‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

For reasons I’m not sure I entirely understand, I happened last week on this clip from the old movie, Lili. It features the song “Hi Lily, Hi Lo,” which was a very big hit when I was a very little boy. I realized, somewhat to my own surprise, that this might be my favorite song in the world.

The situation here is that Lili, an orphan in post-war France, has just lost her job in a carnival, and has been rejected by a man she thought she loved. She is contemplating suicide when the puppeteer, speaking through his puppets, engages her in conversation. Soon she is having a wonderful time. Then comes the song. I’ve watched this clip again and again, and I’m fascinated by the storytelling skill of the screenwriter, Helen Deutsch.

Notice something strange in the scene? The song is (as the lyrics say), a sad song. And indeed, most of the many performers who’ve covered it since have slowed it down and sung it soulfully, with a different chorus. But Deutsch is doing a subtle and interesting thing here. She’s creating deliberate ambiguity. The words of the song don’t match the mood of the scene. That would be a great writing error if the writer didn’t know what she was doing. But this ambiguity creates a tension in the mind of the viewer. And that tension’s like Chekhov’s famous gun – if you hang it on the wall, you’ve got to use it before the play is over. Continue reading ‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

‘Talion,’ by Pete Brassett

Talion

First of all, the blurb on the cover of Pete Brassett’s Talion ought to qualify as libel. It calls the book “A Scandinavian noir mystery set in Scotland.” This is a lie, thank God. Scandinavian noir novels are dark, dank, and suicidal, leaving the reader wondering whether life in a Socialist paradise is worth the effort of cashing the welfare checks. Pete Brassett’s Inspector Munro novels are bright and cheery (in spite of the murders). Munro is indefatigably optimistic, a role model for us all.

At the end of the last novel, Terminus (spoiler alert), it looked as if Munro was out of the picture for good. But in fact he’s just vacationing on the island of Islay. Detective Sergeant “Charlie” West manages to lure him back to their coastal Scottish community with an interesting murder mystery involving criminals Munro knows well from the past.

A young boy and his mother, on holiday at the seashore, had discovered a decomposing human body on the beach (the boy, a budding entomologist, was not in the least traumatized). It takes some time to identify the man, but it turns out to be a local drug dealer. He was part of a triumvirate of criminals in the past, and suspicion falls on his old partners in crime. Then another of the three is murdered. Who is killing these men and why? And is it possible the single mother who found the body is actually involved herself?

Like all the Inspector Munro books, Talion is a lot of fun. Munro is a wonderful character – just irascible enough to be amusing without becoming a bore. Sergeant West, who was something of a personal wreck when she first appeared, has grown and gained poise and confidence in her job. I had a great time with Talion, and recommend it wholeheartedly. Cautions for mature themes.

In memoriam: Billy Graham, 1918-2018

Billy Graham in Oslo
Billy Graham preaching in Oslo, 1955 (National Archives of Norway)

I actually worked for Billy Graham, for a few months, back in the 1970s. Not in any notable way — in those days the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters were in Minneapolis. I went to work in the “Decision Building” during a year I took off to pay for my last year of college. I did bulk mail work, mostly slinging mail bags around, though they did “promote” me to operating a Phillipsburg Inserter machine before I decamped for a higher paying job. But I distinguished myself by writing a letter to the Minneapolis Star & Tribune to dissent from a critical article they published about Billy.

I’m old enough the remember the man in his prime. My home church, a Lutheran pietist congregation, was pretty leery of Baptists in those days. But Billy was an exception. He could pretty much do no wrong in our eyes. And the funny thing was, in general he deserved it. Ethel Waters, a Graham convert and supporter, writes in her autobiography, To Me It’s Wonderful, how she immediately got suspicious the first time she saw his picture: “He’s too good-looking.” But no hint of sexual scandal ever came near him personally (he was an early adopter of what we now call the Mike Pence Rule).

I don’t think we’ll see his like again. I’ve long held a superstitious fear that God was delaying the judgment America deserves so long as Billy was alive. Without him, will there be anyone to stand in the gap?

Enter into the joy of your Master, William Franklin Graham.

‘Night Moves,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Night Moves

The fingers she offered were flash-frozen shoestring potatoes.

There’s hardly any point in me reviewing the latest Alex Delaware mystery by Jonathan Kellerman. I like the series immensely, and the books are uniformly excellent. Night Moves is no exception, though I’ll admit I did get lost in places.

Chet Corvin lives in an upscale suburb of Los Angeles with his wife and two children. He’s a braggart, and pushy, which works for him at his job, but makes him a pain to anyone who knows him. He’s outraged when he and his family come home from a night out to find a dead body in his den. The victim wasn’t killed there – there’s no blood splattered around – but his face has been obliterated by a shotgun blast and his hands have been cut off.

Det. Lt. Milo Sturgis catches the case, and he again brings in his friend Alex Delaware, psychologist, as a consultant. The Corvin family is a study – cold wife, withdrawn teenaged daughter, rebellious son. There’s also a weird next-door neighbor – an older, unsocial artist who was once a famous underground cartoonist, back in the hippie era. His classic work is pretty creepy; Milo would definitely like to talk to him, but he won’t even answer the door.

One lead after another turns into a dead end. As Alex and Milo manage to learn one after another hard-won fact, bodies pile up and they begin to uncover the tracks of a complex, improbable, and shocking serial killer.

What I love most about the Alex Delaware books is his treatment of the characters. Author Kellerman loves to explode our preconceptions. Again and again we are introduced to people who invite snap judgment, but prove on closer acquaintance to be complex and full of surprises. I did kind of lose track of the multiple plot threads this time around – but that may just be a function of me getting old.

Recommended, for older teens and up. Cautions for the usual. Good stuff.

‘Among the Shadows, by Bruce Robert Coffin

Among the Shadows

I’m not sure why I’m less than enthusiastic about Bruce Robert Coffin’s police mystery, Among the Shadows. It was quite well done, but it left me kind of cold.

John Byron is a detective sergeant in Portland, Maine. His marriage is falling apart, he’s fighting the bottle, and he’s resisting an attraction to a female subordinate. When a former cop dies in a hospital and it’s ruled not from natural causes, John’s assigned to the case. Then another old ex-cop – who’d been on the same team with the first victim – also is killed, John begins to suspect a serial killer. Cop-killings are always top priority, but for John it’s more personal. His father, long dead, was on the same team. But he finds his investigation stymied at every turn, by orders from above. He begins to suspect that one of his superiors is blocking his moves.

The story is good. I thought I’d figured out whodunnit, but I wasn’t even close. The final action was tense, dramatic, and surprising.

All I can figure out to explain my ambivalence is that I found John Byron’s character uninteresting. He was right out of central casting. Middle aged, check. Marriage failing – check. Alcohol problem – check. Loose cannon, cuts procedural corners, conflict with superiors – check, check, check. It was like all the other police procedural heroes were thrown into a blender, and John Byron was what got poured out.

The usual cautions for language and mature situations apply. The only really offensive part (for me) was a brief, passing thumbs up to Dr. Kevorkian.

Technically an excellent police procedural, Among the Shadows may please you more than it did me.

Lewis’s Enduring Influence on Gaiman

Neil Gaiman was irritated to learn his beloved C.S. Lewis was a Christian who infused his work with Christian truths. He felt betrayed that this favorite author would have an agenda for his stories (as if all authors don’t write from some kind of moral framework), but Lewis’s influence on Gaiman carries on. Russell Moore spells in out in Touchstone.

In the American Gods mythology, the old gods—the supernatural beings associated with rain and fertility and war—are at odds with the new gods—such as media and technology. Many of the motifs of Narnia are there. The “bad guys” muster their troops at the Stone Table in Lewis’s Narnia; they do so at Chattanooga’s Rock City in Gaiman’s America. The Pevensie children find their destiny as kings and queens of Narnia; Gaiman’s human Shadow Moon (yes, that’s his name) finds his destiny as, literally, the son of a god. Aslan offers up his life as an atoning sacrifice in Narnia; Odin does the same for Gaiman, complete with a spear in his side and, of course, a resurrection.

Gaiman would say that he is simply working with the myths as he found them. As he retells the story in his recent collection of Norse myths, Odin does indeed climb the world tree and hang himself in self-sacrifice, “making the world-tree a gallows and himself the gallows god.” For Gaiman, the gospel might well simply be an echo of that archetypal story. One god with the gallows, another with the cross. But, of course, that is precisely what initially repelled Lewis from Christianity, and ultimately drew him to it.

 

“Bill” by Wodehouse

Were you aware that, aside from being the funniest writer in history, P. G. Wodehouse helped invent the American musical comedy?

He and another Englishman, Guy Bolton, came to America early in the 20th Century to write for Broadway. At that stage, the theaters were running translated, Americanized versions of Viennese operettas. And that’s what Wodehouse and Bolton did at first. Then they branched out and began to write original plays of their own.

For one of those (now forgotten) shows, Wodehouse wrote the lyrics to a song named “Bill.” The production failed, but years later Jerome Kern (one of their collaborators) and Oscar Hammerstein dusted it off and inserted it into their production of “Showboat.” Thus it became the only Wodehouse song that remains in the songbook today.

Here it is.

“Let bookworms gnaw his entrails…”

Are you troubled by “friends” who borrow your books and never return them? Or return them soiled and dog-eared? Atlas Obscura reports on a book that describes the drastic measures medieval librarians employed — placing curses on the heads of book thieves and mutilators.

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

Read it all here.

Does Voracious Consumption of News Consume Us the Most?

A period of “debilitating postpartum anxiety” led Abigail Favale to drop out of social media and stop watching the news.

I steered clear of Facebook, which is its own strange minefield, photos of chubby babies and too-flattering selfies alongside headlines of horror – headlines of articles that few actually read, but we share them anyway, to at least feel like we’ve done something; we’ve shown that we’re woke, we’re aware.

Now she asks a particularly Lenten question. “Is the voracious consumption of information a virtue? Is seeking not to know a vice?”

This question has increasing importance. Most of us already suffer from an info glut and many people view this as normal life. But I won’t be surprised when news comes of the next generation rejecting all of this and seeking what some may call a new puritanism of personal responsibility and local (mostly offline) living. I’m pretty sure it’s happening already.

‘Little Girl Gone,’ by Brett Battles

Little Girl Gone

I’ve become a fan of thriller writer Brett Battles, especially his Jonathan Quinn novels. I get the impression that Little Girl Gone is an early novel, penned before he really found his narrative feet. It’s OK, but was not a grabber, for me.

Logan Harper works as a mechanic in his father’s garage, in his home town in California. Not so long ago he was a mercenary, working for a Blackwater-style military contracting company. But one awful day things went very wrong, and Logan’s best friend got killed. Logan was made the scapegoat. In the bad dreams that have tormented him ever since, he also blames himself. So he went home to lick his wounds.

One morning on his way to work he stops at the café run by “Tooney,” his father’s Burmese immigrant friend. Logan intervenes just in time to save Tooney from being murdered – but Tooney insists they mustn’t call the police. Eventually he learns the truth – Tooney’s granddaughter, a student, has been kidnapped by agents of the Myanmar government, who want to stop the girl’s mother from political activities. At his father’s request, Logan promises to bring the girl back. He doesn’t know at that point that this will involve traveling to Thailand and connecting with underground forces. But he’s made a promise, and he also needs to prove something to himself.

There was nothing really wrong about Little Girl Gone, but I didn’t find it compelling. The plot seemed artificial to me, and the characters were pretty black and white. Author Battles can do better, and has proved it since.

But it’s not a bad book. It’s lightweight. I can recommend it in a mild-mannered way. I don’t recall any seriously bad language or subject matter inappropriate for, say, teenage readers.

‘The Never-Open Desert Diner,’ by James Anderson

The Never-Open Desert Diner

I picked this one up on an impulse, wild and crazy book-consumer that I am. I found James Anderson’s The Never-Open Desert Diner a book with many virtues, but not enough of them to be entirely satisfying.

Ben Jones is an independent trucker, not quite making a living as the sole delivery service for a particular stretch of highway in Utah. He has this monopoly, not because of superior business skills, but because nobody else wants the route. It’s very remote, its few inhabitants mostly cantankerous loners. His best friend is Walt Butterfield, the ornery old owner of The Well-Known Desert Diner, which is never open. Walt faithfully renews his restaurant license every year, but if a customer shows up he runs them off. He’s been that way since his wife was raped and murdered decades ago.

Ben hasn’t been in the area long enough to be entirely accepted by the locals, but they like him OK. He figures he knows the area pretty well, but one day he’s amazed to discover, just across the highway from the diner, over a hill, a large abandoned housing development, where a model home still stands. He looks in a window and discovers a beautiful woman there. Continue reading ‘The Never-Open Desert Diner,’ by James Anderson

Jane Austen, the Teacher We Need

John Mark N. Reynolds encourages us to learn from Jane Austen, because she is a woman made in the image of God. “Jane Austen is the teacher we need, the thinker we ignore at our peril.”

Women don’t think the same way men do, generally speaking. That’s good and even godly, because the Lord created us in his image, male and female in his image. Our differences matter as mature adults designed to worship the Lord on earth.

If there is a tendency to value enduring relationships over abstract ideas in the ethics valued by most (though not all) women, then Austen is an educator in that voice. She must not be reduced to entertainment, though she is good fun. She is wrestling with status, relationships, and how to morally negotiate status ethically.

‘Hellbent,’ by Gregg Hurwitz

Hellbent

She felt like an anchor to him, not dragging him down but mooring him to this spot, to this moment, locking his location for once on the grid. For the first time in his life, he felt the tug as something not unpleasant but precious.

In the course of Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, which I reviewed a few inches south of this location, he mentions that thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz is a friend of his. This reminded me to check on what Hurwitz has been doing lately. Lo and behold, he has a new Orphan X book out. I snatched it up greedily, and was richly rewarded. Hellbent is a humdinger, the best (in my opinion) of a superior series.

As you may or may not recall, Evan Smoak is Orphan X, the Nowhere Man. He was recruited out of a group home as a boy, to be part of the CIA’s ultra-secret Orphan Program. The Orphans, all people without families, were trained to be deadly assassins and commandos. Not only were their actions deniable by the government, their very existences were deniable.

Around the time Evan’s lifelong nemesis Van Sciver (Orphan Y) took control of the program, Evan managed to escape, with the help of Jack Johns, his mentor and surrogate father. Now, still with access to secret bank accounts, he lives a hidden life in a large LA apartment. His existence is spartan, his apartment almost empty of adornment. He spends his time helping people, but actual human relationships would give Van Sciver – who’s still searching for him – points of access, so Evan doesn’t have any.

But now Jack has asked him for a favor – to collect and protect a young woman in danger, Joey. Joey was scrubbed out of the Orphan program, but Van Sciver is still trying to hunt her down and kill her, along with another ex-Orphan and the boy he has been mentoring. In order to carry out Jack’s wishes, Evan will have to allow another human – and a pretty disorganized one – into his ordered life. And for him, that may take more courage than fighting a team of Orphans and Secret Service mercenaries, plus the MS Thirteen street gang (which he’ll also have to do).

Exciting, clever, and very moving in parts, Hellbent delighted me. I recommend it very highly. Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes.

Comparing King and Coates

Scott Allen compares what he sees of the diverging worldviews of Martin Luther King and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The former advocated for a biblical application of justice and neighborly love; the latter appears to see only power.

The civil rights movement that King led had a clear agenda: End Jim Crow and bring about a change in America whereby people would be judged not by skin color but by character. It succeeded overwhelmingly, garnering support from people of all ethnicities. It led to the passage of the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to the greatest period of equality and harmony between races that the nation had ever known.

Coates is very muted about the positive changes that King brought about. He prefers to paint race relations in America circa 2018 as little changed from America in 1850 or 1950. He puts forward no real positive agenda for improved race relations. Rich Lowry comments that his writing “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair.”

’12 Rules for Life,’ by Jordan B. Peterson

12 Rules for Life

Ideologies are simple ideas, disguised as science or philosophy, that purport to explain the complexity of the world and offer remedies that will perfect it. Ideologues are people who pretend that they know how to “make the world a better place” before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within…. Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.

Ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there’s been a war between “science” and tradition. (I put science in quotations because the science involved is often just ideology, and it keeps changing. Nevertheless the ideologues are always convinced that they have finally mastered all important knowledge, and are in a position to lecture the rubes). Intellectuals, basing their arguments on what they called science (often just a theory of science), have explained to their inferiors that all the old traditions and mores are the products of superstition – which we have now happily transcended. From this day on, we will base our actions and policies on “enlightened” ideas. And because science is infallible, utopia will inevitably follow.

What Jordan B. Peterson does in the seismic book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is to deconstruct such arguments through the application, not of religion, but of Darwinian biology – plus his extensive experience as a psychologist.

He’s an open-minded thinker. He doesn’t rule out the possibility that the “old” rules of society might conceivably have a divine origin. But that’s above his pay grade. The evidence he cites is actual research in such fields as biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and history.

His contention is that the traditional rules – which he considers the fruits of millions of years of evolutionary refinement – exist for a reason. He has distilled his list to twelve, and he explains why he believes in them.

Essentially, Peterson is the little boy who cried, “The emperor has no clothes!”

His book is fascinating, well-reasoned, inspiring, and sometimes moving. (There were some sentences that were badly constructed and confusing, needing an edit; that ought to be done.) Its naturalistic world view will be irritating to many Christians, but this isn’t a Christian book. This is a book about secular virtue. I read it in the light of Jesus’ statement to His disciples that “the one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50).

Book Reviews, Creative Culture