Human companionship? Ick!

I have to say thanks to all the people who took the trouble to encourage me in yesterday’s Comments. My natural response is to wonder what I’ve done to deceive you all so egregiously. But I appreciate the sentiment.

Forgot to mention the big news in my life yesterday. My street is open again! Not the actual street I live on, but the street that runs past the park into my neighborhood and makes my house easy to get to. In the absence of that access, finding my place involves a rat’s maze of creeping through torn-up streets around a strip mall and a park.

What this means, aside from my own greater convenience, is that I’ve lost my last excuse not to advertise my spare room for rent.

I am not a wealthy or a highly paid man. I’ve already spent all the money I’ll probably ever see from my published books. I made the down payment on this house with the money I inherited from my dad and my aunt. I was still left with a mortgage that’s just a little more than I can reasonably carry, barring emergencies (and emergencies always happen, as any homeowner knows). I knew from the beginning that I had the options of a) selling another book or b) renting my spare room. And I haven’t sold a book.

I put up a poster at the seminary where I work, but those people know who I am, so small hope there. I delayed advertising more widely because of the torn-up street, figuring anybody who came to look at the place would probably never find it. But that’s fixed now.

I regard the prospect of sharing my personal living space with another hominid with all the enthusiasm of an Ivy League university president reviewing an application for professorship from Jimmy-Bob Hawkins, Arkansas Boy Evangelist. I can think of a whole list of likely drawbacks and very few advantages (except for the money). I plan to place the ad in the local Christian giveaway newspaper, in hopes that I can get someone reasonably congenial in lifestyle. Still, I expect that paper is read regularly by gay activists looking to find Christian landlords they can drive into evicting them, then sue for the benefit of society.

Still, the worst might not happen. Having someone around would probably add accountability to my life, and I can’t deny I could use that.

Maturity calls.

I hate it when that happens.

The world according to me

Yesterday’s post drew more attention than I expected, and I guess it would be in order to address the issue of My Single Blessedness in a post. I try to avoid this sort of thing (I know it doesn’t look like it, but you’d be amazed the things that never get uploaded) because I have a well-founded suspicion that the rest of the world doesn’t share my fascination with the precise configurations of my emotional viscera.

I’m not upset with yesterday’s comments. Shoot, for a passive-aggressive like me, that kind of attention is like mother’s milk. But I want to explain the reasons why I’ve essentially given up on finding a soulmate.

I’m open to correction. I’ll tell you how the world looks to me. You tell me where I’m wrong. I’m self-aware enough to know that having an emotional disorder means precisely seeing the world wrong.

My perception is that women want “bad boys.” Not bad men. Very few women really want a bad man. But they want a man with something of the bad boy in him. They want all the proper things too, of course. They want him to be supportive and nurturing, and they want him to be a good provider and a good father. But they also want to know that now and then Rhett Butler will come out in the open, kiss them hard while they pummel his chest with their little fists, sweep them into his arms and carry them up the staircase. They yearn a bit for the motorcycle gangster, for Billy the Kid. (See my review of Shotgun Alley the other day, and the descriptions of nice guy Weiss and bad boy Bishop.)

I’m not a bad boy, Heaven help me. When a woman encounters me or any of my (fortunately few) eunuch brothers, she immediately reads, in our eyes and in our body language, that we possess all the thrill potential of a virtual checkers game. She sees the word “BORING” inscribed on our brows. If she’s generous enough to grant us a date, she quickly regrets it as the hours drag and she smiles stiffly and mentally composes excuses for an early escape. She knows instinctively that if she married such a man, she’d have to initiate intimacy herself, because he’s too emotionally fragile to run the risk of a physical rejection.

All in all, she’d rather treat herself to a day at the spa. Or just adopt a cat.

I do not blame her for this.

And if there is, out there, some woman who’s actively looking for a man who’d be easy to dominate, I don’t think I want to meet that woman.

Global cooling update

I feel kind of lousy tonight, and it’s not just because it snowed today.

I get to feeling under the weather once or twice a year. Usually a good night’s sleep has me feeling better again by the next morning. I’m rarely sick enough to take a day off work. Also I self-medicated with Chinese food tonight. I haven’t gone out to eat much for a while, due to budgetary constraints, but my body said to me, “You need Chinese food.” So after work I went to a buffet which isn’t very good, to be honest, but has the virtues of being near my home and employing an attractive hostess. When I don’t feel well, I do what my body tells me. If it doesn’t actually help, it’s at least a defensible excuse for self-indulgence.

The snow came down thick and fast this afternoon. It only did so for about fifteen minutes, and then the sky cleared again. But it was enough. Notice had been served. Our annual Siberian exile has begun.

The only man I ever knew who hated winter more than me was my dad. All his life, as he ran a Minnesota farm, he dreamed of moving to a warmer clime. Sometime in the late 1950s (I think) he began working for that dream by signing up with a Florida land development company that had a booth at the state fair. He paid ten dollars a month for a lot in the Sunshine State. People joked with him about swamp land. He smiled and joshed back, but it wasn’t really funny to him.

Through the years he paid off one lot, then another, then a third. Then he sold one lot and used the proceeds to build a house on another. The idea was that he’d rent the house out and use the money to make payments, until he was ready to retire down there.

And it came to pass, on a winter day in 1980 (I think) he paused while shoveling snow in the farmyard, tucked his frozen fingers under his armpits, and said to himself, “I own a house in Florida. Why the heck am I doing this?”

So he put his farm up for sale. This was at the peak of the agricultural real estate boom. I believe he got the highest price per acre that any farmer had ever gotten in our community (and it wasn’t that great a farm). It may have been the highest price anybody ever got, since the boom didn’t last much longer. Dad moved to Florida with a nice nest egg to finance his early retirement.

I don’t think he ever saw Minnesota in the winter again. If one of his sons had died up here during the winter, I think he’d have thought long and hard about whether to fly up for the funeral or just send a card.

Detective Novels: The Best Ones Are Written by Men

Maxine is calling for suggestions on strong detective novels written by women in response to David Montgomery’s list, 10 Greatest Detective Novels, which did not have one female author. Block, Chandler, Crumley, Hammett, Stout, and others make Montgomery’s list, and he explains in the comments on Petrona that he doesn’t like P.D. James and further: “My favorite contemporary female detective writers are probably Laura Lippman and Denise Hamilton. I think they’re both great writers, but neither quite cracked the list.”

An interesting discussion has begun. One commenter notes the dominance of American writers. That seems only natural to me. We, Americans, are the best in the world at everything, except maybe soccer and automobiles, so naturally we write the best detectives novels.

We blog better than anyone else too.

And stuff.

I will be ducking and running now.

Shotgun Alley by Andrew Klavan

Hard-boiled detective stories are one of my favorite genres. So it was good news for me when I learned that Andrew Klavan, my favorite contemporary author, had begun a detective series (I love series! It’s almost like having real friends!).

And I wasn’t disappointed. If Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop series isn’t moving Hard-boiled into fertile new territory, it’s at least discovering new treasures in the old fields.

You gotcher tough-guy protagonist. You gotcher smart-guy protagonist. You gotcher psycho killers and your dangerous dames. You gotcher dead bodies and threats and violence. You gotcher subtextual deconstruction of postmodern philosophy. What’s not to like?

The continuing main characters in the series are Scott Weiss and Jim Bishop. On first glance they kind of resemble Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, in a dim light. But they’re more complex than Wolfe and Goodwin (whom I also like), and they inhabit a grittier, more perilous world.

Scott Weiss is an ex-cop. He is tall and fat and lonely. His loneliness comes from his over-romantic view of women—he puts them on a pedestal, and they respond by wanting to be just friends. Although he’s smart, his success as a detective comes from an emotional-imaginative quirk. He’s an empath. He has the ability to get into people’s heads, understand their thinking patterns, and predict their actions. It’s good for business, but he can never be a happy man.

Jim Bishop is his alter ego. A burned-out Special Forces veteran, he nearly became a career criminal before Weiss pulled him out of the mud and gave him a chance. He’s physically strong and a dangerous fighter. He rides a Harley and flies planes and helicopters. An adrenaline-junkie, he uses women and throws them away and they adore him.

The two of them make a fascinating moral study. Weiss is a good man who does bad things (he drinks too much and uses prostitutes. He also allows Bishop to operate his own way, though it offends his ethics). Bishop is a bad man who does good things—sometimes. Often to his own amazement.

The stories are told by an anonymous narrator who presents himself as the author. We are apparently meant to believe that Klavan himself worked at the Weiss Agency as a young man, and that these stories are his reminiscences (oddly though, there is no indication that the stories took place in the past. All the technology seems completely up to date. It’s almost as if these are memoirs from the future).

I liked the first book, Dynamite Road, very much, but I liked Shotgun Alley even better. Weiss and Bishop are hired by a very wealthy man, an aspiring political candidate, to find his daughter, Honey. Honey is only seventeen years old, but has run away from home and gotten involved with an especially vicious motorcycle gang. Weiss turns Bishop loose on the case, knowing that Bishop will do a number of things that he (Weiss) doesn’t want to know about.

There’s also a subplot about a case that Weiss works himself, with the help of Our Narrator. It involves a doctrinaire feminist college professor who hires them to trace the identity of a man who’s been sending her obscene e-mails.

Shotgun Alley is a love story, when you lay it all out, only the love is pretty messy.

You need to be warned about sex, violence and bad language. This book has them all, in pretty strong doses. Klavan is a confessed Christian, but he does not—repeat, not—write CBA fiction. I have a stomach for this kind of stuff, especially in a good cause, but it may not work for you.

I for one eagerly await the appearance in paperback of the next installment, Damnation Street.

Loving Through Excellent Artwork

Your Writers Group has been talking about excellence.

[Christians] don’t push toward excellence with the same do-or-die dedication since deep inside we know God accepts us anyway. We are never alone in the universe with only this creation to show we existed, never alone without God to fall back on. We place too high a value on family and others over our “personal” achievements with the talents God’s bestowed and we care too little about the establishment of a great work. We are (rightly) not as irrationally driven to prove our own worth and purpose through our creations. Our higher value is love, not art. . . . [But] maybe it’s because of love that we should give ourselves more fully to the creative impulse. If we, as Christian artists, would simply learn to love through our art, we might realize our greatest task.

He’s got a point.

Will Write for Food

Joe Maguire, author of Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter, has lost his job as an editor for Reuters, apparently over a conflict with the news group’s principles of trust. Mr. Maguire says, “There was a difference of opinion about the approval I received to write this book.”

I’m sure he’ll get a good job elsewhere, if this is only a political pan-flash with Reuters executives; if he really is a skunk or a back-stabber, then maybe the NY Times will offer him a position.

Irrational and Ignorant

Lynn Vincent, the managing editor of World Magazine’s blog, defines propaganda in the context of those who comment on the posts there. One contributor notes:

I’ve found the arguments used here (at Worldmagblog) so poor that I actually have my rhetoric class read the blog to find common fallacies. The most common is definitely Ad Hominem, but the readers here also love the False Dilemma, the False Cause and the Hasty Generalization. I also tell my students (at this Christian school) that they need to realize how ignorant Christians look in the real world of discourse.

Begrudging defense of Columbus

I find myself in an ambivalent position in regard to Christopher Columbus.

As a Viking nut, I have to be a Leif Eriksson supporter. Leif was here nearly 500 years before the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and we’ve got artifacts to prove it (unless you believe that the Viking stuff at L’Anse aux Meadows was planted by the world-wide Norwegian conspiracy, headed by the Sons of Norway. Wait! I said too much!).

By the way, here’s a picture from L’Anse aux Meadows, taken during my visit there in 2004. This is not the site itself, but a reconstruction of some of the original Norse buildings, erected just a few paces away. I was standing in the archaeological site when I took it:

http://i16.photobucket.com/albums/b27/larskval/Picture.jpg

But I feel I have to defend Columbus too, considering the number and nature of his current enemies. One book I recommend on the subject is Columbus and Cortez, Conquerors for Christ, by my friend John Eidsmoe. No doubt Eidsmoe takes positions that are open to dispute, but if you’re going to argue with a defense, you might as well argue with a strong one.

One thing Eidsmoe argues is that Columbus (contrary to current canards) did not make wholesale war on the native inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands in order to enslave them. What he did was take sides. He found two tribes in his original area of discovery—the peaceful Arawaks and the warlike, cannibalistic Caribs. He chose to defend the Arawaks from the Caribs, and felt himself morally justified in enslaving the Caribs, who were themselves enthusiastic slave-hunters. After he was replaced as governor, his successors failed to make the same distinction between the tribes, and that’s a great tragedy. But it’s not Columbus’ fault.

It’s true, however, that Columbus had more luck than wisdom in his original discovery. Washington Irving wrote an influential book which sealed forever in Americans’ memories the falsehood that Columbus set out to prove the world was round. He did no such thing.

Columbus did think the world was round. But his critics thought the world was round too. Everybody with any education already knew the world was round (I have a book in my library called The King’s Mirror, a Norwegian book of advice for a young man written in the 13th Century, which contains a passage employing sophisticated means to demonstrate that the earth is “round like a ball”). The difference between Columbus and his critics was that Columbus thought the earth was small, and his critics thought it was large.

And his critics were right. The calculations Columbus trusted were way, way off.

Fortunately he bumped into America and found alternate career opportunities.

Let’s face it—Leif Eriksson and his relatives came and went, and nothing changed much. Columbus, like him or not, was the cause of big, big changes.

So enjoy what’s left of your Columbus Day.

Simplistic Literary Biographies

The great Terry Teachout addresses literary biographies:

Far too many new biographies—including a forthcoming book about a famous filmmaker that I read last week and will be reviewing later this year—are rigidly and reductively thesis-driven, an approach that never fails to remind me of what Earl Long, Huey’s brother, said about Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.” I loathe biographers who nudge you in the ribs every few pages, sticking in pointed little reminders that the deeply suppressed sadomasochistic tendencies (or whatever) of Flannery O’Connor (or whoever) permeated her life and thought and insinuated their way into every page she wrote, blah blah blah.

Also, note his list of “first-rate” biographies, none of which he wrote himself.

Buy or Download Piper’s Latest Book

John Piper’s latest book, What Jesus Demands from the World, is available for $12.49 in print through Crossway Books or for free in PDF. In an audio file, Piper explains the need for the book. He says the Lord charges us to teach everyone in the world to observe his commands, not just teach them the commands. We can teach parrots all of Christ’s commands, but they can’t observe them.

So what does it mean to observe the things the Lord instructed us to do? Take up your cross. Always pray without losing heart. Avoid all anxiety. What God has joined together let no man separate. We know the words; do we understand and obey the meaning?

I’m looking forward to it.

Pass on Gory, Here’s Cute and Fluffy

Since we’re writing movie reviews, let me offer a few thoughts on those movies you’ve probably seen in the video store or in the online rental categories and thought to yourself, “Is it time for these movies? Are they any good? Will they hold my daughters’ attention?” Of course, I’m talking about the Barbie Princess animations.

I have four daughters. One has yet to be delivered, but she’s here nonetheless. All of them love the movies they’ve seen, which for the ones out of the womb is all of the movies. I have seen all but one, and in short they aren’t bad.

Last night, we watched the most recent fairy tale, Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses. Of course, it barely resembles the original story of twelve dancing princesses who use a magic drink to enslave men in their nighttime enchantment so that they want nothing but to dance with the women all night, every night. That’s a pretty interesting story, and the illustrations in my Portland House collection are beautifully intricate, if a bit weird. The story doesn’t have that gap in cultural understanding which many traditional or foreign fairy tales present to me, that moment in the story when something is explained or done which seems unnatural to me or maybe just gruesome, like when a man stops to help a woman and kills her after a few minutes. He goes on to live happily ever after. Nonsense.

The Barbie version has a pleasant musical theme, which becomes a pop song during the closing credits. It’s one of those catchy melodies which needs to go with a more complicated composition to make it really good, but Barbie has an audience of young girls who don’t care about that. Apparently, they do care about talking animals, because every movie has more-or-less irritating pets who usually talk to other animals and occasionally talk to the people. In Barbie and the 12 Dancing Princesses, there’s a cat, monkey, and parrot—cute, annoying, and funny respectively. (My sweet wife doesn’t give them that much credit.)

Positive messages, classic music, and dancing patterned after live ballet dancers are the strengths of these movies; occasionally lame dialogue, mediocre animation, overuse of magic are the weaknesses. I say lame dialogue instead of depictions of popular childishness which kids are supposed to relate too. The mean, selfish, whiney daughter of the villain in Barbie in Swan Lake was the very type of character my eldest daughter didn’t need to see in action. At the beginning of The Magic of Pegasus, the story looks as if it will go in a bad direction with a handful of pop references, but it ends well. All of them end pretty well, I suppose.

The 12 Dancing Princesses focuses on a family sticking together to protect their father, noting that everyone in the family has something to contribute. There’s a lot of dancing too. Swan Lake deals with inspiring individual aspirations and certain ballet moves. The Magic of Pegasus is about second chances and ice skating. This one shows Barbie disobeying her parents in the beginning and repenting without excuses in the end. The Nutcracker focuses on Tchaikovsky’s music and ballet. I forget the message–courage, maybe.

The best one is the only musical. The Princess and the Pauper is about twins separated at birth—stop me if you’ve heard this one. At the beginning, the two women sing about wanting their freedom from social obligations or poverty, but they end the song with words on their duty to their families, not the usual follow-your-heart line. The music is good, and the talking cats, dog, and horse don’t ruin the story.

Another plus overall: Barbie doesn’t marry whatever man shows up at the end of every story. There is occasional talk on the man’s cuteness, but I manage to stomach it.

Forgive me if you still can’t believe I’m blogging long on Barbie movies, but the best may be yet to come. I hear the next animation will be Barbie and The Merry Wives of Winsor. They may even tackle Romeo and Juliet. That way they can sell Barbie-sized coffins. Maybe the talking pets will draw first blood.

Movie Review: Beowulf & Grendel

(At last I’ve got my desktop back, and substantially operational. Now I can post the movie review I promised last weekend.)

I’ve been waiting for Beowulf and Grendel for some time. There was an official website, where they posted photos and production information, but as is the case with so many movies, there were problems in the distribution phase. I had high hopes for it. The costumes, in particular, looked to be far more authentic than anything we’ve seen in a Viking movie to date. (Technically it’s not really a Viking movie, since it takes place in the 6th Century, and the Viking period didn’t officially start until the 8th Century. But I doubt if a Northman living in those times would have seen any important difference.)

The film never did get meaningful release. It played in a handful of theaters in the U.S. and Canada, and now has gone to DVD. This is unfortunate in many ways, since it’s a well-acted, visually fascinating piece of work.

But I don’t like it much.

It was great to look at. The costumes, as I said, were outstanding. The armor and weapons were (thankfully) done with exacting care, barring some not-unthinkable improvisations (in contrast to the ones used in The Thirteenth Warrior, apparently the result of a scavenger hunt through the props department). The Icelandic locations were grimly beautiful as only Iceland can be–though a little disorienting, since the story is expressly set in Denmark, and Denmark has never–now or then–looked much like Iceland (it was heavily wooded in Beowulf’s time).

But Beowulf and Grendel is a preachy movie, and what’s worse, it’s a sort of preaching I don’t like.

If you read the Beowulf poem, you read the story of a heroic young man (played by Gerard Butler in the movie) who kills a mighty monster in order to protect the people of a family friend, King Hrothgar of Denmark. It’s a black-and-white story. Grendel, the monster, kills because he’s bloodthirsty and evil. Beowulf kills him (and later his fearsome mother) because he’s brave and strong and good.

The movie turns all this on its head. The new slant isn’t really revolutionary, because we’ve heard it all before, time and time again. It merely spoils the story. Grendel is now the heroic social outcast. He’s the utterly innocent victim of racial prejudice. He never kills anyone except those who’ve injured him (he’s able to pick those precise ones out through his superhuman sense of smell). It’s the Danes (typical imperialist, bigoted Europeans!) who have killed his father for sport.

I have no objection to humanizing villains. It’s something I take pains to do in my novels. A villain is more effective, more believable and more morally useful when the reader can sense our common, perilous humanity and recognize once again Solzhenitsyn’s profound dictum that “the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.”

But it can be overdone. The filmmakers (director Sturla Gunnarson and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins), instead of offering insight into human complexity, have essentially switched sides. Now it’s the Danes who are mindless, bloodthirsty monsters, and Grendel who is the pure and unsullied Ideal.

Aside from being a cliché, this approach makes the movie a lot duller than it might have been. Beowulf, pretty much the only Dane with a lick of decency or compassion, fights without enthusiasm, and his victory is a hollow one. Suddenly The Thirteenth Warrior (which was based on the same story) looks better as a movie. At least there was serious fighting with important stakes in that movie, not to mention a hero who cared about what he was doing.

The whole thing is summed up in a line at the end, where one of Beowulf’s men, listening to a friend composing the first draft of the epic poem, says, “[His] story is sh*t.” That’s what this movie all boils down to. It’s a movie about Beowulf done by people who despise Beowulf.

It’s rated R and deserves it. Lavish use is made of the “F” word, and there’s some gore (though not as much as there might have been) and sexual situations. An Irish priest (unimaginatively named Brendan) shows up in order to demonstrate how impotent and misleading Christianity is. The real voice of wisdom in the film (again, predictably) is a witch played with offputting smugness by Sarah Polley (who was the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen).

I’d planned to buy this movie. I’m glad now I rented it first.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture