Big Men’s Boots, by Emily Barroso

Prayer is like that fire causing the pot to boil. God does nothing unless we pray. He has chosen us to be his co-workers on the earth. Prayer moves His divine hand. You need to remember to listen to what God is saying when you pray–he gets bored with lists. If you listen He will talk back.

What drew me to start reading Big Men’s Boots was the setting of the Welsh revival in 1904-05. What could be more exciting on its face than a historic outpour of the Holy Spirit?

According to Barroso, Wales was primed for change. English landowners clashed with common Welshmen on every front. Labor unions were taking up arms. Welsh Nonconformists chafed against Anglicans, who spoke another language and seemed to have all of the power. Would rising up against the English businessmen bring equality and justice to the Welsh, or would it drive all jobs out of the country?

The story begins with three men praying over the body of a young man who had passed away three days prior. They hold nothing back in urging God to act, even calling the boy to rise in Christ’s name, believing their earnest faith will produce the miracle they require. Outside the window, the boy’s friend Owen Evans, 13, also prays. The whole community must reckon with their grief and what they believe as social trouble begins to brew. Owen’s growing faith and what appears to be a prophetic gift frame up the rest of the story.

I want to praise this book and recommend it without reservation. That’s what I want to do with every book. But I have to be honest and say I didn’t finish reading it. Because I didn’t finish it, I delayed reviewing it until now. It feels overly long. Historical novels have their own pace as do readers. Perhaps you would enjoy it more than I did.

The Tree of Christmas Past

This photo comes from the Walker family collection. Theoretically, it should be easy to guess the year, because there’s a calendar right there. But my scan doesn’t have enough resolution. I could consult a perpetual calendar too, but that sounds like too much work. It’s probably the ’30s or ’40s. Certainly well before I was born. My guess would be the ’40s, because I don’t imagine there was money for so many presents in the ’30s. Though it was a large family, and this probably works out to one for each member.

This was the “old parlor” in the house where I grew up. In my time we just called it the living room. The first Christmas tree I remember stood in that very spot, though I recall that one as being somewhat taller and fuller. Later, Dad would knock out a wall and we moved the tree to a different location. I think that carpet was still there when I was very young, and possibly that sad sofa. But we had different curtains by then. They were heavy, and printed with Grandma Moses scenes.

The house burned to the ground in 1986.

How Americans Got Christmas

Christianity Today has a series of posts pulling back the curtain on Christmas concepts and traditions. W. David O. Taylor describes the debauchery of 17th century Christmas celebrations, how Puritan leaders outlawed Christmas all together, and the influences that brought it shaped what we celebrate today.

One of those influences was Queen Victoria, who shared her family traditions with the world just as Christmas was beginning to be accepted again in America. (Alabama was the first state to make it legal in 1836.)

As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum summarizes things in The Battle for Christmas, what was once marked by liturgical celebrations at church and festivities in the village, revolving around public rituals and civic activities, eventually turned into a domestic affair, revolving around a children-centric holiday, marked by extravagant gift-giving and, in time, commercial-oriented activities.

Tom Flynn in The Trouble with Christmas adds this remarkable fact: “[It is] surprising how small a role the churches played in the Victorian revival. From its inception, contemporary Christmas was primarily a secular and commercial holiday. The parsons were as surprised as anyone else when after a century-long hiatus, the pews started filling up again on Christmas morning.”

Add to this Dickens giving us the Spirit of Christmas instead of the Spirit of Christ and various artists portraying St. Nicholas as a secular toymaker.

Photo by Jessica Lewis/Pexels

‘Missing Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Sorry I didn’t post the last couple nights. I was having trouble with myinternet connection. Still not sure the problem is solved. It seems to work fine in the mornings, but in the evenings it freezes up like an old man’s knees.

My plan was to review another Inspector Mariner mystery, byChris Collett. Missing Lies is the seventh book in the series, concerning abachelor police detective in Birmingham, England.

In the previous book, Tom Mariner became the guardian of anadult autistic man. This gives author Chris Collett (who is a woman) a chanceto teach him a lesson about what working mothers go through. (Personally,unreconstructed Victorian that I am, I think it just proves that mothers shouldstay at home, if they can). Anyway, Mariner now has to structure his lifearound his dependent, and it’s an annoyance and an education – through it hasits satisfactions too. On top of this, his most valuable subordinate, a newmother, is on maternity leave, and his second most valuable, a man, is on aspecial assignment. Another male subordinate appears to be less than diligentat his work – but is doing more than Mariner thinks (this character, interestingly,is a born-again Christian). A new member of the team, very promising, is yet another single mother.

In Missing Lies, a young woman, daughter of a prominent citizen, has disappeared. She started out along a city street to a party and never arrived at her destination. The case gets headlines, and corresponding pressure from superiors. Then a package arrives at police headquarters, containing most of the young woman’s clothing, all meticulously laundered and pressed.

Then another woman disappears. And another package arrives.

The mystery will spread far afield, and then spiral back in close to home.

I liked Missing Lies. Mariner is a solid character,believably solitary, carrying old scars. He is skittish withrelationships, but we are given reasons to understand him.

Recommended, with only minor cautions for what you’d expect.

Unable to refuse Babette’s Feast

Luminously realistic and profoundly intricate, Dinesen’s stories all celebrate physicality as something deeply spiritual. “Babette’s Feast” does so in excelsis. In style it is stark but shining; in plot it is unpretentious—indeed nothing more than one long anecdote—but also a complex interweaving of characters and years. A simple story about a dinner, it is also an expansive story about the interplay of art, time, destiny, failure, and gratitude. What is more, it is a tiny masterpiece of grace.

Leta Sundet writes of the powerful grace in Isak Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast.” 

‘Buried Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Continuing the DI Tom Mariner police procedural series by Chris Collett. This story takes Mariner out of his usual haunts in Birmingham, to a more rustic setting.

At the end of the previous novel in the series, Married Lies, Tom Mariner suffered a shocking personal loss. When Buried Lies begins, he has decided to take a holiday – a walking tour in the Welsh mountains. Back in his teens, he spent a summer in a village there, and he thinks he’ll revisit some old scenes.

At the same time, an ex-prisoner begins a series of revenge killings, repaying old “wrongs.” Everyone thinks he’s headed for Ireland, but in fact he’s on his way to Wales.

Driving to Wales, Mariner picks up a hitchhiker, a personable elderly academic who doesn’t seem to know much about walking tours. By chance they reconnect in Mariner’s destination village, where they share a room in a former youth hostel, owned by a woman who was Mariner’s girlfriend on that long-ago summer.

Meanwhile, Mariner comes across a murdered body on one of his hikes. And he grows curious about a local estate owned by a mysterious Russian, as well as a neighboring farm which claims to be growing organic vegetables(though Mariner can’t figure out how they’re paying the bills). When Mariner discovers yet another murder victim, the local police have no choice but to arrest him on suspicion.

I enjoyed Buried Lies, though I thought it tried to juggle too many balls at once. The final dramatic climax seemed a little contrived.

Still, Mariner is an interesting and admirable investigator, and the characters were interesting. Recommended with only minor cautions.

‘Lost and Found in the Cosmos’

These stories [by Lovecraft] end in suicide, madness, or, as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a disturbing acquiescence. Given the Darwinian undertones, what else could one do but acquiesce? You are what you are, and that’s the end of it.

But for Lewis, there is reason for hope. Reality comes with an “upper story,” and while we are embodied souls, we are souls above all. It is to our souls that Lewis makes his appeal. He wants us to look in horror upon our inner monster, but unlike Lovecraft, he does not want us to die. He wants us to turn to Aslan and live.

At Touchstone, C. R. Wiley analyzes the different ways in which two near-contemporaries, H. P. Lovecraft and C. S. Lewis, approached the mysteries of the universe in their imaginative fiction. This article precisely mirrors my own opinions, and is therefore a marvel of reason.

(Tip: My friend Kit Johnson.)

A Rising Shame Culture

Perhaps the most poisonous aspect of current media culture is how it facilitates our impulses to condemn and shame others. Whether by open letter or twitter storm, some of us wake up primed to take a stand against some unthinkable person somewhere. Any accusation is credible without need of investigation. Any social post is up for scrutiny, no matter the age of the poster at the time. Consider our virtue signaled.

Helen Andrews reviews a shameful public incident that has followed her for years in this essay in First Things. Her story is grueling, but there are many more, allowing us to see a pattern.

At the risk of insulting the reader: No one actually believed Williamson was a threat to his female colleagues. It was only a pretext for what was really an exercise in raw power. People made the same kind of excuses when it was my turn in the dunk tank. Again and again, I read commenters insisting that what might at first glance appear to be prurient gossip was, in fact, fair political commentary, because I was a family-values scold and thus open to charges of hypocrisy, or because I was a hard-core Randian who needed a lesson in the dog-eat-dog heartlessness advocated by my idol. As far as I can tell, these characterizations were extrapolated from the fact that I worked at National Review. Certainly, they had no basis in anything I’d written (an Objectivist, really?).

The truth does not matter in the shame storm–only what can beat down the victim.

What solution is there? Look at what Jared Wilson posted today: “Christian, the Lord knows you are not an asset to the organization. He knows what a tangled-up knot of anxiety, incompetence, and faithlessness you are. He knows exactly what a big fat sinner you are. He knew exactly what he was getting into.”

Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

A Blessing on Mother

In one of our old books, which was handed down from four generations ago, I found several newspaper clippings–a couple obituaries, an announcement of new officers to a Presbyterian organization, an ad for hearing aids, and a curious poetic blessing on mothers. The only credit is to Harper’s Magazine.

It looks like the kind of folklore people would pass around and think nothing of preserving, because that would be a kin to preserving grass. We assume such things will be around forever. A generation goes by, and maybe someone asks, “Do you remember that thing we used to say? It was so good.” But no one remembers. And maybe it wasn’t actually good.

They were words of their time, spoken like all words with dissipating breath.

I found it on a page scanned from a March 1877 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine with a bit of explanation not included in my paper clipping.

The following was recently written and sent by a distinguished clergyman to his mother. It was sent on a postal card:

    Dear Mother —
    From sweet Isaiah’s sacred song, chapter 9 and verse 6
    First 13 words please take and then the following affix;
    From Genesis the 35th, verse 17, no more.
    Then add verse 26 of Kings, book 2nd, chapter 4.
    The last two verses, chapter 1, 1st book of Samuel
    And you will learn what on this day your loving son befell.

Deciphering this from the King James, we read this.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”

“And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also.”

“Run now, I pray thee, to meet her, and say unto her, Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child? And she answered, It is well:”

“For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him:  Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord. And he worshipped the Lord there.”

Keep the change

I’m reading slowly right now – lots of translating work to do. Here’s a personal challenge – even when I actually have plenty of time to finish a translation project, I tend to treat it as if I have a deadline looming. Which makes me neglect other important things (like reading books to review). There must be an adjective to describe such a condition. Oh yes, it’s called “obsessive-compulsive.”

I know how much you look forward to my semi-annual reports on dentist visits. Well, you’re in luck, because I just got back from the dentist.  And be prepared for High Drama!!!!!!!

OK, not exactly drama. Change. I have a new dentist.

My old dentist, unbeknownst to me, suffered from a chronic lung condition. He had some kind of crisis, I learned, and decided to move to Texas. He left his practice in the hands of an old classmate, and so I had to go to a new place.

“I’m not sure I’m prepared for a change of dentist at my time of life,” to paraphrase Saki.

New office. Different parking situation. And I had to fill out all the paperwork anew.

Why must I suffer so?

I also had a small cavity, which I’ll have to get filled in a few weeks.

My great sorrow was that I lost my Dental Hygienist. The old DH was a genuine beauty, a vision of feminine loveliness whose hands I looked forward to having in my mouth every June and December. The changeover announcement said that the staff had transferred along with the practice, but I think that was hype. The new DH was very nice, and perfectly solicitous of me. But she wasn’t Heather… or Denise… or whatever the old girl’s name was. No doubt she’s been snapped up by some high-end practice in Edina.

I see no consolation anywhere about me. Except chocolate.

(I apologize for the run-together words in tonight’s post. We have a new posting system at WordPress and it’s driving me nuts.)

New Cambridge Fellow focus of Academics’ outrage

A new research fellow at St Edmund’s College of Cambridge has riled 300+ professors who think he earned the position unethically. The Guardian offers a review of the complaints, which are not based on what Noah Carl has actually written but on characterizations of his research. 

“A careful consideration of Carl’s published work and public stance on various issues, particularly on the relationship between race and ‘genetic intelligence’, leads us to the unambiguous conclusion that his research is ethically suspect and methodologically flawed,” states the letter, which is signed by seven Cambridge professors and more than 700 other academics.

If Carl’s work has been carefully considered, then citing offending arguments and data shouldn’t be a problem. But when Quillette Magazine reviewed the work, they found nothing that aligned with the complaints. They asked one of the signatories to spell out his complaint and received a broad assertion that certain concepts have “at best questionable scientific validity” and cannot be taken in stride by anyone. Again Quillette couldn’t find these concepts in Carl’s work and are arguing for the public rebuke of the professors who appear to have signed a letter grounded in nothing by hearsay.

“Accusing a young scholar of ‘psuedoscientific racism,’ and claiming his work is ‘ethically suspect’ and ‘methodologically flawed,’ is not something that should be done lightly, given the likely impact on his career,” Quillette editors write. “Anyone who cares about intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity should join us in denouncing this witch-hunt.”

They asked many other academics for comment and received responses like this from Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University Stern School of Business

Greg Lukianoff and I open chapter 5 of The Coddling of the American Mindwith a Durkheimian analysis of witch hunts. It works beautifully to explain the otherwise inexplicable and shameful open letter denouncing Rebecca Tuvel and calling for the retraction of a philosophy article that hardly any of the hundreds of signatories had read. That whole affair was an embarrassment for the academy and those who signed the open letter. Here we go again. If hundreds of professors think that Noah Carl conducts bad science, let them make the case, with quotations and citations. The “open letter” denouncing Carl is just a list of vague assertions and charges of guilt by association. If the signers think we should condemn anyone who gives ammunition to “extremist and far right media,” they should write a new letter condemning themselves.

Maybe the review process proposed by Susan Harlan in “A Poem About Your University’s New and Totally Not Time-wasting Review Process for Tenure and Promotion,” would help curtail these open letters. While a mob of professors is not funny, this is.

‘Debris Line,’ by Matthew FitzSimmons

A quarter mile from the Faro Airport, the old hotel seemed like a last-ditch option for those on a budget holiday. It rose out of the ground and sloped sleepily to one side. Jenn felt sure that if God reached down, he’d be able to wiggle the hotel back and forth like a loose tooth.

Another installment in Matthew FitzSimmons’s interesting Gibson Vaughn series of thrillers, which I’m enjoying. My only problem (and it’s not confined to this series) is that the books come out slowly enough that I have to get reacquainted with the characters each time around. (Yes, I know –physician heal thyself.)

Gibson Vaughn started the series as a kind of a loner. As a boy, he was arrested for hacking into a prominent senator’s computer. Soon after that his father, who worked for the senator, was found hanged to death – supposedly suicide, but it wasn’t. Vaughn avoided prison thanks to a kindly judge who got him enlisted in the military instead, and he ended up a trained commando with hacking skills. Since then, over the course of the books, he’s gotten attached to a disparate group of dangerous people – George, a Japanese man who used to be their boss, when he still had a company. Daniel, a middle-aged, black former cop. And Jenn, a kick-butt operative with whom Gibson carries on an on-and-off relationship.

As Debris Line begins, the group is in hiding from federal authorities. They’re hiding in the Algarve, the Riviera of Portugal. Their host and protector is an old friend of George’s, the “godfather” of the Algarve. When drugs were legalized in Portugal some years back, this man consolidated organized crime in his region, making it a way station for Mexican cartel drug shipments, and establishing peace in his own bailiwick.

But now the godfather wants a favor in return for his hospitality. Someone has electronically “hijacked” a shipment of drugs, and he needs it freed up before the deadline for delivery to the Mexicans. Gibson’s skills are needed to retrieve the shipment. Gibson has no desire to help, but mobsters are still mobsters, and pressure is applied. Gibson agrees, reluctantly, to help. Then he discovers a horrific secret – and the job becomes a mission of mercy and rescue – and justice.

What’s particularly nice about Debris Line is that there’s no predictability here. Decisions and actions come out of left and right field, and it’s hard to tell what anyone will do. When you think you’ve got a character figured out, they surprise you – though their behavior makes perfect sense once it’s explained.

I enjoyed Debris Line. Cautions for language and disturbing content, but recommended.

“Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld”

Here’s Sissel singing the most famous Norwegian Christmas carol — Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld. Generations of Norwegian-American kids have learned it by rote and sung it for church programs. As did I.

The art here is not really appropriate. It’s not a Santa song. It uses the lighting of the Christmas tree to meditate on the wonder of the Incarnation of Christ. The child sings that he/she loves Christmas because of Jesus.

Here’s the words in English

New Collection of Epstein Essays

Following up on yesterday’s post about expanding book coverage of a likely political nature, we have word of a new collection of essays from Joseph Epstein: The Ideal of Culture. Jonathan Leaf praises it and the man who created it.

Epstein is very much of the opinion that possession of Culture—with the capital C—is a lifelong endeavor that enriches daily life and reflects both inculcation and determined striving.

. . . Nonetheless, the book’s publication is unlikely to be noted in the most celebrated organs of commentary. That is because, in today’s thought-policed intellectual world, Epstein is probably best known for having defied the politically correct authorities.

Who’s organizing the raising of a monument for this man?

Book Reviews, Creative Culture