Maundy Thursday, 2020

Today is Maundy Thursday in the church calendar. The word “maundy” is related to the Latin root of the word “mandate,” meaning command. It’s a reference to Christ’s words at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give you, to love one another as I have loved you.”

This is a day for Holy Communion in many churches. Most traditional Lutherans aren’t doing the sacrament until the quarantine is over, though. Because we believe actual physical presence is necessary. (My own church is doing virtual communion online, but we’re kind of outlaws.)

April 9 is a sad day in Norwegian history. 80 years ago today, German troops marched into Oslo. They actually expected to be greeted as saviors, protecting the Norwegians from the British, who’d been violating Norwegian neutrality in various ways. The Norwegian government wasn’t quite sure what to do with them at first — after all, Hitler was (for the moment) allied with Stalin, who was a friend and benefactor to Norway’s ruling Labor Party. When the troops marched in, they got a police escort.

However, on that same day, Norwegian troops at Oscarsborg Fortress on the Oslofjord, under the command of Col. Birger Eriksen, fired on a German battleship. The Blucher was a brand-new ship; many of its crew were raw recruits on their first voyage. But among the personnel on board were Gestapo officers and other personnel whose assignment was to capture the Norwegian royal family and government. Because the ship had refused to respond to warning shots, Col. Eriksen determined that whoever they were (he didn’t know at that point), they were hostile and it was his duty to fire on them. His words were, “Either I will be decorated or I will be court-martialled. Fire!” His guns and ammunition were old, but they performed admirably. Both his battery’s shots hit, and the Blucher began burning. Further shots from secondary batteries caused further damage, and the Blucher sank with the loss of 650-800 soldiers and sailors (1,400 survived). The delay caused by the sinking gave the royal family and the government time to escape the city, and ultimately to flee to exile in England.

The movie The King’s Choice includes a dramatization of the battle:

Aside from Atlantic Crossing, which I’ve told you about, I’ve done some other work having to do with Norway in World War II, which I still can’t tell you about. I hope they’re released eventually. I’m quite proud of them.

Not Safe But Good: Ancient Edition

Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Who hasn’t heard this quote from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in a sermon or chapel talk? It’s a good-to illustration for the scary side of God’s omnipotence. God can do things we don’t understand, but remember, like Aslan, he is good.

Did you know God gave us illustrations for this very thing in the book of Job? The picture gets a bit lost on us, because we don’t recognize how wild the world is or has been, but in Job 38-39 God not only says he can handle the wild things, but he owns them also.

Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
 when they crouch in their dens
    or lie in wait in their thicket?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God for help,
    and wander about for lack of food? (Job 38:38-40)

Lions watch for the slow, young, or straggling members of a herd to attack. They lie in wait for the opportunity to kill; I’m told they usually watch their prey in the evening and strike after dark. They aren’t trying to face-off with a worthy opponent. They want to eat. Ravens come along after the kill to pick off what they can.

In this passage and also in Ps. 147:9 God describes ravens and young lions as asking for a kill from the herd from their master, their daily bread. This is the raw horror of nature, not a pastoral you want to hang in your nursery.

The Lord offers several illustrations like this, drawing our attention to wild, troublesome animals that are nonetheless under his care. Wild mountain goats are untamable, potentially dangerous, and can cause a good bit of trouble. Triple that for wild donkeys: “to whom I have given the arid plain for his home and the salt land for his dwelling place?” (39:6). You couldn’t stumble upon a wild donkey and have it carry your luggage to the next town. And if you were able to lead a wild ox to your stable, you would not have that stable the next day. He would take what he wanted from you and no one could stop him.

Read Job 39 for more, but you get the point. God doesn’t simply keep an eye on these wildly unsafe things; he shepherds and cares for them. That can make him look as wild as they are. But if we can know anything, we can know God is good. Not safe by our definition. Not anywhere near domesticated as we might wish. He can be rather scary.

But he’s good. He’s the King.

Photo by Keyur Nandaniya on Unsplash

Viking Kings, well translated

The line of the Norwegian kings, art by Anders Kvale Rue

I’ve mentioned that I got some new translation work recently. One of these jobs is to translate a series of short articles on the Viking Age rulers of Norway, for Saga Publishers, the publishers of Viking Legacy. It’s an ongoing project, but my first translation went up today, here.

Unanimous saga tradition regards the Oppland king Halvdan the Black as the progenitor of the eventual Norwegian royal dynasty. The same tradition also relates that he was the first Norwegian petty king to secure for himself a trans-regional power base spanning eastern and western Norway, through a marriage alliance with Ragnhild Haraldsdotter, the daughter of a petty king in Sogn. Their son, Harald, according to custom, would have been fostered up in Sogn at the home of his grandfather, Harald Goldbeard.

The series will be updated with fresh kings, as I understand it, a couple times a week.

‘The Final Game,’ by Caimh MDonnell

In response to this, Gregory’s mouth flapped open and closed in outrage, like a fish that had been slapped in the face with another fish.

Caimh McDonnell’s comic mystery novels are an ongoing entertainment of a pretty high order. They began with the adventures of Paul Mulchrone and Brigit Conroy (called a trilogy, of which this is something like the fifth), amateur private detectives, who hook up with Bunny McGarry, a Falstaffian old policeman, to solve crime. Bunny has been spun off into his own series of adventures in America, but Paul and Brigit soldier on, acquiring in this book, The Final Game, the assistance of James Stewart, a retired cop who (unlike Bunny) does not drink, but keeps falling over anyway, due to an inner ear problem.

Dorothy Graham is a character we know from earlier books in the series. She was a feisty old woman who became Paul’s surrogate mother when he was doing volunteer work with the elderly. She was a brilliant and aggressive player of board games, and immensely rich.

Sadly, Paul comes out of an undercover job to learn that Dorothy is dead. She fell down her stairway while alone. Paul is devastated by the news. But he’ll soon be flabbergasted by her will.

The old woman had a flair for the dramatic, and utter contempt for the idle and self-indulgent step-grandchildren who are in line to inherit her wealth. So she did one better than the old video will gag, where the deceased gets the chance to get the last word on their assembled relatives.

Dorothy has spared no expense to turn the settlement of her estate into a world-class production – literally. She has arranged to make the inheritance a competition. The heirs are to compete in teams of two, in something like a TV reality show, handling various ridiculous and embarrassing challenges. And it’s all to be podcast over the internet.

To Paul’s astonishment, he and Brigit are designated as one of the teams. Dorothy tells them, on video, that she wants them to win the money, rather than her obnoxious step-family. Paul reluctantly agrees, even though it means wearing pink jump suits and Mexican wrestler masks.

But when he learns that Dorothy might have been murdered, it becomes a game of life and death.

Caimh McDonnell excels at this kind of ridiculous story, and the laughs are frequent. It’s also remarkable that there are actually a few really touching moments in the story. The characters are vivid, and we come to care about them (or hate them, depending on which they are).

McDonnell is as funny in his own way as P. G. Wodehouse, and I had a very good time with The Final Game. My only quibble is that he leans pretty heavily on the “smart, tough girls vs. dumb, feckless men” trope, which has been overdone lately. It’s not as new a trope as one might think (it wasn’t even new for Wodehouse), but these days it’s lost all its power through overuse. It’s become a cliché. It’s predictable.

Still, I highly recommend The Final Game. Cautions for language, gross humor, and adult themes.

“Who was that masked man? I wanted to thank him.”

Years ago, for some reason (perhaps a college assignment I’ve forgotten), I picked up a copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

This is not a review of that book.

I started reading the Decameron, for some reason, years later in Florida, when I was sick in bed and looking for reading material. Back before I could summon books magically through the ether with my Amazon Fire.

I didn’t finish it. It’s one of those books I just couldn’t get into.

Anyway, it’s a collection of 100 stories, supposedly told by a group of ladies and gentlemen who’ve fled Florence during the Black Death in the 14th Century.

I tell you all of that just to ease into my real subject – I have a very brief Plague Story of my own today.

Buoyed by the prospect of money coming in from my recent translation job, I decided to throw some patronage at a restaurant I like, but haven’t been to for a while. I called in an order for pick-up.

When I got there, rocking my stylish Black Bart Stagecoach Robber bandana mask, the cashier told me it would be just a minute. I said sure.

There was another guy there, sitting on a bench. A middle-aged guy (which makes him younger than me, I shudder to think) who seemed to be waiting for a large order.

“Sure never thought I’d see times like this in America,” he said to me, keeping his distance as the law prescribes.

I agreed, pretty much echoing the same sentiment back to him. “I feel bad for the small business owners,” I added. “A lot of those people don’t have a lot of margin to fall back on.”

He told me he was a small businessman himself. He owned two neighborhood bars. “I’m doing OK,” he said. “But I feel bad for my employees. Some of them are in real bad shape.”

We went on to talk about various theories about the Coronavirus thing. He’d heard that people get immunity from sunlight exposure in summer. I said I’d heard it was temperatures over 80 degrees and humidity.

“If it’s heat and humidity,” he asked, “how come it doesn’t die on your body? What’s warmer and humider than your body?”

I admitted he had a point.

Then the cashier came out with my food. As I stepped toward the counter, the guy said, “Hey, Mister, forget it. It’s on me. It was a pleasure to talk to somebody new after all these days at home.”

I’ll share a little-known personal secret with you – I almost never turn down free stuff. I thanked him and gave the cashier a big tip. We were all happy for a moment.

As I left he asked my name, and gave me his. Which, of course, I’ve forgotten already.

I should have asked the names of his bars, so I could recommend them to any locals who may read this – after they re-open on VC day. But I didn’t think of that. And I don’t drink myself.

Well, fortunately he’ll never be able reproach me for my ingratitude. He never saw my face without a mask.

A weekend of extreme translation

By Hesse1309 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=487491

The picture above isn’t one of mine. It’s in Norway, though. I think I may have seen this sign on one of my journeys; I know I saw one like it. We take our trolls seriously, we Norwegians. If they kidnap a princess or two, well, that’s the price of living in the most beautiful place in the world.

It was quite a weekend, friends. I was intensely engaged with the Norwegian language. I will not tell you what translation project I was working on, and I’ll not tell you whom it was for. It was a script. You can guess the medium for yourself.

But I had a lot of work to do, and a deadline to meet. I was a little insecure about meeting it, but it turned out I’d underestimated myself. The work went faster than I’d looked for.  The thing didn’t get delivered as soon as I hoped, due to a glitch that appeared and wiped away a whole lot of work that had to be done all over again. But I got up early and worked late, and delivered everything well before I’d estimated.

It’s a little disconcerting that I haven’t heard anything back from the client (checking again to see that my email with the files actually went out; yes, it did). But if my product had been awful, I suspect somebody would have said something. I take comfort in that thought.

After all these months, it was sweet to open up the First Draft app and do that voodoo that I do so adequately. It was fun, in the same sense that being a rodeo rider or a cage fighter is fun. It takes its toll, but you come out stimulated. While all around me people were going batty with cabin fever, I was in my element, growing as a craftsman. It was, frankly, the best weekend I’ve had in quite a long time.

If Sickness Is a Dream, Who Needs to Wake Up?

Pro Tip: If you need to adjust your stove eye, do it while the eye is off. Turning it on before adjusting it will only complicate the task.

I was able to watch Inception recently, because it came on Netflix. I enjoy that kind of thing, a deep dive into a single sci-fi concept. Not that it was a deep film or that it even touched on a deep idea. It was just fun–a heist film set in the dream world.

I gather some people took it to be a thoughtful reflection on the possibility that what we call reality is merely a dream or some massive deception. Descartes rejected that idea, preferring to believe he existed and could actually know something. Actually knowing something is kind of a big deal.

In Inception, characters constantly reviewed the rules of how the dreamscape worked: paradoxes, mental defenses, and how to invoke a dreamer to dream a new and deeper dream. Our dreams aren’t made like that. When I realize I’m dreaming, I also realize I can control things. If I see that I’m out in public and have left something, I can decide that I have it and there it is. In the movie, if they imagined they have bigger guns, they could use them. But tell the target he’s dreaming, and he can’t just slip down a rabbit hole and sit by the river until he wakes up.

In a dream, only what I perceive exists, and then, of course, there’s you. How are we all dreaming coherently together? But let’s stick with perception for a moment; many unperceived, even imperceivable, things have rearranged our lives for centuries. Shall we just roll over and wonder how this dream will end? That’s all we’re left with, if everything is a dream. We can’t study medicine, engineering, farming, or anything that produces something outside of our preferences if nothing is real.

The eye of my stove burned my fingers because the electric coil producing the heat is a reality outside of my perception. Had I turned the wrong switch I would have had heat in another eye and possibly wondered why my pan wasn’t warming up. That’s my perception at play in a real world.

Try to stay healthy, friends. And for the kids at home, remember the Lord who made you; that’s the start of good perception.

Dispatch from the translation front

I’ve become a little cautious about discussing translation work. So suffice it to say that I snagged a nice one, and there’s a deadline coming on, and I can’t really spend much time on a blog post.

But rejoice with me that I’ve found work, when better men are filing for unemployment. Whatever my project is, it’s interesting. Have a good weekend. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do (that ought to keep you pretty safe).

‘Santa Fe Mojo,’ by Ted Clifton

Vincent Malone, hero of Ted Clifton’s Santa Fe Mojo, was once a hotshot lawyer in Dallas, until alcohol trashed both his career and his marriage. He drifted to Denver, where he found his niche as a legal investigator. Then he developed gout, and missed too much work. Figuring a warmer climate would help, he headed for Albuquerque, and cheap housing. But in a diner in Santa Fe he saw an ad for a job driving a customer van for a bed and breakfast. On a whim, he applied for the job.

Vincent is a misanthrope, a man who’s seen the worst in people and has distanced himself from them. But the couple who hire him are annoyingly nice. He doesn’t know what to do with them, but he kind of likes working there as he gets used to it.

They’re excited to greet their first guests at the B&B, but something is wrong. The rooms were booked by a major sports agent who lives locally, for a group of his top clients and their spouses. But when they hold a meeting, it ends in shouting and threats.

The next morning the police come. The agent has been murdered. Vincent can tell that the sheriff’s department would like to hang something on him, but they quickly settle one of the clients – a major league baseball player. Security video shows the two men fighting in the agent’s front yard, a few hours before the murder.

Vincent, though, based on his investigative experience, thinks the cops haven’t looked far enough. They found an easy suspect and stopped detecting. The accused’s lawyer shows up, and he’s the accused’s uncle and Vincent’s spiritual twin – a hard man who got rich defending whoever paid him, using any kind of trick he could get away with. But he’s older now, and thinking it might be nice to form some kind of bond with his only surviving relative. At least he forms a bond with Vincent, who shares his bemusement at discovering morality late in life.

Santa Fe Mojo straddles the line between cozy mystery and hard-boiled, and does it pretty well, I think. The gradual softening of Vincent’s hard shell in the warmth of human friendship provides an enjoyable sub-plot. I enjoyed Santa Fe Mojo quite a lot. Cautions for language, mostly.

‘The Musketeer’s Seamstress,’ by Sarah D’Almeida

Sarah Hoyt is a Facebook friend and a fellow Baen author. Aside from her SF work, she has produced, under the nom de plume (a particularly appropriate term in this case) Sarah D’Almeida, a seies of novels about Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers. These are mysteries, and have been inserted directly into the timeline of that classic novel. The Musketeer’s Seamstress, second in the series, occurs shortly after D’Artagnon meets his swashbuckling friends, but (if I understand correctly) before all the bother about the queen’s diamonds.

Aramis, the romantic musketeer destined for the church, is at the palace, dallying with his mistress, a lady of the court whom he refers to with his friends as his “seamstress.” He steps out of the chamber for a moment. When he returns, he finds her dead, a dagger through her heart. Like so many idiots in mysteries, he pulls the dagger out, getting blood all over his hands. When he hears people at the door, he makes a leap from the balcony onto a convenient tree and then manages to get away over a wall – stark naked. He is fortunate enough to find his friends Athos, Porthos, and D’Artagnon at guard at one of the gates, and they help make his escape. Cardinal Richelieu, who seems to cherish a particular dislike for Aramis, sets a hunt going, but Aramis manages to get away to his home estate, while his friends try to uncover how an “impossible” murder was committed.

The author, I think, did an interesting job with the familiar characters. She invents back story material for them that Dumas only hinted at, and as far as I can remember it’s pretty consistent with his portrayals. I particularly like the character of Porthos, who is envisioned as a man not stupid, but simply plain-minded and practical. Which makes it possible for him – sometimes – to see things his subtler friends miss.

I felt a certain tension in the insertion of a whodunnit into what is essentially an action/adventure setting. The action is quite good when it happens, but a lot of the book involves people just thinking and discussing matters, which struck me as a little incongruous. However, as I said, I liked what was done with the characters, so such scenes were not without interest.

I wouldn’t rate The Musketeer’s Seamstress as a top-shelf book, either as an actioner or a mystery, but it was an enjoyable read, and I had a good time reacquainting myself with what is, perhaps, the archetypal male-bonding group in all literature.

“Aerial America” on YouTube

Smithsonian Channel has also begun to roll out entire episodes on YouTube, and weekly online “watch parties” are planned to make the “Aerial America” viewing experience interactive despite social distancing. Every Tuesday and Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. EST, Smithsonian Channel’s Facebook page will host state-specific trivia while showing an episode. Each episode will simultaneously drop on YouTube.”

It may not be Epcot’s Soarin’ ride, but it’s close and much longer. There are currently four episodes: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, and Arkansas.

‘Desires and Dreams and Powers,’ by Rosamund Hodge

During the later part of the war, the government issued a pamphlet on how to recognize changelings. Violet read it (a green tinge of the features; propensity to cruelty) and laughed. The real signs had been far more pervasive, far less clear. Sometimes she thought she had only realized she wasn’t human when she was fourteen. Sometimes she thought she had always known.

That’s the first paragraph of a story called “More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand,” possibly my favorite among the stories in Rosamund Hodge’s delightful collection, Desires and Dreams and Powers.

A friend sent me a copy as a gift, and I’m extremely grateful to him. As I’ve often said, I don’t much care for most modern fantasy. But when someone gets it exactly right – as in the cases of Walter Wangerin, and Mark Helprin, and Leif Enger, the result is delight of an exquisite sort.

The stories in Desires and Dreams and Powers are of diverse kinds, within the general fantasy genre. There is urban fantasy, and tales of witches, and tales of monsters. But most of them (at least as I recall them) are faery stories. And that’s like a birthday present to me.

Ever since I read Tolkien’s essay, “On Faery Stories,” I’ve wanted to write faeries properly. I tried it in Troll Valley – which I think is a pretty good book, but I’m not at all sure I got the Faery/Huldre thing right. Susanna Clark got it right, I think, in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. And now I declare, by the powers vested in me, that Rosamund Hodge gets it right too. The strangeness, the danger, the alien unreason of the faeries is as well depicted here as it ever has been. Kudos to the author.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. On top of the imaginative genius, the prose is first class. Cautions are in order – not for the usual “adult” material, but for the weird and the alien and the disturbing (and the cruel). But read it, if you’re a grown-up and not overly sensitive. There may be a Christian element here too, though it’s not at all explicit.

‘The Conservative Mind,’ by Russell Kirk

The assault on institutional religion, on old-fashioned economic methods, on family authority, and on small political communities has set the individual free from nearly everything, truly; but that freedom is a terrifying thing, the freedom of a baby deserted by his parents to do as he pleases.

I have done it. I have successfully read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind all the way through. I rate this accomplishment just a bit behind getting my master’s degree.

The essence of conservatism is aristocracy – at least that’s what this book seems to be saying. Which is not optically optimal, in my mind. And I may be misreading Kirk’s intentions – he may simply be accurately transcribing the arguments of the historical conservatives he’s surveying, from Edmund Burke to T. S. Eliot.

Most English and American conservatives, up until recently, have defended some kind of aristocracy. Not because they believe aristocrats to be superior by blood, but for prudential reasons. Your alternatives in governance, they argue, are either some kind of autocracy – where a monarch or a dictator rules by personal caprice – or pure democracy, where the public, which knows only what it wants, uses its votes to allocate all the wealth to itself. You can’t get any kind of real justice from either alternative.

The aristocracy, they have argued, is some kind of class of men (or people) who’ve been schooled in the ancient truths and the lessons of history. They preserve the institutions that guarantee rights and freedom, which dictators and the masses alike would take away.

Since the 20th Century, though, the cause of aristocracy has mostly been lost, and we’ve been trying to find a way to raise an aristocracy out of the general public through education. Kirk saw hope for the future at the time of writing, feeling that conservatives were producing good art and analysis and positively influencing culture.

It seems to me, however, that prospects look less sunny since the 1980s when the book was last updated. We now have an educational system expressly committed to erasing the Anglo-American tradition. And our immigration policies are focused on bringing in large numbers of people who are either indifferent or actively hostile to that tradition.

Kirk’s original title for the book was The Conservative Rout. He meant it to be a story of a long retreat, but with hope in the end. For the conservative reader in the early 21st Century, I fear the outlook is less encouraging.

And that was before the epidemic…

What Are You Doing Sunday Mornings?

Our church cancelled our worship services three weeks ago, and we held our first live streamed service this morning. Prior to this our pastors distributed written sermons with discussion questions and our usual liturgy with supplementals that we could use on our own. I led my family through an ad hoc devotional time two weeks ago and followed the church material last week, which took far longer than I expected. We sang all the verses of all the songs, and my reading of the sermon with two breaks for questions took over an hour alone.

The streamed service this morning was comforting. I don’t need a familiar service in a familiar setting to get through the current crisis, but being together in a local body in whatever manner we can is a natural, grace-filled habit God has given us.

What are you doing? How are you making it through on your own or with your church?

With Easter coming in two weeks, I assume all of our plans will be rather low-key. Will we hear the gospel anew, stripped of the color and pageantry we’ve attached to the season? Will the world hear a different song than the one some of them think they know already?

Lord, have mercy on us.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Book Reviews, Creative Culture