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.

N.T. Wright Profiled in Atlanta

Michelle of Life Under the Sun points out a feature article on theologian N.T. Wright in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Here’s a bit from the article:

While Christian conservatives in the United States are often defined by two issues —- abortion and homosexuality —- Wright demonstrates that they can broaden their agenda to include social justice issues.

His theology is difficult to define at first glance.

He’s argued forcefully for the role of women as leaders in the church but believes homosexuality is a sin.

He believes in the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus but not the infallibility of the Bible.

He describes the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States as “unmitigated evil” but opposes the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Wright says his beliefs may seem odd and contradictory in the United States but not his country. He says plenty of conservative Christians in his homeland, for example, are as passionate about relieving Third World debt as they are about defending traditional Christian doctrine.

P.D. James’ Opening Sentences

Speaking of P.D. James, I love some of her opening sentences.



The Children of Men
: “Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty five years, two months and twelve days.”

Death In Holy Orders: “It was Father Martin’s idea that I should write an account of how I found the body.”

A Certain Justice: “Murderers do not usually give their victims notice. This is one death which, however terrible that last second of appalled realization, comes mercifully unburdened with anticipatory terror.”

Original Sin: “For a temporary shorthand typist to be present at the discovery of a corpse on the first day of a new assignment, if not unique, is sufficently rare to prevent its being regarded as an occupational hazard.”

Mars Hill Audio Podcast

I guess I missed the announcement this summer, because I just learned about Mars Hill Audio’s podcast, Audition. Ken Myers’ most recent recording is dedicated to P.D. James’s ideas on fiction and mystery and her sci-fi novel, The Children of Men. I believe I have heard most of this recording in early editions of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, and here you can listen to it for free.

The previous podcast has many literary subjects too. Taking from the description post, this recording discusses:

  • “how W. H. Auden’s conversion to Christianity affected his poetry”
  • “J. R. R. Tolkien’s view of language, and the dangers of a society that debases language”
  • “how Flannery O’Connor’s fiction reveals her incarnational view of life”
  • “how myth differs from the modern novel, and what is lost when the gods disappear from our stories”
  • “how C. S. Lewis was more open-minded than his Victorian atheistic teachers, and how that open-mindedness left room for Lewis to become a Christian”

Wonderful stuff.

Romper Room wonks

Tonight I cooked one of my brother Baal’s purple potatoes for supper. Did you know there are such things as purple potatoes?

It tasted like a potato. No surprises there, thank goodness. But a purple potato is deeply disturbing on a fundamental level. It’s purple inside and out, with thin of sheath of white between the “meat” and the skin. It looks like some kind of unnatural hybrid of potato and beet, and you can’t help thinking that it’s going to taste like something approved by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Visual cues mean a lot to most of us, and by that standard, I just don’t… (ready for this?) dig purple potatoes.

But it was interesting. Definitely interesting. Maybe three-year-olds will like them, if you tell them they’re dinosaur livers.

Rodham Devon, it was cold today. Cold out of a clear cerulean sky, so that if you kept your window shades open you got a nice solar rebate on your fuel oil bill. But the ambient temperatures more than adjusted for that. On a day like today, there’s nothing between us and the interstellar wastes except a little rind of planetary atmosphere. The sunlight drops in and bounces right back where it came from. Minnesota. A nice place to visit, but even sunlight doesn’t want to spend time here in the winter.

Lots of talk about the Iran Study Group report today. From what I hear and read on the web, it seems pretty much like what everybody expected.

I keep flashing back to my childhood. Elementary school. Green chalkboards and linoleum. A “cool” teacher telling the class, “Today we’re going to have a discussion on current events.”

And he would ask our opinions on how we thought various issues in the news ought to be handled.

The answers were always the same.

In domestic affairs, the answer always was, “The government should make a law…”

In international affairs, the answer always was, “We should sit down with other countries and talk about it.”

“That’s very good. Very thoughtful,” the teacher would say.

(Thomas the weird kid, of course, would say something like, “I think we ought to drop an atom bomb on ‘em.” But the teacher would tell him sternly that if he had nothing appropriate to offer, he should just be quiet.)

Fifty years later, it seems like most of us are still trying to impress that teacher.

Maybe it’s because our culture has bought into the myth of the Wisdom of Children (an opinion that seems to gain adherents as the birth rate decreases).

Or maybe it’s because we’re just culturally stuck in an infantile mode, dressing even in middle age like kids in an Our Gang feature, and bragging loudly about the toys we’ve accumulated (like Viking live steel gear, I know).

But I think a lot of us—even the old codgers of the Iraq Study Group—stopped refining our thinking about public affairs back in elementary school, and we haven’t noticed that the world is a little more complex than we knew in fifth grade.

What was your suggestion again, Thomas?

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day

We are singing this traditional carol in our Christmas concert this month:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;

I would my true love did so chance

To see the legend of my play,

To call my true love to my dance;

Chorus

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,

This have I done for my true love

Then was I born of a virgin pure,

Of her I took fleshly substance

Thus was I knit to man’s nature

To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was

So very poor, this was my chance

Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass

To call my true love to my dance. Chorus

Should I Use the N-word in a Title?

Mr. H.S. Key has kicked up a conversation on the word “nigger.” Regarding Michael Richards’ outburst:

Most offended Americans said it wasn’t necessarily the word that bothered them – since the word is used by rappers and even some crazy white people in somewhat less unacceptable ways (nigga and so forth). Rather, it was the manner, context and intent behind Richards’s usage that made the situation so bad. Or was it the word itself?

He describes another comedian who used the word clearly without malice and has apologized.

The word “nigger” is not one I plan to use when I’m not talking about the word itself, but I must say it doesn’t have the negative connotations for me that some people seem to give it, probably because it and other words like it carry more meaning in their usage than they do in the definition. For more on this, see Randall Kennedy’s 2003 book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.

The Last Survivors of Pearl Harbor

From AP reporter Jaymes Song: “With their number quickly dwindling, survivors of Pearl Harbor will gather Thursday one last time to honor those killed by the Japanese 65 years ago, and to mark a day that lives in infamy. This will be their last visit to this watery grave to share stories, exchange smiles, find peace and salute their fallen friends. This, they say, will be their final farewell. . . .

Nearly 500 survivors from across the nation were expected to make the trip to Hawaii, bringing with them 1,300 family members, numerous wheelchairs and too many haunting memories.”

Thank you, gentlemen, for giving your lives to protect our country and thank you to your families for supporting you. May we never forget, and may the Lord of all creation bless you and your families richly.

Grave meditations

It’s cold in the Twin Cities now, but we’ve only had light flurries of snow, flurries that left small trace behind. It’s kind of academic anyway, because it’s supposed to get up to about forty on Saturday, and anything we’d gotten, short of a major blizzard, would melt then anyway.

It felt even colder yesterday, out in the cemetery at the committal service. Especially bareheaded as I was. I wore my full winter Sunday regalia to the funeral, including my black homburg hat. I wore the hat in particular so I could take it off at the cemetery. And that’s why I’m taking zinc to fight a head cold today.

I feel that every person has a right to have some man in a black homburg hat at their funeral, to take it off at the appropriate time. In the past such uncoverings were taken for granted, but nowadays you’ve got to find an eccentric like me to give the proceedings that particular classy note.

Perhaps its part of the ancient tradition of human sacrifice at funerals. The Romans, as you may know, held gladiatorial combats to say goodbye to the dead. The Vikings liked to strangle a slave or two to keep King Gunnar company in his funeral mound.

And up until recently, we had men taking off their black homburgs at our funerals in the dead of winter, so that there was a good chance one of the older ones would contract pneumonia and follow after shortly, along that long, lonesome road.

This by way of Archaeology in Europe: Vatican Archaeologists Unearth St. Paul’s Tomb.

Vatican archaeologists have unearthed a sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the Apostle Paul that had been buried beneath Rome’s second largest basilica.

I wonder if they’ll find the skull with the body (Paul is said to have been beheaded, so that part could be missing). I’d like to see a forensic recreation, to learn how close to the traditional description he really was. I have to think the traditional picture is right, because I can’t imagine any reason why anyone would make up such an unattractive image. Paul is said to have been short and bowlegged, with a large, domed head and a prominent nose. He is also supposed to have been bald and to have had thick lips, which would probably be harder to determine working from the bones.

I love skull reconstructions. Somebody find me St. Olaf’s skull, or Chaucer’s. Give me a face to look at. If I can’t have a time machine, I’ll take whatever I can get.

Give Books to the Poor and Needy

And may God bless us everyone.

Lynne Scanlon suggests we put a book in the pocket of pants we give to a poor family this Christmas.

This week as she stood in line at the local general store to buy her daily fix of Pepperidge Farm cookies, the Wicked Witch waited behind an older gentleman buying five Nascar toy cars. He told the cashier that he was buying them to contribute to a local organization donating holiday gifts to needy children. Why not a book with each car? Doesn’t this idea make good sense? As a young girl I used to love getting books for Christmas—especially if they were about horses. I’ve since graduated from horse crazy to just plain book crazy.

In memoriam: Cousin Amos

I took off work today and drove down to my home town for a funeral.

My dad’s cousin Amos had died, old and full of years. He was probably Dad’s best friend among his cousins. His farm was only about two and a half miles from ours. We went to the same church, and he was one of the small group of farmers, dad among them, who helped one another fill their silos every year (an activity that nearly killed several members one year, when a steel silo collapsed. I wrote about a silo like that in Wolf Time).

Amos was almost an archetypal Norwegian farmer. He didn’t say much, although he liked to joke when he was with family and friends. In the community he was wholly overshadowed by his wife, a formidable woman who ran our church Sunday School like a general and was not afraid to step on toes as a crusading member of the local school board.

But he was loved. Our old church was filled to the rafters today, by people saying goodbye. Amos’ only granddaughter stood up to give a tearful and moving eulogy. She told how, in her last phone call to him, she had thanked him for the wonderful heritage he had left them, and then had felt ridiculous because nobody in her generation ever talks about “heritage.”

The pastor gave a simple, solid gospel sermon, saying that Amos had made his work easy, because he had been sure where he was going. Even my brother Moloch, who drove up from Iowa, was impressed with the sermon.

I was more deeply moved than I expected to be. I think I was mourning more than Cousin Amos. I was mourning my own parents, and a part of my life, and a way of living that is passing forever. The town isn’t the same, and farming isn’t the same. Even Norwegian Lutherans aren’t the same. And we are the poorer for it in many ways.

But I’m grateful for my heritage too. And, if nothing else, I also know where I’m going.

Appalachian Town Takes Up Christmas Magic

Inspired in part by the 1988 children’s book, The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston, and in part by the author herself, the folks of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, are remaking themselves after a few years of job loss. They hope to become “the home of the perfect Christmas tree.”

Gloria Houston donated the rights to her book to the city of Spruce Pine and suggested they take up the new holiday theme. In response, the town’s people are making holiday decorations.

Reporter Kathy Kiely of USA TODAY states: “These aren’t amateur holiday fair items: The curvilinear red, green and walnut Carolina ‘snowflakes’ hanging at the White House are the creations of Billie Ruth Sudduth, a basket weaver whose work is displayed at the juried Smithsonian craft show. The White House trees also feature handblown glass ornaments by Virgil Jones, whose work is on display in galleries in Asheville, N.C.”

The town has the attention of the first lady as well. “This is a very wonderful American story,” Laura Bush said. “They all worked together, the people in the town, to figure out a new industry for themselves, and they came up with making these wonderful ornaments.”

Hood, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I spent the bulk of my weekend in Wireless Router Purgatory. I got a little shopping in and went to church and all that, but Saturday and Sunday evenings were pretty much spent on the phone with a series of East Indians, most of whom seemed to be consulting the manual between instructions.

I’d tried wireless networking before, but gave it up after three set-ups because I always had to call Earthlink for a “bridge,” and Earthlink always made it fairly clear that I was cheating by not using equipment rented from them, but they’d stretch a point just this once.

So when I needed high-speed access for my tenant, I figured I’d just bite the projectile and order the fixin’s from Earthlink. All the difficulties I’d had setting up wireless in the past, I was sure, must have been due to the basic incompatibility of open-market equipment with Earthlink’s Own. This time it should be easy.

Ah, to be young again, guileless and starry-eyed.

After several hours with tech support I had everything working Saturday night. It worked right up to the time I signed off the internet on both computers. After that, neither computer had access anymore.

Finally yesterday I got to talk to a supervisor who knew what he was doing. It took 2 ½ hours, but we got it up and running in the end. Except that the laptop still doesn’t have access. He’s sending a new adaptor. For now I’m back to the same access I had before, except that I’m running it through more complicated connections.

Oh yes, I was going to review a book, wasn’t I?

Stephen Lawhead’s Hood is the beginning of a new trilogy. Lawhead has taken on the legend of Robin Hood this time, but of course, being Lawhead, he’s doing it his own way. I was a little wary of his approach, but all in all it worked for me.

Lawhead’s Robin Hood is not the Robin of the movies and television shows, nor even the Robin of the old English ballads. It’s Lawhead’s belief that such a legend could never have risen in the England where it finally established itself, but must in fact have older roots in a different place—Wales in the time of King William Rufus, successor to William the Conqueror.

I don’t generally care for literary relocations. I like my heroes in their proper places. I don’t like stories where Sherlock Holmes goes to New York (or Minnesota), or Philip Marlowe is transplanted to London. I don’t like stories about cowboys in Africa. Nevertheless, Lawhead got over my reservations and won my close attention.

This Robin Hood is Bran ap Brychan, the willful and immature son of a minor Welsh king. When his father is treacherously killed by invading Normans, Bryn first travels to London to appeal to the king’s justice. What he gets is a demand for payment for the restoration of his kingdom. When he returns to Wales he falls afoul of the Normans in possession and becomes a wounded fugitive. Wandering in the forest, he is rescued by someone who heals his body and helps him to discover his destiny.

I found Hood compelling reading. I don’t think Lawhead has ever managed to become the author his early career arc promised, but the story kept me turning the pages, and the characters were sharply drawn and appealing. Bran himself is fascinating—a spoiled, rebellious boy whose instinct is to flee his responsibilities, but who is led by grace to take up his destiny.

One element that worked well for me was an addition to the Robin Hood mythos—Lawhead puts Robin in a disguise. He wears a hooded feathered cloak and mask to resemble a large, supernatural raven (hence the title of the series, The Raven King Trilogy). This might possibly rise from the influence of Russell Thorndike’s Scarecrow of Romney Marsh stories. It worked marvelously well here, I thought.

Lawhead didn’t talk me over, personally, with his historical reasons for moving Robin to Wales. One fact he never mentions seems a weighty one to me—that Hood (or Hode) is a very common family name in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, the area where most of the ballads place the outlaw.

But that said, the book was a great ride and I look forward to the next one. I was also relieved that the reflexive anti-Catholicism of Lawhead’s recent work is nowhere to be seen here. There are good priests and bad priests, but no broad-brushed denunciations of the Roman church. So Catholic readers can relax. I discerned no major moral or theological lessons in the book (except for the importance of maturity and unselfishness), but Lawhead likes to leave that sort of thing for the very end.

Hood is suitable for teens and above. The morality is OK, considering the time and place. Robin Hood is a thief after all (I think we all knew that), but you can justify that on the basis of his being a king carrying on a war.

Pretty good book.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture