkenny.

It’s not a mystery. It’s one of those stories where you watch a metaphorical train wreck going on, waiting for the moment when somebody will identify the problem and stop it.

Nancy McBride showed up at the Irish farm a few years ago. She was small and beautiful, and the young farmer, who lived with his widowed father, fell in love with her and married her. Granted, her moods tended to change violently from time to time, and she could be cruel with her words. But she showed no desire to leave the lonely farm, and her husband adored her and built his life around her.

When news comes that men have been mysteriously murdered in nearby towns, it never crosses his mind that his wife might be responsible. But there are a lot of things he doesn’t know about…

The Girl from Kilkenny is a neatly plotted tragedy, told in elegant prose.

It’s not a book to cheer you up.

Recommended for those who like this sort of thing.

‘Prayer for the Dying,’ by Steve Brassett

Prayer for the Dying

This novel by Pete Brassett is quite short, almost a novella. But it was an intriguing story, one I enjoyed. And the price was right.

At the beginning of Prayer for the Dying, small-town Irish police detectives Maguire and O’Brien are called to view the body of a dead priest, lying in an onion patch on the grounds of a school for orphan boys. The late priest was once headmaster of the school, but had retired, and was suffering dementia.

Various threads of narrative provide the back story, in bits and pieces and out of sequence. In his time, the dead priest was a terrifying figure, abusive and sadistic. A former staff member tells how he resigned because he couldn’t live with the cruelty anymore. And we are told of another former instructor, a gentle Spaniard who is now catatonic in a mental hospital – but who still finds a way to provide an important clue.

The story was heartbreaking, as any account of child abuse must always be. And there were spiritual elements that were slightly unsettling. But I appreciated the fact that the priests were not stereotyped – most of them were good men. And the ending had resonance.

Cautions for language – Irish cursing which uses somewhat unfamiliar words and so seems less offensive. Also for disturbing subject material. Recommended.

‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn

The Last Gunfight

None of the Earps were flawless saints, but they also were not shady characters who lucked into heroic places in Western history. What they did do, Wyatt especially, was exaggerate their accomplishments and completely ignore anything in their past that reflected badly on them. In this, they were typical of men of their time—and men today.

Wyatt Earp wanted a desk job. You could argue that that simple fact is responsible for the bloodletting that occurred in an empty lot next to C.S. Fly’s photographic studio, not far from the OK Corral, on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. All the Earps dreamed of wealth and social respectability, but they had to settle for gambling, police work (usually as deputies), and sometimes less reputable work like pimping, until they could catch the brass ring. Which none of them did in their lifetimes.

Wyatt thought he had a fair shot at being elected sheriff of the newly-created Cochise County, Arizona, on the Republican ticket. He was a deputy to his brother, Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp, who was also Tombstone chief of police. He thought he could arrest several wanted “cowboys” (a word that meant rustlers at the time), if he made a deal with the rancher Ike Clanton to betray his cowboy friends. Unfortunately, Ike got the idea that Wyatt had been telling people about the deal, and got so mad that he spent the night of October 25 lurching from one saloon to another, bragging about everything he was going to do that two-faced Earp. This was a stupid thing to do if he wanted the deal kept secret, of course, but brains were never Ike’s strong suit. The next day Virgil deputized his brothers and Doc Holliday and led them down to the vacant lot to disarm Ike and his friends. The rest is… about 1% history and 99% myth and romance.

Though the Amazon description calls Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight the “definitive” account of the affair, it’s not and cannot be, as Guinn himself admits in his Afterword. New information keeps turning up, and sometimes it’s pretty illuminating. What The Last Gunfight offers is a fairly recent, and fairly comprehensive, account of the personalities and forces that led to the shoot-out, and the events that followed, with the focus on the Earps. Continue reading ‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn

The Handmaid’s Secular Theocracy

Ross Douthat contrasts the society of The Handmaid’s Tale with our current one.

But precisely because of the ways that Atwood’s novel plumbed and surfaced the specific anxieties of 1985, her story is necessarily time-bound and context-dependent and in certain ways more outdated than prophetic. So adapted for our later era, “The Handmaid’s Tale” feels like more like an alternate-history universe in the style of “The Man in the High Castle” than an exercise in futurism. Which should make the adaptation an opportunity to study the contrasts between our actual post-Reagan trajectory and Atwood’s imagined path to Gilead, and to see our own particularities afresh.

Mano a Mannix

TV Guide

Dave Lull has done it again. He found an anecdote about D. Keith Mano in a posting at It’s About TV. The author, Mitchell D. Hadley, recaps an issue of TV Guide from May 18, 1967 (I was about to finish my junior year in high school that week, but we didn’t take TV Guide). Mano isn’t featured in the magazine, but Hadley has a recollection:

It reminds me of a story told by the novelist D. Keith Mano, who was teaching a creative writing class and slogging through some dreadful efforts by earnest would-be writers. When one, complaining about his low grade, protested, “But this is how it was,” Mano replied, “Yes, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” And that’s why Joe Mannix’s life is more interesting than yours, Mister Private Detective.

We watched Mannix at our house, but I was never a big fan. I remember that he seemed to get knocked unconscious roughly once a week. I was no neurologist even then, but I was pretty sure you’d be drooling in a nursing care facility if that happened in real life.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture