Miłosz: “All I Wanted Was to Get Out”

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died. (from “Campo dei Fiori“)

His biographer notes his depression, even at least one moment of despair.

Half a deadpan paragraph treats as more or less normal the moment when Miłosz swallowed a quantity of vodka, loaded a revolver with a single bullet, and played Russian roulette. Graham Greene, a not-so-dissimilar character, also gave way to this particular form of nihilism—or is it vanity? . . .

The Sovietization of Poland was bound to be fraught with moral choices that would lead either to reward or to punishment, possibly a concentration camp and death. . . . Once he was in the West, Miłosz himself was to observe, “All I wanted was to get out, and see what would happen next,” accepting that this amounted to making “a pact with the devil.”

‘Pride and Predator,’ by Sally Wright

Pride and Predator

Sally Wright’s second Ben Reese novel, Pride and Predator, takes our American archivist hero to Scotland, where he gets involved in a classic “cozy” mystery.

Jonathan MacLean, a minister of the Kirk of Scotland, is found dead on the island of Lindisfarne (famous in Viking lore, though that’s not mentioned here), killed by an allergic reaction to a bee sting. The fact that he was carrying a picnic basket, in which dead bees were found, is suspicious, as he had never before carried a basket on his walking trips. And it’s hard to imagine who would have wanted him dead. He was a popular pastor, beloved by his wife, friends and family. He possessed no great riches, though he had inherited a title. A few people disliked him, but not murderously. As he uncovers the truth, Ben will find himself working against time to stop a killer before he kills again.

I liked the first book in the series, Publish and Perish, very much. I have to say I was less taken with this one. The cast of characters seemed to me huge, and almost all of them had Scottish names. I had a lot of trouble keeping them straight. There also seemed to be a lot more talking than strictly necessary, and the plot was convoluted.

Still, cozy fans will probably enjoy it (I myself like cozies if they’re well done), and the language is decent and the values Christian. Moderately recommended.

‘Two Kinds of Truth,’ by Michael Connelly

Two Kinds of Truth

“Look, I’m sorry. But I wanted to catch these guys. What that kid did, the son, it was noble. When this all comes out, people will probably say he was stupid and naïve and didn’t know what he was doing. But they won’t know the truth. He was being noble. And there isn’t a lot of that out there in the world anymore….”

It’s amazing how Michael Connelly manages to keep the stakes high in his long series of Harry Bosch detective novels. At the beginning of Two Kinds of Truth I was thinking that the formula was getting a little old, but before long I was fully invested. Harry Bosch is a driven character, a man with a near-Christian sense of vocation, and you can’t help starting to care as much as he does.

Harry used to be a police detective in Los Angeles, but he’s past retirement, and now he works on a semi-volunteer basis for the police department in San Fernando, a small, autonomous enclave within greater LA. His official task is cold cases, which he loves, but because he’s the most experienced detective available, he ends up working current cases as well. Continue reading ‘Two Kinds of Truth,’ by Michael Connelly

‘Publish and Perish,’ by Sally S. Wright

Publish and Perish

What was it Richard had said in his next-to-last volume? “Logic is the fruit of reason; meaning is the child of imagination.”

Ben had never felt a conflict between the two and he doubted that Richard had either. Any more than either one of them had seen a conflict between reason and revelation.

I linked to an article about Sally Wright a couple days ago, and said I was reading one of her novels. I am delighted to report that author Wright has sailed past my critical misogyny to make me an immediate fan. She writes a pretty good male hero, in the tradition, I would say, of Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey (though Ben Reese is a very different kind of character).

In Publish and Perish, first novel in a series, Ben Reese, World War II intelligence veteran, is an archivist at a private college in Ohio. The year is 1960. He is in England doing research when he gets news that his dearest friend has died of a sudden heart attack. Ben (who is his friend’s executor) rushes home to deal with the aftermath. He is disturbed by certain puzzling circumstances surrounding the death, and the local police chief agrees with him. Ben starts asking questions, and someone else dies, and then Ben himself becomes the target of a murder attempt.

We often complain about the poor quality of Christian literature. Sally Wright’s work is a shining example of the sort of thing we’ve been pleading for. The writing is superior, the characterizations and dialogue polished and entertaining, the mystery satisfying. And the tone of the thing is appropriate both to Christianity and to the time period – there is no, or very little, obscenity. The Christian characters talk like human beings, not tracts, and the values are unashamedly old-fashioned.

I enjoyed Publish and Perish immensely, and look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker

Bruno, Chief of Police

Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, chief of police of the small French town of St. Denis, is a decorated veteran who served with the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. If he wished, he could find exciting work in Paris, but he likes the life he has. He lives in a remodeled shepherd’s cottage, keeps a large vegetable garden, and coaches young men in soccer and tennis. He likes the slow pace of country life, where his biggest problem is generally tipping off local farmers when EU produce inspectors are on the prowl. He’s had enough action in his life, merci.

But action is coming to him. The first book in Martin (no relation) Walker’s popular Bruno series, Bruno, Chief of Police, involves the murder of an elderly Algerian refugee, whose body is found with a swastika carved into it. The old man was a decorated veteran of the French army, and his death ignites lingering passions from the German occupation, and contemporary resentment of North African immigration. Bruno will see his peaceful town torn by a riot and discover very dark secrets, leading finally to an imperfect – but arguably just – resolution. And there will be a little romance along the way.

I liked Bruno, Chief of Police quite a lot. It started out pretty much as a “cozy” mystery, but got rapidly dark, burrowing deep into human memories and motivations. Bruno is not the simple man he tries to appear, but neither is anyone else.

I’d be happy to read the next book in this series, but the publisher wants twelve bucks for the Kindle version, which is too much.

Cowles on Sally Wright

Ashlee Cowles has an appreciation of the mystery novels of Sally Wright at The University Bookman:

Thematically, the Ben Reese mysteries touch on many topics that will resonate with “bohemian Tory” conservatives of the Kirkian variety, where local culture, a living connection to the past, and a love of the land are more important than the “hot button” political squabbles of the day. In Out of the Ruins, for example, Ben Reese must solve a murder linked to a historic family’s ownership of Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, “now threatened by developers and government takeover.” This notion of big business and big government as equal threats to authentic culture and human flourishing was one of Russell Kirk’s favorite themes, evident in several of the ghostly tales collected in Ancestral Shadows.

On the strength of this article, I’m reading my first Ben Reese book now.

Tip: Dave Lull.

‘Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories,’ by Dale Nelson

Lady Stanhope's Manuscript

You know what’s spooky? I’ll tell you what’s spooky. As far as I know, I’d never heard of the author M. R. James before I read the book I’ll review tonight, Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories, by Dale Nelson. And what does Phil do today but link to an article citing M. R. James? [Cue Twilight Zone music.]

Full disclosure: Dale Nelson, author of this story collection, is a good friend of mine and generally the first reader for my novels. He sent me a signed copy as a gift.

Dale, by his own statement in the Preface, has written many of these stories in conscious emulation of James’ “antiquarian” works. I’m not generally a reader of ghost stories, in part because nowadays the genre has gotten mixed up with horror, which I don’t like at all. But as I read this book, I was reminded of Poe’s essay on poetry, in which he says that the purpose of a poem is to leave a single, vivid impression in the mind of the reader. This sort of ghost story has much the same purpose – not necessarily to shock or terrify you, but to leave you with a feeling of unease, of invisible doors left ajar, of watching eyes behind your back in the darkness, of secrets best left buried.

The genres of the stories in fact range beyond ghost tales. There’s plain science fiction here, and fantasy explorations of folklore themes. There’s a straight Christian miracle story. All expertly written, with keen insight into human nature and an understanding of Orthodox theology (and I intended the capitalization on “Orthodox,” because a distinct preference for the eastern church is easy to discern).

Recommended. And yes, I’m prejudiced.

‘The English eerie is on the rise’

A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle. . . . We are, certainly, very far from “nature writing”, whatever that once was, and into a mutated cultural terrain that includes the weird and the punk as well as the attentive and the devotional.

Robert Macfarlane writes about the eerie lands of England in many art forms, beginning with a good summary of a strange story. (via Alan Jacobs)

‘Blowback,’ by Peter May


Peter May’s Enzo Macleod mysteries are growing on me, mainly because Enzo himself is growing. Enzo is a Scottish criminologist living and working in France. He has made a bet that he can solve seven famous unsolved French murders, and he’s working his way systematically through the list. Blowback is the fifth in the series, and this one takes him into the rarefied world of French haute cuisine.

Seven years ago, chef Marc Fraysse, who operated a three star (the highest rating in the prestigious Michelin Guide) restaurant in a remote French village, was murdered just when rumors were circulating that he was going to lose a star. Enzo travels to the village, where he meets an attractive local police woman who eagerly helps him with his inquiries (a pleasant surprise). He goes to stay at the restaurant/hotel, where the victim’s brother and widow make him generally welcome. But Enzo doesn’t trust them entirely, and has insinuated a personal spy into the staff.

Meanwhile, Enzo realizes that some tensions and feuds in the victim’s history echo broken relationships of his own – notably with a half-brother he never mentions to anyone, and the son he fathered with a woman who demanded he have no contact with the child. Hopefully he will find or make some second chances, and not succumb to the errors that brought Marc Fraysse down before his time.

I found Enzo Macleod kind of superficial when I started reading the books. I’m gratified to see him growing with each installment, becoming more and more a grownup and increasingly controlling his passions. I enjoyed Blowback. It also got pretty suspenseful toward the end.

Recommended with cautions for adult stuff.

‘Don’t Let Go,’ by Harlan Coben

Don't Let Go

Harlan Coben is one of the best of our thriller writers. Instead of voyeuristic violence and obscenity, Coben specializes in profound moral dilemmas, psychological depth, and generally clean prose. I’m a fan. His latest, Don’t Let Go, is OK, but I don’t consider it one of his best.

Napoleon “Nap” Dumas is a policeman in a New Jersey suburb. He has a minor, unofficial sideline in beating up guys who seriously hurt women and can’t be touched by the law. He’s carrying a lot of suppressed anger, going back to one terrible night in his senior year in high school, when his twin brother and his girlfriend were killed in an accident, and his own girlfriend disappeared without a goodbye.

Now there’s been a murder in the town where he lives. The victim was a fellow cop, killed during a traffic stop. But inside the stopped car a set of fingerprints are found – the fingerprints of Maura, Nap’s long-lost girlfriend.

The old case is opened, and Nap is about to learn that many shocking things were covered up that awful night when his brother died. The cover-ups were not only the work of a shadowy government agency, but of some of his best, most trusted friends.

I was a little disappointed with Don’t Let Go. I thought that author Coben fell into some storyteller’s tropes unworthy of his talent. And I thought the final resolution overly complex and not very plausible.

But it kept my interest all through, and was moving in places. You could do worse.

Call to Fund Finishing of Unpublished Burgess Novel

Prance, Noah!

There are many kinds of flood, not all of them water. Here: France, green and grey beneath a swift blue sky, and wholly submerged. The flood here is war.

Adam Roberts, professor of nineteenth-century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, has been inspired to take up a screenplay left unproduced by Anthony Burgess, a historical movie on The Black Prince. Roberts is working on developing it into a novel. Above is an excerpt from the work in progress.

Roberts said he talked over his idea “with Andrew Biswell (director of the Burgess Foundation in Manchester the world’s leading expert on Burgess’s writing) and we agreed it would be worth seeing if the work could be completed. I have always felt that a science fiction writer is working in the same sort of territory as the writer of historical fiction (and several of my SF novels have been historical, or included historical elements): the creation of a world, the estrangement of the familiar.”

He has been crowd sourcing his fund this year and is 72 percent to his goal this morning.

‘Deep Freeze,’ by John Sandford

Deep Freeze

John Sandford’s novels are always entertaining. The latest Virgil Flowers novel, Deep Freeze, delivers pretty much what you paid for.

As you probably guessed from the title, this story takes place during the Minnesota winter. Virgil Flowers, laid-back agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is called back to place he has no desire to revisit – Trippton, in the southeastern part of the state. He recently closed down a murder ring there involving some of the town’s most prominent people. This time a woman has been found floating in the warm recycling runoff from the local water treatment plant. Evidence in her home indicates she was murdered there and dumped in the river. She was a local VIP, the town banker. She had had a meeting with her old high school classmates the night she died, planning a reunion. All the obvious suspects seem to have ironclad alibis.

At the same time, Virgil is asked to assist a female private detective who has the blessing of the governor. She has been hired by the Mattel Corporation to hunt down a ring of locals who are altering Barbie Dolls to make them into sex toys. Virgil is reluctant to get involved in this case, partly because the illegal business is helping out some people in tough economic circumstances. But he’ll do what he can, when he can. Especially after a bunch of them attack him and leave him badly injured.

If you read Sandford, you know what to expect here – a pretty good mystery with amusing, colorful characters and a lot of obscene dialogue and dirty jokes. One thing I’d advise author Sandford to do is to sprinkle a few more Scandinavian names among his characters, especially the poorer ones. I don’t say that for reasons of ethnic pride (or not entirely). When his rednecks get to talking, I have trouble not imagining them speaking with southern accents. It would help if a few of them were named Olson or Lindquist; it would be a reminder.

Recommended for Sandford fans. If you can’t handle a lot of f-bombs, you’d do best to stay away.

‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

Why always triangles? What is the purpose of the transceiver they are building? What two points does Hauptmann know, and why does he need to know the third?

“It’s only numbers, cadet,” Hauptmann says, a favorite maxim. “Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking this way.”

Our commenter Paul suggested Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See to me, as a work with similarities to Mark Helprin’s Paris In the Present Tense, which I reviewed with approval. And it is indeed reminiscent of that work, not least in its French locations. It’s one of those heady books that I’m not sure I understood, but I enjoyed it as an experience.

The book is told out of sequence, beginning with the Allied bombing of the French coastal city of Saint-Malo in 1944. We are shown, within that city, two people – a blind girl named Marie-Laure, left alone in their house by her guardian grand-uncle, and a German radio operator named Werner Pfennig, sheltering in the cellar of a hotel. Through the story that follows, we learn the events that brought these two people into proximity. Marie-Laure is the daughter of the Master of Locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. By chance, he is entrusted at the beginning of the war with a precious stone, a legendary treasure said to have healing powers. That stone becomes the obsession of a dying Nazi officer, who systematically follows their trail.

In a smoky mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig grows up in an orphanage, destined for a short, backbreaking life laboring underground. He finds and repairs a broken radio, beginning a lifetime of fascination with electronics, and listening with his sister to mysterious late-night broadcasts about science, in the French language. It looks as if his life is saved when he’s recruited for an elite school run by the Nazi Party – but it turns out to be as deadly as the mines, in a more profound way.

Werner builds a device that triangulates radio signals, enabling the Nazis to locate illegal radio transmitters. The idea of triangulation seems (to me) to be a theme of the book. A kind of triangulation of events brings Werner and Marie-Laure together, eventually, for one magical moment. And then the world resolves once more into the static of war. I’m not sure what All the Light We Cannot See means. It seemed to me, in its final resolution, too modern for my tastes. But it was a fascinating and beautiful book to read.

Cautions for language, tragedy, and mature themes.

How the Land Shaped America

Mark Helprin describes how the concept of America was shaped in part by its land.

For without understanding nature’s metaphors of infinity, man looms far larger in his own eyes than he would in their insistent presence, and, as history shows, comes to believe not only that he is the measure of all things but the maker and judge of life, death, and everything in between. . . .

Man reacts in the presence of limitlessness. He is buoyed immensely on tides of freedom.

Ragging on Dan Brown

Matt Walther has jotted down a few notes on how bad Dan Brown’s latest work is.

Origin is not a thriller. No writer honestly attempting to concoct one would dare to begin with several chapters of a man taking a guided tour of a museum complete with unevocative descriptions of each work of art . . .

Nor, finally, would anyone who is not going out of his way to subvert the very notion of suspense as a factor that might conceivably motivate us to turn pages attempt even as a joke what must be the most banal chapter-ending cliffhanger in the history of fiction: “‘This getaway car was hired,’ Langdon said, pointing to the stylized U on the windshield. ‘It’s an Uber.'”

In the following chapter, a cop boggles at this feat of deduction.  And there’s far, far worse, if you find such things entertaining. (via Prufrock News)

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