Dispatch from Decorah

Reporting from Decorah, Iowa, where I’m taking a class in stave vessel making at the Vesterheim (Museum) Folk School. My instructor is a gentleman I already knew slightly, having run into him at Høstfest in Minot a few years back.

It’s a disorienting experience, taking a craft class. I’m accustomed to working with my brain, for many reasons. I’m not comfortable making things. I don’t feel like what John Bunyan called “a man of his hands.” So I’m out of my element, which is probably good for me. I’m the most inexperienced of all the students (there are 6 of us), so I’m 2 or 3 steps behind the others. But the instructor says I’m actually on schedule — the others are just running ahead. Nonetheless, I’m gradually improving as I repeat various tasks. I’m reluctant to say that though, because I firmly believe that if I allow myself to think I’m getting better at something, the universe will punish my hubris.

Our teacher is a low-key, patient fellow, which is good. I’ve only cut myself twice, and only one of those required a bandage (not a big one). Manual work and standing most of the day are novelties in my life, and I’m pretty beat by the time I get home.

But I did work up the nerve to approach the museum bookstore people about selling Viking Legacy.

I’ll share pictures after I get home, when I can get my hands on my Photobucket password.

Mistranslating Beowulf

Then it became clear,
obvious to everyone once the fight was over,
that an avenger lurked and was still alive,
grimly biding time. Grendel’s mother,
monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs.

That’s how Seamus Heaney translated the lines that begin Grendel’s mother’s part of the Beowulf. It contains the word one novelist says has been translated with bias many times over. Maria Dahvana Headley says a particular word is translated “monstrous” here and “hero” when related to Beowulf. She thinks that depiction runs over the nobility of a woman described as a bride of Cain, “because that’s not as good a story for our culture.”

“Many of these canonical texts have been kind of misinterpreted as just exclusively masculine when really many of them are about love.”

Or maybe these old texts are about whatever you want them to be about. As Jean de La Fontaine reportedly said, “Everyone believes very easily whatever they fear or desire.”

‘Shut Your Eyes Tight,’ by John Verdon

Shut Your Eyes Tight

To begin with, they occupied radically different boxes on the Myers-Briggs personality grid. His instinctive route to understanding was primarily through thinking, hers was through feeling. He was fascinated by connecting the dots, she by the dots themselves. He was energized by solitude, drained by social engagement, and for her the reverse was true. For him, observing was just one tool to enable clearer judging; for her, judging was just one tool to enable clearer observing.

I’m truly enjoying John Verdon’s series of mystery thrillers starring David Gurney, retired New York police detective now living in the Catskills. Shut Your Eyes Tight is as good as Think of a Number, which was very good indeed.

In this adventure, David is contacted by a very rich and beautiful – and dangerously crazy – woman, whose daughter has been murdered. The young woman was beheaded in her wedding dress, on her wedding day. All clues point to an enigmatic “Mexican gardener” who worked for her fiancé (a prominent expert on child abuse) and who has disappeared. But the clues at the scene are confusing, and the police are making no progress. Find my daughter’s killer, the woman tells him. I’ll pay you anything you ask.

Despite his wife Madeleine’s misgivings, Dave throws himself into the case. In so doing he will run the risk of losing both his reputation and his life, and put Madeleine in danger as well. In order to solve the case he’ll need to reexamine all his presumptions, to overcome a master of two skills of which he thinks himself the master – misdirection and deception.

The ongoing tension between David and Madeleine lays a foundation of unease that permeates the story and makes it irresistible. It would have been easy for author Verdon to make Madeleine simply a wife who “doesn’t understand,” trying to turn David into something he’s not. But she’s wiser than that. She’s trying to save his soul. She knows that in his obsessive pursuit of solutions to crimes, he’s staring into Nietzsche’s abyss. David has deep unresolved issues, and his detective work is a way of running away from them. On the other hand, he performs a social good, taking monsters off the streets. It’s complicated. And fascinating.

Cautions for troubling sexual themes and a good amount of obscene language. But if you can handle that, Close Your Eyes Tight is a very rewarding read.

Is Gotham Worth Saving?

Steven Greydanus talks Dark Knight and other superhero movies.

The dialogue between God and Abraham, in which Abraham pleads for the city, is echoed most directly in Batman Begins. “Like Constantinople or Rome before it,” intones Liam Neeson’s Ducard, later to be revealed as Ra’s al Ghul himself, Gotham “has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving. … Gotham must be destroyed.”

Bruce tries, like Abraham, to negotiate: “Gotham isn’t beyond saving. Give me more time. There are good people here.”

But the battle for the city doesn’t actually end.

Slay the Clichés of a Shallow Mind

Matt Smethurst cuts up five Christian clichés that we ought to find gracious ways to contradict, such as “let go and let God.” I last saw this on Facebook in response to a friend going through an intense struggle and I came this close to telling that person to shut up. That wouldn’t have been gracious.

Smethurst writes, “At its best, this phrase highlights the value of surrender. God is God and you are not, so lay down your résumé, your excuses, your fears. All too often, though, the phrase is wielded as if the symbol of Christianity is not a cross but a couch. It’s subtly used to put the brakes on striving, on working, on effort.

“As J. I. Packer once put it, ‘The Christian’s motto should not be “Let go and let God” but “Trust God and get going.”‘”

Let go and let God

In a related vein, Jared Wilson dislikes the Little Red Hen. It’s good for teaching the nature of work, not so much to nature of grace. “When was the last time you were scandalized by grace? When was the last time you pondered how personally discombobulating and religiously revolutionary the gospel is? Grace covers us screw-ups and the things we screw up. ”

If the Little Red Hen had offered the bread to all the lazy animals who didn’t help her make it, perhaps she could have also noted how much the farmer provides for them (but that would break the story, so we don’t need to go down that road, to use the cliché.)

You Don’t Have to Buy a Second-Hand Book

Elizabeth Freeman offers some experiences and rules for buying used books from Californians.

What I dread are the decrepit cardboard boxes or trash bags. Books schlepped in a rippling thirty-gallon plastic bag are not books in reasonable condition; they are books which have become recyclables or a mold hazard. And yet occasionally there are treasures: the first time I ever saw an Armed Services Edition paperback it was in a trash bag. There were fistfuls of them, binding and pages all perfectly intact (despite the former being a single staple and the latter incredibly thin and delicate). I bought them all and watched them sell within days.

(Via Anthony Sacramone, who says he wants this position with Argosy in New York City — oh my! That store is like an amusement park!)

Staving off panic

Workbench
Photo credit: Philip Swinburn

I may or may not be posting intermittently next week. I decided to take a craft course at a certain institution in Iowa, whose name I guess I won’t mention, because I have a criticism to make about one of their practices.

The course is in making a stave vessel. A stave vessel is something like an old wooden bucket, with staves and bands like a barrel – though I won’t be making a bucket, but a traditional Norwegian vessel for separating cream from milk. Cooperage – the construction of watertight containers from staves, has always intrigued me. Knowing my aptitude for any kind of handwork, I’m sure I’ll be no good at all at it. But it might be something worth knowing about, for reenactment and novel writing purposes.

My complaint with the unnamed school is how long it took them to get me a list of the tools I’d need. I waited patiently, and it finally turned up by email on Sunday, too late to do any weekend shopping. But hey, I figured, I’ll go to the big hardware center and pick them up after work one night.

I went last night, and discovered that, thought they had a couple items I needed, your modern hardware center is a little light on cooperage tools. I’d have to try a specialty woodworking store in Minnetonka, they told me.

So tonight I drove out to Minnetonka after work. At that store I found one of the two items I needed. For the other, they told me, I’d need to go to a hobby store in Bloomington, on the far side of town from my home.

I guess I’ll see if I can pick it up on my way south, when I leave (on a date I’ll keep to myself).

My great fear is of showing up at the school without the proper tools, like a foolish virgin without the nightly minimum requirement of lamp oil.

Also that I’ll chop a finger off, of course.

Mr. Whicher’s hat

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

In the proud tradition of historical dilettantes everywhere, I shall devote this post to nitpicking a dramatic production.

I’ve watched a couple of English TV movies in a series entitled “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.” The original film, “The Murder at Road Hill House,” is based on a book by Kate Summerscale, describing a sensational murder inquiry in 1860. A young girl named Constance Kent was accused of the murder of her infant half-brother, on evidence presented by Inspector Jack Whicher, a respected Scotland Yard detective. The court found his evidence insufficient, but Miss Kent eventually confessed, years later, at the urging of her clergyman. She served a sentence in prison and then emigrated to Australia, devoting her final years to good works.

The series then parts company from history. In the subsequent movies, Mr Whicher has been discharged from the Force and investigates crimes as a “private inquiry agent.” In real life he continued as a police detective, and retired well-respected. He was an inspiration for Dickens’ Inspector Bucket and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff, among others. Continue reading Mr. Whicher’s hat

‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

Think of a Number

It was a curious thing about the past – how it lay in wait for you, quietly, invisibly, almost as though it weren’t there. You might be tempted to think it was gone, no longer existed. Then, like a pheasant flushed from cover, it would roar up in an explosion of sound, color, motion – shockingly alive.

And we have a winner. I have the pleasure of recommending to you an author and a novel that I can heartily recommend. Think of a Number by John Verdon is a remarkable book, not only a superior mystery-thriller, but also a story told in a fresh and interesting way.

David Gurney is a retired New York City police detective, a decorated hero. He had a reputation for finding and stopping serial killers. But he took early retirement to move to a farm in the Catskills with his wife. It’s her turn, so to speak – she put up with New York life, which she hated, for his sake. Now they’re living in the country, where there is scenery and trees and flowers and animals, a place where she thrives. But David is unhappy there. He has an intense, analytical mind, a need to solve puzzles and bring order out of chaos, that rural life doesn’t satisfy. Although they love each other, it’s not certain their marriage will survive.

One day David gets a call from an old college acquaintance, Mark Mellery, who has grown rich running a religious-self-help retreat center. Mellery is desperate. He tells David that he got a letter containing a small sealed envelope. The letter, hand-written, told him to think of a number between one and 1,000, and then open the envelope. He found the random number he’d chosen written on the note inside. After that he got more letters, hand-written in verse, threatening him with death in vengeance for some unstated crime in the past. Continue reading ‘Think of a Number,’ by John Verdon

Steps Toward Healing Wounds of Jim Crow

Social justice is an unwelcome term in some circles, calling to mind political opportunism and race baiting. Many other people use the term to describe what Christians should understand (and should have understood for centuries) as properly loving your neighbor. Author and professor Anthony Bradley says maybe we need to lay aside social justice in favor of transitional justice, the kind of measures taken in response a state that has ignored proper judicial measures for a long time.

In fairness, America did attempt to redress issues with voting, housing, employment, and the like. The blind fallacy, however, was the belief that we could change a few federal laws and move on. But we moved on without addressing the need to foster peace and reconciliation between whites and blacks, especially in the South and large urban areas. We moved on without dealing with the post-traumatic stress of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. We moved on without holding people and institutions accountable for massive amounts of person-to-person and structural injustice.

He offers seven principles for America to use in healing the wounds we still feel, urging us not to skip to the application before building the foundation. Here’s #2.

It is quite unbelievable that African Americans were not given formal opportunities to recount, on record, exactly what happened during Jim Crow. A truth commission would allow us to hear the truth about Jim Crow. We need to gather firsthand accounts while we still can. Without getting the truth on record, we run the risk of exaggerations of history on both sides. It would be safe to say, as a result, that the average American under the age of fifty cannot explain the details of what life was like for blacks during Jim Crow. Individual states still have opportunities to establish Jim Crow truth and reconciliation commissions.

And from #3.

Recognizing survivors of Jim Crow as suffering real harm, including economic harm, would have allowed us to contextualize both their trauma and struggles with agency in the years that followed. Instead, America largely chose a “let’s just move on and not talk about the past” approach with a few one-size-fits-all federal legal remedies, which ultimately failed to deliver much of what they promised by the time we reached the 1980s.

‘Perdition,’ by Pete Brassett

Perdition

I was happy to find a new release in Pete Brassett’s DI Munro series. I found Perdition amusing and entertaining, as its predecessors have been.

Detective Inspector Munro, a rural Scottish policeman, is slightly hampered this time out by the fact that his long-impending retirement has finally come to pass. However, he finds retirement boring in the extreme, and soon begins meddling – unofficially – in a current investigation by his team. An investment bank employee is found dead in his car, killed by a powerful painkiller. Eventually they learn that the man was involved in loan sharking, but not before another man is found dead from the same cause, and one more nearly beaten to death.

Also, someone kills a goat with a crossbow.

The whole thing is fairly complex, with intertwining and backtracking trails and plenty of red herrings. Throughout the investigation DI Munro, as unobtrusively as possible, attempts to guide his successor, “Charlie” West, a female detective he’s been mentoring for some years now. Munro is a charming character, self-possessed, opinionated, and mildly curmudgeonly.

Lots of fun. There’s a minimum of violence and bad language. Some opinions were expressed that I don’t agree with, but I really have no serious cautions to deliver about Perdition.

‘Mirror Mirror,’ by Nick Louth

Mirror Mirror

I’m enjoying reading Nick Louth’s novels. I enjoyed reading Mirror Mirror too, but found it a tad disappointing in the end.

Mira Roskova (who, in spite of her name, is English), is currently acclaimed as the most beautiful model in the world. She appears on countless magazine covers and in dozens of ads, she has hordes of fanatical fans, and she’s dating England’s most popular “footballer.”

Unfortunately, the footballer is jealous and possessive and prone to violent rages. So her management company hires Virgil Bliss, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, as her personal bodyguard. As Virgil accustoms himself to the profoundly shallow world of international modeling, he begins to understand that Mira faces dangers far more serious than having an abusive boyfriend. The most dangerous criminal in the country has claimed her as his own – and merely being confined to a high security mental hospital will not stop him from taking her.

As usual with Louth, the dramatic tension was satisfying and the characters interesting. But he does have a weakness for over-relying on coincidence in his plots, and that’s especially true in Mirror Mirror. The ending featured a surprise twist, which didn’t entirely surprise me (I’d noticed the clues with my writer’s eye), and I found the ending a disappointment.

On the other hand, some bleeding heart liberals in the book are made to look like complete idiots, which is always fun.

Cautions for language, violence, and fairly explicit sex. Not Louth’s best.

Remembering Tony Snow

Dana Perino writes, “Every July, I get an uneasy feeling — like something is missing — but I can’t quite put my finger on it. And then, around July 12th, it hits me. This is the season when Tony Snow died, and this year marks the tenth anniversary of his passing. ”

She offers five lessons she learned from him.

I remember listening to Tony’s radio show before Brian Kilmeade took over. When he decided to accept the position as George W. Bush’s press secretary, he hoped he could steer White House policy a bit, but that wasn’t nearly the opportunity he had hoped for.

As Perino says, he was a good man in many ways, the kind of man you want in public offices, be they media or government.

That Child, I Tell Ya

Sam Leith praises Lee Child’s novels, saying everyone loves them cuz they’re just so awesome. “[Jack] Reacher incarnates both positive and negative liberty as set out by Isaiah Berlin: freedom to and freedom from.”

Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe and his literary offspring Spenser (from the hard-boiled American novelist Robert B. Parker) are paladins (Spenser: “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure”). Reacher is more like a masterless samurai: a ronin. He wanders hither and yon, like the Littlest Hobo or the A-Team, carrying his Bushido-style code of conduct with him like his folding toothbrush. He is entirely self-contained. He’s an island of extreme structure in a structureless world.

If you want an overview of Child’s Reacher novels, I’m sure this is a great one, but as we’ve seen before, not everyone loves them. (via Prufrock News)

Book Reviews, Creative Culture