Big Sandwich Theory

Tonight on my way home from work, I stopped at a sandwich shop (not a chain) that I like, and ordered their submarine sandwich. The girl who took my order was a cute Asian teenager.

As I sat and waited for a few minutes, there was a fellow employee there with her. He was tall, and fat, and bespectacled. About her age. He was earnestly trying to explain to her the wonders of a particular video game.

It could have been a scene from a TV comedy.

“My brother,” I said silently, “no joy will come of this.”

Can Poetry Be Popular, Fun Again?

No one has perfected a method to restore poetry’s place in public culture. It is unlikely that the art will ever return to the central position it once held. But is it unreasonable to hope that poetry can acquire some additional vitality or that the audience can be increased? Isn’t it silly to assume that current practices represent the best way to sustain the art into the future? There are surely opportunities for innovation, renovation, and improvement. Literary culture needs new ideas.

Poet Dana Gioia learned “students actually liked poetry once they took it off the page.” He recommends exploring new ways to revive the place of poems in our lives.

Hatin’ on Poetry

Ben Lerner’s elegant, amusing essay turns on a distinction between Poetry and poems. Poetry is Caedmon’s dream, a virtual ideal that actual poems can’t live up to. “The fatal problem with poetry,” Lerner writes, is “poems.” Every poet is, inevitably, “a tragic figure.”

Peter J. Leithart reviews Lerner’s 96 page essay on the aspirations and failures of poetry. “Poetry isn’t hard,” Lerner says, “it’s impossible.”

Speaking of the impossible: Wendy Cope.

He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts and that is that.

Read the rest of Cope’s poem.

‘The Officers’ Club,’ by Ralph Peters

The Officers' Club

I could have listed a hundred things I liked about her and valued in her. But I knew I would never love her. The Newtonian universe doesn’t seek justice, only equilibrium.

I’ve come to admire Ralph Peters as a top-flight novelist, but I’m just too shell-shocked, after reading Hell to Richmond (reviewed down the page), to try another of his big Civil War novels. So I thought I’d try a smaller book, The Officers’ Club. This is another fine story, but it left me with questions.

Lt. Roy Banks is an officer with Military Intelligence in 1981. But he’s not exactly in the center of the action. He’s drafting training exercises at Fort Huachaca, Arizona. This is the end of the Carter era, and the country’s malaise is even worse in the Army. Bored, undertrained, and undersupplied soldiers fake their work, and party hard after hours. Roy is part of a small group wryly called “The Officer’s Club,” an alternative to the bland pleasures of the real facility on base. They like to run down to Mexico, drink themselves sick, have lots of sex, and sometimes do some drugs. Worse things go on too, but Roy tries to keep clear of that. He’s also having an affair with a married female fellow officer.

Then Jessie Lamoureaux is murdered. There’s no shortage of suspects. Beautiful, seductive, and devious, Lt. Lamoureaux worked her way through most of the males in Roy’s circle – except for Roy himself. For some reason he found her repellant.

Very little of this book is devoted to the mystery of Jessie’s murder. Most of it traces the course of events that led up to the crime. The plot reminded me of nothing so much as one of those cable miniseries where soap opera combines with sex and violence. However, Peters’ writing is on a much higher plane. Aside from his elegant prose, he creates well-rounded characters who (in many cases) surprise you.

I’m not sure I entirely understood The Officers’ Club. I think there’s a metanarrative here, related to conditions in the Carter era, that I never quite grasped. And a couple plot details never got resolved – I wonder if the answers were hidden and I just missed them.

I should caution you that the voice of morality in this book is a sympathetic homosexual record store owner whom Roy befriends. And one of the few cardboard characters is a born-again Christian (this is a little surprising, coming from the author who created the Abel Jones novels).

But I still enjoyed The Officers’ Club immensely, and got entirely caught up in it. Recommended, if you don’t mind a lot of profanity, sex, and a certain amount of violence.

Babel Was Not a Model for Segregation

Segregation Signs

Last month, the Presbyterian Church in America officially repented of its members’ involvement in racial discord in the Civil Rights era and beyond, including “the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that ‘love does no wrong to a neighbor’ (Romans 13:10).”

Jemar Tisby, who is the director of the African American Leadership Initiative and Special Assistant to the Chancellor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, explains what encourages him about the PCA’s resolution.

The problem with not having an explicit statement repudiating racism, especially during the Civil Rights Movement, as a Southern Presbyterian denomination is that African Americans and other ethnic minorities will always wonder, “Are these folks still cool with racism?” That’s putting it bluntly, but there’s truth to it. As a black person in an overwhelmingly white branch of the church, I have to constantly evaluate whether I’m truly welcome here or not. A strong statement repenting, not just of racism generally, but the more recent lack of vocal support for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement, is necessary because silence about the matter tacitly communicates either support or indifference.

One charge related to the PCA is the view by some founders and members that racial segregation is a biblical directive.  Continue reading Babel Was Not a Model for Segregation

Individuality: a fresh concept

Sometimes, when reading very old books, you come upon a moment in history where a corner is turned. And your own presuppositions make it difficult to see what’s going on.

Last night I was reading the Book of Ezekiel (that’s in the Bible, for our younger readers) before bed. And I was suddenly struck by what was going on in Chapter 18.

The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine, the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

This is stuff that seems self-evident to us. No surprises here. It’s what we expect from God. But the significant thing – to me – is later in the chapter:

“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” (Verse 25).

You see what’s going on here? The prophet’s audience, the Jews of the Babylonian exile, find it hard to understand how anyone – let alone God – would not want to punish a son for his father’s wrongdoing. And vice versa. Acting in any other way seems to them not only stupid, but positively unjust. What we see happening here is a major cultural shift. A brand new idea in human history, imported from outside our world.

The “normal” human point of view (historically speaking) has been to see human beings in terms of the groups to which they belong. Their families. Their races. Their nations. We recognize today that it’s unjust to say, “All those [insert group name here] are the same.” But such thinking is instinctual. Statistically normal in the world. Prejudice of this sort is born into us. We need to be educated to think otherwise. Continue reading Individuality: a fresh concept

‘Hell or Richmond,’ by Ralph Peters

Hell or Richmond

For all his concerns, his heart leapt at the prospect of fighting again. Lee smelled powder the way a horse smelled oats. There were things he dared not discuss with other men, matters he preferred not to think on too much himself. He loved war, that was the wicked truth. God forgive him, he loved it. Worse, this army had become his greatest love. It was a terrible thing for a man of faith, or any man, to recognize.

I wonder if it’s possible for a novel to be too successful. Not in the marketing sense – though there are certain authors whose success, in my opinion, is unmerited – but in the artistic sense. A novel that does such a good job of fulfilling its creative goals that the experience becomes nearly unendurable for the reader. Due to the subject matter.

That was my problem with Ralph Peters’ Hell or Richmond, a fantastically successful attempt to bring to life the experience of the 1864 Overland Campaign, during the American Civil War. Like his earlier novel, Cain at Gettysburg (which I admired greatly and reviewed here), it resurrects the historical events on both the macro and the micro level. Peters is a marvelous prose stylist, and succeeds in conveying not only the sights and sounds, but especially the sensations – the weariness, the thirst, the pervasive discomforts from an infantryman’s poison ivy to an officer’s inflamed feet, to Robert E. Lee’s digestive ailments. And the suffering goes on and on, far worse than Gettysburg, which seemed bad enough – through the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse to Cold Harbor, all of them famous slaughters. Continue reading ‘Hell or Richmond,’ by Ralph Peters

In Which Sin Is Like Smoke

Imagine a world in which sin is visible,” writes Hannah Beckerman in her review of Dan Vyleta’s fantasy novel, Smoke.

In which anger, lust, envy and avarice erupt in plumes of smoke and the clothes of the sinful are stained in dark soot. In which London is a city of vice, inhabited only by degenerates, its air polluted not with diesel but with transgression, its sewers running with the soot of sinners.

Unleash the Dragon!

Dragon Harald Fairhair
Photo credit: Jack_IOM from Douglas, Isle of Man.

I wrote the other day about the problem the replica Viking Ship, the Dragon Harald Fairhair, has gotten into in the great lakes. They’re stuck in Bay City, Michigan, having discovered they’re required to take on a pilot, something that will cost north of $400,000.

The Sons of Norway Foundation has started campaign to raise money for these fees. The donation site is here. You don’t have to be a Sons of Norway member.

Personally, I think it would be more prudent to burn a few buildings and demand Danegeld. But that’s just me.

Reading in Parking Lot Seen as Suspicious Behavior

A thirty-three year old, former high school English teacher spent a couple hours at Stonehaven Wharf, “a parking lot for fishing boats that’s frequented by tourists to the Canadian province of New Brunswick,” according to the Washington Post. He sat in his small white hatchback, reading Lewis’ Mere Christianity and a book by Tim Keller.

On his way home, he was pulled over by Canadian police, because someone had reported his behavior as suspicious. Of course, the officer quickly saw there was nothing suspicious about the Hamilton, Ontario native, and wished him well. The driver said:

I do not know the true motivations behind the individual who called the police to report my presence at the Stonehaven Wharf, but I struggle to understand why my actions of driving my vehicle to a public space, reading a book, and never once exiting my vehicle was cause for a level of suspicion which prompted this individual to call the police.

Then and now

I wrote about my recent trip to northern Wisconsin a few inches down this page. The purpose of the expedition was, along with my brothers, to “get to know” one of our great-grandfathers, a colorful Norwegian immigrant named John B. Johnson.

Below is a picture I’ve shared on this blog before, showing John B. and his family (my grandmother is the little girl second from the left). The story of this photo, I’ve been told, is that they’d bought a fancy new glass door for the house, and they wanted to take a picture to commemorate the event (it’s hard to tell here, but under magnification you can see that my great-grandmother Olina, the woman on the left, is wearing an apron embroidered in the Norwegian Hardanger style. Such items were treasures — she had put on her best for the photo). At the last moment, however, a neighbor boy scrambled in to be in the picture too — and stood right in front of the new door. This neighbor boy, the tall drink of water, would years later marry the little girl, and they would be my mother’s parents.

The Johnson place

On our trip, we visited the site of the farm, and saw what was left (just near-buried concrete foundations). This picture shows the hill where the house stood.

The Johnson place 2016

Thus pass the glories of this world. Also its humilities.

Nothing to Hide by J. Mark Bertrand

She rolls her eyes. “The Song of Roland. Don’t get me started. That was the first one we had to read. If that’s chivalry, then you can have it. That book infuriates me.”

“Really.” I flip through the pages, many of which are underscored. I’m familiar with the story, of course, though I can’t recall having actually read the poem. In fact, before now I’m not sure I realized it was a poem, with all the stanzas and verses. “He’s supposed to blow the horn to signal the ambush, is that it?”

“He’s supposed to blow it if they need help. Only Roland’s too proud for that, so he waits and waits until everybody’s basically dead. Does that sound like heroism to you?”

Bertrand’s third thrilling novel in his Roland March series begins with a body dumped in a recreational park. The head is missing and the hands, one of which is pointing, have been ‘degloved,’ which is a clinical word for skinned. March’s partner on the case, Jerry Lorenz, suggests the hand is pointing at something, maybe the missing head, and March nearly breaks his back looking for it. No dice.

I don’t care to outline the plot any further, because I enjoyed jumping into this novel having forgotten almost everything I’d heard about it. It’s a fun story, as are all of Bertrand’s March novels. Personal moments are filled with dialogue like the above interchange on The Song of Roland, showing Bertrand’s appealing bookish style. This brief description of the poem absolutely foreshadows the plot, which is exactly the way they do it in the movies, which reminds me how someone should be throwing money at Bertrand for the honor of taking his March trilogy to the big screen.

March isn’t any kind of super cop or brilliantly quirky detective. He’s a seasoned professional, like many homicide detectives on the force today. He has overcome the difficulties of his past, put numerous criminals behind bars, and continues to seek (and question) trust from his colleagues. He solves his cases by hard, honest work: asking questions, following leads, and pressuring forensics to cough up the right evidence. Like the title suggests, Nothing to Hide drives its story to a bold climax where all cards are on the table and everyone’s exposed.

Coast Guard stops Vikings: Irish take note

Dragon Harald Fairhair
Photo credit: Peder Jacobsson.

All summer I’ve been looking forward to the annual Tall Ships Festival in Duluth. Among the featured ships was to be the Dragon Harald Fairhair, largest Viking ship replica in the world. Built in Haugesund, old ancestral region of the Walkers. I had been talking to the festival people about having my Viking group participate.

At the moment the voyage is stalled. The U.S. Coast Guard has forbidden the dragon ship from proceeding without a professional pilot, something estimated to cost around $400,000. They had understood that their short length made them exempt, but that, apparently was Canadian rules. It seems to be another case of people misunderstanding government regulations, inexplicable in view of their simplicity and rationality (sarcasm off).

Anyway, there’s a petition to get the requirement waived at I don’t know if it will do any good or not.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture