Call to Fund Finishing of Unpublished Burgess Novel

Prance, Noah!

There are many kinds of flood, not all of them water. Here: France, green and grey beneath a swift blue sky, and wholly submerged. The flood here is war.

Adam Roberts, professor of nineteenth-century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, has been inspired to take up a screenplay left unproduced by Anthony Burgess, a historical movie on The Black Prince. Roberts is working on developing it into a novel. Above is an excerpt from the work in progress.

Roberts said he talked over his idea “with Andrew Biswell (director of the Burgess Foundation in Manchester the world’s leading expert on Burgess’s writing) and we agreed it would be worth seeing if the work could be completed. I have always felt that a science fiction writer is working in the same sort of territory as the writer of historical fiction (and several of my SF novels have been historical, or included historical elements): the creation of a world, the estrangement of the familiar.”

He has been crowd sourcing his fund this year and is 72 percent to his goal this morning.

‘Deep Freeze,’ by John Sandford

Deep Freeze

John Sandford’s novels are always entertaining. The latest Virgil Flowers novel, Deep Freeze, delivers pretty much what you paid for.

As you probably guessed from the title, this story takes place during the Minnesota winter. Virgil Flowers, laid-back agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is called back to place he has no desire to revisit – Trippton, in the southeastern part of the state. He recently closed down a murder ring there involving some of the town’s most prominent people. This time a woman has been found floating in the warm recycling runoff from the local water treatment plant. Evidence in her home indicates she was murdered there and dumped in the river. She was a local VIP, the town banker. She had had a meeting with her old high school classmates the night she died, planning a reunion. All the obvious suspects seem to have ironclad alibis.

At the same time, Virgil is asked to assist a female private detective who has the blessing of the governor. She has been hired by the Mattel Corporation to hunt down a ring of locals who are altering Barbie Dolls to make them into sex toys. Virgil is reluctant to get involved in this case, partly because the illegal business is helping out some people in tough economic circumstances. But he’ll do what he can, when he can. Especially after a bunch of them attack him and leave him badly injured.

If you read Sandford, you know what to expect here – a pretty good mystery with amusing, colorful characters and a lot of obscene dialogue and dirty jokes. One thing I’d advise author Sandford to do is to sprinkle a few more Scandinavian names among his characters, especially the poorer ones. I don’t say that for reasons of ethnic pride (or not entirely). When his rednecks get to talking, I have trouble not imagining them speaking with southern accents. It would help if a few of them were named Olson or Lindquist; it would be a reminder.

Recommended for Sandford fans. If you can’t handle a lot of f-bombs, you’d do best to stay away.

‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

Why always triangles? What is the purpose of the transceiver they are building? What two points does Hauptmann know, and why does he need to know the third?

“It’s only numbers, cadet,” Hauptmann says, a favorite maxim. “Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking this way.”

Our commenter Paul suggested Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See to me, as a work with similarities to Mark Helprin’s Paris In the Present Tense, which I reviewed with approval. And it is indeed reminiscent of that work, not least in its French locations. It’s one of those heady books that I’m not sure I understood, but I enjoyed it as an experience.

The book is told out of sequence, beginning with the Allied bombing of the French coastal city of Saint-Malo in 1944. We are shown, within that city, two people – a blind girl named Marie-Laure, left alone in their house by her guardian grand-uncle, and a German radio operator named Werner Pfennig, sheltering in the cellar of a hotel. Through the story that follows, we learn the events that brought these two people into proximity. Marie-Laure is the daughter of the Master of Locks at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. By chance, he is entrusted at the beginning of the war with a precious stone, a legendary treasure said to have healing powers. That stone becomes the obsession of a dying Nazi officer, who systematically follows their trail.

In a smoky mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig grows up in an orphanage, destined for a short, backbreaking life laboring underground. He finds and repairs a broken radio, beginning a lifetime of fascination with electronics, and listening with his sister to mysterious late-night broadcasts about science, in the French language. It looks as if his life is saved when he’s recruited for an elite school run by the Nazi Party – but it turns out to be as deadly as the mines, in a more profound way.

Werner builds a device that triangulates radio signals, enabling the Nazis to locate illegal radio transmitters. The idea of triangulation seems (to me) to be a theme of the book. A kind of triangulation of events brings Werner and Marie-Laure together, eventually, for one magical moment. And then the world resolves once more into the static of war. I’m not sure what All the Light We Cannot See means. It seemed to me, in its final resolution, too modern for my tastes. But it was a fascinating and beautiful book to read.

Cautions for language, tragedy, and mature themes.

How the Land Shaped America

Mark Helprin describes how the concept of America was shaped in part by its land.

For without understanding nature’s metaphors of infinity, man looms far larger in his own eyes than he would in their insistent presence, and, as history shows, comes to believe not only that he is the measure of all things but the maker and judge of life, death, and everything in between. . . .

Man reacts in the presence of limitlessness. He is buoyed immensely on tides of freedom.

Ragging on Dan Brown

Matt Walther has jotted down a few notes on how bad Dan Brown’s latest work is.

Origin is not a thriller. No writer honestly attempting to concoct one would dare to begin with several chapters of a man taking a guided tour of a museum complete with unevocative descriptions of each work of art . . .

Nor, finally, would anyone who is not going out of his way to subvert the very notion of suspense as a factor that might conceivably motivate us to turn pages attempt even as a joke what must be the most banal chapter-ending cliffhanger in the history of fiction: “‘This getaway car was hired,’ Langdon said, pointing to the stylized U on the windshield. ‘It’s an Uber.'”

In the following chapter, a cop boggles at this feat of deduction.  And there’s far, far worse, if you find such things entertaining. (via Prufrock News)

Kirkus Leans Heavily on Identity Perspectives

burned book on fireRecently, Kirkus Reviews printed a review of the Young Adult novel American Heart by Laura Moriarty. It’s a futuristic story that follows a Huckleberry Finn pattern with its leading teenager helping  an Iranian immigrant and professor on the run in an America where Muslims are interned in camps.

Apparently the review was not damning enough, because presumed readers on the social webs decried American Heart for having a white savior narrative. The reviewer, who is a non-white Muslim woman, did think it was that big of an issue, but online pressure got Kirkus to pull the review for re-evaluation. When reissued, the review said this: “Sarah Mary’s [the teenager’s] ignorance is an effective worldbuilding device, but it is problematic that Sadaf [the Iranian] is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.”

Vulture’s Kat Rosenfield spoke to Kirkus’s editor-in-chief about how this revision was made.

And while Smith says the call-out of said problematic element is not meant to dissuade readers from reading the book — “If readers don’t care that this novel is only told about a Muslim character, from the perspective of a white teenager, that’s fine” — he acknowledges that Kirkus does care, and does judge books at least in part on whether they adhere to certain progressive ideals. When I ask if the book’s star was revoked explicitly and exclusively because it features a Muslim character seen from the perspective of a white teenager, Smith pauses for only a second: “Yes.”

I wonder if this will put American Heart on the banned books list for 2018.

Memories in store

The other day I thought about the Moland Store. A footnote in the history of a very obscure place, but in my mind kind of emblematic. A relic of a former time, on its last legs, but I was there briefly at the end of the era.

I’m sure my family bought groceries at the Moland Store when my dad was a boy. Back then, there were little country stores scattered around the prairie, at strategic intervals. Inventories were small (though storekeepers tried to cater to their regular customers’ preferences). It was a long way to town, and the high prices were a trade-off for time saved.

One of my earliest memories is of a day when my aunt and her boyfriend took my brother and me to a circus in the Twin Cities. On the way back we were caught in a snowstorm and forced to take refuge in a different country store, some miles north of town. It was the first adventure of my life, and I did not acquit myself with distinction. Cried until I fell asleep.

Our nearest store was the Moland Store, located at the intersection of a couple of gravel roads. The community of Moland boasted a church, a brick creamery (still in operation when I was a boy, I think), a swamp, and the store, a clapboard building with a false front (I think; memory might be deceiving me), just like in the westerns. Continue reading Memories in store

More fake Viking news

Not Kufic

It’s getting so there’s a new bogus, agenda-driven story about the Vikings every week or so. Not long ago it was the story about the “female Viking warrior,” which seems to have been far less than advertised. This week it was the name “Allah” “discovered” in a piece of Viking embroidery. From the English paper, the Independent:

The silk patterns were originally thought to be ordinary Viking Age decoration but a re-examination by archaeologist Annika Larsson of Uppsala University revealed they were a geometric Kufic script.
They were found on woven bands as well as items of clothing, in two separate grave sites, suggesting that Viking funeral customs had been influenced by Islam.

I was skeptical about this story from the git-go. In the first place, the pattern looked like a fairly standard geometrical pattern, very much like the kinds you get from tablet weaving, common in the Viking Age. Secondly, even if the pattern was derived from Muslim script, that does not imply belief. The Vikings had strong trade contacts with Baghdad, to whose representatives they sold thousands of slaves every year. Arabic silver coins (dirhems) are one of the most common objects found in Viking hoards, especially in Sweden. Arabic coins have no pictures, in keeping with Islamic law. Just the flowing, graceful Arabic script. It would be no surprise if the shapes of the letters might have inspired a Viking embroiderer. No religious motive should be assumed.

Now, as expected, there’s been a rebuttal, even more categorical than I expected.

…now a leading expert in mediaeval Islamic art and archaeology has disputed the claim and said the inscription contains “no Arabic at all.”

Stephennie Mulder, a professor from the University of Texas in Austin, said the error stems from a “serious problem of dating”.

She claims Kufic script did not occur until 500 years after the Viking age.

“It’s a style called square Kufic, and it’s common in Iran, C. Asia on architecture after 15th century,” she wrote on Twitter.

Listen archaeologists – I know you want to see your names in the papers. And I know it’s good for your careers to make the most exaggerated claims you can, in the service of multiculturalism. But stop trying to promote your causes by exploiting history.

That’s the job of historical novelists. Like me.

Tip: Dave Lull.

‘Cold Harbor,’ by Matthew FitzSimmons

Cold Harbor

Matthew FitzSimmons’s Gibson Vaughn series of novels has generally been a pleasure to follow. The new third entry, Cold Harbor, is satisfying – more so than the previous book, Poisonfeather, which irked me a bit by ending with a cliffhanger.

When Cold Harbor begins, Vaughn, ex-marine and computer hacker, is finally set free from confinement, but he’s not quite ready. For eighteen months he’s been a “guest” of the CIA, and aside from being physically weaker, he’s now slightly insane. Ghosts out of his past appear to him and nag him to fulfill his duties, duties which pretty much contradict each other.

His first item of business is to get revenge on the CIA agent who kidnapped him – something he accomplishes, but which provides less satisfaction than he expected. His other priority is to reunite with his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife. But he comes to realize that would not be good for her.

Instead, an old friend shows up asking for his help in rescuing a mutual friend. That friend has been kidnapped by Cold Harbor, a sinister military contracting company. There’s only one chance to get the man free – a slim one – and it depends on cooperating with his greatest enemy in the world.

The writing in the Gibson Vaughn novels is very good, but the characterization is the most interesting part. Good and bad characters are textured and multi-leveled. We get to see Vaughn’s friends and enemies in their best and worst lights, and hard choices force him to make strange bedfellows. As a moralist, I suppose I should demand white and black hat stuff, but complexity, when applied to people, provides excellent moral exercise, in my view.

And this book doesn’t end in a cliff-hanger.

Recommended, with cautions for the usual.

Looking for Missing Pieces

In the vein of the news we shared several days ago (“Worse Than You’ve Heard” ), Abby Perry writes about a few people who have provoked her over the years, teachers and singers who were “edgy” in different ways, and our responses to those people.

I knew my salvation was secure, but I wondered if perhaps the hollowness I’d sometimes felt in the conservative evangelicalism of my childhood could be filled by the fresh air this singing provocateur was breathing. Maybe this was the missing piece.

But, she says, maybe this desire for finding a missing piece is a significant problem that draws us away from our own families and churches.

“The church isn’t a static commodity—it’s a living thing, and living things often cause and experience pain.”

‘A Dark So Deadly,’ by Stuart MacBride

A Dark So Deadly

I keep reading Stuart MacBride novels, unintentionally. I had followed his Logan McRae books for a while, but then they got kind of… icky for my taste, and I dropped them. Then I read another, by oversight. It was OK. Now I picked up this stand-alone, A Dark So Deadly, by another oversight, and I was extremely impressed. This is a good novel, and a unique one.

It starts out very like the Logan McRae books, following a long-suffering, decent cop through various humiliations. DC Callum MacGregor, a detective in the city of Oldcastle, Scotland, has been assigned to the “Misfit Mob.” That’s a squad where the department dumps morons, goldbricks, screw-ups, and the corrupt. Callum is considered one of the latter, after confessing to contaminating a crime scene in an important case against an organized crime boss. Everyone thinks he took a bribe to do it. In fact, he wasn’t even guilty. The mistake was really made by his girlfriend, another officer, and he took responsibility because she’s pregnant with his child and would have lost her salary at a time when they can’t afford it. Continue reading ‘A Dark So Deadly,’ by Stuart MacBride

Self-Help and Help for Your Soul

When asked what kind of book he reads in secret, Jake Garrett replied, self-help books.

“Ten years ago, when I worked at a small bookstore in downtown Vancouver, I would look askance at people that came in and asked for these books. What happened in their life that led them to this moment? I thought as I guided them to the self-help section, speaking softly and smiling as if anything more would break them.”

Now, he is that person.

I’ve benefited from a good self-help myself, but far better help can be found in scripture and good biblical writing. For instance, here are 6 Things Christ Does With Your Sin. Also this, God Is Bigger Than Our Immaturity.

Free book news!

One of the most complex matters they made us study in library school was copyright. Like so many matters of law in the US, it has grown and metastasized to the point where I (personally) doubt that anyone really understands it.

One of the problems in copyright law has been that US statute has extended copyright protection far beyond the original term (it was 14 years at first, as I recall). Now copyright lasts long beyond the author’s lifetime. This may be a boon to the heirs and agents of authors of enduring bestsellers, but in fact most of the books published from the 1920s to the 1940s are now out of print, but still protected. Now the Internet Archive is making a collection of these books (ironically named after Sonny Bono) available, through a loophole in the law. And more are to come.

The Internet Archive is now leveraging a little known, and perhaps never used, provision of US copyright law, Section 108h, which allows libraries to scan and make available materials published 1923 to 1941 if they are not being actively sold. Elizabeth Townsend Gard, a copyright scholar at Tulane University calls this “Library Public Domain.” She and her students helped bring the first scanned books of this era available online in a collection named for the author of the bill making this necessary: The Sonny Bono Memorial Collection. Thousands more books will be added in the near future as we automate. We hope this will encourage libraries that have been reticent to scan beyond 1923 to start mass scanning their books and other works, at least up to 1942.

I expect that this might make a lot of hard-boiled mysteries available again, for free. Good news for me.

Read it all here. Hat tip: Books, Inq., thanks to Dave Lull.

“The ’70s was such a different era.”

Isaac Chotiner interviewed a man who wrote a lot about today’s most prominent villain Harvey Weinstein but not about his actions as a sexual predator.

“The book was not about Harvey per se,” Peter Biskind told him. “It was about the explosion of independent film in the ’90s.”

But Chotiner pressed him on whether he’d heard stories of Weinstein’s (or other people’s) aggressive immorality.

“There was a lot of free sex in the ’70s,” Biskind said. “This was the era of free love, so everybody was stoned all the time. . . . There was a general feeling in the ’70s, and I think it has always been true in Hollywood, all the way back to silent pictures, that rules don’t apply to them, which was the name of Beatty’s last movie. It’s the air they breathe. They are not constrained by civilian morality, put it that way.”

Were the ’70s really as debauched as all that? Ross Douthat thinks so. Continue reading “The ’70s was such a different era.”

Book Reviews, Creative Culture