‘The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World’

Robert Louis Stevenson

James McNamara reviews a new novel, written in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson, in the Washington Post:

“Stevenson spent his days roaming the sprawling legendary city by the bay, spending miserly sums on food and half a bottle of wine per night, and writing furiously to try to make enough money to support the family he would instantly have when married.” He also kicked around an idea for a novel, “Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World,” but, as Doyle writes, no evidence of his manuscript or John Carson has ever emerged.

From this truthful starting point, [Brian] Doyle imagines the book Stevenson might have written: a glorious, swashbuckling tale that celebrates love, friendship and the sheer delight of being alive.

Hat tip: Books, Inq. Which got it (of course) from Dave Lull, Man of Mystery.

‘The War of Art,’ by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

Someone suggested to me that I might enjoy Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (and yes, I caught the reversal on Sun Tsu’s The Art of War… eventually). I’ve been struggling with my work in progress (it’s coming, but I’m fighting for every inch of ground), and I thought, what could it hurt?

It’s a remarkable book. I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it, though.

It might save you the cost of purchase if I give you the basic message right here – the only way to succeed as a writer is to become a professional. Sit yourself down at your desk at the same time every day, and work at your craft. Don’t listen to the negative voices in your head. Especially don’t listen to the ones that say, “I’ll just skip it today.”

But the value of the book is (of course) in the reader’s journey. In polished, powerful prose Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and other bestselling books) analyses the writer’s problem (we have an enemy, which he calls “Resistance,” and we must learn to tread it under our feet). And he tells the story of his own evolution from a blocked, self-pitying wannabee to a fulfilled professional (anyone can do it, he says, which I think is an exaggeration. Not for me, of course, but for you other folks).

What troubles me about the book is its religious nature. When Pressfield talks about his Muse, he’s not being metaphorical. He lays out a whole theory of reality and consciousness (based on Jung), and says he believes that his muse actually exists. He prays to her each time he sits down to write.

On the negative side, he condemns all forms of Fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism and art,” he says, “are mutually exclusive.”

I take that kind of personally. I think you could call the medieval Roman Catholic Church fundamentalist, by his definition, and they did pretty well on the art front. The Puritans themselves gave us Milton and Bunyan.

So I’m uncomfortable with Pressfield’s religious statements. Speaking as a fundamentalist, I worry that he may have sold his soul to a devil, or be possessed in some way.

So I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The War of Art. As a motivational book, it’s excellent (I had a pretty good writing day the day I finished reading it). But spiritually I found it hazardous.

Also, cautions for language.

Why Not Ask the Black Church?

“The Benedict Option fails to ask how black believers have survived racial, economic, and social marginalization with their faith intact.” Jemar Tisby offers an important perspective to Rod Dreher’s new book, a book he has mulled over for at least ten years. When considering options for the persecuted church in America, it seems natural to look to those portions of the church that have lived through persecution, but as Tisby writes, this is a continuing blind spot for many white people.

The reality for many white believers is that Christians of color may provide inspiring stories of resistance and are certainly nice to have on display in the congregation, but they are not a true source of wisdom for the white church. To some white Christians, the faith traditions of racial minorities may offer great aesthetics like preaching or musical style, but they don’t have the legitimacy to lead the way into the future. The constant refusal to learn from the black church can only be termed ecclesiastical arrogance.

The Real Reason the Benedict Option Leaves Out the Black Church

Dreher did start a conversation about the black church four years ago, asking why it hadn’t influenced communities more. That doesn’t answer Tisby’s critique, but it does offer a bit of context.

‘The First Rule,’ by Robert Crais

The First Rule

I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to observe that when you pick up a novel advertised as an action thriller and it begins with a happy family doing ordinary stuff, something awful is about to happen.

And so it is in Robert Crais’ The First Rule. The man whose life is destroyed here is Frank Meyer, a guy who used to work for Joe Pike as a mercenary. The police inform Joe of this, and question him. The other victims of this particular gang of murderers and thieves have been involved in organized crime, so they figure Frank must have been dirty too. Joe cannot believe that. With the help of his friend and business partner, private detective Elvis Cole, Joe employs his formidable military skills to unravel a scheme involving prostitution, illegal arms sales, and a kidnapped baby.

Author Crais has intentionally moved the Elvis Cole series from straight mysteries to action thrillers, which means a bigger role for the mysterious and dangerous Joe Pike. This has been a good move, as Joe is one of those laconic characters – few words and economical but explosive action – who work extremely well in high tension stories. A particular pleasure in The First Rule is the ironic scenes showing Pike’s developing relationship with the rescued baby – all the more touching in contrast with Joe’s cold, focused, almost monastic persona.

It occurred to me as I read that there are theological implications here (certainly not intended by the author). Joe is the kind of rescuer every true victim dreams of, though often silently. He does not only inflict violence on evildoers – he is terrible (in the sense of inspiring terror) when he does it. People who live in relatively safe and just environments have trouble understanding the need for a terrible avenger. It’s not enough that the wicked should be slain – they should be frightened as they die. Modern westerners don’t generally understand the aspect of terror that belongs to the just God of the Bible, but the oppressed and the persecuted do.

Anyway, I recommend The First Rule for those who can handle the language and violence. First class action entertainment.

‘Murder by Magic,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder by Magic

I’m liking Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill series better and better as the novels go on. However, there’s one problem with Murder by Magic that means I’ll have to include in this review a warning for our readers.

This time around, Inspector Skelgill of the Midlands CID grows curious about a spate of sheep mutilations in the Lake District. Then he and his team look into the disappearance of an eastern European tourist, who seems to have disappeared on an extensive estate recently purchased a foreign scholar.

The inquiry leads to human trafficking, a black magic coven, and a violent climax in which Skelgill shows considerable personal courage, and even (surprisingly) a modicum of consideration for one of his sergeants, Sergeant Leyton, a Cockney he tends to run roughshod over. It’s less surprising that he takes care of his female sergeant, Sergeant Jones, an attractive woman he’s been flirting with passively throughout the series.

My problem with the story is a theological one. It’s pretty much impossible nowadays to write a story with evil black witches, I guess, unless you throw in a good white witch to prove you’re not a Salem Puritan. So here we have an attractive, wise, and helpful white witch who provides material assistance to the inquiry.

No mention of Christian spiritual teachings about magic are in evidence.

I suppose author Beckham had no choice. The story as a whole was good enough – the best in the series so far, I think – that I’ll probably read more, even in spite of the detour into the occult.

I suppose that means I’m getting old and soft.

Otherwise, recommended. The violence is not graphic, and the bad language is masked with circumlocutions, some of them pretty creative. Beckham also excels at descriptions of nature, which will be a special draw for certain readers.

‘The Viking Battalion’

Viking Battalion

Last week I was contacted on Facebook by a fellow who’s involved in a Viking commemoration a tad different from the kind I’m used to. But I was honored to be asked to assist him, and I want to publicize his effort. He’s the president of a group devoted to memorializing a remarkable World War II US Army unit.

The 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), also known as the Viking Battalion, was organized in 1942 at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Its purpose was (originally) a specific, specialized one (that’s what the word “Separate” means). It was intended for the invasion of Norway – an option for the European invasion that remained under consideration long into the war. The bulk of its manpower came from Norwegian merchant sailors who’d been stranded overseas by the German invasion in 1940, plus Norwegian-American young men, many of whom had grown up speaking Norwegian. They trained for mountain warfare in Colorado, and later as commandos in Scotland.

As it worked out, of course, the invasion happened in Normandy. The 99th participated in that action and its aftermath, and fought with distinction in the Battle of the Bulge. Finally they were sent to Norway after the surrender, in order to help establish order and evacuate the German occupation troops in an orderly manner.

There’s going to be a special commemoration event on Saturday, August 12, at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota. I’ve been asked to be there in Viking costume (just to confuse the visitors, I imagine) and I may bring some other Vikings along. If you’re interested in the event, let me know in comments, or just watch this space. I’ll be keeping you posted.

We Loved Your Story; Write Another Just Like It

Danny Rubin, who gave us the wonderful movie Groundhog Day, thought he’d found his place in Hollywood after that film’s success. Everyone wanted to talk to him, and they all wanted him to do the same thing he’d done before. S. I. Rosenbaum interviewed him for Vulture.

He kept writing scripts for his own ideas, and he kept selling them, pretty steadily, over the years — to Universal, to Amblin, to Castle Rock, to Miramax. But none of them were produced, and even when one of them spent some time being developed, Rubin would often be booted off the project. He wrote a movie about a woman; they asked if it could be about a man. He wrote a silent film; they asked if it could have dialogue. “People weren’t responding to my stuff by making movies out of it,” he says. “They were optioning it, but then there were the same arguments over and over: They were trying to make a movie I said I was expressly not interested in making.”

The man behind Groundhog Day has proven Hollywood is stuck in a loop of its own making. (via Prufrock News)

Dostoevsky’s Characters Speak for Themselves

What makes Dostoevsky’s characters so real? They aren’t just mouthpieces for the author’s voice.  Peter Leithart describes it.

Dostoevsky’s polyphonic world is full of free subjects, not objects. We don’t know what they might say or do next, and we suspect that the author doesn’t know either. They speak in their own voices, and Dostoevsky doesn’t drown them out. His voice is only one among many.

But Dostoevsky is also concerned with the suppression and source of true human freedom. “True freedom is love, the capacity to sacrifice one’s Ego for the good of others.” And the only way to sacrifice one’s Ego is to surrender to Christ. (via Prufrock News)

‘Murder on the Lake,’ by Bruce Beckham

Murder on the Lake

I decided to turn away from my reading of Gregg Hurwitz, and take up Bruce Beckham, whom I dropped a while back. I’m not tired of Hurwitz, but I was a little exhausted by the level of dramatic tension he dispenses. I thought something a little milder, in a kinder, gentler literary world, might be enjoyable for a change. So I returned to Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill novels. No one would call the prickly Lake District detective “cozy,” but his stories are closer to the world of Agatha Christie than to the thriller genre.

Author Beckham has a little fun with that fact as Murder on the Lake begins. At the start, we’re confronted with a classic “Ten Little Indians” situation – a group of people isolated on an island estate, in a storm without electricity or telephones. One of them dies, and the suspicion rises that they might have a murderer in their midst.

In steps Inspector Skelgill. He’s been fishing on the lake, and the storm has forced him to the island’s dock. There he meets a young woman, one of the party at the hall (it’s a writers’ retreat), and he goes up to investigate. Once he’s met everyone and heard their stories, he returns to his boat, where he has left his mobile phone – but the boat has mysteriously vanished. He has to sleep in the hall, and overnight another guest dies.

Having had his little genre joke, author Beckham then brings things back to normal. Skelgill is rescued by his sergeants the next morning, and they take up the investigation in their usual style: Skelgill drives his subordinates nearly mad through thoughtlessness, demands on their time, and food-filching (he’s a mountain runner and always hungry). But gradually, by way of his disorganized, rather intuitive deductive processes, he uncovers the truth – along with some unpleasant truths about the publishing industry.

Beckham has fun with this story. Several of the characters have Dickension names – a literary agent named Lampray, a critic named Cutting, etc. I don’t really care for the present-tense narration employed, but I have to admit I soon forgot about it. The language is remarkably restrained – Beckham employs circumlocutions whenever his characters sink to foul language.

I enjoyed Murder on the Lake. I can only take Inspector Skelgill in small quantities, but I am reading the sequel now.

‘Troubleshooter,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Troubleshooter

Accustomed to full-bore ART kick-ins requiring heavy firepower Guerrera didn’t handle his Beretta with the same facility he did an MP5. Tim caught him holding the handgun up by his head and gestured for him to straight-arm it or keep it in a belt tuck. The Starsky & Hutch position was good solely for catching a closeup of an actor’s face in the same frame as the gun; in real life a startle reaction to a sudden threat would leave an officer momentarily deaf and blind, or with half his face blown off.

Tim Rackley is back in Troubleshooter, Gregg Hurwitz’ third book in his series starring a Los Angeles US Deputy Marshal who screwed up seriously in the first installment, but has been reinstated through what was a pretty blatant case of authorial deus ex machina. But who cares? The stories are great, and Troubleshooter doesn’t disappoint.

Outlaw biker gang members usually just keep their mouths shut and do their time when caught. They don’t generally mess with cops. But the Laughing Sinners, a local gang, is changing the game. First of all, they killed a couple cops. Then they carried out a meticulous, brilliantly timed rescue, killing some more cops in the process. Now it’s open war between the bikers and several police agencies, including the marshals and the FBI. The bikers are going all out, in a scheme that involves drug dealing and terrorism on a scale unseen in this country since 9/11.

And meanwhile, Tim Rackley himself is working under the threat of a terrible personal loss.

What can I say? Troubleshooter has all the virtues of Hurwitz’ other novels – sharp, professional prose, well-drawn characters, excruciating plot tension, big stakes. As always, some elements are implausible when considered coolly, but there’s little leisure for cool consideration in the midst of all this action.

Cautions for language, adult themes, and violence. Otherwise, highly recommended.

Mano vs. the Oxford comma

Dave Lull sent me a link to this recent Boston Globe column by Jeff Jacoby. It includes a section on the Oxford comma debate, in which he cites the late D. Keith Mano:

The story reminded me of one of those great exchanges that for years made William F. Buckley’s “Notes & Asides” — the column in which he regularly reproduced his exchanges with colleagues, readers, and other correspondents — the best part of National Review. From December 1972:

“A ukase. Un- negotiable. The only one I have issued in seventeen years. It goes: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas.” NOT: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges and bananas.” I am told National Review’s style book stipulates the omission of the second comma. My comment: National Review’s style book used to stipulate the omission of the second comma. National Review’s style book, effective immediately, makes the omission of the second comma a capital offense!”

Among the responses was this lament from D. Keith Mano, a National Review columnist, to the magazine’s managing editor, Buckley’s sister Priscilla:

“I have read with dismay WFB’s ukase on the serial comma. I can’t do it. No way. It’s just plain ugly. WFB says this is un-negotiable. . . . How serious is he? Can I arrange a dispensation?

“Look: I’ll compromise. There should be peace in the family. Instead of “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas” — how about if he just buys oranges and bananas? Or a head of non-union lettuce. You see what this sort of restriction leads to. And they ask me why fiction is dying. Erich Segal, I bet, uses the serial comma.

“You may tell WFB that, from now on and as ordered, I salute the red and white.”

I’m frankly a little disappointed — I’ve been won over to the Oxford comma side, myself. I have the idea the Forces of History are in its favor. Perhaps that was Mano’s fate, to be a genius forever tainted by his associations with questionable movements. Playboy Magazine. Dropping the Oxford.

Of course, my advocacy of the O.C. probably dooms it…

O’Connor: Life Is Violence

Life is suffering and it is violent, so overwhelming is it that we cope by voluntarily consenting to spiritual deafness,” Michael Rennier observes. “The reality of sin must be forced home to us by an act of divine violence so that our pretensions can once and for all be torn away.”

This is what he draws from Flannery O’Connor’s life, which is being featured on PBS in a new documentary, Uncommon Grace. Director Bridget Kurt agrees. “She wasn’t using violence to glorify it; she was showing how extreme moments in our lives are spiritual wake-up calls.”

Like the time when an escaped convict points a gun at a grandmother’s head. In that moment, all of her religiosity melted out of her, leaving her nothing but Jesus. She could have been a good woman had someone been there to threaten her everyday. That would have been respectable. But she didn’t need to be a good woman. She needed Jesus.

Perhaps O’Connor is just too Christian for secular schools. Kurt , a transplant from Northern Wisconsin, found less help than she expected when looking for material on O’Connor’s life.

“Even at her alma mater, GSCU in Milledgeville, very few students that we ran into on campus knew who O’Connor was,” Kurt told Milwaukee Magazine. “In Wisconsin, most of us know that Frank Lloyd Wright was a Wisconsin native because we are taught about famous Wisconsinites and we name libraries and schools after them. I’m not sure how much Flannery O’Connor is taught in Georgia schools.” (Via Prufrock News)

Colin Dexter, 1930-2017

Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter, the author of the Inspector Morse novels, has passed away at the age of 86. Born in 1930, he didn’t become a full-time writer until 1966. Success came to him fairly late in life, but it came big. BBC News quotes him as saying:

“I think Morse, if he had really existed and was still alive, would probably say to me, ‘Well, you didn’t do me too bad a service in your writing’.

“He might say, ‘I wish you’d made me a slightly less miserable blighter and slightly more generous, and you could have painted me in a little bit of a better light’.

“If he had bought me a drink, a large Glenfiddich or something, that would have been very nice, but knowing him I doubt he would have done – Lewis always bought all the drinks.”

Dexter took a shrewd tack with the TV series based on his books. Some authors hate to see their precious works disfigured on film – John D. MacDonald famously loathed every movie or TV show adapted from any of his works, including the original “Cape Fear,” which is considered a classic. But Dexter embraced the BBC series and deliberately accommodated it. For instance, Sergeant Lewis is actually two policemen in the first book, Last Bus to Woodstock. But seeing how well the pairing of actors John Thaw and Kevin Whately worked onscreen, he quietly blended the subordinate officers and carried on without missing a step.

I enjoyed the Inspector Morse books, and the TV series perhaps even more. And I think I like the new prequel, Endeavor, more than that. RIP Colin Dexter.

A Fanciful Underground Railroad

Railroad tunnel“Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.”

This is how Kirkus summarizes Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, a finalist for the 2016 Kirkus Prize. The novel is not historical fiction, because the central idea is existence of a slave-rescuing railway that runs through tunnels beneath the states.

Betsy Child Howard says it isn’t a fun book, but “sometimes we must look with open eyes at the evil humans can perpetrate themselves or countenance in others.”

In 21st-century America, we too often assume that those born into privilege are the deserving, without taking into account the generational effects of enslavement and Jim Crow on those we label “undeserving.” Whitehead is too good at his craft to spell out modern-day implications of our country’s dark history, but they reveal themselves.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture