‘Laurus,’ by Eugene Vodolazkin

Angels do not tire, said the Angel, because they do not scrimp on their strength. If you are not thinking about the finiteness of your strength, you will not tire, either. Know, O Arseny, that only he who does not fear drowning is capable of walking on water.

My friend Dale Nelson recently recommended this newly translated Russian novel to me. It sounded intriguing, so I read it. The book was Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, a novel unlike any other I’ve read – and I expect you’ll feel the same.

On the surface, Laurus is a simple modern version of a traditional hagiography, a saint’s life. Arseny is an orphan born in 15th Century Russia. He is raised by his grandfather, an herbalist healer. Arseny becomes an herbalist too, and eventually surpasses his teacher. He gradually realizes that the herbs he uses are almost irrelevant; God has placed healing power in his hands.

But Arseny commits a great sin, which fills him with guilt. His whole life, and the course of his story, are afterward dominated by his passion to somehow do penance and gain salvation, if not for himself, at least for the ones he hurt. From being a renowned and revered healer he descends into amnesia, wandering in poverty as a “holy fool.” Then he becomes a pilgrim, on the road to Jerusalem. On that journey he meets an Italian friend, Ambroggio. Ambroggio is devoted to studying the problem of the nature of time – this is dramatized by the fact that he wholly believes that the world will end in 1492, but at the same time often has visions of events centuries beyond his time. He sees no contradiction in this.

After his pilgrimage, Arseny returns to Russia and becomes a monk, and then retires to the life of a solitary hermit (that’s where he is given the name “Laurus,” the last of several names he bears in his life). He dies very near the place he was born, reliving, in a higher key, the crisis of his early life.

Laurus is an eccentric book which operates on a number of levels. As in a medieval book, dialogue is not indicated by quotation marks. You have to figure out where characters’ speeches start. You might call the book Christian fantasy, but there are also elements of science fiction – speculation on the nature of time is central to the whole thing. Arseny doesn’t experience his life quite in sequence, and there are anachronisms – like plastic water bottles lying as litter in a medieval forest – that have been put there for a reason.

Theologically, Protestants like me aren’t going to be entirely satisfied with the story. The doctrine here seems to be that grace is not free – at least for great sins, one must first show penitence through costly sacrifices, and then – if God is convinced of one’s repentance – forgiveness may be granted. Arseny suffers greatly to serve others, denies himself about as much as is physically possible, works miracles, and yet is never sure of his salvation.

But that’s probably (I don’t know for sure) true to Orthodox theology, and so makes the book historically authentic. It’s certainly a moving story, though it can also be quite funny. The translation by Lisa C. Hayden is highly readable.

There’s some disturbing material, but nothing that should offend the average Christian reader. I recommend Laurus. It would reward repeated readings.

Why Some of Us Don’t Observe Advent

Even among the congregants of churches that do observe the advent season, which began last Sunday, many believers allow the time to slip by unobserved. Timothy Paul Jones, a Southern Baptist, asks why.

Perhaps it’s because, for believers no less than nonbelievers, our calendars are dominated not by the venerable rhythms of redemption but by the swifter currents of consumerism and efficiency. The microwave saves us from waiting for soup to simmer on the stove, credit cards redeem us from waiting on a paycheck to make purchases, and this backward extension of the Christmas season liberates us from having to deal with the awkward lull of Advent.

. . .

Why this Advent-free leap from All Hallow’s Eve to Christmas Eve?

Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be leveraged to move products off shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting contributes little to the gross domestic product.

On a related note, Tony Reinke tweeted this today.

Editors Spill It on Fatal Flaws in Fiction

Save the would-be author in your family a few headaches with this book from The Writer’s Toolbox Series, 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing. Editors C. S. Lakin, Linda S. Clare, Christy Distler, Robin Patchen, and Rachel Starr Thomson collaborate on how to handle twelve problems in fiction writing.  Each editor writes on one or more aspects of each of the twelve problems, giving readers what amounts to a panel discussion on the problem areas.

With five editors writing on the same problem, do they repeat each other much? Maybe in the introductory comments, but they work together bring up different angles on the topic. Sentences can fail to communicate in many different ways. Dialogue flaws are multitudinous. A developing writer will likely find many spots to polish when applying this advice to their own writing.

“Once you learn to detach emotionally from the words you write,” Lakin explains, “the battle is half won.”

The editors also give five examples of bad writing on each problem as well as a summary example at the end of each chapter, making this book something of a writing workshop if you’re willing to rewrite each example and then compare your work to the suggestion provided.

The twelve flaws they tackle:

  1. Overwriting
  2. Describing nothing that moves the story
  3. Weak construction
  4. Too much backstory
  5. Point of view violations
  6. Telling instead of showing
  7. Lack of pacing, tension
  8. Flawed dialogue construction
  9. Underwriting
  10. Description deficiencies and excesses
  11. Pesky Adverbs and Weasel Words
  12. Flawed Writing Mechanics

Each chapter concludes with a handy review page listing all of the advice for that problem and a practice example to work on. A book like this should save would-be writers plenty of emotional (and literal) cash when approaching an editor with their manuscript.

Lakin is also the author of The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction and other titles in The Writer’s Toolbox Series. She gave me a PDF of the new book in exchange for this review.

Netflix review: ‘River’


I meant to review a book tonight, but then I’d need to link to Amazon. And Amazon appears to be a victim of its own success, crushed under the weight of Cyber Monday business. So I’ll talk about a Netflix series I watched.

River is a British series which mixes English police procedural with Scandinavian depression porn, along with a strong dose of the metaphysical. Over the years we’ve seen neurotic detectives, addicted detectives, disabled detectives, etc., etc. Now we have a delusional detective.

John River (Stellan Skarsgård) is a London police detective, a Swedish immigrant (which is odd, because River isn’t a Swedish name). He is tormented, not only by his persistent delusion that he sees and converses with dead people (he knows it’s a delusion because he doesn’t believe in life after death) but by the recent death of his partner, “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker). She was killed by a drive-by shooter, right in front of him.

River, because of his delusions, often asks in bizarre ways. This makes his colleagues wary of him and makes him insecure. He’s supposed to be seeing a counselor, but resists opening up to her. He is constantly in conflict with his superiors and skates on the edge of losing his job.

The series wasn’t bad, but in spite of its unusual qualities I found it kind of predictable. I asked myself, “Who would you guess, of all these characters, the writers hate most?” I selected one, and figured that person would be the killer, and I was essentially right.

An interesting series. Pretty grim. It provides the unusual spectacle (for television) of a romance between two characters who aren’t particularly attractive. I neither loved nor hated it.

Where Did You Go, Short Story?

The dullest short stories I read from the last fifteen years were winners of competitions,” writes Hensher, who sieved through journals, old and new, to source the material for these collections. He characterises the winning stories of contemporary competitions as “present-tense solitary reflections”, their protagonists “lying on their beds affectlessly pondering; major historical events were considered gravely; social media were dutifully brought in to indicate an eye on the contemporary”. It is a mistake to believe that competitions, rather than a system of commissions, payments, circulation and readers, will generate literary quality.

Philip Hensher has compiled two volumes for Penguin’s Book of British Short Stories. (via Prufrock)

What Book Does Tim Keller Read Every Month?

“The other Scriptures speak to us,” observed Athanasius (AD 296–373), “but the Psalms speak for us.” For 3,000 years the Psalter has been the prayer book and songbook of God’s people. It was also the prayer book and songbook of God’s Son. Our Savior quoted from the Psalms more than any other biblical book—even while breathing his last (Matt. 27:46; Luke 23:46).

Matt Smethurst asks Pastor Tim Keller about reading the Psalms and his new devotional based on them.

The road to Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving at the home of Earle Landis, Neffsville, PA, 1942. Photo by Marjorie Collins. This was just eight years before my birth. I am that old.

My heart has greatly desired this Thanksgiving. Not because of my fitting gratefulness; heaven knows I’m as ungrateful as the next man, and a lot more ungrateful than that other guy next to him. No, this holiday season has been a benchmark for me ever since I started graduate school. By Christmas I’ll be done with classes (assuming I don’t flunk one unexpectedly), and even now the pace is slowing down. Neither of my instructors seems all that interested in cramming work into the last couple weeks. I’m essentially done with my labors for one class, and the other doesn’t have a lot left except the final test. That will be annoying, but there’s nothing I can do through anxious care to make its span a cubit less.

So here I am, on the verge of being done with the bulk of it (the question of a Capstone Project remains up in the air), breathing afar off the balmy zephyrs of liberty. For more than two years I’ve been squeezing my life into whatever spaces the academic template overlooked. Soon I’ll have evenings free again. I’ll be able to relax (a bit) on weekends. And – praise to the Almighty – I’ll be able to work on my novels again. I even sat down the other night and wrote a scene that had impressed itself on my mind. It’s an important scene, one that reveals the heart of a major character, and should guide my portrayal.

So I’m thankful. Frankly, thinking back, there were long bleak stretches when I didn’t see how I could get this far. Either I’d fail or the stress would kill me, I figured. As with so many things in life, the Lord’s iron purpose was to make me walk through it, get stronger, and learn what I was capable of. Wasn’t it Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof who asked the Lord to please not bless him so much?

Have a blessed Thanksgiving. I expect I’ll be hanging around here a bit more from now on.

‘Trent’s Last Case,’ by E. C. Bentley

I’ll bellyache about my developing self-exile from all popular culture in another post. Suffice it to say, just now, that I’m thinking about trying to find good mystery stories from the past to read. In that spirit, I bought E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, one of the groundbreaking novels in the genre.

Edmund Clerihew Bentley has the distinction, not only of being the author of some seminal mysteries, but of inventing a form of light verse, a sort of short-cut limerick called the Clerihew. Here’s one of the more successful ones:

“The mustache on Hitler
Could hardly be littler,”
Was the thought that kept recurring
To Field Marshall Goehring.

On top of that he was a childhood schoolfellow and lifelong friend of G. K. Chesterton. So he comes highly recommended.

His novel, Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913, stars Philip Trent, a young artist who doubles as a crime reporter for a London newspaper. He is sent to a country estate in the wake of the murder of its owner, a predatory American financier. Faced with a confusing scenario – why was the victim dressed in mismatched clothes, and missing his false teeth? – he finally comes to a conclusion about whodunnit – which he suppresses for private reasons. But that’s only half the book. The second part involves a series of further revelations that confound all his conclusions.

It’s a clever book, in the English tradition (later established in the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction”) of the “cozy” puzzle mystery. But honestly, it’s all a little too clever for me. In order to fool the reader, the author (it seems to me) pushes and crosses the bounds of plausibility. He works hard to make it all seem consistent with real human nature, but he does not entirely succeed – in my view.

Also, the prose style somewhat irritated me. Granted the author lived before Hemingway, but when he gives us a short biography of each major character on their first appearance in the story, rather than showing us what they’re like through their words and actions, it seems like lazy writing to me. I mean, Conan Doyle was considerably older than Bentley, but he knew how to reveal a character.

I can’t condemn Trent’s Last Case – it’s an acknowledged classic. But for me it didn’t work very well. Your mileage will likely vary.

On the bright side, no content cautions at all are necessary.

Satisfy Us in the Morning, O Lord

“So teach us to number our days
  that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
  Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
  that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:12–14, ESV)

Morning at Millabedda, Hopton, Badulla.

On verse fourteen, the great Charles Spurgeon writes:

The prayer is like others which came from the meek lawgiver when he boldly pleaded with God for the nation; it is Moses like. He here speaks with the Lord as a man speaketh with his friend.

O satisfy us early with thy mercy. Since they must die, and die so soon, the psalmist pleads for speedy mercy upon himself and his brethren. Good men know how to turn the darkest trials into arguments at the throne of grace. He who has but the heart to pray need never be without pleas in prayer. The only satisfying food for the Lord’s people is the favour of God; this Moses earnestly seeks for, and as the manna fell in the morning he beseeches the Lord to send at once his satisfying favour, that all through the little day of life they might be filled therewith. Are we so soon to die? Then, Lord, do not starve us while we live. Satisfy us at once, we pray thee. Our day is short and the night hastens on, O give us in the early morning of our days to be satisfied with thy favour, that all through our little day we may be happy. That we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Being filled with divine love, their brief life on earth would become a joyful festival, and would continue so as long as it lasted. When the Lord refreshes us with his presence, our joy is such that no man can take it from us. Apprehensions of speedy death are not able to distress those who enjoy the present favour of God; though they know that the night cometh they see nothing to fear in it, but continue to live while they live, triumphing in the present favour of God and leaving the future in his loving hands. Since the whole generation which came out of Egypt had been doomed to die in the wilderness, they would naturally feel despondent, and therefore their great leader seeks for them that blessing which, beyond all others, consoles the heart, namely, the presence and favour of the Lord.

Wangerin Describes His Life

Paul Pastor reviews Walter Wangerin’s memoir, Everlasting in the Past.

The contemporary Christian memoir has behind it a richly populated tradition of self-reflection: Augustine’s Confessions, Julian of Norwich’s Showings, Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul, C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet, and countless other narratives that use personal experience and devotion to point to a larger Christian path.

. ..

[Wangerin’s] prose is miniaturized, fitted like clock parts, each sentence turning the next. Just when you think you are witnessing an over-written sentence, he expertly surprises you. The book is paradoxically both spare and extravagant, and it will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s high craft, but he avoids pretense, and it works, as Dun Cow did. It’s distilled, dense. Delicate. I love it.

(via Prufrock)

The Self-Balancing Functions of Personality

There are many personality calculators, each trying to give us an accurate and helpful picture of who we are and how we might play well with others. I remember a quiz given to my General Psychology class, which paired a profile with a biblical character. Which figure from the Bible do you most resemble? (The guy who got paired with Judas went on to become a politician.)

The Myers-Briggs test isn’t one I ever had to take, but it’s widely accepted as a solid measure of personality (with some opposition). Ruth Johnston points out that this profiler has its strengths, but like with other tests, people can easily get the impression that their personality is a bit like a cafeteria meal, each piece selected independently. In her book, Re-Modeling the Mind: Personality in Balance, she presents a model for understanding personality “as an interacting, self-balancing system.”

Lily Macro Retouched

Johnston has studied the roots of the Myers-Briggs indicator, the work of Carl Jung, and found what she believes to be a relevant model for understanding personality. “Jung’s personality system had leapfrogged over some of the 20th century psychological assumptions that are now being discarded. His model had been rejected by academic psychology long ago, but it actually suited the new neuroscience ideas very well.”  Continue reading The Self-Balancing Functions of Personality

Blasphemy, Prayer, and Vikings

  1. Why you never question Allah: Islam’s trouble with blasphemy. This points out the shallowness of Islamic teaching. Their god supposedly knows everything, but if you don’t keep your nice face on, he’ll hammer you. Of course, it appears he will hammer you for just about anything, which is a theological perspective not unique to Islam.
  2. In the United Kingdom, an video intended to play among the trailers in front of the new Star Wars movie encourages viewers to seek the Lord in prayer using The Lord’s Prayer specifically. It has been pulled from the schedule because it could offend someone, which Andrew Wilson says is precisely what it should be doing. There is, after all, only one true God.
  3. St Helen’s Church in Eston, Middlesbrough, has suffered vandalism for years. It’s now being rebuilt, brick by brick, forty miles north in County Durham.
  4. Twenty-five things we’ve forgotten about vikings.
    (Last two links via Medieval News)

‘The Greater Trumps,’ by Charles Williams

Back in the 1970s, in the flush of an upsurge of interest in C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, Eerdmans Publishers brought out American editions of Charles Williams’ novels. One that came later than the others and (if my perceptions were correct) did not stay in print long, was The Greater Trumps. Williams is not a writer for everyone, and this book in particular was especially unsuited for Eerdmans’ market. I borrowed it from a friend and read it at the time. I recalled it over the years with bemusement and some affection. Recently I acquired a complete Kindle edition of all Williams’ novels (which oddly seems to have now disappeared from Amazon), and read it again. My reaction is mixed.

Prof. Bruce Charlton, of the invaluable The Notion Club Papers blog, has been posting about Williams quite a lot recently, and has brought out some information that was not well known in the past – even, apparently, to Lewis himself. Charles Williams was not the saintly, highly spiritual character his friends thought he was. Without judging his salvation, he seems to have carelessly crossed a number of moral and theological lines. He was serially unfaithful to his wife, and he dabbled in the occult. And that’s where the first, obvious problem with The Greater Trumps makes itself apparent. The Greater Trumps is a Christian fantasy centered on the Tarot, the occult system of fortunetelling through cards.

Mr. Coningsby (his given name, to his lifelong distress, is Lothair) is a Commissioner in Lunacy – if I understand correctly, that is a civil service position delegated to evaluate the competence of people in the commitment process. He is a stuffy and unimaginative man, but not malicious. He has a sister, Sibyl, a middle-aged maiden lady who long ago renounced the flesh and devoted herself to loving everyone and everything around her, as expressions of the great Love (that is, of God). He also has a daughter, Nancy, who recently become engaged to a strange young man named Henry Lee. Henry is descended from Gypsies (spelled “Gipsies” here), and – although he genuinely loves Nancy – he has an ulterior motive in their relationship. Mr. Coningsby recently inherited, from a friend, a valuable collection of antique playing cards. Among these packs, unknown to him or to anyone except for certain Gypsies, is the very first, original Tarot pack. This pack was created by a great mystic ages ago, and partakes of the very nature of the universe itself, along with the mystical powers that control it. For that reason, the cards not only can tell the future, but can be used as magical talismans to manipulate nature. Continue reading ‘The Greater Trumps,’ by Charles Williams

Bye bye, ‘Murdoch’

A little while back I told you how much I was enjoying the Canadian police series, Murdoch Mysteries, on Netflix. I spoke a few days too soon.

To be fair, the series, set in 1890s Toronto, had always reserved the right, not only to resonate with contemporary life but to comment on contemporary issues. One of the first episodes involved homosexuality, and they were not shy about making statements about sexism and racism (one episode had Murdoch himself experiencing anti-Catholic prejudice). Particularly troubling was a story line that had Murdoch and Dr. Ogden, the pathologist he loves, driven apart by a difference over abortion (they later resolved that by papering it over, having Murdoch simply say, “I care nothing about that”).

But they really let themselves go in the fifth season. I think it may be former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fault. According to Wikipedia, the conservative PM let it be known he was a fan of the show, which must have surely caused the whole staff considerable embarrassment. Worse than that, he visited the set while the fourth season was filming, and they somehow they ended up adding a scene where Harper, playing a dim policeman, arrests the TV version of the prime minister by accident. Great joke – the stupid Conservative is too dumb to know what a real PM looks like, let alone be one.

Still, they must have felt the stigma of Harper’s approval, because during season five they seem to have pulled the political stops out. The first episode featured a famous socialist, Jack London. The second episode featured a saintly portrayal of noted anarchist Emma Goldman. In this episode, there is fear of a terrorist bombing, but – wouldn’t you know it – the terrorists are purely imaginary. It was all set up by an agent provocateur working for the US government. This episode also gave Inspector Brackenreid an opportunity to express his utter contempt for all Americans in an earthy fashion.

I watched a couple more episodes, hoping that once they’d got that out of their systems they’d go back to entertaining. But I found I’d lost my enthusiasm. I meant to watch yet another episode, but somehow… I found that a day had gone by, then three days, then a week, then a couple weeks. I just didn’t care anymore. Especially since I know from the Wikipedia page that Dr. Ogden will get involved in the birth control movement. Maybe they’ll even bring in the saintly Margaret Sanger, who will conveniently fail to mention her views on racial eugenics.

I’ll never know. I’m done. It was fun while it lasted.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture