‘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.”

‘What’s In a Name?’ and ‘A Puzzle of Old Bones,’ by P. F. Ford

What's In a Name?

A Puzzle of Old Bones

I’m catching up on reviews here, having been rudely interrupted in my posting schedule by some idiot who insisted that I go to North Dakota. Who was that guy? Oh yeah, it was me.

I’m up to the ninth and tenth in P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater mystery series here. Number nine is What’s In a Name? Ten is A Puzzle of Old Bones. It’s been enough time since I finished them that I’ve gotten a little vague on the details. So this will be a short review, despite covering two books.

Dave Slater, our hero, is a former police detective in the fictional town of Tinton, England. In the last book he quit the force, tired of the politics and backstabbing. Now he’s beginning a private investigation agency with his old partner, Norman Norman. But he feels uncomfortable in that role. At heart he’s still a cop.

In What’s In a Name? he and Norman are asked to discover the truth about an old man who died in his home. It seems like no mystery at all at first, but suspicious elements begin popping up. And now a chief inspector from London appears, offering Dave and Norman the help of a talented female detective, Samantha Brearley, in their investigation. All he asks in return is that Dave consider the offer of a job working for him. Dave likes the idea, but fears he would be betraying Norman.

In A Puzzle of Old Bones, Dave (spoiler alert) has taken the new job, and is working with Samantha, and Norman – a regular in all the books up till now – barely appears. The assignment is to solve the murder of a little boy whose bones have been found in a ditch. It’s a challenge, though not unexpected, when the boy’s presumed parents refuse to believe it’s actually their son. Things get really strange when they are proven right.

As I always say when reviewing these books, they’re not great literature, but they’re fun and engaging and positive. And it’s oddly compelling that author Ford keeps moving his characters around and changing them from sympathetic to repellent for no apparent reason except to change things up.

Anyway, there isn’t much objectionable in these books, and they’re good entertainment.

‘A Killing Sky,’ by Andy Straka

A Killing Sky

In the second book of the very promising Frank Pavlicek detective series, A Killing Sky, set in the Charlottesville area, Frank is hired as an investigator by the daughter of a shady Virginia congressman. Her twin sister has vanished, and although everyone thinks she just ran off, Frank’s client suspects something bad has happened to her. What really troubles her is that the girl had been investigating her own father, some of whose activities have been shady – to say nothing of his serial womanizing and a possible hit and run killing.

Frank starts looking into it all, and the congressman’s “staff” – in classic hard-boiled fashion – immediately raise his suspicions by stonewalling him and threatening violence. But there’s also the boyfriend the girl recently dumped, who doesn’t look innocent either. Meanwhile, Frank is preparing himself emotionally for his daughter’s departure for college, and trying to talk her out of joining him in the PI business. It’s also time for him to release the falcon he’s been training into the wild.

Good book. I still find Frank a little dull as a character, but the story is well told, and the writing is above average. Also, Christianity (represented by Frank’s girlfriend) is treated with respect. I noted one obscenity in the book, which makes it pretty clean by contemporary standards. Recommended.

‘Paris In the Present Tense,’ by Mark Helprin

Paris In the Present Tense

“Look,” he would say, “at home I have a stainless steel drain strainer, which when struck with a spoon produces a perfect, unclouded C with fifteen seconds of sustain. Were I younger I might be able to hear thirty seconds. The quality of beauty is implicit in my kitchen-sink strainer despite its uninspiring form and function – implicit in the steel, implicit in the form, and brought out by what? Accident? Perception? Illusion? Or perhaps by something greater, waiting to spring, that would sound, and sing, forever?”

A new Mark Helprin novel, as a rare an occurrence as that is, is always cause for celebration in my world. His latest is Paris In the Present Tense, a book, on the surface, about music. It’s essentially a caper story and a revenge story, though unlike any such that you’ve read before.

Our hero is Jules Lacour, seventy-five years old, a teacher of music at the Sorbonne. He is a Holocaust survivor, a veteran of the Algerian War, and a widower. A brilliant teacher, he has never advanced far in his career because he cares only for the music, not for fashionable theories.

Today he faces the prospect of seeing his only grandson die of cancer. Once, long ago, he was unable to save his parents’ lives. Now he will go to any length necessary to save this boy. Meanwhile, he kills two Arab boys one night, when he finds them trying to murder an orthodox Jew. The surviving assailant runs away shouting, “Racist!” which makes Jules the subject of a somewhat leisurely police investigation.

I won’t go into the plot any further, for fear of spoilers. The greatest pleasure here, as in all Helprin’s books, is in his digressions, the stories within the story, the flashbacks, the meditations, the long, baroque lists that render the narrative almost tactile.

Paris In the Present Tense is not my favorite of Helprin’s books, and parts of it are morally problematic. But Helprin doesn’t really need my approval, and Jules Lacour certainly doesn’t care about it. This is a rich, beautiful book with much to say to us about music, and about what music tells us about the nature of the universe. Social and political issues are addressed – especially the problem of resurgent antisemitism in France. But sops are thrown to the liberal side as well – a greedy corporation comes in for particular condemnation, and there are probably more sympathetic Muslim characters than strictly necessary.

Highly recommended.

PowerPoint chronicles

I’m finally back from Høstfest.

“Wait!” you reply. Because you’re an intelligent and attentive reader, you seem to recall that I got back a little more than a week ago.

And you are correct, as always. But you know, there’s the physical journey and the spiritual journey. And my spiritual journey lasted through Saturday.

Which is a pretentious way of saying that I wasn’t able to get out of Viking Presenter mode, because I had two – not one, but two – last-minute lecturing gigs last week.

Which, incidentally, explains my blogging silence Thursday and Friday.

Thursday I lectured to a Sons of Norway lodge which happens to meet quite near my house. When I was setting up, I had a (biblical) Job Experience: “The thing which I have greatly feared has come upon me.” Continue reading PowerPoint chronicles

What Can We Gain Looking Back?

What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy.

From The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, who just won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Beethoven’s Fifth As It Was First Heard

Gerald Elias paints a slice of life in 1808 Vienna for someone looking forward to the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Of course, as a music lover, you sing in your parish choir and play duets and trios at home with the family (you on piano, and assorted family members doing the vocalizing). You are partial to Mozart’s concert arias, though they are the devil to get through unscathed.

The only music that is possible for you, or anyone in the world, to hear is live, face-to-face. That makes life pretty quiet. The cows low in the field on the hill, the goldfinches chirp in the linden tree in front of your house, the easy flow of the brook gurgles behind it. At night, sometimes you can hear loud talk from the tavern on the corner, but otherwise from dusk until dawn life is essentially silent.

While you wait for the performance to begin you wonder why it takes Beethoven so much longer to write a symphony than other composers – a mystery to you because from everything you’ve been told, his symphonies are rough around the edges, disconnected, and make an altogether unpleasant noise. The program, which Beethoven himself is conducting (though it’s well-known he’s hard of hearing), is as crazy as the man himself: the Sixth Symphony, one of his concert arias, the Gloria from his Mass in C, and his Fourth Piano Concerto, which Beethoven will perform himself. That’s the first half.

‘A Witness Above,’ by Andy Straka

A Witness Above

…and for the first time I may have caught a glimpse of grace from a higher station, where eyes see earth more clearly and the hunter waits, her quarry known.

The first book of a detective series, Andy Straka’s A Witness Above is a competent hard-boiled story with interesting spiritual elements. The hero is Frank Pavlicek, a former New York City detective. After he and his partner, Jake Toronto, killed a young black man (with an apparently blameless record), they were kicked off the force. They moved south to the Charlottesville, Virginia area, where they keep in touch with another officer also involved in the fateful shooting. They operate as private detectives, and in their spare time they train hunting falcons (I don’t think any literary detective has ever done that before).

One day, out training his hawk, Frank discovers the body of a young black man, killed by a gunshot. He keeps some things back from the police when he calls it in, though, because this young man was known to his daughter, who has recently come to live with him after his ex-wife’s permanent hospitalization. Both the police and the FBI suspect Frank, but he’s determined to discover the truth while protecting his daughter, even at the cost of his life.

This was a pretty good book. I wouldn’t rank it at the very top of the hard-boiled heap, mostly because I found Frank a little flat as a character. He never really came into focus for me. But the story was fascinating, the suspense honest. The writing was excellent. And the Christian characters in A Witness Above (there are several) are authentically and sympathetically drawn. (You won’t find characters like this in a Lee Child book.)

Mild cautions for language, but all in all I’m fairly confident in giving A Witness Above a B+, and recommending it to you.

The Conflicted, Divided Mr. Lear

A new biography of English poet and artist Edward Lear will be released next year from historian Jenny Uglow. A.N. Wilson reviews it.

In the case of both Lear and Tennyson, Uglow gives the sense that their introspection and private melancholy – their very non-public selves – were what enabled them to speak so effectively to an enormous audience, both in their own time and since. Of the two, however, it is Lear, translating the numbness of private sorrows into nonsense, who seems the more modern. Uglow wisely analyses this limerick:

There was an Old Man of Nepaul
From his horse had a terrible fall
But though quite split in two, By some very strong glue,
They mended the Man of Nepaul.

‘The glue of the rhyme sticks the pieces together,’ she writes, ‘but in the drawing the man’s two halves are still wide apart.’ That, really, is the essence of this psychologically brilliant portrait of Lear. There was at his core an unmendable dissonance, reflective of his times.

Perhaps this dissonance is always present in every society, but it’s sad to take note of it in some individuals. See the “Old Man of Nepaul” illustration on Lear200.

Here’s a little more on Jenny Uglow, who accidentally became an “adviser on every worthwhile period drama” on TV and some movies as well.

(via Prufrock News)

Self-Consciousness And Can a Machine Have It

Hugh Howey explains Theory of Mind and how it relates to artificial intelligence. He says AI can do marvelous feats of computation, but it can’t and probably will never think like we do. He says it’s fun to describe our minds as computers, but that’s misleading.

Computers are well-engineered devices created with a unified purpose. All the various bits were designed around the same time for those same purposes, and they were designed to work harmoniously with one another. None of this in any way resembles the human mind. Not even close. The human mind is more like Washington, D.C. (or any large government or sprawling corporation).

Parts of our brain can compete with each other, and what we call the mind is all of the brain and more combined. He describes seasickness as part of the brain believing it has been poisoned and vomiting to defend itself, even though you may know without doubt you have not been poisoned.

Not only are we unable to control ourselves completely, we also talk to ourselves incompletely. “The explanations we tell ourselves about our own behaviors are almost always wrong,” Howey says, because we defend ourselves even against our better judgment.

All of this leads to how AI machines will not and should not become so man-like as to pass for human beings. “The only reason I can think of to build such machines is to employ more shrinks.”

Howey has a book of new and collected sci-fi stories out this month.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture