‘From the Corner of His Eye,’ by Dean Koontz

Out of the Corner of His Eye

“The problem with movies and books is they make evil look glamorous, exciting, when it’s no such thing. It’s boring and it’s depressing and it’s stupid. Criminals are all after cheap thrills and easy money, and when they get them, all they want is more of the same, over and over. They’re shallow, empty, boring people who couldn’t give you five minutes of interesting conversation if you had the piss-poor luck to be at a party full of them….”

I did it again. Bought a Dean Koontz book I thought I hadn’t read, but I had. However, it’s such a sprawling, multi-threaded epic work that I’d forgotten most of it and didn’t tip to my mistake until I was a long way in.

From the Corner of His Eye is ostensibly about a remarkable, gifted boy who goes blind. But that boy, Bartholomew Lampier, actually occupies the stage for a small portion of the book, and much of that while he’s a baby. The real central character might be his mother Agnes, “the pie lady,” who has devoted her life to baking delicious pies, which she delivers to disadvantaged neighbors, along with groceries. Or it might be Detective Thomas Vanadium, former Jesuit priest and amateur physicist, who devotes his life to hunting down murderers, sometimes employing magic to apply psychological pressure.

One day in the early 1960s, a pastor in a small Oregon church delivered a radio sermon called, “This Momentous Day.” It focused on the career of the obscure apostle Bartholomew as an example of an individual who seemed undistinguished, but who in fact had eternal and world-spanning influence. Junior Cain, a murderer and a rapist, happened to hear that sermon. Somehow, within the foul fistula that made up his mind and soul, he came to believe that there was a man named Bartholomew – somewhere out there – who was bent on destroying him. So Junior makes it the obsession of his life to find this Bartholomew and kill him. Continue reading ‘From the Corner of His Eye,’ by Dean Koontz

Enchanting Nancy

Marly Youmans has three evocative poems on Education & Culture today. I find “Nancy at the River” enchanting in the way of missing someone whom you have deeply loved, though this was perhaps not quite that. Though the subject may have been delighted in, she may not have been deeply loved. But perhaps I’m being overly relative.

all is mystery, so pure/ And secret like a mythic flower bride
Who fades and blooms, or like a poem rhymed/ With unknown words that aren’t yet ever were

Youmans blogs here. (via Prufrock News)

Is Wolf Time coming?

Wolf Time

I’m very gratified that the good folks over at Grim’s Hall, one of my favorite blogs, have decided to host a multi-part discussion of my novel Wolf Time. It’s been a long time since I wrote that book, but there are some who think it holds up, and even has things to say today. Parts of it, I like to think, are prescient.

Here’s the first post in the discussion.

And here’s the second.

And here’s video of Sen. Bernie Sanders essentially arguing for at least a part of the Definition of Religion Act, a major plot element in Wolf Time.

The Man Who Ruined English Lit

Stuart Hall, the man who apparently helped bind English departments with useless political ideology, doesn’t appear to have read anything written in previous generations. Christopher Bray reviews Hall’s autobiography.

Patently a decent man who wanted a better life for everyone, Hall genuinely believed that by alerting his students to the ideological subtexts of their favourite TV shows or pop songs (at one point he claims to be able to hear ‘the less chauvinistic bits’ of Elgar), they might liberate themselves from the hegemonic ‘master codes of the dominant culture’. In fact, by teaching kids that it’s enough to read or watch or listen to what already interests them, cultural studies has served only to trap them in the straitened cell of the self.

Mercy. Who will pull the bucket off our heads, if not our elders? And if our elders are the ones who trapped us in buckets in the first place, what hope do we have for any of us? Is there anyone apart from us who can teach us the truth? (via Prufrock News)

‘By the Light of the Moon,’ by Dean Koontz

By the Light of the Moon

I bought this book by mistake. I knew a new Dean Koontz was coming out (I’ll review it soon), and somehow I got the idea that By the Light of the Moon was it. Once I had it on my Kindle I realized I’d read it before, and I expect I’ve reviewed it here before. But Koontz will bear a reprise, so I read it again.

Koontz isn’t a repetitive writer, but he does tend to give us recognizable types and situations. The setup in this story is classic Koontz. A mad scientist, Lincoln Procter, on the run from merciless killers, waylays three innocent people in an Arizona motel and injects them with a formula he’s developed. He’s not sure what the results will be, he explains, but they could be positive.

The three victims are Jilly Jackson, a female stand-up comic, and Dylan O’Connor, a traveling artist who is sole custodian of his autistic brother. Procter warns them that the men pursuing him will soon pursue them, to destroy the formula that now flows in their veins. Dylan, Shep, and Jilly set out on a breakneck race to save their lives, but are constantly waylaid, not by the bad guys, but by strange compulsions that start to come over Dylan, causing him to take action to prevent horrible crimes. Shep begins to exhibit a power of his own, a valuable one, but the difficulties of communicating with an autistic person add considerable dramatic tension.

Lots of fun, lots of excitement, some romance, and a measure of wisdom. Good book. I particularly liked the villain, Lincoln Procter (whose name, I think, is intended to echo Hannibal Lector). He’s an original kind of antagonist – a thoroughly bad and selfish man who thinks he can justify himself through constant self-criticism. I know people kind of like that (I’m one of them myself. There! I just did it again!).

Recommended. Cautions for language and intense situations.

Danish Day, 2017

I apologize for standing you up last night. My service provider, apparently, suffered a major outage in my area. At least that’s their excuse.

I wanted to tell you about Sunday. I’ve done this almost every year pretty much as long as I’ve been blogging. Danish Day at the Danish American Center in Minneapolis. The first big event of the summer for the Viking Age Club & Society.

As you know (or if you don’t, pay attention!) I finally broke down and got a smart phone last winter. I’m cautiously learning the pleasures associated with that device (though I never plan to tweet. I fail to see the charm of tweeting, or of following tweets).

On Sunday I did my first Food Selfie. I’d bought what they call a Danish Hot Dog (or pølse), and I thought I’d take a photo with my phone and post it to Facebook.

Poelse

Got lots of responses. Amazing what fascinates people nowadays. Our lives must be very dull.

But amidst all the discussion, in which I defended (for instance) the use of ketchup on hot dogs against the authority of Clint Eastwood himself, I got a response from my distant cousin in Denmark, who had intelligent and enlightening things to say about the Danish hot dog tradition.

It’s all quite silly, but I have to concede it’s fun. And if we can have international fun in these troubled times, why not? Continue reading Danish Day, 2017

‘Among the Dead,’ by Kevin Wignall

Among the Dead

‘…A death, it’s quite something to deal with. Ultimately that was our problem – we were shallow, just not shallow enough.’

The most profoundly moral kind of book, I think, is a genuinely realistic story about immorality. It’s easy for moralists (even, or especially, Christian moralists like me) to say what people ought to do in this or that situation. But the disturbing question is, “Would I really do the right thing? Especially if it was hard and embarrassing? Or how far would I go to cover it up?” Those are among the questions raised by Among the Dead, a fascinating novel by Kevin Wignall.

Ten years ago, five university student friends in England were driving from a party, all of them a little drunk, when their car struck a young woman who darted into the street. Since she was dead anyway, they agreed they couldn’t do anything to help, and reporting the accident to the police would only cause unnecessary trouble, doing no one any good.

Now, ten years later, they are generally out of touch with each other. They’ve tried to forget the past – with mixed success. When one of them dies of an overdose, Alex, a sleep researcher who suffers from insomnia and night panics, tries to get in touch with the others, to let them know.

But more deaths are coming. Is it coincidence? Or is someone killing the group off, a decade after their crime?

Among the Dead wasn’t a cheery read, but I found it fascinating and challenging. I recommend it for serious readers. Cautions for language.

‘The most famous and pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech’

Oliver Wendell Holmes gave us the phrase about shouting fire in a crowded theater. Most people are against such shouting, despite today’s audiences being more likely to look around with irritated curiosity than to panic. Pulling the fire alarm in a crowded theater would cause a problem, and this censorship of free expression is the law. (Why can’t you pull a fire alarm to express yourself? Why can’t you call 911 to talk to give your opinion? Is this 1984?)

Here’s what Justice Holmes actually wrote. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

He gave this opinion in support of the Supreme Court’s conviction of Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, for writing a pamphlet in opposition to the WWI draft. Two similar cases came up that year and were decided the same way. Calls to “assert your rights” were compared to inciting panic in entertainment houses.

Back in 2012, Trevor Timm wrote about how abused the shouting-fire phrase has become and how much damage it has done to America’s concept of free speech. “Its advocates are tacitly endorsing one of the broadest censorship decisions ever brought down by the Court. It is quite simply, as Ken White calls it, ‘the most famous and pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech.'”

NY Times Fires Public Editor, Plans to ‘Listen’

Listening to the wallWhen a much-praised reporter for the New York Times was found to have plagiarized and fabricated several reports, the newspaper that still holds a position in the public imagination as being “a paper of record” created its public editor position. The public editor is meant to be a visible face for journalistic ethics, a person who regularly criticized his employer for bias, editorializing the news, and other ethical slips.

Wednesday, the New York Times terminated its contract with Public Editor Liz Spayd for what National Review‘s Kyle Smith calls “resisting the Resistance.” For the foreseeable future, any public editing will be handled by the public in the comment section, about which Alan Jacobs tweeted:

I don’t think the @nytimes really plans to turn itself into a trollocracy; enabling comments is make-believe “listening to our readers.”

Smith offers several examples of fair-minded comments from Spayd, saying she “did her best to be even-handed in the eleven months she held the job. The angry Left could not forgive this.”

In a column entitled “Why Readers See the Times as Liberal,” she noted that many a liberal and centrist acolyte of the Times told her that they were seeking other outlets for balance. “A paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission,” she said. That such a statement is now considered “controversial” does not reflect well on the media.

But maybe the Times doesn’t see a need for a public editor. Maybe it recognizes its innate fairness in every report it prints. I mean, look at the state of journalism today. These guys stick to the facts.

‘People Die,’ by Kevin Wignall

People Die

He did feel bad for burdening her, yet at the same time he’d wanted to tell her much more: that he was lonely, that he felt like indistinct bits of him were dying, that nothing was clear anymore. It was enough though, what he’d told her was enough, like a gasp of pure oxygen, burning the tissue of his lungs.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of People Die, Kevin Wignall’s debut novel. It’s not exactly amoral, but not exactly moral either. I suspect it’s one of those sophisticated books not intended for middlebrows like me.

JJ Hoffman is a freelance hit man, based in Geneva. He has an impeccable reputation in his field – he does his work efficiently and dispassionately, leaving no metaphorical messes behind.

But now he has found his handler murdered, and rumor says that several others of his colleagues have been killed too. Almost by coincidence (I think it counts as a minor deus ex machina) he is contacted by an American who tells him he knows what’s going on. He wants JJ to come and visit him, at an inn in New England.

The problem is that the inn is owned by a woman whose husband JJ murdered a few years ago.

People Die is a well-written tale. I thought it passed the bounds of plausibility a few times – and not in the normal way of thrillers, on the action side. The implausibilities here are psychological. And the resolution just made no sense to me. There’s a kind of grace at work here (in fact the book could be seen as a sort of Christian metaphor), but there’s an amorality at the same time. I couldn’t work out what to think about it in the end.

Worth reading though. Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes.

We call them ‘wall hangers’ nowadays

Viking sword
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Via Dave Lull: An article from J-Stor by James MacDonald, on new Danish research that indicates that some Viking swords were never meant for a fight. “The trick to creating an ideal sword using this technique is to distribute different types of metal that balance hardness and flexibility—durable enough to hold an edge while absorbing the shock of contact. The scanned swords were not made in such a way that they can both cut and flex.”

I mentioned the story to a reenactor friend last weekend, and he wasn’t greatly surprised. The sagas do not speak of swords made entirely for show — what we call “wall hangers” today. But we know that sword making was an iffy proposition. The “Havamal” says, “Praise no sword until it has been tested.” And one unfortunate character in one of the sagas comes proudly home from Norway with a beautiful sword with gilded furniture. But when he tries it in a fight, it bends, and he has to set the tip on the ground and try to straighten it by stepping on it.

So it’s not unreasonable that a status-conscious Viking might have bought a sword purely for show, as a status symbol, but would depend in battle on his trusty axe, which was easier to use anyway.

‘The Missing and the Dead,’ by Stuart MacBride

The Missing and the Dead

I swore I wasn’t going to read another Stuart MacBride novel.

The last time I read one of his Logan McRae books, it went in a very, very creepy direction, and I dropped it before it could get any worse. I mentioned on this blog that I was done with it.

But one day I was looking for another book to read, and I had a momentary lapse of memory. By the time I remembered what I thought of the series, The Missing and the Dead was on my Kindle. I figured I’d give it a chance.

It didn’t offend me the way the last one did. And I stayed with it to the end. But I’m still not a fan.

Logan McRae used to be a Scottish police detective. But somewhere since the last story I read, he got demoted to uniformed policing in the far north – centered at a station in the town of Banff, on the North Sea. He’s in charge of a small squad, but of course the plainclothes detectives get to do the interesting work. Continue reading ‘The Missing and the Dead,’ by Stuart MacBride

Autographing eBooks

In our last post, we looked at a new problem for Californian booksellers who hope to attract buyers with autographed editions. Though I didn’t say it then, the law appears to apply outside the state as well as inside, because it defines Californian dealers as being in or from the state. It’s like original sin. The stain of being born in California can never be removed in this life.

I don’t know whether the law applies to digital book editions, but if you’ve been thinking eBooks wouldn’t have this problem because they can’t be signed, allow me to open the door of enlightenment for you. Authors can sign eBooks.

Two sites allow authors to list their eBooks and offer them for signing. Autography.com allows customized signing pages in their cross-platform app. You can sign an eBook remotely or at a book signing. Autographed pages can even be shared on social media. Authorgraph.com offers a similar service with less customization. In fact, it doesn’t appear to be actually signing eBook, but a page associated with the it. Readers can request signatures from authors who are using the service and can buy books through the site.

Has anyone developed a digital autograph book for fans to collect signatures on iPads? I’d think there would be a market for it, except in California.

California Wraps Book Signings in Red Tape

A new law in California, if enforced, would make book signings at local bookstores extremely tedious on both readers and booksellers. A bookseller with three stores in the San Francisco area has filed a suit against the state this month to argue the law, which was promoted last year by actor Mark Hamill, will crush his stores. He’s capitalized on signed books and book signings over the last several years as a unique feature of his business. He hosts roughly 700 of these events each year.

In January, a state law went into effect that would require a record of many details related to a signature on any item sold for over $5. It’s not enough to stand before the author and watch him sign your book, nor can you go to the store the next day to buy a leftover signed copy. If the law were enforced (and so far I don’t know that it has been), a bookseller who sells an autographed book for a Lincoln plus will have to provide a certificate of authenticity with a description of the item signed, date, price, warranty, size of item, size for future editions, number of items signed, number of items intended to be signed in the future, state-issued serial number, and other details. Pawnbrokers are exempt as well as those who sign and sell their own stuff (because no fear of fraud there, obviously). These records will have to be kept for seven years.

One comic book dealer, who says they have authors sign every copy they have for later sale (and no markup for autographed copies), tells California Political Review, “To have to generate and track individual ‘Certificates of Authenticity’ for each and every book (let alone trying to identify potentially hundreds of existing items in our inventory) would make already break-even business even less tenable.”

The penalty for running afoul this law is 10x the value of the item sold plus legal fees.

The law doesn’t target booksellers. It apparently was intended to kill off expensive sales of fake signatures on sports and movie memorabilia. But the law says all autographed items sold for over $5, and once again lawmakers demonstrate that they slept through the course on unintended consequences.

Memorial Day 2017

On Memorial Day, it is customary to remind people, in the midst of their barbecuing, to take a moment to remember the sacrifices made by soldiers in many wars, so that we might enjoy our freedom.

I think it would be more appropriate, this year, to take the ashes from our barbecues, strew them on our heads, dress in sackcloth, fall to our knees, and beg forgiveness for the uses to which we’ve put that freedom.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture