‘Bleak Harbor,’ by Bryan Gruley

The Peters family is more dysfunctional in sum than any of its individual member knows.

Carley Bleak Peters, the central character in Bleak Harbor, is a descendant of the man who founded the upscale town of Bleak Harbor, Michigan. She is estranged, however, from her widowed mother, and has been cut out of her will. She was working in Chicago before her husband moved them back to Bleak Harbor, and she does not like commuting. It limits her time with her beloved son Danny, born of a fling with a drug dealer 15 years ago. But she has a plan. She will use documents she’s stolen to blackmail her boss, who pressured her into sex. This will allow her to flee Bleak Harbor with Danny.

Her husband, Danny’s stepfather, Pete Peters, is a nice guy, but not one of life’s winners. Formerly a successful commodities trader in Chicago, his career languished when he had to switch to online trading. Fired from his job, he moved to Bleak Harbor to open a medical marijuana shop – a sure-fire goldmine, he thought. Only he’s found that the only way to compete wtih the illicit market is to buy his stock from very bad people.

Fifteen-year-old Danny Peters is “on the autism scale.” He is handsome and intelligent, but does not relate well to people. His passions are dragonflies, perch (the fish), and one particular poem by Wallace Stevens. Neither of his parents is sure how much he understands about their situation.

When Danny is kidnapped, and cryptic text messages come to his parents demanding an odd ransom amount, Carley and Pete each believe it has to do with their own sins coming home to roost. They will be pushed to their personal limits, sometimes cooperating with the police and sometimes going behind their backs, to satisfy the demands of a bizarre kidnapper who seems determined to bring some of the Bleak family’s old skeletons to light.

Bleak Harbor was a departure for me, a different kind of thriller. I think it will be surprising to a lot of readers. The plot seems to me (I may just be uninformed) a pretty original one. I did guess the kidnapper’s identity a little ahead of schedule, but it was pretty surprising, and the surprise was well set up.

I’m not entirely sure what the theme of Bleak Harbor was, to be honest, but it kept my interest and kept me turning pages. Recommended, with minor cautions for language.

How Many Filaments Did Edison Test for His Lightbulb?

People know America’s great inventor Thomas Edison went through multitudes of material to find a good filament for his little light bulb hobby. He tested everything he could get his hands on and thought could work. Some even claim he made a large bulb in order to test the illumination of a charged cat.*

The Edison Museum states his team tested over 6,000 plant materials, many of them carbonized. The Franklin Institute makes the same claim, possibly taking it from the same source though that source isn’t clearly cited.

Rutgers Edison Papers says no one, not even the inventor himself, kept count of how many times they tried this or that. They quote an 1890 interview in which Edison says they tried 3,000 different theories in working out a functional and affordable light bulb, and many more experiments were conducted after they had a patent and a production factory. Edison was awarded that patent on January 27, 1880.

The number of filament experiment may be lost to history, as well as whether he actually said one of his famous quotations:

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.

– Thomas Edison or Harper’s Monthly?

Ralph Keyes, in his book The Quote Verifier, notes this quote and its variations can be attributed to Edison, but the earliest version of this can be found in an 1898 Ladies Home Journal. (Check to see if you still have this edition on your TBR pile.) The magazine claims Edison offered two percent inspiration and ninety-eight percent perspiration as a formula for genius. In the years that followed, it seemed magazine writers, not the inventor, were repeating this line in different ways, but by 1932 Edison claimed it as his own.

Update: The 1932 Harper’s Monthly interview referred to above may have been a contemporary interview, an obituary, or a tribute, because the inventor died in 1931. Harper’s doesn’t make it’s archives available online for free, but I have found a citation it, saying it was the September issue of Harper’s and that Edison was thought to have said this in 1903.

Photo by Rahul from Pexels

* no one claims this.

‘Deadly Still,’ by Keith Moray

West Uist, the fictional Hebrides island that provides the setting for Keith Moray’s Torquil McKinnon mysteries, suffers from Midsommer Syndrome. It’s a remote and bucolic place, filled with a population divided among the inoffensive and the eccentric, and yet it keeps throwing up murders. The latest involves the age-old tradition of illegal whisky distillation on the island.

As Deadly Still begins, Police Sergeant Morag Driscoll is off for a morning jog when she discovers a local teenager wandering blind in the heather. She and two friends had been celebrating completing their final tests with peatreek (the Scottish equivalent of moonshine) in an abandoned World War II bunker. Now she can’t see, one of her friends is unresponsive, and the other has disappeared entirely.

At about the same time, a local businessman is found dead. It looks like the result of a drunken fall, but laboratory analysis will show that he’s been imbibing the bad peatreek as well.

Except that the level of methyl alcohol in this stuff is way higher than is probable in ordinary home distilling. Someone has a grudge and an agenda, and Inspector Torquil McKinnon (who already had his hands full with his wedding plans) will need to stop that person before anyone else dies. And what happened to the missing girl?

I always come back to the Torquil McKinnon books with pleasure. I like the setting, I like the characters. I don’t rank Deadly Still as the best in the series – I had trouble keeping the characters straight in this one, but maybe that’s just because I’m getting old.

Recommended, like the whole series.

Tolkien’s Long Procrastination in the Same Direction

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote essays and myths for years before the publication of The Hobbit in 1937. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics is also published this year. The Lord of the Rings is published in three volumes during 1954-55. And through all of this time, the author may have been thinking he should possibly find time to write something deep on Chaucer.

His research student V.A. Kolve said, “He confessed to me once that some were disappointed by how little he had done in the academic way, but that he had chosen instead to explore his own vision of things.”

Tolkien himself said, “I have always been incapable of doing the job at hand.”

John M. Bowers has written a book on the long academic project Tolkien intended to return to. He reports,

[Tolkien] confided to his publisher in 1937 that Oxford would merely add The Hobbit to his “long list of never-never procrastinations” (Letters, 18). Fiction-writing simply did not count in terms of academic production, especially after Tolkien had idled away his two-year Leverhulme Research Fellowship. “The authorities of the university,” he would lament when The Lord of the Rings was in press, “might well consider it an aberration of an elderly professor of philology to write and publish fairy stories and romances” (Letters, 219). He explained to his American publisher this widespread view of his failings: “Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for 20 years’” (Letters, 238).

‘The Saboteur,’ by Andrew Gross

In 1965, an English/American film called The Heroes of Telemark was released. It starred Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as Norwegian saboteurs attacking the German “heavy water” (deuterium oxide) production facility at Rjukan in Telemark during World War II. Heavy water was a necessary buffering agent in the German program to split the atom, presumably to produce an atomic bomb.

The film took a highly cinematic approach to the story, compressing all the action into a couple weeks and replacing the actual participants with fictionalized and combined characters. It found a mixed response in Norway, where people who’d been through the war complained that it took Kirk Douglas two weeks to do by himself what it took a whole team two years to accomplish in real life.

I kept thinking of that film as I read The Saboteur, Andrew Gross’s similarly (though not so thoroughly) fictionalized account of the same clandestine operations.

Kurt Nordstrum is a Norwegian engineer who leaves his career to join the Resistance – with tragic consequences in his personal life. When an engineer at the Norsk Hydro facility in Rjukan tells him and a comrade that they need to get some microfilm to the English immediately, they hijack a coastal steamer and – just barely – manage to escape to Scotland. Then he and his friend join Company Linge, the Norwegian commando unit, and are eventually airdropped back in Norway. Their mission, from which they do not expect to return alive, is to destroy the Heavy Water production facility. Kurt’s father used to tell him, “A true man goes on until he can go no further… and then he goes twice as far.” And that’s precisely what he and his team will be called on to do before it’s over.

Honestly, I found this a hard book to read, but I’m not sure it’s the book’s fault. I knew this story pretty well already, and so was preparing myself emotionally for the unpleasant parts. Author Gross anticipates those expectations to an extent by making small changes in the story. Kurt Nordstrum (who is essentially standing in for real saboteur Knut Haukelid but has a very different back story), is enabled by his imaginary status to do stuff, and get into dilemmas, that Haukelid never did. I found some of those stuff and dilemmas somewhat implausible, but I can’t deny I was moved by the entirely imaginary heroics at the end.

I was bothered all through by the fictional changes, especially the handling of the characters. Several of the saboteurs here are real people, others are fictional (including an entirely imaginary Norwegian-American). I understand the narrative freedom that gave the author (as mentioned above), but it kind of nagged at me.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much about the spelling of Norwegian names and places. It’s pretty hit and miss, but I probably should be thankful for the effort.

What it comes down to, I guess, is that I can recommend The Saboteur to those who aren’t already familiar with the Heavy Water mission. But after you read it, you’ll want to read Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress or something like that to get the actual facts.

Is Ghostwriting Ever Right?

Several hours ago on Twitter, a young writer rejoiced over getting a ghostwriting gig, calling it an important step in her freelance career. For a writer wanting to work (and get this, receive money for that work as if he were a plumber or politician), an offer to write a book under someone else’s name can sound par for the course. It’s similar to other ways someone with a fistful of dollars can shove it toward a writer to ask for words in return: blogs, speeches, marketing, and corporate copy.

A friend of Orwell’s said, “There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher’s daughter.” But the freelance writer hopes to forge another path.

In the current issue of World magazine, Jenny Rough quotes differing opinions on ghostwriting. Some writers would say they couldn’t compose their books alone; they needed to work with a subject expert. Some athletes, actors, and speakers recognize they don’t have the skills to tell their story on paper, so they need a writer to communicate for them; readers will likely buy a book by that actor they love before they buy one about him. Perhaps it feels more personal.

Is it a problem for readers to believe the celebrity whose name is on the cover actually wrote the words on the page, scribbled notes to himself during dull meetings, pounded his own keyboard, cried over an editor’s red ink, and procrastinated until being overtaken by the threat of an existential deadline?

In most cases, it is.

Jared Wilson has written many times on pastors who desire to write. Being known for their words in the pulpit, pastors will be expected to write their own books. If they don’t, they’ll be expected to acknowledge who did.

Author Angela Hunt told World she “realized it wouldn’t cost authors anything to reveal they had help. ‘It doesn’t belittle them to admit they’re not professional writers. Many secular writers refuse to ghostwrite for the same reason we Christian writers do—it’s not honest, and it disparages the work of the writer who has worked hard to learn the craft.'”

For January and February 2020, you can get two months of World magazine for free by referring yourself or someone you know.

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash.

‘Mockin’bird Hill’

I still haven’t finished reading the book I’ll review next. It is a mark of my desperation for material that I’m going to post a music video that represents an utter betrayal of my younger self.

What you see here is a clip from the old Lawrence Welk TV series. It features the popular singers, The Lennon Sisters, doing “Mockin’bird Hill,” a song popular in the 1950s. Patti Page had a big hit with it. I remember that my mother and her sisters were fond of it.

What nobody told me at the time was that it’s a Scandinavian song – arguably Norwegian. It was first recorded by a Swedish accordionist named Carl “Calle” Jularbo in 1915, but it sounds suspiciously similar to a Norwegian folk tune, “Norska Bondvals” (Norwegian Farmer’s Waltz). In the clip, the accordionist introducing the song is Myron Floren, a Norwegian-American who was a regular on the Welk show. He was the single major star at Norsk Høstfest in Minot for many years until his death, which was years before I ever attended.

I like the song, but still hate myself for posting it in this incarnation, because of my childhood. My parents loved Lawrence Welk, and my brothers and I despised him (and all his works and all his ways, as we Lutherans say). We had a conspiracy to blind our parents to the program’s existence. It was broadcast on Saturday evenings in our area, but there was another channel that showed Tarzan movies at the same time. My brothers and I loved Tarzan. So when the folks fired up the Remote Control (which consisted of having one of us change the channel for them), we would zip past the channel showing Welk, hoping they wouldn’t notice.

Sometimes it worked.

Now that I’m old, I rightly ought to be learning to appreciate Lawrence Welk’s oeuvre. Sometimes they run his programs on the public television station. I’ve long been a confirmed fuddy-duddy. I ought to appreciate them now.

But honestly, I can’t. I’ll admit that some of the girls are pretty. But that “Champagne Sound” (Welk’s personal trademark) just leaves me cold. Too processed. Too polka-based. And those obligatory, rictus-like smiles on all the performers, who were known to be paid minimum union scale regardless of their popularity with the audience.

Too much ancient bitterness there. Too much blood shed, to wax hyperbolic.

I don’t even like Tarzan that much these days.

The deadly dream airport

Photo credit: Digby Cheung@dbyche1016

I remember a dream I had last night, which is a rarity for me. I remember it because it disturbed me enough to wake me up.

I was in an airport. A ticket agent (or somebody) had just directed me toward the gate I needed, and I had to hurry. So I rushed along the walkway, toward a descending stairway ahead of me.

But as I approached the stairway, I had the sudden conviction that this wasn’t a stairway. It was an edge. Beyond that edge there was just open space.

I suddenly dropped on my face, and peered over the edge. Sure enough, I was at the end of a sort of mezzanine floor without a guard rail – a dangerous arrangement no real-life airport would contemplate.

But as I looked down, I suddenly heard someone (a young person, male or female, I’m not sure) running up behind me. They were going very fast, and I had no time to warn them before they shot over the edge and plunged to the floor below. Not necessarily a fatal fall, but surely injurious.

Then I woke up.

I have theories about what that dream meant, but I’ll let you speculate.

I applied for a job today. I won’t tell you what it is, except that it involves editing. But it seemed (in some ways) ideal for my skills and personality, so I took a chance.

I was half way through the application when I saw that they wanted me to link to a Google Doc of some of my editing work. And I thought, “Forget this. I don’t have Google Docs.”

And my brain replied, “Wait, haven’t you used Google Docs before? You have an account. Check it out.

I checked, and behold, I do have a Google Docs account. I created the link.

I’m rather proud of myself for not chickening out (for once). But boy, I make this hard for myself.

Language comparison: The Lord’s Prayer

Today I am distracted, or at least I’m pretending to be. Did two high-stress things — saw the dentist to repair the wisdom tooth I broke on Sunday evening (popcorn, if you must know), and then I paid my Minnesota sales tax online.

That, I figure, ought to give me an excuse to be lazy. (In fact, both worked out better than I feared.) Back when I was a school kid, there were days when the teacher would roll a projector into the room and show us some educational film, usually a generation old. Innocent that I was, I figured this was part of some highly strategized educational plan. Nowadays, I’m given to understand that it often meant the teacher wasn’t feeling up to it, and just needed to coast.

In the same way, when I post a YouTube video, it’s not unlikely that I’m loafing.

Last night, in my book review, I referred to Old Norse (Viking) words that have made their way into English. I thought there must be a video or two on that subject.

The selections weren’t as good as I hoped. There were a few, but they were either very short, or hosted by annoying young hipsters whom I hated on sight (or both). Jackson Crawford, who can usually be counted on for interesting stuff on Old Norse, had nothing.

But there is this, posted above. The Lord’s Prayer in Modern English, Old English, Old Norse, and modern Icelandic.

Pay attention. This will be on the test.

‘Murder at the Meet,’ by Bruce Beckham

‘We did a project on it when I was at primary school. The Vicious Vikings. Although most of the settlements’ names are quite innocuous. Applethwaite, Brackenthwaite, Crosthwaite – quite often you can work it out.’

DS Leyton looks rather bemused.

‘So, what – did they speak English?’

DS Jones giggles as though she thinks he must be joking. But then she responds. ‘No – we speak Old Norse.’

It’s one of the charms of Bruce Beckham’s Inspector Skelgill novels (for me) that there are occasional allusions to the history of the Cumberland region where Skelgill operates. In the passage above, our detectives, Skelgill, DS Jones (female) and DS Leyton (male) are talking about local farm names, which often contain the element “thwaite,” which is related to the Norwegian word “tvedt.” Both mean “field.”

But that’s not what Murder at the Meet, the latest Skelgill novel, is mainly about. More than 20 years ago, a young wife and mother named Mary Wilson disappeared during the annual Shepherd’s Meet. As it happens, that was the same year a teenager named Dan Skelgill won the Fell Runners’ race, setting a long-standing record. At the time, the police employed brand-new technology, DNA testing, matching it to the one discovered piece of evidence, to try to identify her attacker or abductor (assuming she didn’t just run off). But without success.

Now Mary’s bones have been found, by archaeologists in a local cave. Skelgill and his team start interviewing surviving witnesses and family members, and discover – as you would expect – a number of old secrets and personal grudges. And all the while Skelgill does his own eccentric thing – applying his knowledge of local geography, biology and weather, along with the sensibilities of a fisherman.

It’s all enjoyable and familiar for the Skelgill fan. I did think this effort was a little unfair to the reader, as we were denied the information that finally unlocks the puzzle until after the climax – and so we didn’t know what all the urgency was about. That reduced the suspense for me.

But that aside, Murder at the Meet was an enjoyable read, and is recommended.

Remembering Roger Scruton

Many people under the influence of science, and particularly neuro-nonsense, will say the sacred is an old concept, it’s just a hangover, but you can easily see that’s not so, because everyone has a sense of desecration: there are things everybody values which, when they are spoiled, are not just moved or destroyed, they are desecrated. Something that is vital not just to you but the world. People have this sense when they see their towns pulled apart and concrete blocks put in the middle of them. You only have to look at Aberdeen to see what happens to a beautiful place when the desecrators get their hands on it.

Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World

Conservative author Roger Scruton died last week. He is being remembered by many as a generous, thoughtful man who said stuff.

Politician Daniel Hannan said, “Roger Scruton changed the course of my life. He addressed my school’s philosophy society when I was 16, speaking so compellingly about Wittgenstein and language that, when he finished, no one wanted to ask the first question. So, more to fill an awkward silence than anything else, I stuck my hand up and asked him what he saw as the role of a conservative thinker. ‘The role of a conservative thinker,’ he replied, in his charmingly diffident manner, ‘is to reassure the people that their prejudices are true.’

“That beautiful aperçu never left me.”

A Threat to Justice Everywhere

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Justin Taylor offers context and organization to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote in the margins of the newspaper that published the open letter calling for “’an appeal for law and order and common sense,’ in dealing with racial problems in Alabama.”

Friday Night Fight: Macbeth vs. Macduff

We used to have a tradition of posting “Friday Night Fights” here, showing videos of Viking reenactors going at it with blunt blades. Some of them were friends of mine; occasionally I was involved. We haven’t done that for a while, but I’ve decided to share this clip I found. It involves two fighters doing Macbeth’s death scene from Shakespeare’s play, while fighting with period swords and armor.

It’s not as good as I’d like it to be, and not only because the acting sucks. Macbeth wears a mixture of mail and lamellar (small plates) armor, and lamellar is not generally approved by serious reenactment groups nowadays. Macduff wears some kind of pelt, which is pretty much a Hollywood costuming thing, and they both wear greaves, which are also a faux pas among reenactors.

The fight isn’t bad – it’s quite good in places, certainly better than what you’ll see in movies. Though I’m not sure what it’s about when they both lose their shields and then reclaim them. Still, it’s interesting from a combat point of view.

Why this video? Well, I’ve had Macbeth on my mind lately. I’m strongly inclined to include him in my next Erling book. He was about 17 at the time the story starts, and there’s no reason he couldn’t have been in Norway then. His Scottish Highland home was definitely part of Erling’s world. I have an idea that throwing him into the story might enhance some of the themes I’m developing.

But I haven’t decided yet how to portray him – as a budding villain, as Shakespeare paints him, or as a virtuous and pious young man, which the actual historical record would indicate.

We’ll see. The story will tell me how it wants me to treat him.

‘The Truth About Murder,’ by Chris Collett

There’s a lot of good to be said about Christ Collett’s new stand-alone mystery, The Truth About Murder. But I also found it somewhat aggravating.

First of all, full marks for originality in giving us a new kind of investigative hero – Stefan Greaves is a lawyer in the (fictional, I presume) middle English town of Charnford. From the beginning, it’s clear that Stefan suffers from some kind of disability, but author Collett (annoyingly, in my view) puts off naming it until nearly half-way through the book. I’ll risk spoiling it by telling you that he has cerebral palsy. To reduce associated muscle tension, he smokes pot regularly. Because social interactions are difficult (he has trouble being understood when he talks) he sees an “escort” regularly.

Stefan gets a visit from a local nurse, who is concerned about mortality rates in the neonatal ward where she works. Not long afterward she disappears, and when her body is found in the river, the verdict is suicide – though her daughter insists she was a Catholic and would never do that.

Investigating the disappearance and death is Mick Fraser, a local cop. Mick is concerned about his partner, whose time has been monopolized by their commander lately. He’s been secretive, and Mick begins to suspect him of corruption. In fact, it’s far worse than that…

As the plot thickens (rather slowly I thought, and with too much reliance on coincidence) Stefan and Mick are drawn together to uncover a sinister and heinous plot that threatens the whole country.

I never fell in love with The Truth About Murder, or with Stefan Greaves as a character. (He shares, with many fictional detectives, a gift for having attractive women throw themselves at him constantly, in spite of his disability. I complain of this trope often in my reviews, and if you think that means I’m jealous… well, I am.)

However, the book’s themes pleased me greatly. Without spoiling it for the reader, I’ll just say that it involved controversial issues of medical ethics. Author Collett seems to be unaware of (or is avoiding) the fact that the evil in view here is more associated with the Left than the Right in our time. But that may be a strategic choice intended not to alienate readers. I don’t know Collett’s politics, but if he’s conservative I salute his strategy, and if he’s liberal I salute his moral sense.

I can’t give The Truth About Murder my highest recommendation, but it’s worth reading. There’s a suggestion that this might be the start of a new series. I’m not wholly enthusiastic about that prospect.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture