Happy Lindsifarne Day!

Lindisfarne Raid, A. K. Rue
Painting of the Lindisfarne Raid by Anders Kvåle Rue. Mr. Rue did not illustrate Viking Legacy, but he works with Saga Bok, the publisher.

I was surprised today to find that fate, or Wyrd, or Providence, had provided me with a perfect excuse to further flog the book Viking Legacy, by Torgrim Titlestad (have I mentioned that I’m the translator?) It turns out that today is the 1,225th anniversary of the fabled Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne, in northern England. Though there’s some dispute on the point, that raid is generally calculated as the kick-off of the Viking Age.

The cause of that raid is an issue Viking Legacy addresses. Professor Titlestad champions (though he doesn’t entirely insist on it) the theory that this raid may have been a preemptive strike, a demonstration meant to send a message to the Emperor Charlemagne. Charlemagne was in the process of brutally subduing the Saxon tribes of northern Germany at the time, and was employing force (including massacre and deportation) to compel them to adopt Christianity. The preemption theory suggests that the Scandinavians, who had good communications and well understood that they’d be next on the agenda for invasion, sacked Lindisfarne (the place where much of Charlemagne’s bureaucracy had been trained) to demonstrate that if Charlemagne wanted Holy War, they could play that game too. From the book:

At the same time, the Vikings plundered goods and gold – as was customary in wars of conquest in those days. By this means, consciously or not, they demonstrated to Charlemagne that an attack on Scandinavia would mean bleeding his own kingdom dry – from the maritime side. If any Norwegian chieftains in the 790s remained undecided whether to leap into this new contest of strength, the vulnerability of the Franks had now been revealed. There was no little glory to be gained in beating down the legendary military might of Charlemagne. Honour achieved in battle meant more to Scandinavians than goods and gold – though gold was nothing to sneeze at.

These violent onslaughts from the sea left Continental potentates in no doubt about the significance of sea power and navigation, something for which they were unprepared. Charlemagne had grounds to fear them. His armies were not trained for defensive war….

Solzhenitsyn: Speaking the Truth as a Friend

Jeff Groom summarizes the great Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s speech to Harvard forty years ago today in this article along with a video of the whole: 40 Years Ago Today: When Solzhenitsyn Schooled Harvard.

“Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of,” Solzhenitsyn said, “everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames.”

Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and in such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the debased sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. (In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to this end imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to carefully conceal such feelings. This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development.)

Groom writes, “In the pre-modern worldview that ended with the Renaissance, mankind was inherently evil and had to be made better. But following these harsh times, he noted, ‘we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal.’”

‘The Whispering Room,’ by Dean Koontz

The Whispering Room

Those chosen for elimination were on what the conspirators called “the Hamlet list,” a fact Jane had learned from one of the two men she’d killed in self-defense the previous week. With the self-righteous air of a politician justifying graft as a form of social justice, he had explained that if someone had killed Hamlet in the first act of Shakespeare’s play, more people would have been alive at the end. They seemed really to believe that this ignorant literary interpretation justified the murder of 8,400 people a year.

I haven’t made a secret of my dislike for “Rambette” stories, where tiny little women run around beating up big, bad guys in the manner of Sly Stallone. However, I’m willing to cut Dean Koontz some slack, because he’s Dean Koontz and his work delights me. I enjoyed the first book in the Jane Hawk series, The Silent Corner, and The Whispering Room is equally good.

In a Minnesota town, a sweet, beloved teacher of children with learning disabilities kills herself in a horrific act of terrorism. The town sheriff, Luther Tillman, grows suspicious when federal agents sweep in to handle the investigation and put out information he knows to be false. His decision to investigate further will put him – and his family – in mortal danger. And worse.

Meanwhile Jane Hawk, our heroine, a former FBI agent and now the FBI’s most wanted fugitive, continues her quest to find and unmask the leaders of a nation-wide conspiracy aiming to kill off people who might alter history in the “wrong” way, and to create an army of brain-controlled automatons. She must travel in disguise, deal with criminals, and keep on the move to retain her freedom and her hope – and to protect her son, who is in the conspiracy’s sights.

I can find nothing to criticize in the storytelling in The Whispering Room. The tension is almost unbearable, the action (generally) plausible, the characters interesting. I particularly love how author Koontz finds ways to remind us that, even in the most perilous times, there is still goodness in the world.

Cautions for violence and language. Highly recommended.

Meditation at an intersection

Stoplight
Photo credit: Tim Gouw

There’s a large intersection close to my house. I use it every time I drive to work.

It’s a long light. A long, long, long light. Interminable.

Tonight I pulled to a stop just as it turned red, and I thought I’d time that unbearable light.

It held me up for a whole one minute and forty-five seconds.

Years ago there was a line in a novel I read – I think it was by Donald E. Westlake – where the narrator noted that a particular awful stoplight delayed him an “excruciating” forty-five seconds.

We’re kind of spoiled, you know? I live in constant, low-level fear that Divine Justice will teach me a real lesson in patience someday.

How Erling Skjalgsson helped to protect England

Viking Legacy

The publishers of Viking Legacy (which, in case I forgot to mention it, I translated), are pleased with the sales results of my article at The American Spectator Online yesterday (see below). So I thought I’d share a snippet of the book tonight. I chose this excerpt pretty much at random, except that I made a point of finding one concerning Erling Skjalgsson. This one deals with an aspect of Erling’s relationship with King Olaf Trygvesson that never occurred to me when I wrote The Year of the Warrior. It starts by discussing Olaf’s treaty with King Ethelred the Unready of England, entered into before he left for Norway. This treaty is documented (you can read it in the book), and it involves, among other things, a promise by Olaf to restrain Norwegian raiding in England.

When Olav returned to Norway in 995, he lacked the necessary authority to convince the chieftains of western Norway to abandon their traditional plundering economy, based on raids in England. Plunder was an important source of income for the communities of western Norway. Only Erling Skjalgsson, as the foremost chieftain of the Gula Thing, had the power to enforce Olav’s agreement so far as the people of western Norway were concerned. Erling was thus the key to Olav’s hopes of maintaining a positive and enduring relationship with England. But Erling in his turn would have to make sure of the other chieftains’ support. It would have been no easy task for him to keep his followers on a leash in order to guarantee Olav’s English agreement. Breaking off the raids in England would deprive the great men of part of their economic and political base.

For that reason Olav had to have some means of substantially compensating the people of western Norway if he was to persuade them to leave England in peace. He had procured the economic means to do this – among other things tons of silver, including what he had plundered himself. It is nearly impossible to estimate what Olav’s entire fortune would have been worth in today’s money, but we can assume that Olav Tryggvason in 996 was the richest man in Norway. Olav would have used these financial resources to woo the chieftains – while expounding the terms of his agreement with King Ethelred….

It was in Olav’s interest to avoid war with the inhabitants of western Norway. The terrain was difficult to control, with numberless fjords and mountains. Olav was effectively a foreigner in Norway. The people of western Norway would have been capable of setting a number of traps to defend their region, and it goes without saying that Erling’s willing cooperation was crucial to Olav. With Erling at his side as a loyal ally, the nation-building project would be much simpler than if he were a hostile or half-hearted vassal. He could hardly hope for a more influential collaborator.

Prospects for trade with England may also have played a part in the debate. Nor could Olav have been stingy when it came to the question of his sister’s [Erling’s wife’s lw] dowry. Miserliness in this matter would have weakened his reputation as a trustworthy man, and so Astrid must have brought a tidy sum of English silver into the marriage. This would have increased Erling’s fortune, as well as his influence, considerably.

For your Spectation

I have another article in The American Spectator today. I was nervous about writing about Viking Legacy, the book I translated, but editor Wlady Pleszczynski took pity and me and stretched a point.

In time I was delighted to discover a Norwegian historian whose thinking ran very much along the same lines — Professor Torgrim Titlestad, now retired, but then on the faculty of the University of Stavanger. A local historian in Stavanger put me in contact with him, which led eventually to his hiring me to translate his Norwegian book, Norge i Vikingtid (Norway in the Viking Age)…

I heard from Prof. Titlestad’s son, who liked the article, but gave me an additional piece of information I wish I’d known. Prof. Titlestad didn’t retire from the University of Stavanger. He resigned in protest against changes made in the history curriculum. He now works full time with The Saga Heritage Foundation, which he founded to combat the current rush toward historical amnesia.

In-tents living

Lars Walker's Viking tent

Yesterday was Danish Day at the Danish-American Center in Minneapolis, and the Vikings were there. It was a sort of debut for the Viking tent I recently bought (and re-painted), pictured above. It’s actually been used before, at the Festival of Nations in St. Paul, but I just lent the tent for use and didn’t participate in that myself. I hadn’t seen it assembled and in its glory till yesterday. And I’m pleased. I suppose I’ve overdone the red and gold color scheme, but it’s eye-catching and our group needs to attract some attention. Besides, I like red and gold.

It was an intense day for me. There were strangers to meet and interact with, which is always a little stressing. I got to show group members Viking Legacy, the book I translated. I think some of them may have wondered if it actually exists, after all these years I’ve told them it was coming, but yesterday I was vindicated. And I did a little sword fighting.

The day before I’d commented on how well I was feeling, compared to a year ago. Which is true. I’ve gradually upped my exercise, and I’ve dropped a little weight. However, a day of playing Viking is a lot for an old man. Today I was stumbling around, bumping into things, dropping things, and knocking things over. I’d gotten plenty of sleep (in fact I overslept), but there’s only so much gas in the tank, these days.

Still. Pretty tent, isn’t it?

‘Wrongly Convicted,’ by P. F. Ford

Wrongly Accused

P. F. Ford’s Slater and Norman series has been reading candy for me for some time now. The books are not demanding, but they’re cheerful and likable. The previous book in the series showed signs of a rushed release. Wrongly Convicted was better.

Former police detective Dave Slater comes back to England from a vacation in Thailand and decides to join his friend Norman Norman in his private detective agency. Business isn’t quite booming, so they’re happy to be approached by a woman whose husband was convicted ten years before of murdering another woman. She is convinced he’s innocent, but her source of information is dead. Now she asks them to find the real murderer.

It’s a feature (or bug) of this series that secondary characters tend to change in serious ways between books. This time out, Slater’s girlfriend “Watson,” who went with him to Thailand, turns out to be something he never suspected. The police come to question him after the car he loaned her turns up demolished by a bomb.

Wrongly Convicted isn’t top-tier fiction, but I liked it and always enjoy a new release in the series. I thought the conclusion was a little artificial, but not enough to complain about in terms of the genre. Only minor cautions for adult themes.

Reading report: ‘Macbeth,’ by Jo Nesbo

Macbeth

My feelings about “Scandinavian Noir” are pretty well established. With rare exceptions, I dislike the genre. I find it nihilistic and depressing.

But I’ve read a couple of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole books all the way through. And when I saw that he’d written an updated version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in the police force of a fictional Scottish city, I thought it was an interesting concept, and bought the book.

Alas.

I’d only gotten a fifth of the way through when I noticed I was approaching my reading with dread. This was a journey I didn’t really want to take.

The pleasure of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play,” (as we “actors” call it), is largely in being able to hate Macbeth almost from the start. He’s pretty one-dimensional, and you look forward to seeing MacDuff lay on against him.

Macbeth here is the leader of a SWAT team when the book starts, a pretty admirable guy. He has a couple serious flaws, though, and it’s easy to see how he could be corrupted.

I felt like I knew what was going to happen, and I didn’t think there’d be much enjoyment in it. There was no pleasure here. No moments of lightness. So I put it aside.

It’s well written, and if this is your cup of tea, you’re likely to enjoy it. Cautions for adult material.

‘A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far,’ by Mark W. Sasse

A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far

“Are you real or am I hallucinating?”

She laughed hysterically at that question. “I could ask you the same question. You’ve lived your life like a fictitious person.”

A sort of a cross between A Christmas Carol and Winter’s Tale. That’s what comes to mind in trying to describe Mark W. Sasse’s A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far. The book is more complicated than Dickens’ book, and less brilliant than Helprin’s (but what isn’t?). But it’s that sort of thing. Kind of.

Francis Frick is a 72-year-old banker, and a harder man than Ebenezer Scrooge. He happily does business with arms dealers who supply some of the world’s worst despots. He has no friends, terrorizes his employees, and treats his unmarried daughter with coldness and insult.

It all begins to change one night when he discovers a small, bright, laughing creature – something like an angel or a fairy – hovering over his bed, eating a pomegranate. Her name is Bee. Francis refuses to believe in her until she transports him to a desert island. It’s beautiful there, but there’s nothing for him to eat or drink. His suffering is real enough.

This kicks off a series of transportations (some of them quite disturbing), in which he gets to see the consequences of his amoral actions in the world. A desire begins to grow in him to make up for his sins as best he can – but has no idea how. Doing good is outside his expertise. Bee, and her ominous guardian Ash, exhort him to find something “that doesn’t matter.” That’s the key. It all leads to an explosive climax.

It’s hard to evaluate an idiosyncratic book like A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far. It’s the beginning of a trilogy, so a lot of things remain unexplained. We don’t learn clearly what sort of creatures Bee and Ash are, and what their purpose is. This might even be a Christian book (Sasse is a well-known last name in American Lutheran theology), but I’m not sure.

But the book was fascinating, easy to read, and enjoyable. I look forward to reading more. Recommended.

‘Married Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Married Lies

Number five in the Detective Tom Mariner series of police procedurals by Chris Collett, set in Birmingham, England. In Married Lies, a wealthy and well-liked woman is found dead in her house, poisoned in a particularly cruel way. And another woman contacts the police about a stalker. There have been strange phone calls and unrequested packages in the mail, and she’s sure someone has been following her home at night.

Tom Mariner works the murder case, though he’s still reeling emotionally from the break-up of his relationship with a very good woman who finally ran out of patience. He assigns his subordinate Millie Khatoon to the stalking case. Both cases gradually converge, and the end of the book is a real shocker.

I enjoy the Tom Mariner books, and this may have been the best so far (though the ending was disturbing). But I’m stymied in reading the series, since books #6 and #7 are only available in dead tree form, while #8, the most recent, is available for Kindle. I don’t want to jump ahead, so I guess I’ll wait for the intervening books in ebook form, before going on to #8.

Cautions for intense situations and language.

Publishing news

The Year of the Warrior
The beloved old cover.

Had a very nice moment on Facebook today. One of my readers posted a list of novels that affected his life, and The Year of the Warrior was at the top of the list. He said, “Each of these moved me spiritually and intellectually. I connected with the characters and the story surrounding them, and finished the book feeling emotionally deeper in my understanding of the world and others.”

Mark Twain said something along the lines of “I can live a whole month off a good compliment.” I think my food budget should be covered for most of June.

In a related matter, I guess I’ll mention that I’ve decided to bring out paperback versions of some of my novels through Create Space. (Actually Ori Pomerantz is doing the real work.) I’m starting with The Year of the Warrior, because then I’ll be able to sell it along with West Oversea at Viking events and have them in sequence. Hailstone Mountain should come later.

The e-book of TYOTW is published by Baen, but it turns out I have full rights to publish a palpable version. Can’t use Baen’s cover though, so our friend Jeremiah Humphries is working on a new one.

Oh yes, don’t forget that Viking Legacy, the book I translated, is now available!

A Few Words on the End of Time, Inc.

Meredith, the publisher behind Southern Living, Better Homes & Gardens, People, SI, Real Simple, and a host of other lifestyle magazines, has purchased Time, Inc. for a few Manhattan dinners shy of $3 billion. The NY Times has an oral history, and I think we might have had an awful time working there, not that I would have ever been hired to begin with. (via Prufrock News)

Albert Kim: “It was very clear that the internet was going to be a huge part of the future of media. But for most of the time I was there, people treated it as a nuisance. It was a problem to be solved, not an opportunity.”

Bethany McLean: “I remember sitting next to Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of Time Warner, at an internal Time Inc. event that was celebrating journalists. And he asked what I had done before Fortune, and I said, ‘Oh, I worked at Goldman.’ And he looked at me like, why would I leave that to do this? And I thought, Uh-oh, it’s over.”

Are There No Real Quests Anymore?

In those days, I was restless without a book in my hands, without the hope of some new story around every turn to enliven my deadening senses. Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t want a truck or a job or a scholarship; I wanted a horse and a quest and a buried treasure. But there were no real quests anymore. Not in my town.

Andrew Peterson describes his love of fantasy and science fiction as a kid, how that called him out of himself, and what the Lord did with it in his life.

I looked out her window and saw crabgrass, old trucks, clouds of mosquitoes, and gravel roads, a rural slowth that drawled, “Here’s your life, son. Make do.” But my books said, “Here’s a sword, lad. Get busy.” A persistent fear sizzled in my heart, a fear that there existed no real adventure other than the one on the page, and that I was doomed never to know it.

Peterson’s website, The Rabbit Room, is a wealth of imaginative writing, talking, and singing.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture