What I did on my summer vacation

I’m taking a week of vacation this week. So far I haven’t done much, except get started with my second summer grad school class, about which more anon.

[Isn’t “anon” a wonderful word? Evocative, useful, and likely to get you punched in the face if you ever speak it in real life.]

Anyway, the City of Robbinsdale made a point of messing with my schedule. Last week I got notice that they were going to turn the water off in my neighborhood from 9:00 to 4:00 on Monday, weather permitting, to work on infrastructure, whatever that is. So I planned for the shut-off, and then it rained all day. Thus the great California Emulation was moved to today.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m reluctant to spend seven hours in a place without a working toilet. So I determined to go somewhere where clean and sober transients are welcome, and toilets are plentiful – America’s most pointless tourist attraction, the Mall of America.

I haven’t used my cane in weeks, but I brought it with me today, knowing I’d be walking more than I have for more than a year. I hobbled around and rested at intervals, and made it through OK.

I hadn’t been to the Mall in years. I was surprised at how boring I found it. Perhaps it’s old age, and being out of touch with the times, but I saw little that didn’t look to me like fashion-driven, disposable gimcrackery. I suppose I felt some kind of Puritan snobbery, a judgmentalism that comes from a place less than virtuous. But I didn’t see the point. Continue reading What I did on my summer vacation

Williams: “Arguably the Finest Afro-American Novelist of His Generation”

The NY Times has a obituary on John A. Williams (1925-2015), whom they called a strong but perpetually underrated novelist. He died July 3 at age 89.

His 1967 bestselling novel The Man Who Cried I Am is about a black novelist in Europe, struggling with the world, his own marriage, and an American friend of his. One Goodreads reviewer says, “This should be much more of an African-American classic than it is. I’d never even heard of it. The writing is excellent, simple but always appropriate, never pat. Although it is a novel about a novelist, and his relationship with another novelist, it never feels overly literary or self-referential.” In the NY Times, Eliot Fremont-Smith said it is “a compelling novel, gracefully written, angry but acute, committed but controlled, obviously timely, but deserving of attention for far more than that.”

His second novel, Night Song, appears to have opened him up for insult. William Grimes says Williams impressed the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which “unanimously recommended him for a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. In an unprecedented decision, the Rome academy rejected the selection, offering no explanation. Mr. Williams said he believed himself to be the victim of a false rumor that he was about to marry a white woman. He was offered a $2,000 grant instead, which he rejected.”

Williams graduated in 1950 from Syracuse University, where his professors encouraged him to pursuing writing.

“Mr. Williams, whom the critic James L. de Jongh called ‘arguably the finest Afro-American novelist of his generation,’ excelled in describing the inner lives of characters struggling to make sense of their experiences, their personal relationships and their place in a hostile society,” Grimes writes. “His manifest gifts, however, earned him at best a twilight kind of fame — a reputation for being chronically underrated.”

Awake at Night with an Active Mind

Writer and world traveler Karen Emslie writes about waking up in the middle of the night and how it may be a good time for creative play.

March 15, 2011It is true that when I wake at 4am I have a whirring mind. . . . If I write in these small hours, black thoughts become clear and colourful. They form themselves into words and sentences, hook one to the next – like elephants walking trunk to tail. My brain works differently at this time of night; I can only write, I cannot edit. I can only add, I cannot take away. I need my day-brain for finesse. I will work for several hours and then go back to bed. . . .

Indeed, when [Nicholson] Baker was writing what would become A Box of Matches (2003), a novel about a writer who gets up around 4am, lights a fire and writes while his family sleeps, Baker himself practised this ritual, then went back to bed for a second sleep.

‘I found that starting and nurturing this tiny early flame helped me to concentrate,’ Baker told The Paris Review. ‘There’s something simple and pleasantly meditative about building a fire at four in the morning. I started writing disconnected passages, and the writing came easily.’

Dune at 50

Herbert was a quintessential product of the libertarian culture of the Pacific coast, self-reliant and distrustful of centralised authority, yet with a mile-wide streak of utopian futurism and a concomitant willingness to experiment. He was also chronically broke. During the period he wrote Dune, his wife Beverly Ann was the main bread-winner, her own writing career sidelined by a job producing advertising copy for department stores.

… The prevailing publishing wisdom of the time had it that SF readers liked their stories short. Dune (400 pages in its first hardcover edition, almost 900 in the paperback on my desk) was rejected by more than 20 houses before being accepted by Chilton, a Philadelphia operation known for trade and hobby magazines such as Motor Age, Jewelers’ Circular and the no-doubt-diverting Dry Goods Economist.

“By rights,” Hari Kunzru writes, “Dune ought to have become a big movie. An attempt by the visionary Chilean film maker Alejandro Jodorowsky to bring it to the screen became one of the great “what if” stories of SF cinema…. But Jodorowsky’s prog-tastic project was strangled in the crib by risk-averse Hollywood producers.”

Sand People attach Luke Skywalker
But the story actually did make it to the big screen–as the movie Star Wars. “Herbert knew he’d been ripped off, and thought he saw the ideas of other SF writers in Lucas’s money-spinning franchise. He and a number of colleagues formed a joke organisation called the We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society.”

Too Fun to Quibble

Sherlock Holmes on Baker StreetMartin Edwards follows his nose from one clue to another within The Detection Club, a London dinner society of British detective fiction writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and R. Austin Freeman.

Edwards crams many facts into this work, but his primary goal is “to refute the charge of ‘cozy’ that has hung over the Golden Age writers since a rebellious Englishman named Raymond Chandler moved to California and took to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly to denounce the whole project of British detective fiction in a famous 1944 essay called ‘The Simple Art of Murder.'”

Joseph Bottum concludes, “Of course, the actual argument of The Golden Age of Murder is almost beside the point. The book is too enjoyable, too enthusiastic, to live or die by the success of its thesis.” (via Prufrock)

The Battle Hymn of the Republic


“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Or is it something else?

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a wonderfully catchy tune that many have sung on the Fourth and even in church, because it talks about God’s truth marching forward, right? Just like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” isn’t it?

The writer, Julia Ward Howe, was a Unitarian, poet, and active supporter of abolition, women’s rights, prison reform, and education. Her public support of these issues was opposed by her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, and put a strain on their marriage for years. He wanted her to keep her work domestic. When she published a book of poetry anonymously (but discovered a short time afterward), Samuel felt betrayed.

In November 1861, Samuel and Julia were visiting Union encampments close to Washington, D.C. as part of a presidential commission. Some of the men began singing, and one of their songs was “John Brown’s Body,” a song in praise of the violent abolitionist John Brown.

“John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
But his soul goes marching on.

“He’s gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
His soul goes marching on.”

Reverend James Freeman Clarke was touring with the Howes and remarked that while the tune was great, the lyric could be stronger. He suggested Julia write new words to it, and she replied that she had had a similar idea. Continue reading The Battle Hymn of the Republic

How Dante Saved Dreher from Depression

Last year, we wrote about Rod Dreher’s book, How Dante Can Save Your Life,, noting that following your heart will kill you dead and sin is a damaged form of love.

Chris Fabry interviewed Rod about his experience going through depression, attempting to reconcile with his family, and learning more from Dante than his counselor. If you haven’t read his book already, this will give you insight into what you’ll find there.

The Fellowship of the Inklings

The Eagle and Child

“In general, the all-male group shared a longing for that half-imaginary time before man’s alienation from God, nature and self, the time before the chaos and materialism of the post-industrial era had displaced the elegantly organized cosmos of the Middle Ages. In their ­various ways, each hoped to spearhead a rehabilitation, a re-enchantment of our fallen world.” Michael Dirda reflects on The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. He says the book focuses largely on the men’s religious lives and thoughts.

The Fellowship looks to be a great, detailed introduction to Barfield and Williams, two men close to Lewis and Tolkien but unfamiliar to most of their fans.

‘Black,’ and ‘Black is Back,’ by Russell Blake

When I started reading the first book in Russell Blake’s detective series, Black, I was frankly not much impressed. The main character and his situation seemed hackneyed and glib. But I gave it a chance, and soon decided that there’s a whole lot more going on with these books than was initially apparent, and now I’m a fan.

Artemus Black (he tries to avoid his first name) is a low rent PI in the stereotypical shabby Los Angeles office. He has an office assistant, Roxie, a hot goth chick with superior research and hacking skills, who is reliably insolent to him. He also has an obese, rescued “office cat,” who hates him. He’s seeing a psychologist to help him work through his anger issues – anger at his hippie parents who, although stoned most of the time, keep turning their arts and crafts into wildly profitable businesses, and at his ex-wife who, back when he was a rock musician, recorded an album of songs he wrote and then left him to become an international star, taking all the song rights with her. He drives a classic Cadillac El Dorado convertible, and wears 1940s suits and fedoras. He drinks too much and is trying to quit smoking.

The first book is simply called Black, and involves Black being hired by an aging action movie star with a particular hatred for the paparazzi. Now paparazzi are getting murdered wherever the star goes, and suspicion is being directed at him.

The second book, Black is Back, deals with murder in the rap music scene.

What’s best about the Black books is the characters and the dialogue. Black’s arguments with Roxie are masterpieces of emotional manipulation and veiled sexual tension. His dialogues with his cop friend, Stan Colt, are just hilarious guy talk – cross-chat that’s never been done better in print.

There are some surprisingly beautiful descriptive passages. Russell Blake is an excellent writer. Also some moments when Black exhibits some pretty solid moral sense.

Highly recommended. Cautions for violence, language, and adult stuff, but not really very heavy.

Why College Students Avoid Literature Studies

“When I was growing up in the Bronx, the local Jewish deli owner, whose meats smelled vaguely rancid and whose bagels seemed to start out already a day old, attributed his failing business to the vulgarization of Bronx tastes.” Professor Gary Saul Morson says the deli owner’s rationale illustrates the same by many humanities professors. Students and their parents have every right to ask why they should subject themselves to literature courses.

“I speak with students by the dozens,” Morson writes, “and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. And when I hear their descriptions of these classes, I see their point.” (via Prufrock)

Racism Fails to See Human Beings as Human

Margaret Biser, who has led historical tours at a Southern house and plantation for years. She writes about the questions she received, such as whether the slaves appreciated the good treatment they received or whether being a house slave instead of a field hand was a cushy life.

Why did her guests continue to ask questions ignorant or opposed to the history she presented? Inaccurate education for many. Apathy for some.

“In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past. After all, for many people, beliefs about one’s ancestors reflect one’s beliefs about oneself. We don’t want our ancestors to have done bad things because we don’t want to think of ourselves as being bad people. These slavery apologists were less invested in defending slavery per se than in defending slaveowners, and they weren’t defending slaveowners so much as themselves.”

This is how I understand the KKK began. You could call it a failure of believers to reach poor white members in neighboring small towns with the full gospel, but however you want to think about, people who felt rejected by their community turned their bitterness against blacks, an easy target. And some carry on that legacy today, both directly as members of the Klan and indirectly when they argue that #BlackLivesMatter is not as strong as #AllLivesMatter, missing the point that black lives are the ones still longing for respect.

“Addressing racism,” Biser writes, “isn’t just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it’s about making people see the humanity in others.” But with dehumanization active all around us today, we should wake up to the fact that we won’t learn this lesson without the gospel fully applied. Some of us haven’t learned it even with the gospel.

Why J.I. Packer Walked Out

There are two views on the Bible.

One is the historic Christian belief that through the prophets, the incarnate Son, the apostles, and the writers of canonical Scripture as a body, God has used human language to tell us definitively and transculturally about his ways, his works, his will, and his worship. . . . The second view applies to Christianity the Enlightenment’s trust in human reason, along with the fashionable evolutionary assumption that the present is wiser than the past. It concludes that the world has the wisdom, and the church must play intellectual catch-up in each generation in order to survive.

The wonderful Bible scholar J.I. Packer subscribes to the first of those views, so when in 2002 the Anglican synod took steps to create a service for the blessing of same-sex unions, Packer among others walked out.

“Because this decision,” he said, “taken in its context, falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth.”

That “piece of paper”

I offer the song above, dredged from my college years, as documentary evidence of the facts I’m about to tell you. Because you won’t hear about this much of anywhere else. This is Lost History, things that happened but are now officially non-things, like Stalin’s old revolutionary comrades and Hillary Clinton’s emails.

“A piece of paper.” “Just a piece of paper.” It’s a phrase I first recall encountering in an article about an actress in a magazine (Life, perhaps), back when I was a kid. “Why haven’t we gotten married?” she replied to a question about her love life. “What’s a marriage license? Just a vulgar piece of paper.”

I’m sure she wasn’t the first to put it that way, but after that I noticed that I encountered it again and again. Actors said it. Writers. Rock musicians. Poets. Intellectuals. “What’s a marriage license? Just a vulgar piece of paper. What does such an object have to do with real love?”

This form of expression stopped appearing, I think, sometime in the 1980s. It’s clear now what happened. The Big Heads of the left realized that the promotion of homosexual marriage would be a splendid hammer with which to bash traditional Christian sexual morality.

And suddenly the cry was no longer, “It’s just a piece of paper!” but “It’s the Most Important Piece of Paper in the universe! Anyone prevented from having this wonderful, transcendent piece of paper has been denied their deepest human right!”

This sudden dialectical U-turn was not accompanied by any admission that they might have been wrong in their old position. No, the old slogan just went down the memory hole, along with Pres. Obama’s college records and Che Guevara’s murders. “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, and progressives have always revered marriage.”

Because it’s all about the political narrative. And the narrative runs in whatever channel will best serve the Cause.

Recommended Reading on the Black Church

Thabiti Anyabwile says it’s challenging to recommend books on Black history and the church, in part, because many good books can’t be unreservedly endorsed. There’s plenty of value in them, but some readers would assume he advocates everything the writer has advocated, and that just isn’t so.

“I usually take the easy way out and recommend everything Tony Carter has written on the subject! That gets me out of most jams because everybody loves Tony and he only writes good stuff!”

But beyond reading Tony Carter, here are eight books Anyabwile recommends for understanding Black church history.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture