Itinerations of a Norwegian

As Steve Martin used to sing, “I’m a ramblin’ man.” Though I think rambling a while and coming home again wasn’t quite what he had in mind. To and fro, hither and yon. And back.

This past weekend I went down to Iowa to attend the annual Jul celebration at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Jul, as you must know if you’ve read my books, is what Norwegians call Christmas. Some family members who live down there were curious to attend the event, and invited me along. Note: It’s a one-day event.

If you live in these parts, you know what happened next. A massive ice storm glazed most of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. Nobody was going anyplace. Instead of visiting Vesterheim, we vegged out at their house, watching Netflix. Then I drove home yesterday night. I got free food and lodging — who am I to complain?

Today I had another ramble to do. My translating boss has asked me to do some research for a book to tie in with “Atlantic Crossing.” I’d made an appointment with the archivist at the Norwegian-American Historical Association in Northfield, Minnesota. It’s not a long drive from the Cities.

The drive went OK. The problem was finding my way around St. Olaf College, where NAHA makes its home. Parking is hard to come by at Holy Oley, and I ended up parked in a remote outpost. I found my way to the proper address with the help of my GPS (I swear all the St. O. buildings look the same), and learned after asking around that NAHA is located down the stairs, down the hall, and then down another stairway.

I found it at last. The archivist and the director were both very gracious and helpful. I spent the proverbial day flipping through dusty files – which is kind of fun. Found some things I hope will be useful to my Norwegian masters. Then I went out in the cold and searched about 20 minutes for my parking lot – it was the third one I checked. Then home. It was rush hour when I got back, but miraculously the traffic ran fairly smoothly.

And that’s where I’ve been. No grass grows under my feet. Especially in December.

For your Spectation…

I have a column up at The American Spectator Online today. It seems a little tin-foil-hat even to me, and yet it also makes perfect sense to me. Either I am mad, or the world is.

On my mental timeline, that conversation marks a watershed (I’m always seeing watersheds everywhere; probably a sign of OCD). It seems to me to mark a realignment on the Left. The feminists and the hippies were never really compatible, but they made an alliance, like Churchill and Stalin, during the Wars of Aquarius. The alliance was doomed, of course. Feminists have always been essentially Victorian. The last thing they want to see is anyone letting it all hang out.

‘The Pretender: Saving Luke,’ by Steven Long Mitchell & Craig W. Van Sickle

The Pretender: Saving Luke

I reviewed the first novel in the “rebooted” Pretender series a few days ago. Now I’ve read the second, and I’m equally – or more – disappointed.

The old Pretender TV series (which I loved) concerned Jarod, a young man, a genius able to absorb knowledge fast enough to become anything he wishes very quickly. He was raised in a scientific laboratory where he was used to test out scenarios for various customers, some of them pretty evil. Then he escaped. Now he was going around looking for cases of cruelty and injustice, and setting up the bad guys for exposure and punishment (usually the legal kind).

The literary reboot, written by the series’ two head writers, alters that formula a tad. Jarod is the same, and his chief opponents – Sydney, the closest thing he has to a father, and Miss Parker, a miniskirted attack dog who’s half in love with him – are pretty much the same. But Jarod is taking on bigger challenges now.

In the first book, Jarod helped a few people incidentally, in service of his greater goal, rescuing a kidnapped boy named Luke. Luke was taken by terrorists in order to pressure his father, an engineer, into committing a major act of terrorism (I’m not sure it’s ever explained what the terrorists’ actual political or financial goal is). Luke was not rescued at the end of the last book, so The Pretender: Saving Luke finishes that story.

I liked spending time with Jarod, although this Jarod is a little more coldblooded than the TV one. He does some pretty cruel things to people in pursuit of his goals. Granted, they’re bad people, but that kind of ruthlessness does not build reader empathy, unless the reader is a psychopath. Also, the plot is (to my mind) just too big. A big terrorist plot, a ticking clock, and heroics that frankly pass credibility. This is a superhero story, kind of like Batman. I don’t go to The Pretender for a superhero.

Also, the writing hasn’t improved: awkward sentence structure, confusion of words – imminent/eminent, rappel/repel. The book really, really needed a copy editor.

I’m not sorry I read The Pretender: Saving Luke, but it missed the bullseye for me.

Also, there seemed to be more transsexualism and lesbianism than strictly necessary.

Cautions for a little rough language and sexual situations.

I Know Death Has No Sting, But Still

Last week, a great teacher in our church, adjunct at Covenant College, and godly resource for the global church passed away suddenly. I went to Twitter and became a bit irritated that no one was talking about him. But why would they? Maybe twenty years from now men like this would resonate online at the right frequency to vibrate whatever social networks people would be using then. But last week with all the talk of how important this or that thing should be, I was irritated by the thought I couldn’t say something about the most important person in my mind at the moment.

Tonight another man I know from church, a little older and not a teacher in the same way, has passed away. The last I’d heard about him was of his successful surgery and hospital release. I wasn’t prepared for the news of his death. I’m not prepared for missing him in the hallways and all of the other places I might have seen him.

I know that these are astonishing moments for both men and that both of them awoke on the other side as if they had been asleep their entire lives. I know that “this perishable body must put on the imperishable,” because Christ Jesus has put death in its own grave. Its sting is blunted; its victory made void.

But still.

As One Who Has Slept

This is John Tavener’s arrangement of a Holy Saturday liturgy from the Orthodox Church:

“As one who has slept the Lord has risen
And rising he has saved us. Alleluia.”

‘Bats In the Belfry,’ by E.C.R. Lorac

Bats In the Belfry

A while back one of our kind commenters recommended books published by Poisoned Pen Press, which is reprinting old British mysteries. Working at random, as none of the authors were familiar to me, I settled on Bats In the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac (a pseudonym).

The book opens appropriately, with a drawing room party of cultured Londoners in the 1930s. There’s a once-famous novelist, his actress wife, a playwright, his minor female ward, and a young man who’s in love with her. The conversation wanders into the subject of murder fiction, with the various characters discussing good ways to dispose of a body. The young man also asks to marry the girl, and her guardian refuses to permit it.

Then the novelist leaves town and disappears completely. The young man, looking for clues to his whereabouts, searches an abandoned artist’s studio, where he finds the novelist’s suitcase.

At that point Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard takes up the investigation. He has as much trouble keeping the missing man’s friends from muddying up the case as in figuring out what actually happened.

Bats in the Belfry is a “fair play” mystery, in which all the necessary information is placed before the reader. This is the kind of classic “cozy” mystery that nearly defined the genre for a century. “Cozies” aren’t really my thing – I prefer the more character-driven hard-boiled variety of mystery. I think it’s a personality thing – the cozy provides many people with a fun intellectual challenge that entertains them. If you’re that kind of reader, you may enjoy Bats in the Belfry, and other classic offerings from this publisher.

No reader’s cautions necessary.

Watch for ‘Atlantic Crossing’

1944: Olav and Martha in America
In 1944: Left to Right: Crown Prince Olav, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, Eleanor Roosevelt, Crown Princess Martha, and Thomas J. Watson.

I don’t know how many readers of this blog are not also my friends on Facebook. If you’re one of those, you’ve gotten this news already. But if you’re not, I now have clearance to tell you about one of the translation projects I’ve been working on. It’s a miniseries called Atlantic Crossing, and shooting begins in December. Here’s a fresh article from Variety, announcing the casting of Kyle MacLachlan as President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The story is about the Norwegian royal family during World War II, focusing primarily on Crown Princess Martha, who was married to the future King Olav V of Norway, and mother to the current king, Harald.

After the German invasion, Crown Prince Olav and his father, King Haakon, fled into exile in England. Martha took the children to neutral Sweden, her native country, where her uncle was king. But the machinations of the Nazis there led her to make the “Atlantic crossing” to the U.S. There she was welcomed by President Roosevelt, already a friend. Roosevelt enjoyed her company very much – which gave her the opportunity influence him to assist the Allies while the U.S. was still neutral. Much of the drama of the series involves the way Martha, a shy woman, moved out of her “comfort zone” to champion the Allied cause.

The issue that will probably raise the most public interest, though, is the question of Martha’s exact relationship with FDR. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s marriage was well known to have been in name only, and Franklin loved the company of women. There are many rumors about affairs, and Martha is the subject of some of them. Continue reading Watch for ‘Atlantic Crossing’

In Praise of Men

Andrée Seu Peterson has assembled a few thankful words for men.

The best musical composers are men. The best art in our local Philadelphia Art Museum and Barnes Foundation is by men. The best writers are men. The best chefs are men. And to be honest, who wouldn’t rather watch men’s hockey than women’s hockey? In other words, everything that lifts the dreariness of life is by and large a man’s idea.

Men cut to the chase. (Except William Faulkner, who was wordy.)

We at Brandywine Books recognize the honesty in which this column was written and deny any hint of comic exaggeration.  Bully for us!

In other news, World offers their books of 2018, noting some changes in Christian publishing over the last several years.

‘The Pretender: Rebirth,” by Steven Long Mitchell & Craig W. Van Sickle

The Pretender: Rebirth

I was a huge fan of the old TV series, The Pretender, starring Michael T. Weiss. It was, I felt, a refreshing concept – on top of the old, familiar theme of the Imposter, one who “becomes” whatever he chooses to be and operates well enough to fool others, you have the theme of an adult male encountering the real world for the first time – childlishly delighted to discover the Three Stooges, or aerosol cheese, or Pez candy. The character of Jarod, a genius combining superior intelligence with naivety, was an invitation to us all to stop and appreciate the wonders that surround us. His quest to find his mother, from whom he’d been kidnapped by the sinister “Centre,” where he was raised as a guinea pig, reminded us of the importance of family.

But the show wasn’t well served by its production team. Each season, Jarod would discover a chain of clues leading to his true identity, and would follow them up, and then the next season that chain would be completely abandoned for another, frustrating the fans. The scripts began to lose track of the original series concept. The show died. There was an attempt to revive it on the TNT network, but that plot was another pointless detour, with uncalled-for mystical accretions.

So I was interested to see that the show’s original creators, Steven Long Mitchell and Craig W. Van Sickle, had come out with a couple new Pretender books. The first is The Pretender: Rebirth. I read it with considerable enjoyment, though it’s flawed.

As in the TV version, Jarod, the Pretender, has escaped the Centre. Jarod is a rare genius, a young man with quick learning and empathy skills that allow him to “become” anything he chooses to be, with just a little research. Pursuing him are Miss Parker, sort of like Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel with a harder edge, and Sydney, the scientist who monitored Jarod through childhood, helped him develop his gifts, and became his father-figure.

It’s not enough for Jarod to search for his own origins. He also helps people whenever he can. Here Jarod is intrigued by a news story about a boy who disappeared in a river after an auto accident. Jarod doesn’t believe the boy is dead, and he has a strong suspicion where he is – or at least who can tell him where he is. All he needs to do is become a surgeon overnight, ingratiate himself with a prominent doctor with a grandiosity complex, and spring someone from a mental ward. Continue reading ‘The Pretender: Rebirth,” by Steven Long Mitchell & Craig W. Van Sickle

Coffee Is a Slow Poison, Voltaire

Dear Quote Investigator: Coffee enthusiasts enjoy sharing an anecdote about Voltaire who savored the aromatic beverage throughout his life. The famous philosopher’s physician warned him that coffee was a slow poison. He replied, “Yes, it is a remarkably slow poison. I have been drinking it every day for more than seventy-five years”.

But did this exchange occur between Voltaire and his doctor or was it someone else and someone else’s doctor? What are the facts interfering with this story? The Quote Investigator spells it out.

‘Live Wire,’ by Harlan Coben

Live Wire

Another Harlan Coben novel, this time in his Myron Bolitar series. Myron is a sports, literary, and actors’ agent, and for some reason he keeps getting involved in investigating crimes. This one hits closer to home than most.

Live Wire begins with an appeal from “Suzze T,” a tennis star client married to a rock star. Suzze recently gave birth to a baby, and someone posted a comment on her Facebook page, saying that the baby is “not his.” Just a troll, you’d think, but now her husband has disappeared. Can Myron find him and bring him back?

As he investigates the husband’s last known movements, Myron gets a look at a night club closed circuit surveillance recording, and sees a familiar face – his sister-in-law, Kitty, also once a tennis star. Myron hasn’t seen Kitty or his brother in fifteen years. Myron didn’t trust her, and made accusations. The last time he saw his brother, he broke his nose. Now he wants nothing more than to see him again and apologize.

But Kitty is hard to find, and she has secrets. And then somebody dies, and the whole mystery plunges into a tangle of old and toxic secrets, while a ruthless killer lurks in the background. Of course Myron has his own dangerous weapon, in the person of his best friend, Win Lockwood.

Live Wire is in many ways a heartbreaking story, well told. Coben’s usual themes of loyalty and family love are front and center. LW also serves as a launching pad for Coben’s young adult mystery series starring Myron’s nephew Mickey Bolitar. Recommended.

‘Stay Close,’ by Harlan Coben

Stay Close

I reviewed a miniseries created by Harlan Coben a few days back, and so I decided to read a couple more Coben novels. Stay Close was the first. Although it doesn’t follow the usual template for a Coben stand-alone, it had all the familiar elements. And you won’t hear me complaining.

We start with Ray Levine, an Atlantic City photographer at the bottom of his profession. Once a promising photojournalist, a traumatic event several years ago left him adrift. Now he’s – not a paparazzo – but a fake paparazzo. He follows the customers around with a camera, trying to make them feel like big shots on important days in their lives.

And then he gets a glimpse of Megan Pierce. Ray was in love with Megan once, when she was a stripper he knew as “Cassie.” Megan is a suburban wife now, with a pretty good life. Only sometimes she misses the excitement of the old days. And when she makes a discreet visit to a bar where she used to dance, she gets some very dangerous people furiously trying to locate her.

Finally there’s Broome, an old detective trying to solve old mysteries. All of these people have theories about a particular missing persons case. All their theories are wrong. The truth will shock them and put their lives, and those of their loved ones, at risk.

Harlan Coben excels at creating layered, relatable characters. Even the bad guys are understandable, and sometimes almost sympathetic. Except for a couple characters in this book who seemed over the top to me. A sociopathic couple who work as a hit team, and are apparently Mormon missionaries (or something similar) in their off hours. I found them a little hard to swallow.

But the book was exciting – in fact it was one of those I had to take in small doses, because of the constant peril to innocent people – and the conclusion was satisfying. Recommended with the usual cautions.

Duty done

My great adventure in the judicial system is over. Turns out this week is perhaps the best week in the year to be called for jury duty. We pulled one jury panel out of our pool, and that was yesterday. Nada today. The powers that be (apparently) looked at the calendar, said, “Nobody’s gonna start a trial on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving,” and told us all we could go home, our obligations fulfilled. Saved the county our (minimal) pay. Happy hint: If you want to make a group of people very happy, hold them confined for two days, then let them go unexpectedly.

Here’s a cute feature – there are two ways of responding to a jury summons in these parts. You can report physically, as I and the others in our pool did, and sit around for a week waiting for your name to be called. Or… you can call in before the first day and asked to be placed on the “call list.” If you’re on the call list, all you have to do is call the courthouse the day before and ask if you’ll be needed the next day. If they tell you no, you’re free for the day.

Ah, but there’s a catch. A diabolical one, worthy of a Democratic Party county.

The term of service is two weeks. The people who turn up corporeally sit around for a week (if not empaneled) and usually get to go home after that first week.

On the second week, they summon the call-in people. Who therefore have to come in after all.

And next week the docket will be choked with cases they postponed for the holiday this week.

I chose… wisely.

Day one in the belly of the beast

I completed my first day of jury duty, and have survived to tell you about it. It was a day of much adventure – not in the task itself, which was a yawner, but in a peripheral matter, transportation.

Minneapolis has made a conscious decision to discourage automobiles. So I figured I’d take the bus. There was a time when I rode buses a lot – but that was in another age. I found that today they’re discouraging buses as much as cars – there are very few bus shelters with schedules posted downtown. What the Oligarchs want, I think, is for the masses to rise up and demand more light rail. They love light rail in Minneapolis – unsurpassed opportunities for graft.

It’s been a long time since I stood at a bus stop on a chilly street in Minneapolis, watching for a bus that might come in a minute or an hour – who knows?

But that was later. I had gone online and planned my trip into town. That trip went fine, except that I got off the bus too soon and had to walk a few blocks to get to the Hennepin County Government Center, which towers like a vertical peanut butter sandwich over downtown.

My day in the juror pool is quickly described. Mostly nothing. We sat in the assembly room, a large carpeted room full of circular tables. After a while a judge gave us a greeting. Then we waited some more. Then the jury manager gave us an orientation talk and showed us a film. Continue reading Day one in the belly of the beast

Netflix Review: ‘Safe’

Safe

Back in 2006, a French movie appeared, based on Harlan Coben’s novel Tell No One. I’ve seen it on Netflix. It’s a pretty good thriller. Coben says he agreed to sell the rights to the French company rather than taking an American offer, because the filmmakers understood the story – that it’s primarily a love story, not a mystery.

Although he takes his material overseas again (this time to England) for the miniseries Safe, available for viewing now on Netflix, I think it’s not as successful as the French movie. But it’s a pretty fair entertainment.

In spite of the uprooted location, Safe is a very recognizable Coben story. You’ve got a secure (in this case gated) upper middle-class suburban community, where neighbors are friends and everybody knows everybody’s business (or thinks they do). You’ve got a family friend who tells some of the kids that if they ever need a designated driver, call him night or day – no questions, no snitching to the parents. You’ve got a teenagers’ party that gets out of hand – a boy drowns. Then a girl disappears. Then the clues lead back to very old, buried secrets.

American actor Michael C. Hall plays Dr. Tom Delaney, widowed father of the missing girl. (His English accent sounds OK to me, but apparently the actual English have laughed at it.) His relationship with his daughter Jenny (Amy James-Kelly) has been strained, since her mother’s death from cancer. He desperately tries to trace Jenny’s movements on the night of the party, assisted by his best friend, a gay doctor, and his girlfriend, a police detective. Clues lead to drug dealing, concealment of a body, and a guilty secret shared by members of the close-knit community.

I found the solution, and the Big Surprise that followed it, a little improbable and forced. However, the series as a whole was compelling and I enjoyed it. Cautions for mature themes and a few obscenities.

‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight here! This is the war room!’

In my new life working from home, I’ve found I need background noise. I don’t generally work in silence. I need music at least. Talk radio can be better, depending on the show. Most of all I kind of prefer some kind of TV in the room. I think that’s because my intellect is so dizzying that focused concentration on just one thing would burn out my cerebral cortex. Or something.

Anyway, the H&I channel currently runs an interesting block of programming from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Central Time. They give you 9 hours of a single series on each weekday. Mondays are Nash Bridges, Tuesdays House, Wednesdays JAG, Thursdays Monk, and Fridays Numbers.

Of those five, I only really like House and Monk. Stories about damaged problem-solvers. Can’t imagine why.

I tolerate JAG, most of the time. I like its patriotism and pro-military bias. But from the first it was sexually egalitarian, which annoys me.

For instance. Continue reading ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight here! This is the war room!’

Book Reviews, Creative Culture