‘The Holy Island of Lindisfarne,’ by David Adam

[Bishop] Aidan was deeply moved by such generosity, and, taking hold of the open hand of [King] Oswald, said, ‘May this hand never wither with age.’

Not long afterwards, aged only 38, Oswald was killed in the battle of Maserfeld….

This is the book I mentioned reading the other day, about the island of Lindisfarne, renowned both in religious and secular history as a center of early English Christianity and the site of [supposedly] the first Scandinavian raid of the Viking Age.

The author, David Adam, is an English clergyman and for 13 years served as vicar of the church at Lindisfarne. As such, he brings a wealth of personal experience to this work, making The Holy Island of Lindisfarne rather a subjective book.

Beginning in the heroic age of British resistance (what we call the Arthurian Age, though Adam doesn’t mention that), we learn how the heathen Saxon invader, King Oswald, applied to the Irish church for a bishop. This led eventually to the establishment of an episcopal seat on the mystical island of Lindisfarne, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, but is fully an island twice a day. Author Adam goes on to tell of the community’s ups and downs through history, illuminating the historical facts with his own personal experience of the place. It’s quite a charming account.

As a pure work of history, I think The Holy Island of Lindisfarne probably falls short of the mark. But as a virtual tour, it’s excellent. You’ll want to visit the place. The author isn’t embarrassed to draw spiritual lessons now and then too.


Death Levels Us All

Matthew McCullough’s recent book on death was featured last week in World Magazine’s Saturday series. It’s not a subject I like to think about, perhaps because I like to imagine I’m above it just as he says here:

The reality of death is profoundly humbling. It tells me that I’m not indispensable. It assures me I will be forgotten. And so death boots me from my self-appointed place at the center of the universe. But learning to recognize death’s challenge to my subconscious narcissism also raises haunting questions about who I am. It isn’t just that death is humbling. It can also be profoundly disorienting.

Most of us would probably agree that a reality check is a generally a good thing. No one likes a narcissist. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if none of us saw himself as more important than everyone else? If death puts us in our place, that’s ultimately healthy, right?

Yes … but. Death’s challenge actually pushes even deeper. Death’s statement does more than put us in our place. It also raises questions about where our place actually is.


I’ve been reading a book about Lindisfarne, the English island where (according to received wisdom) the Viking Age began with a brutal raid on the renowned monastery there. The date of the raid is generally considered to be June 8, 793, so we just passed the anniversary (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a January date, but that’s unlikely. Vikings didn’t generally raid in the winter).

I’m reading the book because I’m scheduled to do a presentation on LIndisfarne later this summer. I have a lot to learn yet — I find some disagreement in sources. The video above says the original 793 raiders stole the Lindisfarne Gospels book, but the book I’m reading says no, the monks hid it. I do believe I’ve read that the book was taken by Vikings at some point though, so I’ll have to dig a little more into that.

Anders Winroth suggests that the Viking raids were a net good to Europe, as they took wealth that had been stockpiled in church institutions and injected it back into the economy.

I’m sure that was a great comfort to the enslaved monks and nuns.

PTSD in Greek Tragedy

Scott Beauchamp reviews a Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama production of Euripides’s Herakles. It’s being performed in ancient Greek with English projections, so — dang! And the music is no afterthought, evoking a unique, ancient feel.

Beauchamp says the story of the god-like Herakles, who returns home to save his family but is deceived by malicious gods, draws him in.

As a former soldier myself who spent years away from his family, it’s difficult for me not to read PTSD into the story of Herakles. Trauma never finds you where you expect it to. It’s never in the moment of combat itself, or triggered by toy guns or cars backfiring (at least not in my experience). PTSD sneaks in through the attic window when you least expect it. You might be driving along on a beautiful day, listening to the radio. Or grocery shopping. Or mowing the lawn. It’s never when you’re ready for it, when it’s obvious. Lyssa [the goddess of rage] comes in at the most anodyne times, or the most exalted ones. She comes right at the moment when your labors are done, you’ve returned home, and put your house back in order. She destroys your clichés from the inside out.

‘When We Were Lost,’ by Kevin Wignall

I probably wouldn’t have bought Kevin Wignall’s When We Were Lost if I’d noticed it was a young adult novel. (Young adult novels are too mature for me, emotionally speaking.) But it was Wignall so I snapped it up, and I’m not sorry I did. It was an enjoyable story, easily appreciable by an adult. Or even by me.

The setup is nice. Tom Calloway is a high school junior and an outsider. Orphaned young and raised by an eccentric, uninvolved aunt, he’s generally walled himself off from his peers. So when he gets maneuvered into taking a class “environmental” trip to Costa Rica, he’s not enthusiastic. He doesn’t expect anything good to happen.

What happens is far worse than he expects – and in surprising ways, better. Their plane goes far off course and crashes in the jungle, killing most of the passengers except for a few rows at the back of the plane – Tom and some classmates.

One of the other boys assumes leadership, and it gradually becomes apparent to Tom – and to some other social outcasts who happen to know about the real world – that the guy is way over his head and leading them into disaster. Through the challenges that will face them as they try to find their way back to civilization, Tom will make hard choices, grow as a person, discover his own leadership, and find relationships he never imagined he could have.

When We Were Lost is a pretty cool story, with a lot of good life lessons for young people (my only caution for Christian parents is that they take time at one point to make pitch for gay rights). Recommended.

Writing the range

One of the many interesting sidelights to doing script translation is becoming familiar – at one or two removes – with the scriptwriting process. (And I’d like to mention at this point that I am not working on a screenplay of my own. I think I’m possibly the only person involved in the industry who isn’t. I’m pretty sure all the gaffers, grips, insurance underwriters and caterers listed at the end of the credits are all working on their own screenplays.) One project I worked on recently provided an interesting case study.

I remember wondering, as a boy, “Why aren’t movies more like the books they’re based on? Why not just take the book as it is and film it?” I’ve heard other people asking the same question.

Well, this particular recent project appeared to be an attempt to do just that. It looked like the screenwriter (and I won’t even tell you if it was a he or a she, and I’ll change all the details, because of my non-disclosure obligations) was the novelist themselves, trying their hand at a screenplay for the first time. They had simply transcribed his/her/its book straight from page to screenplay. And it didn’t work at all.

Imagine a scene in a movie of any genre – we’ll make it a Western because you’ll know right off the script I was working on was not a western. A cowboy sits on his horse, in the rain, and the camera watches him sitting there. He’s just thinking. In the novel, we could go straight into his head and hear his thoughts. But this is a movie. If this cowboy is thinking about, oh, Miss Sally at the saloon, and whether he’s going to marry her, and what they’ll do about buying a ranch, and the social disease they now share, it would take a pretty outstanding actor to convey that particular information just through his facial expressions and body language.

No, you’ve got to take that interior monologue from the book and transform it into visual and audible information. You have several options for doing this.

  • Voiceover: This is closest to the original book, but it’s out of fashion. Audiences find it corny, unless employed for stylistic and ironic purposes.
  • Flashback: You can cut back to a scene between Ol’ Cowpoke and Miss Sally. This is a good option, but it’s a change from the book. A sub-option is to change the plot a little and add an earlier scene dramatizing this problem.
  • Invented dialogue: You can create a conversation which doesn’t occur in the scene in the book. You can have Ol’ Cowpoke confide in one of his buddies over coffee around the campfire. Or he could even talk to his horse, which would provide a challenge for the actor.

Offhand, those are the options I can think of for handling this problem.  And most of them involve altering the story.

Books and movies are different media, and they work in different ways. You can’t get away from it.

‘Occupied,’ by Kurt Blorstad

There are books you finish because you’re interested in the subject, not because of the writing. That was my response to Occupied by Kurt Blorstad, a novelization (apparently) of the author’s father’s reminiscences from his boyhood in Norway during World War II.

The family is divided in 1936, when the story begins. Young Trygve and his brother Thoralf, along with their baby brother Odd and their mother, are in Norway, separated from “Pappa,” who is working in the United States, saving to bring them over. They move from living with father’s family to living with their maternal grandparents, and we learn about village life in Norway as a little sister is born and the boys start to grow up. In 1940, just when they finally have enough money saved to make the move, the Germans invade and travel becomes impossible.

The German occupiers, arrogant and acquisitive, confiscate whatever they want. They issue ration coupons for food and other goods which are useless because they themselves consume almost everything. The hardships are great, the rules many, the penalties for breaking the rules draconian. Eventually Trygve gets involved in the Resistance in a minor way, keeping it secret from his family.

The story was interesting if you’re interested in the subject and the period – which I am. But it’s low on drama, and written in a very amateur style. Exposition gets delivered like a history class lecture, and nobody uses any contractions in the dialogue.

Some of my readers are interested in the Norwegian Occupation period, and you’re likely to find Occupied interesting, as I did. Strictly as a work of fiction, I can’t recommend it. No cautions for offensive language or subject matter.

‘Songbird,’ by Peter Grainger

As he sat down again, Smith said, ‘I can’t remember the exact occasion when I first said this to you, but I know I’ll have said it before. The time will come when you’ll have to choose between being a high-ranking, well-paid and officially respected police detective, and being a good one. This shouldn’t ever happen, but in my experience it always does….’

Peter Grainger’s series of police procedurals starring Detective Sergeant D.C. Smith has been one of my reading pleasures for some time. They’re rather quiet books, short on action scenes and long on character and atmosphere. It’s been a delight to watch Smith carry on his eccentric career, defying his superiors when necessary, nurturing his investigative team.

Smith was badly wounded at the end of the last book, so when Songbird opens he’s out of the picture. He will show up, but he’ll be peripheral to this story. Now is the time to watch the young detectives he’s trained operating without training wheels.

The main character in Songbird is Detective Sergeant Chris Waters, who now occupies the exact position in the hierarchy where Smith used to be. Since he took the job on, things have been quiet in the fictional East Anglian town of Kings Lake. But now a body has been found.

It’s the body of an attractive woman, found strangled near a caravan (mobile home) park. The investigative machinery starts moving, and before long a suspect has been identified. DNA evidence seems incontrovertible. The big brass are ready to lock the suspect up and celebrate their win.

But Chris is pretty certain they’re wrong. He can’t explain away the evidence (yet), but this particular suspect seems to him incapable of such a crime – for several reasons.

In the tradition of D.C. Smith before him, Chris Waters will, very carefully, defy his superiors’ wishes and look for alternatives. Fortunately for him, he has allies he never expected.

I missed D.C. Smith himself in his usual role – though Smith does have a part to play in the story – but Songbird had all the usual pleasures of a Grainger novel. I fear (and this is a criticism I’ve made of a lot of police series) that the story is overpopulated with woman detectives. I think Phil once looked up the statistics, and women in the British police are not nearly as ubiquitous as they are in the fiction. Also, I figured out the big red herring right away. But all in all, I liked Songbird a lot. And there are hints that Smith himself may find a new role in the future.

No particular cautions are necessary, for adult readers. Recommended.

Of Normans and Normandy

I didn’t comment on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion yesterday. I’m kind of over my head with work right now (for which I thank the Lord), and I wanted to get the book review out of the way. But I don’t want to leave the day unmarked.

I wonder how much the planners of the invasion were influenced by historical symmetry. It must have appealed to Churchill, especially, to send troops back to the very beaches where ships had been launched by William the Conqueror in 1066. By all accounts it was a near-run thing, the conclusion by no means foregone. But there was certainly strategic sense in it. (There was also, as I’ve mentioned before, an alternate plan to invade by way of Norway. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Norway seems a poor platform for launching the liberation of continental Europe. Maybe cutting off Hitler’s iron ore supplies would have made it worth it, though.)

In any case, I couldn’t resist sharing the illustration above, which was on the cover of The New Yorker on July 15, 1944. The artist was Rea S. Irvin, and I love it to death. More information from the Norman Rockwell Museum here.

FYI, there is also an “Overlord Tapestry,” housed in a museum in Portsmouth, England. It was completed in 1974. You can read about it at the web page of Sandra Lawrence, the designer, here.

‘All That’s Dead,’ by Stuart MacBride

I did it again. I wasn’t going to read any more Stuart MacBride novels, but I keep getting them confused with other Scottish mystery series. So I buy them again, and they’re not so awful that I feel the need to dump them, and once again I’m slogging through the adventures of Inspector Logan McRae and his crew of dysfunctional, profane detectives, all of whom hate each other.

In All That’s Dead, Logan is just back to work after a long medical leave resulting from being stabbed. He’s told his first case will be an easy one. That, of course, turns out to be utterly, hideously wrong.

A well-known professor, a vociferous opponent of Scottish independence, has disappeared. We soon learn (though it takes the police longer) that the man’s been kidnapped by an insane Scottish nationalist, with a plan to promote his cause by kidnapping opponents, snipping off body parts, and sending those parts to the press.

This will get very ugly, and all the way through we do a ride-along with the Scottish police who (judging by these books) are a bunch of functional morons who excel only at hurling authentic Scottish insults at each other. Chief among them is raddled lesbian Detective Steel, whose dirty talk is stomach-turning in itself.

The story itself isn’t bad, though it’s gruesome. A lot of people seem to like the series, so maybe you will too, if this is your cup of tea. Cautions for foul language, disgusting crimes, and exceedingly unpleasant characters.

Somebody remind me, next time a Logan McRae book comes out, not to buy it.

I also hate being wrong

Yesterday I posted, in good faith, an article that described the state-sanctioned assisted suicide of a 17-year-old girl in the Netherlands. Since this precisely echoed the plot of my novel Death’s Doors, I wrote about it.

It appears that the story was false. This from Reason:

Pothoven did indeed apply with a clinic for The Netherlands’ legal euthanasia process, but physicians reportedly denied her request, saying she was too young, her brain was not fully developed yet, and she should try more trauma treatment first.

Her recent death came after a long struggle with anorexia and depression, in which the teen ultimately refused to consume food, water, or anything to keep her alive.

The whole story seems to me to be still kind of muddy. Nevertheless, the central point of my post was the evil of government-enabled suicide, and in this case the government was in fact blameless.

So I apologize.

I have no doubt the Death’s Doors parallel is coming, but it is not yet.

On Mulling over a Library Book Sale

My local library has a few shelves to the left of the doors that hold for-sale books. They’ve dragged out more shelves for a larger sale at times, but I think they’ve settled into a simple pattern of perpetual selling. The Chattanooga library system just had its semi-annual book sale in our shopping-mall-turned-town-center. I have wanted to take my kids to one of these, but I forget year after year.

(BTW, when people talk about malls as a thing of the past, they aren’t in the past here yet. We still have nice, old school shopping malls with food courts and big department stores. We just got a Cheesecake Factory this year, which seems to be riding on the reputation of other restaurants in the franchise because it struck me as high-end fast food.)

Was I talking about books? Oh, yeah. The no-longer-shopping-mall space has a library book sale at least once a year. Luke Holmes went to a similar sale Oklahoma City and noted the not-so-classics available there.

There are piles of books that promise me they will be the next big thing. Learn how to capture the Zim Zum or Chazown, or how to have your best life now. There are enough books about bettering your life to build a house with, not to mention all the books about prayer, leadership, and integrity from those men who were found to be acting in their own power, abusing women, or stealing money.

He draws from this a few good thoughts. Yes, as the wise man once said, of the writing and fussing over books there will be no end until the sun finally boils the ocean. So read something good, friend.

I hate being right

A few years ago I published a novel based on a scenario I saw coming down the road, inevitable as the 1:00 train: The same legal theories that allowed a young girl to get an abortion without her parents’ approval would allow any child to commit suicide without the parents’ consent. The book is called Death’s Doors.

And now it’s come true.

The London Daily Mail reports that a 17-year-old girl, Noa Pothoven, has committed assisted suicide in her own living room. Her parents did not approve, but were legally powerless to prevent it.

According to the Dutch newspaper De Gelderlander, Noa’s parents had no idea she was unwell until her mother discovered a plastic envelope in her room filled with farewell letters to her parents, friends and acquaintances. 

‘I was in shock,’ Lisette told De Gelderlander. ‘We didn’t get it. Noa is sweet, beautiful, smart, social and always cheerful. How is it possible that she wants to die? 

‘We have never received a real answer. We just heard that her life was no longer meaningful. For only a year and a half have we known what secret she has carried with her over the years.’  

I weep for the girl, but I also weep for those parents. It’s a parent’s job to be adult for their child, to stand in their way when they want to make disastrous choices. These parents have been stripped of that God-given duty and right. The girl probably thought that a lot of pain would go out of the world when she left. She was wrong. She left all her pain behind, for her parents to bear.

Write History as You Would Want to Be Written About

If only all history teachers would take a Golden Rule approach as Yale professor Mark A. Peterson does. It would revive history as a viable college major. (via John Wilson)

“If you take seriously the moral reality of historical subjects as equal to your own and write about them with the respect they deserve, I think that is a valuable skill in terms of how you conduct yourself in your daily life,” says Peterson. “In that regard, I see a serious engagement with the humanities as the most essential thing that anyone can pursue in college. Even subjects that we don’t always associate with ‘the humanities’ such as engineering, computer science, and chemistry deserve the kind of scrutiny that humanistic thinking teaches, the capacity to imagine and interrogate how the discoveries we make and the things we invent will shape the lives, for better or worse, of real human beings like ourselves, our fellow inhabitants of humanity’s only planet.”

I need to go through my drawers…

I was going to tell you about all the pulse-pounding excitement of Danish Day in Minneapolis yesterday. But you’ll just have to wait, because once again it’s taking forever to upload photos to 1) Dropbox, and then 2) to Photobucket. Not sure why that is. I didn’t have that trouble in the past.

Anyway, exciting news in the world of Early Medieval Scandinavian Geekdom today. One of the lost Lewis Chessmen has been located… forgotten in a desk drawer.

It’s always the last place you look, isn’t it?

“It was stored away in his home and then when my grandfather died my mother inherited the chess piece.

“My mother was very fond of the Chessman as she admired its intricacy and quirkiness. She believed that it was special and thought perhaps it could even have had some magical significance.

“For many years it resided in a drawer in her home where it had been carefully wrapped in a small bag. From time to time, she would remove the chess piece from the drawer in order to appreciate its uniqueness.”

Read the whole story here, courtesy of the BBC.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture