‘Death of a Russian Priest,’ by Stuart M. Kaminsky

Death of a Russian Priest

“You are a true believer,” she answered. “A true believer needs a cause or he will wither. It is known in the lives of the saints that a man is twice blessed who embraced the devil before he embraces God. I see it in your eyes. During the service for Father Merhum the Holy Mother found you.”

I’m kind of flying through Stuart M. Kaminsky’s series of Russian police procedurals starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, Moscow detective. Rostnikov is a squat man whose nickname is “the Washtub.” He drags along a crippled leg, a souvenir of his teenaged service in World War II. When not solving crimes, he likes to fix his neighbors’ plumbing, read American crime novels, and lift weights. He is a man of deep compassion who approaches his cases from human understanding. Though his passion for justice has often brought him into conflict with police officials and the KGB, his native shrewdness has allowed him and his team to stay on the job. He always has to compromise somehow, the world being what it is, but he survives.

The series is longer than I realized, and it extends past the fall of the Soviet Union. In the unsettled times of Glasnost and Perestroika, Rostnikov’s demotion to a division with mostly ceremonial duties proves a career advantage. His successful investigations raise his division’s prestige, and its lack of political connections allows it to rise unimpeded in the political chaos.

I’m not going to review the whole series, which I haven’t finished yet, but Death of a Russian Priest stood out for me. In the new Russia, the Orthodox Church is reasserting itself, but does not stand unchallenged. Father Vasili Merhum of the village of Arkush, after performing his final mass before leaving town to lead a protest against government policies, is murdered with an ax. Porfiry Rostnikov is sent to investigate, along with a faithful member of his team, Emil Karpo. Karpo is a troubled soul. A dour, impassive man who looks like a vampire, his whole life has been spent in monk-like devotion to the Communist Party. Now his god has failed, and he operates on automatic pilot, troubled by frequent migraines. What made this book particularly interesting to me was Karpo’s reluctant attraction to what he sees in the church, the only institution that appeals for the same kind of commitment he longs to give. Continue reading ‘Death of a Russian Priest,’ by Stuart M. Kaminsky

River of Books in the Street

In Toronto, they throw books in the street and call it art to make a statement about congested traffic.

“We want literature to take over the streets and conquer public spaces, freely offering those passersby a traffic-free place which, for some hours, will succumb to the humble power of the written word.”

They laid down this artistic installation on one of the city’s busiest streets.

“Thus, a city area which is typically reserved for speed, pollution and noise, will become, for one night, a place for quietness, calm and coexistance illuminated by the vague, soft light coming out of the lighted pages.”

During the exhibit, people walked on the books, took pictures of themselves on the books, and took most of the books home with them. I don’t know whether Toronto’s traffic congestion has changed since receiving this smite from the humble word.

‘The Private Patient,’ by P. D. James

The Private Patient

Bestselling author P. D. James died in 2014. I was embarrassed to discover that I had thus far failed to read her final novel, The Private Patient, which was published way back in 2008. If you’ve been waiting for my review, read on.

In the later books of her Inspector Adam Dalgliesh mystery series, Baroness Phyllis adopted the strategem of setting her murders within somewhat isolated communities, in part bridging the gap between the police procedural and the traditional English “cozy” mystery. The Private Patient continued and capped that pattern. The location here is Cheverell Manor, a beautiful old estate in the county of Dorset. George Chandler-Powell, a prominent plastic surgeon, has acquired the property and set up a private clinic there, where his richest and most celebrated patients can get their tummy tucks and face-lifts in luxurious privacy.

One of his patients is Rhoda Gradwyn, a prominent investigative journalist. Rhoda carries an ugly facial scar, a souvenir of a childhood with a brutal, drunken father. Now, in her 40s, she asks to have the scar removed, telling Chandler-Powell that she “no longer has need of it.” A couple members of his live-in staff urge him not to admit the woman to Cheverell House, since they know of her work and mistrust her. Continue reading ‘The Private Patient,’ by P. D. James

Worshipping at The Voice

I heard a local radio host recall his reaction to seeing part of The Voice (season 11, ep. 23) last night. He said the singer was leading worship with “To Worship I Live (Away),” written by Israel & New Breed. He noted the audience’s participation. He said judges were teary eyed.

Here’s how Amanda Bell of Entertainment Weekly described it. “There’ve been a lot of hymnal-style ballads to hit the stage this season, have there not? Christian Cuevas has made no secret about his allegiance to family and faith, and obviously, that spirit of purpose has served him well thus far — his performance last week caught the attention of Lady Gaga herself and the iTunes downloading community.”

For Cuevas to sing Christian praise music in a music competition venue is certainly a witness to his faith. I don’t wish to criticize his choices or motives, but for the radio host to suggest the audience and judges were worshipping the Lord along with him confuses emotion with worship simply because of the lyric being sung. Would he say the same about a masterfully performed Whitney Houston or Rihanna song that brought the audience to their feet? Of course not, and yet the response is the same. Here’s what Bell said when thinking through predictions for next week. “Christian Cuevas… took a big risk on a song that might get his own insides moving and grooving with the holy spirit, but was otherwise pretty unremarkable for those of us who aren’t familiar with the gospel he was singing in multiple languages.”

The Voice is a music show, and viewers will respond to strong performances.

As I remember the story, Jascha Heifetz and George Gershwin were talking about the pop music of their day, saying someone could write a perfectly scandalous song that should offend everyone who heard it (or maybe it was a ridiculous mess of a song, not scandalous), but if it had that emotional pull of the catchiest pop music, it would be a hit. Heifetz wrote the 1946 hit “When You Make Love to Me (Don’t Make Believe)” to prove it could be done.

Modern worship music easily fits this description. Familiar sounds and repeated words guide us through emotional patterns, which in church or Christianized settings we call ‘worship.’ That’s not what we mean by the word ‘worship,’ but let me suggest that’s actually what it is. When an audience is moved by Beyoncé or a cover artist, regardless of the song, they are worshipping. They may be revelling in the look and sound of the singer, the lyric of the song, or the tone and tension of the music. It doesn’t matter what focuses their adoration; it only matters that they are adoring in that moment.

So, yes, Cuevas’s performance did lead the audience in worship, but it was only worship of the living God for some. For most of them, it was the idolatry of music.

Advent duties

Advent is a season of many tasks. In the old days, I’ve read, it was a fast time, like Lent. People approached the Christmas holiday, pretty literally, with hungry anticipation. We Protestants pretty much abandoned that tradition, and I haven’t noticed that the Catholics observe it much either these days.

Still, Advent has its duties. For me, Christmas cards are one. I still send them, and I send a Christmas letter too. Yes, I am that guy. I’ve got my CC labels mail-merged off Microsoft Word (is it possible for them to make that process more complicated? Don’t answer – you’ll give them ideas), but I just discovered I printed one set on the wrong side, so I’ll have to re-do those. I traditionally start my cards right after Thanksgiving, but classes delayed that the last two years. This year, finally done with classes, I’m delayed by my bronchitis instead.

I keep telling myself I’ll bring the Christmas tree down from the attic tomorrow, and so far it hasn’t happened. I think I need servants.

I have antibiotics and an inhaler with which to battle my lung crud. I wonder if the antibiotics actually help, or whether doctors just dispense them because people expect them. I read that most bronchitis comes from a virus, and antibiotics don’t really serve any purpose. If that’s the case I’d rather not get them. I don’t like antibiotics as a form of recreation.

I finished a novel by an author I’ve had some contact with in the past. I reviewed his previous books, but I think I’ll leave this one unaddressed. I found this book kind of dully written, and the story I found fairly depressing. But if I can’t praise the book, I won’t pan it. I shall pass by on the other side of the road, pretending I didn’t see it. Don’t ask me to identify the author; I feel disloyal enough already.

And now, I must endeavor to rest. Strenuously.

Don’t Read Newspapers

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Norvell:

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.

Did Jefferson go on to summarize his thoughts by saying, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed”? The Quote Investigator explains.

The ‘Rivers of London’ series, by Ben Aaronovitch

Moon Over Soho Whispers Under Ground Broken Homes Foxglove Summer

The rolling news networks loved the idea of a shadowy network of camps. It gave them hours of talking heads and a chance to stick a body from Migration Watch or UKIP up against a government spokesman or, even better, from someone from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in the hope that they would both kill and eat each other live on air.

I reviewed Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot a few inches down the page. I decided to pick up the next book in the Rivers of London Series, and before I knew it I was hopelessly caught up in these infectious books, which aren’t even in my usual line.

The hero and narrator is Peter Grant, a young London police detective. By good (or not) fortune, he has found himself attached to a shadowy unit of the Metropolitan Police whose name keeps changing, but which deals with supernatural crimes. The sole member of this unit, up until Peter’s arrival, was Inspector Nightingale (a somewhat Doctor Whovian character, which is no surprise since author Aaronovitch used to write for that BBC series). Later they are joined by Leslie May, a young female constable who trained with Peter and is his best friend. They operate out of “The Folly,” a large estate in London. Continue reading The ‘Rivers of London’ series, by Ben Aaronovitch

Fred Sanders Can’t Dance the Flow

In his review of Richard Rohr’s new book, Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, Fred Sanders explains how it isn’t about the Trinity at all. It’s about the divine flow, a dance within the Godhead that ends up being more important than the Godhead.

The flow is a self-giving exchange of love and life. If you were to ask Rohr whether the flow is primarily something about God, the world, or the human person, he would no doubt answer with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and his twinkling Franciscan eyes would twinkle Franciscanly. The flow overflows the distinction between the Creator and the creature. It flows from God as God empties Godself; it circulates among creatures and binds them together with each other and the absolute; it flows back to God, enriching and delighting that Holy Source who loves to see finite spirits awaken to their true, divine selves. The flow sounds like a noun, but it’s really a verb. Flow verbs all nouns as they flow with its flowing.

That looks like some good verbal dancing on Sanders’ part, but it isn’t the flow. It’s more like keeping his footing solid while the room shakes, which makes for entertaining reading.

Journal of the plague season

I apologize for my radio silence last night. I was just too run down to do anything but go to bed early. I’m celebrating my annual Cusp of Winter Tradition – the massive bronchial infection. It makes no sense to me that – every year about the same time – I come down with a cold which must inevitably descend into my lungs and take up residence like 1970s hippies, putting shag carpet up on all the walls. But such is the case. Every blinking year.

And every blinking year I imagine that this time my immune system will do what I pay it to do, and kick the deadbeats out. According to what I’ve read, you never get the same strain of cold twice, so it only makes sense that once in a while it would be a cold I could beat. But I never can. So at the point when I’m coughing all over my work and living spaces, infecting everyone I encounter, I finally break down and see the doctor. As I did today.

Actually it was a Physician’s Assistant today. She listened to my lungs, had a good laugh, and prescribed an antibiotic and an inhaler. Plus suggesting an over the counter nostrum.

So I guess I’m not a hypochondriac.

When you’re Norwegian, you can’t go to the doctor just because you feel sick. You need to feel you have something interesting to offer, something they can tell their colleagues about, and write up in a JAMA article.

And now I need to lie down. Titanic powers are at war within me.

Cartoon Movie Trend: Junior Knows Best

Film critic Steven D. Greydanus talks about animated movies in light of Disney’s latest release, Moana. He points to many examples of children following their hearts or a variation thereof in defiance of their parents. “In each case, the child defies the ultimatum — and here’s the crucial bit: In the end, the child’s aspirations are vindicated, leading not only to a paternal change of heart, but to a revolutionary breakthrough in the social status quo.”

Back in 2010, Greydanus identified this trend and labeled it “Junior Knows Best.”

A common note in these stories is parental caution: concern for limits and boundaries which children must break through. The caution nearly always runs the same way; we don’t get stories of parents encouraging cautious children to face their fears. Nor (Cloudy With Meatballs aside) do we get stories in which parental cautions turn out to be warranted. The parents are always the cautious ones — and they’re always wrong.

Lessons in Opening a Bookstore

Ms. Bagnulo said there were two major questions to consider when deciding where to open a bookstore: Which city neighborhoods are in need of one, and which can support one.

“It’s sort of joking, but the rule of thumb is, if the neighborhood can support a farmers market, the neighborhood can support a bookstore,” she said.

Jessica Bagnulo is one of the owners of two bookstores in Brooklyn, New York. They sold 500 books in their opening weekend.

Down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a local publisher is opening a speciality store with rotating literary and local-interest themes.

Nothing in here is set in stone, and that’s why the community curation part of this is so vital,” Easty Lambert-Brown, who owns Borgo Publishing, said of her new store, Ernest & Hadley Booksellers. “If you can provide me a good, rounded set of people that had a major influence on how we think, let me have it! I’m not an expert in all this, and my goal is to learn something here. If I’m not learning from it, I’m just taking up space.”

Limericized Classics

Our friend Ori posted a graphic on Facebook, showing a series of limerick versions of classic poems — “The Raven,” “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” etc.

I couldn’t find the original source, so I don’t care to republish it here. But I will publish the one I came up with on the spot (well, after a few minutes’ thought). It requires a sloppy but common pronunciation of “Ulysses”:

“The Odyssey”

There once was a Greek named Ulysses,
Who angered a god with his disses.
He paid for his crime,
But got home in time
To wedding-unplan for his missus.

‘Afon,’ by Robert Partridge


He had forgotten, too, the pain of this [writing] – the pain of dragging this thing out of oneself, the birth of a reluctant child that would much rather go on growing inside than be forced out screaming into the light of day and the fear of examination. He had forgotten the monstrous ego that was needed to push the creation out into the world, with all its mess and suffering. He had forgotten.

I’ve been praising Peter Grainger’s DC Smith novels in this space. On noodling around for further information about the author (who seems to wish to be a man of mystery), I discovered that “Peter Grainger” is a pen name. More than that, the author had earlier written (under the name Robert Partridge) some literary novels, one of which – Afon – starred a character named Peter Grainger, who was a novelist.

Messing with our heads, in other words.

So I bought Afon. It’s pretty good. Not my cuppa tea, but a well-written novel.

Peter Grainger is in his 40s. Long ago he wrote a first novel that got a lot of recognition, and then he lost his nerve and wrote no more. Now he’s quit a teaching job, which he hated. He has some money left from a divorce settlement, so he decides to take a lease on a cottage on an estate called Afon, in a remote valley in Wales. He will try and write another novel. If he fails, at least he’ll know he made the attempt.

He meets the elderly landowner and his much younger wife. He learns to fly fish. He makes an enemy of the estate’s brutal gamekeeper, agonizes over his feelings for two different women (both married), and after a struggle produces a new book.

Afon abounds in lovely descriptions of the natural beauty of Wales, and in perceptive dramatizations of the writing process. The ending is kind of ambiguous, the sort of thing you expect in a literary novel – which is one of the reasons I generally avoid literary novels.

But it’s pretty good. Not much obscenity here, though the bonds of marriage take a beating. Recommended, if you like this sort of thing.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture