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.

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.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture