‘Caught,’ by Harlan Coben

Walker turned away because he didn’t want to admit that maybe Stanton had a point. You make so many calls in life that you don’t want to make – and you want those calls to be easy. You want to put people in neat categories, make them monsters or angels, but it almost never works that way. You work in the gray and frankly that kinda sucks. The extremes are so much easier.

During my Long March through the educational institution, I find that I have fallen behind in my Harlan Coben reading. There was a brand new book (I reviewed that the other day), plus two more I hadn’t noticed. This was good news – it meant a reading feast of extremely high quality.

Caught is, I think, my favorite to date of all Coben’s novels. The main character is Wendy Tyne, a television news reporter. She’s a young widow, and the mother of a teenage son. She does a feature where she lures child predators through online contacts, and then exposes them on video. That was how she “caught” Dan Mercer – a youth counselor whom everyone respected, and many loved – including the kids he worked with. Even Dan’s ex-wife staunchly defends him.

Then he gets tied to the disappearance of a local teenaged girl, and clues start pointing in all kinds of directions, and Wendy discovers a long-ago crime coverup, and begins to question her own judgment. Then a threat appears to her own family.

Caught is a complex story with complex characters. Not for Coben the simple stereotypes a lesser writer would have offered. The best characters can make terrible mistakes, and the worst have moments of goodness. I was particularly pleased by Wendy’s father, who rides a motorcycle and belongs to the NRA and is a fine, loving, wise man.

Harlan Coben, as far as I can figure out, is Jewish. But the major theme of this book is forgiveness, and the way he handles the subject will be edifying to any Christian.

Highly recommended. The language is mild by thriller standards. There’s no on-screen sex, and the violence is minimal, though some crime descriptions can be harrowing.

Fifty years

I should know better than to put faith in signs and portents, but for some reason the year 1965 seems to have been getting in my face lately.

I find it odd, and amusing, and somewhat annoying, to know that for many of you, 1965 might as well be 1945 or 1865 – it was before your time. It was history.

But I was there. Fifty years ago this year. I was there when that song I posted last week – A Lover’s Concerto – was released (I don’t mean I was in Motown, but I was on the planet). Men wore suits with narrow lapels, and thin ties. Women still wore hats to church. All but the most moral and health-conscious people smoked. Teenaged boys wore their hair greased back in ducktails. Cars had chrome.

And then there was my confirmation. I was confirmed on June 20, 1965. I was reminded of this while attending the confirmation of a friend’s daughter this past weekend. It suddenly struck me – my own confirmation was fifty years ago this summer.

No one ever forgets their confirmation, I think, even if they become atheists or Muslims or join the Green Party. But mine was particularly memorable. And not in a good way. Continue reading Fifty years

‘Extreme Prey,’ by John Sandford

He fit in the crowd like pea in a pod, he thought: the basic difference between Minnesotans and Iowans was a line on a map. Other than that, they were the same bunch, except, of course, for the physical and spiritual superiority of the Minnesota Gophers over the Iowa Hawkeyes, in all ways, and forever. Between the Hawks and the Badgers… they’d have to work that out themselves.

Another Prey book from John Sandford. Another good, entertaining story, and this time – I’m happy to report – a little lighter on the perversion and sadism.

As Extreme Prey begins, Lucas Davenport is working on remodeling his Wisconsin cabin, ogling his sexy carpenter. He’s unemployed for the moment (no great hardship for a multimillionaire), having quit his job with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Nevertheless, he still takes a call from the governor.

The governor is running for the presidential nomination (Democrat), and he’s worried about the safety of the front-runner in the race, Michaela Bowden, a former cabinet secretary. Messages he’s gotten from the lunatic fringe among his supporters have him suspicious that there’s an assassination plot aimed at Bowden. So he asks Lucas to liaise with her campaign and try to ferret out the plot, if one exists. Everybody’s in Iowa for the state fair this week, so that’s where Lucas heads in his big Mercedes SUV.

What follows is one of the more entertaining and thoughtful of the Prey stories. The plot centers around an eccentric band of rural activists, violent and crazy, but just like regular folks in alarming ways. I admired the way author Sandford defused the political implications of such a story by pretty much ignoring Republicans altogether, except for a few slighting asides. The very good and the very bad are all Democrats, and they too are not immune to criticism and satire.

As in all the Prey books, there’s plenty of low humor, and a lot of rough language. But the level of cruelty and gore is lower this time around. I enjoyed Extreme Prey a lot.

What We Eat Vs. Food Culture

Nicholas Hune-Brown describes how foodie trends don’t reflect most of what Americans actually eat.

The gap between the food we cook and the food we talk about has never been larger. Culturally, it’s the same gap that exists between The Americans—the brainy FX spy show that seems to have nearly as many internet recappers as viewers—and shows like the immensely popular and rarely discussed NCIS. Breathless blog posts about the latest food trends can feel like certain corners of music criticism, pre-poptimism, when writers would obsess over the latest postrock band that was using really interesting time signatures while ignoring the vast majority of music people listened to on the radio. The food at Allrecipes is the massively popular, not-worth-talking-about mainstream.

This is another example of how the culture of media people or the culture of the places where most news writers work chafes with middle and small town America. I don’t think it has to be an uncomfortable chaffing, but writers should be aware of it. Food writers may love to write about what’s new and different and extol new theories of nutrition and flavor, but eating has many ties to traditions, personal comforts, family, and even ceremony. We don’t cook for critics; we cook to bless the people at our table (sometimes that just ourselves). And around the holidays, our family traditions (or a specific rejection of them) are like a fuming stew pot, filling the air with expectations. If food writers don’t share our traditions and comforts, if they have deliberately rejected them for personal or professional reasons, then they’re going to push us away from their table to some degree. We may still appreciate what they have to say, but when it comes to actually eating, well, we may ignore them more often than not. (via ArtsJournal)

What we do with our dreams

Sorry I didn’t post last night. I got into customer service purgatory with my antivirus provider. Oddly, I didn’t have to wait on hold at all; it was the actual work that took forever. Of course I had to yield personal control of my machine to some guy in India, which I wouldn’t gladly do even if he were in Minneapolis. But I’m pretty sure that if I’d tried to follow instructions to do it all myself, I’d have ended up just running to Micro Center and buying a new computer.

The Sensation

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about my post on The “Lover’s Concerto” music clip. I’m still watching it – not as many times a day, I guess, but it never fails to run a semi-physical thrill through me, along the shoulders and up my neck to the brain.

I’ve had such reactions to various things in my life – often to music (“The Theme from Exodus”, Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell”). Sometimes to art, such as a painting of a Viking ship in a history book my folks bought us once. Sometimes to books, like a couple of passages in The Lord of the Rings. Sometimes to scenery – my favorite was, and remains, a day when the sky is a leaden blue-gray but the sun shines brightly through a gap onto the trees and grass, so that they glow against the iron background.

If I had to explain my life – the choices I’ve made, the successes and mistakes, I’d say that my lodestar has always been an impossible beauty. One that can never be attained in this world, but that can never be forgotten either, that drives unending effort for something that I know can’t be completed, but which for some reason does not make me despair.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Continue reading What we do with our dreams

Luther Documentary Kickstarter

On October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg church, intending to invite debate on the doctrine of indulgences and its implication. Next year is the 500th anniversary of that decision.

LUTHER Official Teaser Trailer from Stephen McCaskell on Vimeo.

Now, the makers of the film Through the Eyes of Spurgeon are raising money to fund their production of a documentary on Luther.

‘Fool Me Once,’ by Harlan Coben

Wow. What a book. Harlan Coben is one of the best thriller writers around, but Fool Me Once is unlike anything he’s written before.

I might have been inclined to pass this one over, because it involves a woman in combat, a subject that troubles me. But I trust Coben, so I went ahead and read it, and I’m glad I did. You could make an argument that the story supports my views, but I doubt that’s what Coben had in mind. Whatever his intentions, he’s written a fine, taut, explosive story.

Maya Stern Burkett is a veteran helicopter pilot from the Middle East war. She was briefly famous when video of her killing civilians during a rescue mission was leaked by a whistleblower web site. That ended her military career. Now she’s an aviation instructor. Some people say that death follows her, and it seems as if it might be true. Her sister was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered while she was overseas, and now her husband, Joe Burkett, scion of a rich and powerful family and the father of her two-year-old daughter, has been murdered.

After the funeral, Maya’s sister-in-law gives her an unexpected gift – a nanny camera. Maya trusts her nanny, and doesn’t understand the gift, but she uses it… and one day she sees something that can’t possibly be real on its daily recording. Maya starts asking questions and begins to learn that very little in her world is what it seems to be. Her life, and her daughter’s, may be at stake.

Coben does a splendid job of describing the world of a soldier dealing with PTSD. And I don’t often say that a book’s ending shocks me, but this one did. It worked, though, and I won’t soon forget it.

Highly recommended. No sex, language fairly mild (as with all Coben’s books), and the violence isn’t overwhelming.

Tocqueville on the Tyranny of the Majority

And if you want a refutation of the wisdom of crowds—the “theory of equality applied to intelligence,” Tocqueville scoffs—look no further. As someone who believes that “freedom of the intellect is a sacred thing,” as Tocqueville does, “when I feel the hand of power weigh upon my brow, it scarcely matters who my oppressor is, and I am not more inclined to submit to the yoke because a million arms are prepared to place it around my neck.”

That same majoritarian tyranny explains why America’s elected officials are so mediocre. To win votes, they have to flatter public opinion with the obsequiousness of Louis XIV’s most sycophantic courtiers. Andrew Jackson is Tocqueville’s Exhibit A. He “is the slave of the majority,” Tocqueville sneers; “he obeys its wishes and desires and heeds its half-divulged instincts; or rather, he divines what the majority wants, anticipating its desires before it knows what they are in order to place himself at its head.” Like most politicians, he cares only about reelection, so that “his own individual interest supplants the general interest in his mind.” His (ultimately successful) vendetta against the Second Bank of the United States is a perfect example. Even though it inestimably benefits the nation by ensuring its monetary stability, Jackson happily attacks it, accusing its directors of being an aristocracy in the making, opposed to the democratic majority—and, incidentally, to Jackson as well. But of course, Jackson’s Democrats, the party that stands for the infinite expansion of the power of the people, have a permanent majority over the rival Federalists, who could win election only when the country needed to navigate the perils of the Founding, a unique emergency that prompted the Federalist Party’s superior men to accept public office.

From Myron Magnet’s essay, The End of Democracy in America” on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution. (via Prufrock)

A private confession, just between you and me.

My name is Lars, and I’m an addict.

Wait, let me rephrase that.

I’m more… obsessed. Or compulsed. Compulsively obsessed.

With a music video.

No, not a music video. They didn’t exist back in 1965, when this was recorded. It’s a clip from a TV show called Hullabaloo, which I vaguely recall from my teenage years. We didn’t watch it very much.

And I wasn’t actually much aware of this song when it rose to Number Two on the Billboard chart. When I first noticed it, it was already an oldie. What it actually is, is an arrangement of the Minuet in G Major, which was long attributed to Bach but actually appears to have been first composed by a guy named Christian Petzold. The arrangers changed the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4, gave it lyrics and a Motown arrangement, and handed it over to a girl group called The Toys. And this is the result:

Continue reading A private confession, just between you and me.

My equestrian weekend

I wanted to upload a picture, but I’m having connection problems tonight, and anyway I didn’t take any photos this weekend that were much better than pedestrian (and you can’t have pedestrian at a horse show). The perfect thing would have been to get someone to snap me with an Icelandic horse, wearing my Viking gear, but that obvious idea never occurred to me at the time.

Anyway, it was a good weekend. In fact, although there were difficult parts, I’d say it was the best time I’ve had in a couple years. The first fling of my freedom, you might say, if you were in alliterative mood.

I’d been to the Minnesota Horse Expo at the state fairgrounds once before, years back. At that point, we were able to get a parking spot in the lot even though we weren’t bright and early. This year, although the horse barns and Coliseum are at the west end of the park, I had to park back near the east entrance. It’s gotten to be a big deal. There was no handicapped parking section. It was a long trek from my parking spot for someone with a recent hip replacement, but I made it, and I wasn’t even terribly stiff the next day. Continue reading My equestrian weekend

Cutting Corners with Other People’s Ideas

Untitled

Some Christian publishers are taking the expensive step of using plagiarism software during their editing process to guard against intentional and unintentional plagiarism, according to World Magazine. Emily Belz writes:

Most publishers think authorial self-preservation, strict contracts prohibiting plagiarism, and a good team of editors will result in a plagiarism-free book. But when plagiarism is unintentional—a missed citation or a miscopied note from a research assistant or just sloppiness—those checks can be insufficient.

I saw this kind of unintentional plagiarism or sloppiness while editing a set a workbooks a few years ago. Usually I was verifying a quotation to see if the attribution was correct, and some of them had incorrect or odd punctuation, so I tried to find an adequately sourced quotation in order to correct what my manuscript. A couple times I found the quotation and surrounded text were all quoted from another work and improperly attributed.

Professor Collin Garbarino gives World this explanation for this persistent problem. “We’ve got some pastors writing books on topics that they only superficially understand. If you haven’t mastered the subject matter, you’re going to have to rely on someone else for your ideas. If you’re under a deadline, you might cut corners.”

Imitating God as a Gardener

Garden
Pete Peterson shares some thoughts he learned from Norman Wirzba on a theology of eating. A gardener with many animals, Peterson asks, “If we are the Body of Christ, are we not also called to be gardeners and caretakers of the New Creation?

He writes:

Each morning when I wake, I am the celebrant in a liturgy that leads me through the sacrament of Creation. I process through garden aisles. I pastor the beans, and the grape vines, and the apple trees, and, yes, even the chickens and ducks. They sing praises in crows and quacks. They make offerings of eggs, or fruit, or even simple beauty. They come forward to partake of the food I offer, and I leave them with a blessing.

‘Fin Gall,’ by James L. Nelson

Well, I actually finished this book, which is more than I can say for a lot of Viking novels I’ve started reading. And there was evidence of some research in it – it’s certainly way more historically accurate than the History Channel series, which we hates, we does.

But I’m not greatly impressed with James L. Nelson’s Fin Gall: A Novel of Viking Age Ireland.

The date is given as 852 AD. Our hero is a Norwegian named Thorgrim Night Wolf. Thorolf is reputed to be a shape-shifter, a werewolf, but the descriptions make it difficult to figure out exactly what happens when he goes out on his nocturnal excursions. Sometimes he only dreams of roaming as a wolf, but he still comes back with useful real-world information. Thorolf is the son-in-law of Jarl Ornolf the Restless, and the father of a son named Harald. They sail to Ireland for booty, and then happen onto a treasure, the Crown of the Three Kingdoms, which was being sent to one of the Irish kings. The crown is to give him symbolic dominion over the other Irish petty kings, so that they can fight the Danes, who have recently driven the Norwegians out of the Viking town of Dubh-lin.

Thereafter the characters and the plot wander about the Irish countryside, getting captured and escaping, losing the crown and a couple hostages to one another like basketball players bobbling a ball. There are some clever moments, especially in the use of ships (author Nelson is an experienced sailor on square sailed vessels), but I personally found it all a little contrived.

As I said, there’s some evidence of historical research here, but the errors are many. Two of the characters are named Snorri and Magnus, names not invented until the 10th and 11th Centuries. The author thinks Viking houses had windows (windows were extremely rare). He thinks Viking ships kept the warriors’ shields up on the rails while at sea (they didn’t). He thinks Norwegians knew nothing of burning peat (they did). In one regard author Nelson praises the Irish Christians for virtues even I, an openly sectarian author, wouldn’t claim – he thinks they weren’t superstitious. The subsequent history of Ireland makes it very clear that whatever good Christianity did for that country, it didn’t eradicate superstition.

I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect an author who hasn’t spent a lifetime in obsessive study of the Vikings, as I have, to know all these things. I expect, after all, that there are even greater compulsives out there who find as many errors in my own novels.

Nelson does do a good job in dramatizing the great irony of Viking Age Ireland – that the Irish hated each other just as much as the Scandinavians, and were as brutal – or more brutal – with each other than the Vikings were with them.

So my final judgment is fairly neutral. The writing is OK (though the author needs to learn where to use “like” and “as”). There are a couple mildly explicit sex scenes, and of course there’s lots of fighting and blood and guts. You could do worse for a Viking novel, but you could also do better. I’m not personally impressed enough to buy the second book in the series.

Who Has Influenced Eugene Peterson: Pastors or Artists?

Those were the days
“I think the people who have influenced me most as a pastor,” Eugene Peterson said, “haven’t been the theologians – they’ve been the artists.” Jeffrey Overstreet interviewed Peterson for Seattle Pacific University back in 2011.

From artists I learned never to look at just the surface of a person, but to look for the interior life, to consider what I know of their past. An exterior is never just an exterior. In our culture, we’re trained to focus on the exterior, for instance, through advertising and publicity. Being present to a person long enough to start sensing that they’re never just themselves, they’re their parents, their grandparents, their kids, their neighbors – all of that becomes part of their story. Artists help me do that, because they are attuned to the interior life.

I think it’s interesting that Karl Barth, the theologian who has influenced me most, was mostly influenced by Mozart. Mozart was a theme in his life. I think he learned a lot about writing theology by listening to Mozart.

Norse horse


Icelandic horses at the beginning of summer. Photo credit: Guillame Calas. Creative Commons license.

Fair warning: There won’t be a post on Friday. I have faith in you; somehow you’ll endure.

I’ll be playing Viking at an odd venue on Friday and through the weekend, the Minnesota Horse Expo at the state fairgrounds in St. Paul. The Viking Age Club & Society has been asked to provide context for the Icelandic horse exhibit this year. There will even be fight shows in the arena, though sadly the fighters will be old guys (not me; I’m still not up to that), as our young Vikings aren’t available. In real life, the Vikings would have probably had the stallions themselves fight, using goads on them. It was the Vikings’ favorite sport.

Things I’ve learned about Icelandic horses, mostly through internet research:

• It’s illegal to import any horse into Iceland, even an Icelandic horse. Once an Icelandic horse leaves the island, it must stay away forever. They’re afraid of bringing in exotic diseases or parasites.

• Icelandic horses have two extra gaits, which other horses can’t do (and only some Icelandics can do). One is called the tölt, a “four-beat lateral ambling gait” said to be “comfortable and ground-covering.” The other is the skeið, the “flying pace,” “fast and smooth” according to Wikipedia, a “two-beat lateral gait.” (Skeið was also the name of a kind of Viking ship; Erling Skjalgsson owned one of those.)

• Breeders of Icelandic horses consider them the purest of the northern breeds.

Author and artist William Morris (1834-1896) made a tour of Iceland with friends in 1871, producing a journal which I consulted (through a kind loan by Dale Nelson) in my research for West Oversea. He grew very fond of the horse he rode on that tour, and planned to bring it home with him. However it went lame before embarkation, so he took another horse instead. It lived to a good old age and grew very fat on his estate in England.

I shall tell you more about Icelandic horses next week.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture