Samuel Johnson’s Half-Blind Guide to Life

What makes Johnson’s righteousness bearable is the fact that nothing he read himself — and he devoured more or less every word ever written — was able to guide him through the problems of his own life. Half-blind and wracked with self-disgust, Johnson was consumed by horrors: of annihilation, of madness, of destitution — what Beckett described as ‘the whole mental monster-ridden swamp’.

Frances Wilson describes the good and bad about a new book on Dr. Johnson’s thoughts, saying literary self-help guides are generally rotten, but Samuel Johnson is particularly good subject for the genre. (via Prufrock News)

Johnson gave us many points of advice, like these I pull from my broken down book of quotations.

“A man, sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.”

“Be virtuous ends pursued by virtuous means,
Nor think th’ intention sanctifies the deed.”

“Men do not suspect faults which they do not commit.”

“Of all the griefs that harass the distressed,
Sure the most bitter is a scornful jest;
Fate never wounds more deep the generous heart,
Than when a blockhead’s insult points the dart.”

“A man guilty of poverty easily believes himself suspected.”

‘To Die in Vienna,’ by Kevin Wignall

To Die in Vienna

I’m fond of Kevin Wignall’s novels. Between Graham Greene and Ian Fleming on the espionage scale, his books run much closer to Greene, but I don’t like Greene much, and I do like Wignall. To Die in Vienna is not my favorite of his works, but it’s pretty good.

Freddie Makin used to be an intelligence agent, but after a very bad experience he gave it up – mostly, except for the nightmares. Now he does electronic surveillance, for clients whose identitiesw he does not care to know. For a year he’s been in Vienna, monitoring the life of a genius scientist named Jiang Cheng. He’s grown rather fond of the man, whose activities seem in no way suspicious.

Then one day Freddie abandons his monitoring early to go home with a headache. He finds a man in his apartment, waiting for him with a gun. Freddie manages to kill the man, almost accidentally. Then Jiang Cheng disappears. Freddie doesn’t understand what is happening, but some things are clear. Jiang must have seen or done something that made him a danger to someone. And whoever got rid of him clearly wants Freddie dead too.

So he has to disappear. Fortunately his experience as a spy has prepared him to change identities. But that’s a temporary measure. He’s certain of one thing – he must find out what the “too much” was that Jiang knew, find out who the killers are, and make a deal with their enemies – whoever they are.

To Die in Vienna is leisurely as spy novels go, but I liked that. The emphasis is on personalities, and we get to spend time with them. That makes for enjoyable reading, for my taste.

I thought the plot relied too heavily on coincidence at a couple points. Otherwise I can’t find fault. Recommended.

The hersir’s new clothes

I mentioned a while back that we’re going to bring out another paperback edition of The Year of the Warrior. Baen Books continues to publish the e-book version, but we’ll be doing it in dead tree. Our talented friend Jeremiah Humphries has come up with a cover I’ve approved, and I’m over the moon with it.

The Year of the Warrior (paper)

We don’t have a definite date for the book release yet, but you can be sure we’ll let you know.

‘The Killing Season,’ by Mason Cross

The Killing Season

Carter Blake, the continuing hero of a thriller series authored by Mason Cross, is a sort of special investigative contractor. Even the FBI will call him in from time to time, because of his unique gifts. That’s what happens in The Killing Season, the first of the books.

Caleb Wardell is a convicted serial killer, nearing his execution date. He’s supposed to be under top security, but somehow a van transporting him gets hijacked by Russian gangsters. Wardell is not slow to take advantage of the situation. The Russians die and Wardell is in the wind.

Carter Blake has met Wardell briefly once, a long time ago. He has a gift for reading criminals, getting into their heads and anticipating their next moves. One moment was enough for him to know that his best move would be to kill Wardell before he could do any more harm, but he missed the opportunity. Now he’s determined to remedy that mistake.

He’s teamed up with a female FBI agent, Elaine Banner, an ambitious single mother. Then – for no reason they can understand – they are pulled from the case. But that doesn’t put them off the trail. Wardell has threatened people each of them care about, and they’re going to stop him – preferably with extreme prejudice.

The Killing Season is an exciting book. The writing was good and the characters intriguing – though I found Carter Blake’s skill set a little implausible. I also found the surprise final revelation unconvincing. And it hinted (to me) at political bias.

Still, an entertaining novel. Moderately recommended, with cautions for adult stuff, but not extreme.

The Good, the Bad, and the Danish

I don’t think I’ve shared this yet. Apparently the Danish National Symphony did a series of concerts earlier this year, performing the music of Ennio Morricone, who wrote all those great scores for Sergio Leone (and others).

This might seem like artistic slumming, but it isn’t. First of all, Ennio Morricone is in a class by himself. And it’s been suggested by people who know a lot more than I do that the only really good classical music being written today is being written for films.

Anyway, I think this is beyond great.

What’s the Best Coffeeshop in Your State?

Food & Wine magazine offers this list of the best places to buy coffee in every state, plus one runner-up. Is your favorite place on the list? I have consumed several wonderful cups from Mad Priest in Chattanooga, so I’m happy to see they made runner-up in Tennessee. Naturally our readers in Delaware will expect to see Brandywine Coffee Roasters and their Brew HaHa! stores in top place for their state (our cultural influence knows no bounds).

And the best place for coffee in Minnesota is Culver’s.  j/k

‘The Fractured,’ by Brett Battles

The Fractured

When I discovered there was a new entry in Brett Battles’ enjoyable Jonathan Quinn series, it was the work of but a moment for me to download it for my Kindle. The Fractured is an enjoyable thriller, like all its predecessors.

When The Fractured begins, our hero, Jonathan Quinn, and his wife Orlando are still recovering from the disaster that occurred in the last book – where an important member of their team died. Not only did they lose that person, but there was a rupture with Quinn’s old protégé, Nate, who has vanished.

But the bills need to be paid, and they’re delighted when they’re contacted by an old friend, who is trying to revitalize the secret semi-government office that used to employ them as “cleaners” (removers of evidence after “wet ops”). There’s a chance to get inside the compound of a white nationalist militia. This job gets done successfully.

But there’s a bonus. What they find in the compound gives them a chance to nail the money man who’s been funding the group. And not only can they get him, but they might also get a mysterious international arms merchant, a man who keeps his identity so secret that few have ever seen his face.

But one of the few who has is the missing Nate.

If they can locate Nate and persuade him to cooperate, they may be able to prevent an apocalyptic disaster in the United States.

The Jonathan Quinn novels are neither deep nor fancy. But they’re fun and they move fast. Recommended. Cautions for language and violence, but not as bad as many.

Hearing from Grandma

Grandma's hands
Photo credit: Cristian Newman

I had a moment of grace yesterday. No great miracle as miracles go, but it kind of moved me.

I’ve been using my grandmother’s old devotional book for my daily devotions this year. It’s an old book, in pretty bad shape, but I’ve found the meditations insightful. And anything connected with my grandma, who was perhaps the best person I ever knew, carries a measure of comfort. The book is Thy Kingdom Come, by Ludvig Hope. Hope was a leader of the lay evangelical movement in Norway, and along with several other church leaders (both conservative and liberal) he spent time in a concentration camp during World War II.

The book includes space for writing in important anniversaries at the bottom of each page. Grandma noted birthdays and weddings, and sometimes baptisms. Yesterday I noticed an unfamiliar name on an upcoming page. Most of the names in the book are familiar to me – family members and people from our church. But this name was unfamiliar. It was a woman’s name, and she would be a few years younger than me. I grew curious.

I went to Facebook and searched to see if she was listed under (assuming she was married) her maiden name. She was. I discovered that she is part of my own church body (which is not the one I grew up in), and her daughter is married to the son of one of the administrators at the Bible School where I work.

I contacted her, and found out she’s the granddaughter of Grandma’s sister. So I found a new cousin.

It was gratifying to find a lost relative. It was deeply satisfying to find one who believes as I do.

Grandma, I think, would be pleased.

My theory of Trump

Poker
Photo credit: Ines Ferreira

Did I post on Donald Trump before the 2016 election? I must have said something. The man appalled me. I thought a) he couldn’t be elected, and b) if elected, he’d be a disaster.

My attitude has changed. I still don’t like him. I don’t want to have lunch with him. He annoys me.

But I kind of like (most of) the things he does.

I’ve come up with a theory about President Trump. It’s probably inadequate, but I’m pretty sure it’s better than the theories held by his political opponents, who consistently underestimate him.

My theory concerns words.

I don’t think words mean the same things to Trump that they mean to, oh, to choose somebody at random – me.

For me words are conveyors of meaning. They’re related to the Biblical concept of “Logos,” carriers of truth, spiritual concepts to be handled with reverence and not misused.

For Donald Trump (I think) words are tools. I won’t say that he doesn’t recognize the meaning of words, or that everything he says is insincere. When he says he loves America, or his family, I’m sure he means what he says with all his heart.

But in his public life the man is primarily a game player. A deal maker. And words are the equipment of the game. Continue reading My theory of Trump

‘The Crooked Staircase,’ by Dean Koontz

The Crooked Staircase

…In this world of rapid change, there were few things to which you could hold fast. Wisdom acquired through centuries of experience, traditions, and beloved neighborhoods eroded and washed away and with them went the people who found solace and meaning in those things, who once would have been part of your life for most of your life. Now a rootless population, believing in nothing but the style and fashion of the moment, produced a culture of surface conformity under which the reality was a loveless realm in which soon everyone would live as a stranger in a strange land.

Oh man. I thought this one would kill me. Dean Koontz’s Jane Hawk novels are tours de force in the thriller genre, and The Crooked Staircase just ups the stakes and speeds the pace.

This time out, Jane Hawk, former FBI agent and now a wanted fugitive, framed because she knows too much about a horrific conspiracy in high places, is hunting for the remaining top conspirator whose identity she knows. Finding him and “breaking” him are easy, compared to the fresh mysteries his information generates.

Meanwhile, an oddly matched, ruthless team of government agents are hunting for Jane’s son, whom she has hidden away with people who (she hopes) they can’t identify. But the agents have access to an infinite amount of information, and they are patient. And they’re getting closer.

The tension and suspense just never let up in The Crooked Staircase. Koontz’s skill in creating characters you really like and care about just makes it more nail-biting. Sometimes you’ll want to laugh, and sometimes you’ll want to cry. But you won’t be able to put it down.

Highly recommended. Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes, jolting in their effect but fairly mild by the standards of the genre.

Krauthammer, World Changer

Charles Krauthammer told The Washington Post yesterday that his cancer is not going to be completely removed or beaten into submission. “It is aggressive and spreading rapidly,” he said. “My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live. This is the final verdict. My fight is over.”

Many readers, friends, and colleagues began sharing the news and chatting of memories.

Brit Hume (@brithume) said, “The news that Charles Krauthammer’s condition is terminal is heartbreaking. Beyond the brilliance of his analysis and the paralysis he so remarkably overcame, there is his extraordinary personal grace and kindness. I have missed him very much. I always will.”

Hume also spoke on radio about his friend. “I told him I would keep praying for him. Although I knew he’s not a believer, I am, and that the God that I worship would unquestionably want him in his presence, because anyone who had the chance would.  I don’t think there’s anyone alive that I admire more than I admire Charles.”

Bret Baier (@BretBaier) tweeted, “Charles @Krauthammer is a dear friend -his voice has been sorely missed in our daily discussions of the world. While this news is so so sad- I’m happy that we heard it from him with time to show him how many people love him and how he changed the world w/ his thoughts & words.”

He also recommended this 42-minute special report that he and others assembled in 2013.

Bill Hemmer (@BillHemmer) wrote, To honor the life of @krauthammer, read “Marcel, My Brother.” https://t.co/TSLEb4c5wJ

Krauthammer won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 “for his witty and insightful columns on national issues.” This personal column was written in January 2006 and is also the first one printed in his essay collection from 2013, Things That Matter. In it, he writes, “Whenever I look at that picture [of he and Marcel], I know what we were thinking at the moment it was taken: It will forever be thus. Ever brothers. Ever young. Ever summer.”

Of course, we do not live in a delusional youth. Summer turns to autumn and soon the ice creeps over everything on this side of the veil.  God raises up many stewards to work out his purposes in the world, both believers and non-believers. More like Krauthammer would be good, though let’s join Hume in praying for the gift of faith  for everyone.

Happy Lindsifarne Day!

Lindisfarne Raid, A. K. Rue
Painting of the Lindisfarne Raid by Anders Kvåle Rue. Mr. Rue did not illustrate Viking Legacy, but he works with Saga Bok, the publisher.

I was surprised today to find that fate, or Wyrd, or Providence, had provided me with a perfect excuse to further flog the book Viking Legacy, by Torgrim Titlestad (have I mentioned that I’m the translator?) It turns out that today is the 1,225th anniversary of the fabled Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne, in northern England. Though there’s some dispute on the point, that raid is generally calculated as the kick-off of the Viking Age.

The cause of that raid is an issue Viking Legacy addresses. Professor Titlestad champions (though he doesn’t entirely insist on it) the theory that this raid may have been a preemptive strike, a demonstration meant to send a message to the Emperor Charlemagne. Charlemagne was in the process of brutally subduing the Saxon tribes of northern Germany at the time, and was employing force (including massacre and deportation) to compel them to adopt Christianity. The preemption theory suggests that the Scandinavians, who had good communications and well understood that they’d be next on the agenda for invasion, sacked Lindisfarne (the place where much of Charlemagne’s bureaucracy had been trained) to demonstrate that if Charlemagne wanted Holy War, they could play that game too. From the book:

At the same time, the Vikings plundered goods and gold – as was customary in wars of conquest in those days. By this means, consciously or not, they demonstrated to Charlemagne that an attack on Scandinavia would mean bleeding his own kingdom dry – from the maritime side. If any Norwegian chieftains in the 790s remained undecided whether to leap into this new contest of strength, the vulnerability of the Franks had now been revealed. There was no little glory to be gained in beating down the legendary military might of Charlemagne. Honour achieved in battle meant more to Scandinavians than goods and gold – though gold was nothing to sneeze at.

These violent onslaughts from the sea left Continental potentates in no doubt about the significance of sea power and navigation, something for which they were unprepared. Charlemagne had grounds to fear them. His armies were not trained for defensive war….

Solzhenitsyn: Speaking the Truth as a Friend

Jeff Groom summarizes the great Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s speech to Harvard forty years ago today in this article along with a video of the whole: 40 Years Ago Today: When Solzhenitsyn Schooled Harvard.

“Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of,” Solzhenitsyn said, “everybody strives toward further expansion to the extreme limit of the legal frames.”

Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and in such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the debased sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. (In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to this end imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to carefully conceal such feelings. This active and tense competition comes to dominate all human thought and does not in the least open a way to free spiritual development.)

Groom writes, “In the pre-modern worldview that ended with the Renaissance, mankind was inherently evil and had to be made better. But following these harsh times, he noted, ‘we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal.’”

‘The Whispering Room,’ by Dean Koontz

The Whispering Room

Those chosen for elimination were on what the conspirators called “the Hamlet list,” a fact Jane had learned from one of the two men she’d killed in self-defense the previous week. With the self-righteous air of a politician justifying graft as a form of social justice, he had explained that if someone had killed Hamlet in the first act of Shakespeare’s play, more people would have been alive at the end. They seemed really to believe that this ignorant literary interpretation justified the murder of 8,400 people a year.

I haven’t made a secret of my dislike for “Rambette” stories, where tiny little women run around beating up big, bad guys in the manner of Sly Stallone. However, I’m willing to cut Dean Koontz some slack, because he’s Dean Koontz and his work delights me. I enjoyed the first book in the Jane Hawk series, The Silent Corner, and The Whispering Room is equally good.

In a Minnesota town, a sweet, beloved teacher of children with learning disabilities kills herself in a horrific act of terrorism. The town sheriff, Luther Tillman, grows suspicious when federal agents sweep in to handle the investigation and put out information he knows to be false. His decision to investigate further will put him – and his family – in mortal danger. And worse.

Meanwhile Jane Hawk, our heroine, a former FBI agent and now the FBI’s most wanted fugitive, continues her quest to find and unmask the leaders of a nation-wide conspiracy aiming to kill off people who might alter history in the “wrong” way, and to create an army of brain-controlled automatons. She must travel in disguise, deal with criminals, and keep on the move to retain her freedom and her hope – and to protect her son, who is in the conspiracy’s sights.

I can find nothing to criticize in the storytelling in The Whispering Room. The tension is almost unbearable, the action (generally) plausible, the characters interesting. I particularly love how author Koontz finds ways to remind us that, even in the most perilous times, there is still goodness in the world.

Cautions for violence and language. Highly recommended.

Meditation at an intersection

Stoplight
Photo credit: Tim Gouw

There’s a large intersection close to my house. I use it every time I drive to work.

It’s a long light. A long, long, long light. Interminable.

Tonight I pulled to a stop just as it turned red, and I thought I’d time that unbearable light.

It held me up for a whole one minute and forty-five seconds.

Years ago there was a line in a novel I read – I think it was by Donald E. Westlake – where the narrator noted that a particular awful stoplight delayed him an “excruciating” forty-five seconds.

We’re kind of spoiled, you know? I live in constant, low-level fear that Divine Justice will teach me a real lesson in patience someday.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture