The strenuous life

It was quite a weekend. By an old bachelor’s standards, anyway. I take some pride in having got through it with my natural force unabated.

Saturday was the big event at Camp Ripley (believe it or not), Little Falls, Minn., for the 75th anniversary of the activation of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), the US Army’s Norwegian “foreign legion” in World War II. The festivities actually began the day before and continued through the evening, but I was only there Saturday afternoon. (That doesn’t mean I wasn’t invited to do more; I was. But I had to get home and unload my car for the following day’s exertions.)

Saturday afternoon was the public event. Besides us Vikings, there was an informational booth explaining about the unit’s history. There was also a small encampment of World War II reenactors:

[A photo belongs here, but our account doesn’t seem to allow posting from Photobucket anymore.]

Nice guys. Had some interesting conversations. These are history people, and Vikings were not outside their range of interest. Continue reading The strenuous life

‘Cold Land,’ by John Oakes

Cold Land

Another mystery set in Minnesota. I keep buying these things. Was John Oakes’s Cold Land more satisfying to me than the previous suspects? Read on and learn…

Jake Adler is a proud Texas Ranger. But he loves his wife, who left him, taking their two daughters, to go home to Minnesota. So Jake bit the bullet and drove north, lured by a job opening in Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

But this isn’t the elite, professional BCA so many of us know from John Sandford’s Prey novels. The BCA in this novel is a moribund organization, crippled by budget cuts. Just a few agents wander its empty office building, and those are mostly low achievers dumped by other agencies. This shocks Jake, but what’s worse is that he’s told his application (despite his credentials) will have to go in the queue with others, and he must wait a couple weeks for a decision.

But there’s a secretary in the center of the wreck of BCA, one of those indispensable, competent women who keep organizations afloat. She tells Jake, confidentially, that if he goes along to help Jerry Unger, a veteran agent, with a petty fraud case, she thinks she can find a way to get him hired. So Jake accompanies Jerry on that not-very-promising assignment. Only they discover a body, which makes it a murder investigation, and Jerry and Jake are now competing with other cops to thwart what gradually is revealed to be a major hijacking plot. Along the way, Jake will make shocking personal discovery.

I guess the portrayal of Minnesota is only fair. In so many novels, we see the south through northern eyes, and get an endless vista of gap-toothed, inbred rednecks. In this book, we have Minnesota viewed through southern (Texan) eyes, and the prospect is no more appealing. Minnesota seems to be full of trailer trash too. In fact we see little of the state here besides blighted neighborhoods, and the weather’s cold to boot.

I didn’t take these descriptions personally (though I wondered what Oakes has against Anoka, for which he reserves special derision. I always thought Anoka kind of a yuppy, arty place). I also found the plot a little hard to follow (which may be only a comment on me).

My real problem was with the tone of the thing. The book has a sort of a black humor voice, with serious crimes yoked to light dialogue. John Sandford finds a balance when he writes this kind of story, but Cold Land didn’t entirely gel for me. The various plot elements seemed to work against each other.

But author Oakes shows promise. I think he’ll improve with time. Cautions for the usual stuff. Some themes seemed conservative to me, but a couple shots were taken at Christians.

Catch me if you can

As previously announced, I’ll be at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota tomorrow, for the 75th anniversary of the activation of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), the special commando unit created by the US Army for the possible invasion of Norway in World War II. The event is at the Military History Museum, and is open to the public from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.

The address is 15000 Hwy 115, Little Falls, Minn. 56345.

‘To Live Like the Women of Viking Literature’

Die Walkurie

When Dave Lull sent me a link to this article from Literary Hub, I was a little uncomfortable. Articles on women in the Viking Age, like anything having to do with male/female relations written nowadays, tend to be, shall we say, “pregnant” with sociopolitical baggage. But the linked piece by Linnea Hartsuyker is accurate in every detail as far as I can tell. I could find no fault with it.

And you know I tried.

Women warriors were a potent literary fantasy, especially in a hyper-masculine medieval world where honor and avoidance of effeminacy were key motivators of male action. In narratives that contain women warriors, it is often the role of the male hero to turn them into wives and mothers, and their submission thus enhances the male hero’s virility. Women warriors, at least in the surviving literature, are never the central heroes of the tales, but ambivalent figures to be wooed and conquered.

You Can’t Say ‘Hello’ Without ‘O’

Callie Feyen writes about James Thurber’s The Wonderful O, in which a sailor named Black hates the letter O. She says it’s terribly funny.

Despite Black’s efforts, the people of Ooroo bring O back. They do it by speaking the names of characters in beloved stories: Romeo, Robin Hood, Shylock, and Captain Hook. Black scoffs at their efforts; these characters, he says, are mere creatures of fantasy, made of ink, and “ink can be destroyed . . . books can be burned.”

(via Prufrock News)

‘Dead Hill,’ by John Dean

Dead Hill

In the previous John Dean novel I read, To Die Alone (reviewed south of here), I came away kind of cool to the main character. Detective Inspector Jack “Hawk” Harris operates in a fictional small town in northern England. He seemed a fairly garden variety literary detective in the Inspector Morse mode – eccentric, poorly socialized, and rude to everyone (including his superior). His chief virtue was his love for animals, especially his black Labrador, Scoot, who accompanies him pretty much everywhere.

In this novel, Dead Hill (actually an earlier installment in the series), I got a better opportunity to know Inspector Harris, and I liked him better. He’s even admirable at times.

A man is found dead at the bottom of a cliff in an old quarry. However (as Harris immediately suspects) the man did not fall by accident. He was struck on the head and pushed, according to the medical examiner. Suspicion falls on a couple of visitors in the area, shady types out to steal the eggs of golden eagles for collectors. But witnesses report a third man with them – though they deny that.

A lot of people are telling lies about a lot of things, and Harris’s investigation leads him back into his own past. Many of the villains in this complex case were fellows he went to school with as a boy – and he himself came within an inch of following on their path. But he didn’t know them as well as he thought he did, and he will see many of his memories and assumptions turned upside down before all is done.

Harris’s moral character is more on display here than in the last book I read, and that improved the story immensely for me. I enjoyed it quite a bit and recommend it. With mild cautions, of course, for language and disturbing themes.

Good Talk with Writer Trevin Wax

The Calling podcast has a good talk this week with Trevin Wax. He talks about his love of books and his calling as a writer in ways they don’t drip with sap (such as you may or may not read in other places). Here’s one quote lifted off the podcast page.

On writing’s challenges: “The biggest struggle is bouncing back and forth between pride and humiliation. If you’re not careful, that mix can paralyze you. If you take praise or criticism too personally, it’s bad for heart. It’ll shut you down.”

I would subscribe to The Calling, if my podcast app would cooperate with me, but it’s showing me the hand this week.

Netflix viewing report: ‘Hell on Wheels’

Hell on Wheels

The series “Hell on Wheels” was recommended to me.

I must explain, or apologize, for the title of the series – not for inventing it of course, but for not rejecting out of hand a show with a curse word in its name. “Hell on Wheels” is actually a historically bona fide term. When the Intercontinental Railroad was being built, there was a mobile town that moved with it. Whenever End of Track got out of sight, they’d load the town up on wagons, move it a couple miles, and rebuild it at the new railhead. They called it “Hell on Wheels,” which is where the expression comes from. As the name suggests, it was a town devoted to vice.

We follow former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount). He has come west, not for his fortune, but for revenge. A group of Yankee soldiers violated and murdered his wife during the war, and he’s hunting them down one by one. Cullen is an interesting antihero – a man with great capabilities, but hollowed out by hate. When denied his vengeance, he collapses into a bottle.

Through circumstances I’ll skip over, Cullen becomes foreman of the Union Pacific work crew. He commands both white workers and black workers, chief among them Elam Ferguson (played by the rapper, Common) with whom he strikes up a fragile and hostile alliance. His boss is “Doc” Durant (Colm Meany), a pure huckster out for the biggest of scores. Cullen’s nemesis is “The Swede” (Chris Heyerdahl), the head of security (he confides that he’s actually a Norwegian), a man who seems to combine piety with tremendous corruption and contempt for human life.

But there are (and I salute the producers for this) actually decent, decently portrayed Christians in this series. The preacher who ministers to Hell on Wheels (Tom Noonan) delivers a pretty good explanation of the gospel as he tries to minister to Cullen’s hollowed out soul. Or at least as far as I’ve watched so far—four episodes.

Last night, after watching that fourth episode, I had what seemed like an epiphany, an attack of what I might call Writer’s Disease. I realized that, given the arc of the plot, it’s almost inevitable that something really awful is going to happen to the most sympathetic character in the series. The story kind of demands it.

And I’m not sure I have the courage to go on watching, and see that.

Writer’s Disease? Or just an old man’s moral cowardice? I’m wrestling with the question.

“Hell on Wheels” is not bad if you can handle the language and adult themes. No actual nudity so far.

‘To Die Alone,’ by John Dean

To Die Alone

Without going to all the bother of doing a serious, scientific survey, I get the strong impression that British crime fiction is becoming heavily “Midsomerized” just now. By that I mean that nobody really wants to read about what’s going on in the urban centers, so people are opting for stories about crime in small English communities, where the suspects are generally white and the situations less fraught with political deadfalls.

There are several such series to choose from, and I’ve reviewed books from a few. This time I gave a shot to John Dean’s (not the American Watergate figure) Inspector Harris series. And it wasn’t bad at all.

Jack Harris (his nickname is “Hawk,” but don’t do it without his permission) is a detective chief inspector in the fictional hamlet of Levton Bridge in the northern Pennines region. A former soldier, he’s smart and strong and shrewd. He worked for a time in London, but eagerly took the opportunity to return to the village where he grew up, because his deepest love is for the nature of the region, and for wildlife. Each book in the series, I gather, involves some crime against animals.

In To Die Alone, a man does just what the title suggests. He’s found dead in the woods, possibly struck by a tree in a windstorm, but in fact stabbed to death. Soon after that his dog is found, terribly mauled by some animal, probably another dog. That suggests to Harris a connection to a dog fighting ring which he knows to be operating locally. And that leads to illegal gambling, and the world of exotic animal smuggling. All the time Harris tries to keep his commander (whom he despises) in the dark while directing his two subordinates – a transplanted Cockney who yearns for the bright lights and a callow young female detective.

Jack Harris should have been more annoying to me than he was. I dislike people who care more for animals than humans, and Harris is clearly one of those. However, he isn’t painted as a paragon, and he came off quite sympathetically (most of the time). The writing is very good as well.

Recommended, with mild cautions for the usual suspects.

The cold facts on Colfax

If you’re in the neighborhood of Colfax, Wisconsin tomorrow, I’ll be playing Viking at a community celebration there. Noon to five. Be there or be somewhere else.

I’ve been thinking about walnuts. In Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings, which I reviewed recently, he talks about walnuts as an exotic treat in Scandinavia at the time. He describes them as tasting sweet.

Walnuts do not taste sweet to me. They taste like slightly crumbly bits of wood.

I’ve long been pretty sure my sense of taste is defective. I seem to be particularly insensitive to sweet-tasting things, which would be why I crave sweet stuff that’s cloying to other people. While mildly sweet things (like walnuts, apparently) don’t register with me at all.

Do you find walnuts sweet?

‘No Coming Back,’ by Keith Houghton

No Coming Back

In the wake of Vidar Sundstøl’s “Minnesota Trilogy” books, which did not send me over the moon, I tried a different mystery novel, also set in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region – No Coming Back, by Keith Houghton.

Alas, I did not love this one either. While Sundstøl’s books are stylish but (in my opinion) perverse, Houghton’s book seemed to me over-beaten and under-baked. Though not without promise.

Jake Olson returns to his (fictional) home town of Harper, Minnesota after nearly 20 years gone. He’s been in prison, convicted as a teenager of killing his girlfriend, Jenna. He didn’t do it. Now (and this is one of the first of many improbabilities that abound in this story) the local newspaper publisher, who has always supported him, hires him to re-investigate the murder and identify the real killer.

On the same day Jake comes home (another improbability), a large tree, a local landmark, is toppled by a storm. Under the roots a skeleton is found. Jake is convinced it’s Jenna’s. Now he’s on a mission, but he has lots of opposition. Jenna’s brother has promised to kill Jake. The local sheriff has always hated him, and is just waiting for an excuse to bust him and send him back to Stillwater on a parole violation.

And there are larger challenges. Everybody in this book – everybody – is lying. Everybody has something to hide.

The whole thing was too much for me. Too many conspiracies, and too complicated. Too many lies. Too much violence for the setting. Too many villains. Toward the end I didn’t even care about Jake, which is a major narrative failure.

I think Keith Houghton shows promise as a novelist. He can turn a good phrase when he’s on his game (though his diction can be sloppy too). But this book was just too convoluted and nihilistic for its own good, in my view.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult situations.

‘The Secret of Wild Boar Woods,’ by P. F. Ford

The Secret of Wild Boar Wood

At this point, my ongoing reviews of P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater novels are more in the line of reading reports than reviews. You already know what I think of them – not top-level literature, but amusing entertainment.

In The Secret of Wild Boar Woods, Detective Sergeant Dave Slater is landed with a new partner – a cute little female detective. To make it even more precious, her last name is Darling (and yes, comic hay is made out of that). They are called to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, last scene waiting for her mother outside her school. When the missing person case becomes murder, they’re faced with a confusing tangle of intertwining relationships, familial and sexual, among the girl’s family and their friends. Meanwhile Dave patiently attempts to teach his green and volatile new partner how to act like a grown-up cop.

As always, the story was entertaining. As always, I’m a little annoyed by the author’s treatment of his characters. He changes his mind about them between stories, so that someone we’ve been taught to like in the last book because a bad’un in the present book. That, in my opinion, is not playing entirely fair with readers who faithfully follow the series.

Still, The Secret of Wild Boar Woods was pretty good reading, and it’s not expensive in Kindle. Recommended, with cautions for adult themes.

Medieval Women Were Not Waifs

A new exhibit at the Getty offers a revealing look at women from the Middle Ages.

With an understandable weariness, the exhibition’s creators acknowledge, both on the introductory museum label and catalogue book jacket, that most people imagine medieval women as damsels in distress, being rescued perhaps by a dragon-­hunting St. George. One has to meet the popular mind, fattened by dismissals of the Middle Ages (“a world lit only by fire”), where it unfortunately lags. But to slay this myth as surely as St. George speared his dragon, the curators unfurled manu­scripts of a different, lesser known legend, that of St. Margaret. Consumed by a dragon, Margaret ripped her way out of his stomach herself with a crucifix. Like Jesus, it seems, Margaret could be born (from a dragon at least) without the help of a man.

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