‘Back Blast,’ by Mark Greaney

Court realized that people here in the U.S. were nicer to strangers than in the other places he’d traveled in the past five years–when they weren’t shooting you in the ribs, that was. And while Court had no problem with politeness, for a man who lived his life moving through society without leaving a trace, this was problematic.

In a fictional series, it seems to me, the reader expects a certain familiarity. The story ought to be the same kind of story as those that preceded it. But it can’t be too familiar. Mark Greaney does a very good job rejiggering the formula in his Gray Man novels, starring white hat international assassin Courtland Gentry, formerly of the CIA, now hunted by them.

Back Blast provides a dramatic new wrinkle — Court is finally back in the US. For five years, he’s been a man without a country, living in the shadows on several continents, taking contract hit jobs (but only against bad guys). He’s a consummate martial artist, a dead shot, and a master of camouflage — even in urban environments. But now, thanks to a grateful friend in Mossad, Court is back home. He’s in the Washington DC area, and he’s identified his target — Denny Carmichael, operations chief of the CIA. Denny put the kill order out on Court, and Court wants to know why. He wants it fixed. He wants to come home.

But Denny has deep and dark secrets to protect. His resources are almost unlimited. He has a plan — a devious and ruthless one — not only to kill or capture Court, but to make Court the scapegoat for his own crimes. It’s a David and Goliath fight — but this David is no simple shepherd boy. He does, however, have a big shock in store for him.

Lots of fun. Very satisfying. Be prepared to suspend your disbelief, of course, and enjoy the ride.

Cautions for language and violence, but not too bad. Recommended, like the whole series.

Alcorn Giving Away His Royalties

Years ago, author Randy Alcorn was a pastor, participating with his church in some resistance work at the local abortion clinic. For that work the courts penalized him and other members of the team thousands of dollars to be paid to the clinics. They would not pay. More court hearings came with more penalties, eventually landing the group in a jury trial before an angry judge.

“On February 11, 1991, nine of the twelve jurors agreed to award the abortion clinic $8.2 million dollars, averaging about $250,000 per defendant. It was the largest judgment ever against a group of peaceful protestors. “

But Alcorn has not paid the clinics anything; instead, he has given away over $8.2 million in book royalties to various charities. He wrote about all of this on his blog last month.

The Donald and the Erik

Scrupulously researched portrait of Erik the Red from Arngrimur Jonsson’s Gronlandia (ca. early 17th Century).

Sorry about the lack of a post last night. I actually posted one, and WordPress disappeared it. It vanished into the ether, like a childhood friend of Stalin. I don’t know what my sin was.

Let’s see if this one stays up.

Last night’s post wasn’t anything you’ll miss much, just a reminiscence from my childhood. Not even very dramatic. Maybe I’ll write about it again someday.

One of today’s big news stories is that President Trump, apparently, would like the US to purchase Greenland.

It ain’t gonna happen, according to the Danes. They have no need, or wish, to part with one of the very few remnants of their once-extensive empire.

And after all, people live in Greenland. I would hope they’d have a say in the matter.

Still, it’s an intriguing thought. It occurs to me that Donald Trump and Erik the Red, settler of Greenland, are kindred souls.

Both are larger-than-life characters, combative, practiced in self-promotion. The saga famously says that Erik called his country Greenland “because people would be more inclined to move there if it had a pleasant name.”

Thus he’s been called the first real estate developer.

I like to think that if Erik and Donald could meet, they’d take to one another right off. Sit down over some mead (though I understand Pres. Trump doesn’t drink) and talk deals.

I suspect Erik could have been talked out of Greenland, for a sweet enough offer.

‘The 12th Man,’ by Scott and Haug

A multitude of stories of courage and endurance come out of World War II. Surely one of the most remarkable is that of Jan Baalsrud (pronounced “Yon Bowls-rood”), the subject of the book, The 12th Man by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug. (If you see a book called Defiant Courage, it’s the same book. They changed the title to go with the release of a 12th Man movie a couple years back.)

Jan Baalsrud was one of a team of 12 saboteurs who sailed to Norway from Scotland in a fishing boat as part of a “Shetland Bus” operation in 1943. They were to deliver arms, munitions and supplies to the Resistance, and to attack some air bases. Tragically, a missed connection led to their betrayal, and a German patrol ship attacked them. They managed to blow their boat up, but the whole team except for Baalsrud were either killed on the spot or captured, tortured, and executed. Baalsrud himself escaped into the mountains with one foot bare and wounded.

Then followed months of working his way eastward toward the Swedish border through some of the roughest terrain in the world. He endured an avalanche, starvation, frostbite, gangrene (he amputated his own toes) and snow blindness. He received help and supplies from scattered farms along the way, but when he finally came to the great mountains around Manndalen he was unable to go further under his own power. He then became dependent on a team of Resistance sympathizers in the area who – in spite of killing weather and repeated missed appointments – refused to let this brave man die.

It’s a harrowing, almost unbelievable story. It was first publicized (I believe) by David Howarth in his book The Shetland Bus. Later he devoted a whole book, We Die Alone, to the tale.

Unfortunately (the authors report) Howarth didn’t get the whole story. Apparently, the Norwegians he interviewed were suspicious of him, and did not tell him everything they knew. Authors Scott and Haug spent five years interviewing surviving participants and combing the records, in order to provide what they believe to be an accurate account.

Sadly, their book isn’t very well written. Ms. Scott and Dr. Haug describe themselves as co-authors, but to me The 12th Man reads exactly like a bad translation (and I know bad translations). The phrasing is consistently Norwegian (hence awkward in English), the word choice poor. I wish I could say otherwise, but the book needed a good editor badly. I’m not quite satisfied with a few passages in Viking Legacy, but I felt better after reading this.

But if you can deal with the clumsy writing, it’s one heck of a story. Cautions for intense situations.

‘Gone To Sea In a Bucket,’ by David Black

‘That’s why the trade has a reputation for being a bit more easy-going than the proper navy. You’ll have heard it and you’ll hear it again. But only from those that don’t understand. There isn’t less discipline in the trade, Mr. Gilmour. If anything, the discipline here is the hardest of all. Self-discipline….’

I don’t generally read novels about World War II, but Gone To Sea In a Bucket by David Black starts in Norway, and so I noticed it. Not a bad book, either.

It opens during the Battle of Narvik, in 1940. Sub Lieutenant Harry Gilmour is experiencing his first naval battle, but it’s not much of an experience. Guided by aerial spotters, the ship he’s on is lobbing cannon shells over the mountains from one fjord to another. They can’t even see the enemy.

Harry Gilmour is making a poor start to his naval career. He was brought in as part of a Navy program to increase the officer pool, outside traditional training sources. But that doesn’t make him welcome to the “old navy” hands. Harry’s not quite their sort.

But a compassionate senior officer intervenes. He informs Harry of openings in the submarine service (known to its members as “the trade”). It’s a different world there. The small crews and tight spaces make traditional navy discipline and separation of ranks impossible. Submarine service is dauntingly dangerous and physically demanding, but it gives Harry the best possible opportunity to develop his personal qualities – he discovers he’s hard-working, brave, and fiercely loyal. His service will bring him near death, and take his “boat” into a secret mission to the edge of the world.

I was not much impressed at the start of Gone To Sea In a Bucket. I thought the writing muddy and wordy, and I caught some grammar lapses. But it grew on me as I read. Once I got used to the author’s style it seemed to get better and better, until I found myself admiring various passages.

I also liked the treatment of the characters. Author Black likes to give us a bad first impression of a character, and then gradually reveal his or her story until we come to admire – or at least sympathize with – them.

The Harry Gilmour series seems to be sort of a modern Horatio Hornblower saga. I probably won’t be continuing with it, because I find submarine stories kind of… claustrophobic. But if this is your kind of epic, I would recommend it. Minor cautions for language and intense violence.

Alexandria the Great

Photo credit: Chris Falteisek

For a few days I was a rock star. Granted, I was a rock star with “selective appeal,” but a couple hundred people in Alexandria, Minnesota treated me like a celebrity.

The event was the Tre Lag Stevne. The Bygdelags (as I explained last week) are organizations composed of descendants of immigrants from various Norwegian regions. The three “lags” who met for the stevne (gathering) were groups from Gudbrandsdal, Hedemark, and Trondelag. They invited me to lecture twice on Thursday – once on the Lindisfarne raid in 793 AD, and again on the book Viking Legacy (which I translated; might not have mentioned that to you before).

The audience was attentive, smart (they laughed at my jokes) and appreciative. They descended on my book table like a flock of seagulls and snatched up every copy of Viking Legacy I brought. On top of the sales, I got an honorarium which was generous by my standards.

I have no complaints.

The next day I had to be in a meeting in Fergus Falls, just a little up the road, so I stayed a second night. I had some free time – and when Walker has free time in Alexandria, he can’t resist visiting the Kensington Rune Stone Museum. I’ve been there before, but I heard they’d made some changes.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

This is the stone itself. I have grave reservations about its authenticity, but you can’t deny it’s become a part of history in its own right.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

This display is the main thing I came to see. They did an upgrade to the museum a few years back, and decided to include a tableau about the real Vikings (even if the stone is genuine, it’s not a Viking artifact. Its date is 14th Century, long after the Viking Age ended). The person the museum hired to make costumes for the Viking family was my friend Kelsey Patton – who also made the Viking trousers and summer tunic I’m wearing in the top picture.

Photo credit: Lars Walker

Here’s a surprise – the museum has a Viking ship, in a barn outside. It’s a ¾ scale replica of a Viking knarr (a cargo ship), which was built as a project some years ago by the American Museum of Natural History. Somehow it ended up here.

An interesting and profitable few days. Thanks to everyone who made it possible.

When the Majority Become Cultural Snobs

I’ve been thinking to write a thoughtful something about the third season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones. When I started watching it a few weeks ago, I noticed I had forgotten the big storyline from season two, but I remembered that I did not blog about it. Something wasn’t there. Maybe I wasn’t provoked enough (or maybe the sexual aspects of it held me back).

The third season continued to lean into that part of the story. Though Hogarth’s struggle was compelling, it was also awful and fairly ugly. The first season felt like Jessica’s gritty origin story, but now that season three is over, the whole series feels like her protracted story of coming into hero work. She needs Edna Mode to smack her around to help her find her destiny.

But I was talking about something else.

I have watched Stranger Things 3 more recently and may write something about the Upside Down, but Brooke Clark says pretending a TV series is a mature work of thoughtful deliberation does not redeem our interest in it.

Although we are trained to believe in books, we find ourselves watching shows about dragons, criminals, and covens. This leads to cultural status anxiety—a feeling that we aren’t really as sophisticated as we think, because when given the choice, we’d rather flip on HBO than pick up Middlemarch.

There are two ways out of this cognitive dissonance: we can admit our tastes aren’t really as elevated as we like to believe, or we can convince ourselves that television is actually an example of high culture.

We may not have gotten away from what W. H. Auden said decades ago in “The Poet & The City” : “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs.” (via Prufrock News)

Photo by Huỳnh Đạt from Pexels

One of the better days

Today I was a rock star. A rock star for a very small public, I’ll grant you, but I’ve rarely faced such an appreciative crowd as the people at the Lag Stevne at the Holiday Inn in Alexandria, Minnesota today.

The Bygdelags, as I explained yesterday, are groups of people whose ancestors came from various regions of Norway. Genealogy is one of their primary interests. So they like history, and they were primed and ready for a morning lecture on the 793 AD Lindisfarne raid, and an afternoon lecture on the book Viking Legacy and its themes.

They ate it up. They listened with rapt attention, laughed at my jokes, and asked good questions afterwards.

And then they bought up my entire stock of Viking Legacy, plus a good number of West Oversea.

I am a happier, and more prosperous, man today.

Thanks to all the Lag folks.

A Writer’s Anniversary Thoughts

This summer, one of our favorite authors, Jared C. Wilson, has three ten-year anniversaries, and he reflects on those years at his blog. “It was an odd feeling at the time when Your Jesus is Too Safe became my first published book. I’d been trying ten years at that point trying to get published as a novelist.”

That novel, Otherworld, has seen the light of day, and he has two others in the works, but only one with a contract (let’s step it up, publishers). “By God’s grace, I have been privileged to write nearly 20 books and study resources in the last 10 years.” His next published work looks exciting: The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth, coming January 2020.

Reporting from the field

I write this from a motel in Glenwood, Minnesota. I’m speaking at a bygdelag meeting in Alexandria tomorrow, and I figured I’d take a room up here so I wouldn’t have to get up tomorrow before it was tomorrow. Glenwood is sufficiently close to Alex, and the rooms are a little cheaper here.

Bygdelags are an old institution among Norwegian-Americans. They started as social organizations for people who came from particular regions or neighborhoods in the old country. Nowadays (much consolidated due to falling membership) they’re largely about mutual support in genealogy. (Or so I believe; I may learn other things tomorrow.)

They asked me to do two lectures — morning and afternoon. They specified that they wanted to hear about the great 793 AD Lindisfarne raid (considered the start of the Viking Age) at 9:30 a.m. So I did some research and was happy to add to my store of knowledge. In the afternoon I’ll do my extended infomercial on Viking Legacy. My hope is to sell a lot of books.

Sorry, the lectures aren’t open to the public, as far as I know.

Weekend and Monday report

Today was a good day. I got some translation work, after a month of nothing. Oddly enough, it was in Swedish, which constituted a bit of a challenge. My boss said she understood some of it would probably baffle me. But I think I got most of it OK. If you can read Norwegian, reading Swedish is generally just a matter of lateral thinking. It took me about 5 ½ hours.

The weekend involved the great, biennial (means every other year; I still have to look it up) Walker Family Reunion. This year we held it in the Depot Park in Kenyon, Minnesota, instead of one of the old family farms. The Depot Park is next to the municipal swimming pool, which goes back all the way in time to my childhood. After the Chicago & Great Western Railroad tore up their line, the depot was given to the city as a picnic shelter, and moved across town. It’s decorated inside with a number of historical signs – the old apex of the false front of the Kenyon Opera House (a fancy name for the vaudeville theater), the scoreboard from the old ball field, the railroad crossing “X” sign, etc.

This was almost – but not quite – the year my generation got to be the Old Folks. But one representative of my dad’s cousins showed up – using a walker, but there and welcome. Then of course there’s the cousin who’s the son of the youngest daughter in my great-grandfather’s family, who married late. So he’s almost young enough to be my cousin, but is in fact my great uncle. Or something.

Nice day, lots of food. Many stories told. “You still working at the library?” they ask. No, other things are happening now. Movie scripts? Really? And we always thought you were respectable!

Nothing went wrong at all, and yet when it was done I felt like I’d done nine rounds with Evander Holyfield. Hours and hours of human society. Oh, the humanity! I collapsed into bed and slept like an honest man.

Most Influential Pastor?

What pastor has most influenced your life?

I take this question from a recent Mortification of Spin podcast. I’d love to read your answer to it, and I think it would be remarkable if we can get good, 21st-century data on this influence. Wouldn’t it be easy to suppose your favorite pastor or minister has most influenced you when in fact it was someone else, someone whose teaching has defined your life more than you recognize? Someone like your youth pastor so many years ago or the minister at the church you visited for a couple years during your stint in Duluth.

To answer the question, my most influencing pastor has to be the founding pastor of the church I’ve been a member of virtually all of my adult life. I can’t quote many of the things he’s said, but I think many of his expressly taught conclusions as well as his approach to Scripture and manner of handling doctrine have shaped me more than anyone else could have.

What about you?

Image by Helge Leirdal from Pixabay

‘Game of Snipers,’ by Stephen Hunter

The West cannot be destroyed through numbers; it must be destroyed through its imagination.

You know what you’re getting when you start one of Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger novels. It’s not realism (though a fair amount of technical detail may be involved). A Bob Lee Swagger novel is transparent bunkum, like the imitative title of this book. But the entertainment value for money is 100 per cent.

Game of Snipers opens with old Bob Lee, relaxing on the front porch of his ranch house, getting visit from Mrs. Janet McDowell, widow and gold star mother. Her only son, she tells him, was killed in the Middle East by a legendary Al Quaida killer known as “Juba the Sniper.” Since then she has made it her obsession to learn all she can about the man. She has traveled to the Middle East and been beaten and raped. She even converted to Islam (this did not please me), to “get inside his head.” She thinks she knows where the man is hiding, but she’s worn out her welcome with the CIA and the military. Could Bob Lee use his contacts to get her a hearing, in the hope that he can be stopped at last?

Bob Lee goes to his friends in Mossad, and (improbably) is invited along on a raid on Juba’s hiding place. The raid misses Juba himself, but Bob Lee, with his sniper’s eye, notices a clue that tells him Juba is planning a job in the United States – a high-profile assassination at the distance of a mile.

He takes this information to the FBI. They pull his old friend Nick Memphis (improbably) out of retirement to coordinate a desperate effort to learn the place, the time, and the target. Meanwhile we follow Juba himself – fanatical, concentrated, and not without honor, as he prepares an act of terror that might very well tear the United States apart.

As with all Bob Lee Swagger novels, I didn’t believe it for a minute, but it was a fun ride. Stephen Hunter combines the ability to expertly raise the plot stakes with a mastery of character and dialogue. A fun ride is even better in the company of old Bob the Nailer.

Highly recommended. Mild cautions for language.

The True Crime book Harper Lee never finished

Author Casey Cep writes about a true crime story Harper Lee could not complete. “Harper Lee always said that she was ‘intrigued with crime.’ She grew up surrounded by stacks of the magazine True Detective Mysteries, cut her teeth on Sherlock Holmes, watched trials from the balcony of the local courthouse as a kid, and studied criminal law at the University of Alabama.”

The story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a man accused but not convicted of murdering and collecting death benefits from five family members, was as compelling as any story Lee had grown up with. But she could not pull it together. Perhaps the characters were too much larger than life.

Part of why true crime stories are so appealing is that they force us to confront the limits of what can be known, and eliding those limits, whether by fabricating motives or means or inventing someone’s inner life, doesn’t just cross the boundary between fiction and nonfiction; it transgresses something deeper.

For His Lovingkindness Endures Forever

A great way to remember the Lord’s work in your life is to write down your prayers and experiences. My pastor has recommended a mementos box to remind you of the stories of God’s faithfulness. Others have recommended keep a diary. I know a ministry leader who has filled up dozens of journals with daily devotions, prayers, and their answers.

World News Group reports on a great-grandmother, Ernesta Wood, who has been writing letters for many years.

Wood’s home displays photos of her 53 descendants, nearly all Christians. Once a week for the past 16 years, she has sent them letters—777 in all, as of July 1—filled with stories. Some are dramatic: Her blind grandmother miraculously saw Wood’s grandfather minutes before he died. Other stories cultivate a sense of God’s presence in less dramatic moments: Once, her parents’ pet birds escaped but returned to their cage before dark, just as her mother had prayed.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture