The Ghost of Orson Wells Strikes Belgium

On Wednesday night the Dutch-speakers of Belgium, which amount to 60% of the country, broke with their German-speaking countrymen and declared independence! The monarchy is on the run! Will there be blood? Will there be famine? And have we told you that we made this all up?

State-owned television ran a bit of make-believe as a special news report, saying, “‘Flemish parliament has unilaterally declared the independence of Flanders’ and that King Albert and Queen Paola had left on the first air force plane available.” After 30 minutes, they let their audience in on the fantasy.

“It’s very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste,” Didier Seeuws, a spokesman for Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, told the national news agency Belga, recalling the 1938 radio adaptation by Welles of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds,” which caused widespread chaos when thousands of Americans believed that Martians had invaded the United States.

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Merry Christmas

Infant holy, Infant lowly, for His bed a cattle stall;

Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the Babe is Lord of all.

Swift are winging angels singing, noels ringing, tidings bringing:

Christ the Babe is Lord of all.

Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping vigil till the morning new

Saw the glory, heard the story, tidings of a Gospel true.

Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow, praises voicing, greet the morrow:

Christ the Babe was born for you.

Tra­di­tion­al carol

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Privileged Information by Stephen White

A while back I read an article (in National Review Online, I think) that recommended mystery authors conservatives might like. Among them were Jonathan Kellerman and Stephen White, both writers of books featuring psychologist detectives. I took to Kellerman right off. White delighted me less, but I’ve run through the Kellerman in paperback now, and I’ve decided to move on to White. Privileged Information is the book that kicked off White’s Alan Gregory series. Having completed it, I think I may have underrated him on the first book.

Alan Gregory practices in Boulder, Colorado. He is separated from his wife and lives with his dog. He has a healthy practice and likes to take long bike rides for recreation.

One of his patients, a seductive and sexually troubled woman, commits suicide. Somehow her father, a rich, powerful man, gets his hands on information that leads him to believe that Gregory has violated professional ethics by sleeping with her. He calls for an investigation aimed at getting his license revoked.

Then another recent female patient of Gregory’s is killed in an auto accident.

And another female patient is murdered.

A police detective begins to look closely at the psychologist’s life.

Meanwhile Gregory starts dating a local prosecuting attorney who has intimacy issues. And one of his male patients begins to act in a bizarre, threatening manner.

None of this is coincidence. Someone is working out a plan, and Gregory’s life (along with his girlfriend’s) will depend on his ability to analyze the workings of a very dangerous mind. Because the rules of privileged information prevent him from telling the police about certain things he knows. And the killer knows that and uses it.

I can’t think about Stephen White’s books without comparing them to Jonathan Kellerman’s. And in terms of plain fun, for me there’s no contest.

Kellerman’s world is California bright. I picture his scenes in vivid colors and sharp definition. White’s stories leave me with a darker feeling, evening in an impressionist painting. I have a harder time imagining what his characters look like.

To me, White seems more realistic. Alan Gregory isn’t an optimist like Kellerman’s Alex Delaware. He practices psychology more in the manner I’d practice it if I had gone into the field (which would have been insanely wrongheaded). Gregory has trouble leaving his work at the office. He agonizes over minor failures, the sort that lead patients to leave therapy, to say nothing of the big ones where patients kill themselves.

I think that’s the main reason I enjoy Kellerman’s books more. White’s books are uncomfortably close to home.

I haven’t really discerned the conservative elements the National Review promised me. There was a gratuitious swipe at the Reagans in this book. However, one plot element did satisfy my prejudices. A female character turns out to be wrong about a serious matter, and apologizes at the end. When was the last time you read a book where something like that happened?

So I think I’ll carry on with White. I think Alan Gregory may grow on me.

Books 2006: Did You Happen to Read These?

The Literary Saloon links to a list of “most overrated and underrated” books in Prospect, which claims to be “the most intelligent magazine of current affairs and cultural debate in Britain.” Of course, the Saloon notes a few of its own.

On the overrated list, Everyman, by Philip Roth. “A slickly written, shallow and predictable novel of American self-regard and deserved decline.” and The God Delusion. Playwright Samantha Ellis nominates On Beauty,by Zadie Smith, saying it is “massively overrated. Why read a tribute to Forster when you can just read him?”

On the underrated list, Why Truth Matters, by Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom, Alentejo Blue, by Monica Ali, and The Human Touch, by Michael Frayn. Writer Allan Massie states, “William McIlvanney is the finest Scottish novelist of my generation, but Weekend, his first novel for ten years, received less attention than it deserved. This account of a university study-group meeting at a faux-baronial castle on a Scottish island, is wise, funny and often moving.”

Vince Guaraldi

“In 1963, Lee Mendelson was a young San Francisco filmmaker working on a documentary about Schulz, whose “Peanuts” cartoon strip was fast becoming a national craze. He needed music for a two-minute animated segment of his film. Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, he heard a catchy jazz tune on the radio called ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind,’ which was written and performed by Guaraldi, who also lived in the Bay Area.”

This Washington Post feature on a great jazz pianist and composer notes that “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was “one of the last instrumental jazz tunes to be a crossover hit — and earned Guaraldi a Grammy Award in 1963 for best original jazz composition.” This piece lead to Guaraldi composing the music to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” among other classics.

(via Cranach)

By the way, how many things on God’s green earth are better than good piano jazz? Probably just a dozen or so, wouldn’t you think?

Merry Christmas

And our eyes at last shall see Him,

Through His own redeeming love,

For that Child so dear and gentle

Is our Lord in Heav’n above,

And He leads His children on

To the place where He is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,

With the oxen standing by,

We shall see Him; but in Heaven,

Set at God’s right hand on high;

Where like stars His children crowned

All in white shall wait around.

(from “Once in royal David’s city” by Ce­cil F. Al­ex­an­der)

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Evil in Fiction and Ukraine

SR pointed out Peter Kreeft’s website, and today I noticed a lecture called, “10 Uncommon Insights Into Evil from Lord of the Rings.”

I haven’t listened to it yet, but I heard a coincidental news report today on the real evil in Ukraine. “Healthy new-born babies may have been killed in Ukraine to feed a flourishing international trade in stem cells, evidence obtained by the BBC suggests.” Killing unborn children isn’t enough for some hospital staff in that country. Newborns have been stolen from their mothers by their nurses so that their bodies can be mined for stem cells.

Is this the result of viewing children as non-persons or of viewing the human body as an organic machine, separate from spirit within it?

Linking today

Linking: the last refuge of the uncreative. Got some good ones today though.

Ed Veith at Cranach passes on some information about possible evidence that Jesus may in fact have been born on December 25. Probably too good to be true, but few things would satisfy me more than poking a finger in the collective eye of the Scroogeist Church.

Aitchmark sent me the following link which he describes as a “wonderful, amazing timesink”: How Products Are Made.

And finally, continuing in the comprehensive mode, novelist Michael Z. Williamson alerted me to every guy’s dream knife.

Merry Christmas

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:6-7 KJV).

Song of a grumpy dwarf

(I don’t write poetry often. Mostly because mine stinks.)

Who needs wizards or witches? I told them all myself

Back at the start. The story front to back.

Well, not the part about the apple. That

Gave even me a shock.

But in the end

It worked out as I warned them.

Princesses! What matters it to dwarfs

How ladies live or die? No princess ever born

Would spend a sigh on any dwarf that lives. Oh,

She might laugh to see

Us trudging up the street

Or spare a moment’s pity.

But in our sagging cottage? To bring a princess in

Is to shift all. Her beauty makes our home

A donkey’s stall. The brush, the broom, the soap

And paint are not enough.

She calls it good,

But dreams of silk and marble.

You think a princess born would be content to bide

In this rude shed? With seven ugly half-men?

When in her head a thousand ballads cry

To fetch her to her own?

You cannot hold

An eaglet in an anthill.

Oh, you may dream in secret things unspoken;

Dwarfs are Ygg’s worms. Sight is not enough.

We yearn to swarm. We lust to hold and touch

The buttery weight of gold,

The silver star,

Or any other heart-sweet.

And now she’s gone. The tall one came and pinched her

Just as I reckoned. Now our house is vast,

And vastly vacant. Spiders drape in corners.

Dust drifts in cupboards.

Dishes welter.

And washing would remind us.

The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning

The Bookman’s Wake is the second book in a detective series starring Cliff Janeway. Janeway is a former cop who gave up police work to become a rare book seller. In this story he is approached by a former colleague, another ex-cop who has become a private detective. Janeway neither likes nor trusts the man, but is tempted by his offer—five thousand dollars to arrest a woman who has jumped bail, and bring her back to Denver for trial. Her picture looks nice, the money sounds good, and her case is interesting. She is accused of stealing (twice) a rare book printed by a legendary small publisher named Darryl Grayson, whose books are famous both for being almost perfect and extremely hard to find.

Things go badly very quickly. Janeway approaches her under an assumed identity (her name is—seriously—Eleanor Rigby), and finds they have much in common. She’s a “book scout.” She makes a precarious living prowling used bookstores and thrift shops for underpriced books she can sell to dealers at a profit. Though very young, she can teach Janeway some things about books. He meets her family, printers themselves (her father worked for the famous Grayson) and likes them too. She makes a sexual advance, but he turns her down, partly because of his deception and partly because of her age.

About the time he decides he can’t bear to turn her over to the police, Eleanor gets arrested anyway. Janeway ends up escorting her as originally planned, but then she is kidnapped by a mysterious thug with an agenda of his own. Janeway must pick his way through the intricate maze of an old mystery in order to rescue her.

I liked Dunning’s writing. He uses words with real skill, and his characters are interesting and mostly well drawn. His knowledge of the book trade makes reading his novel educational in itself.

I had a problem with his hero though. Cliff Janeway is supposed to be both a cerebral book lover and a very tough guy. The combination isn’t impossible or even unlikely, but Dunning didn’t make it work for me here. The contrast between Janeway’s normal narration and the action sequences where he becomes deadly and violent struck me as too extreme. It was as if there were two characters, with no connection between them. I’d have liked to have seen some transition, some reflection of each facet in the other. But perhaps I’m just operating from a preconception about book people.

Also, except for the final showdown, I thought Janeway was just too good in a fight. In particular, he comes up against one criminal supposed to be a shadowy, dangerous, deadly killer, but he handles him with ease. It would have increased plot tension and improved believability if Dunning had made the struggle a little harder.

I was also irritated by Dunning’s politics. He’s entitled to them, of course, and I’d defend to the death his right to work them into his novels, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy his books. Conservatives, here, are uniformly either stupid or venal, all television evangelists are evil con men, and any dissent from environmental causes is a sign of moral turpitude.

I was also amazed by one bad word choice that astonished me in a book so well-written. This is the offending sentence:

“But the deal had to be handled with tenterhooks. The woman was extremely nervous”

A guy who knows words as well as Dunning ought to be aware that tenterhooks are not instruments of delicate manipulation. Tenterhooks were tools in the old weaving industry. Lengths of cloth were hung from them for stretching. “Being on tenterhooks” means to be in a state of tension, not caution.

The Bookman’s Wake has much to recommend it, but I don’t think I’ll be patronizing that particular shop again.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture