"1. Never read any book that is not a year old. 2. Never read any but famed books. 3. Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakspeare's phrase, 'No profit goes where is no pleasure ta'en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.'"

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Books"
I am Shackleton. Or Amundson. Somebody.

It came at last. It was originally predicted a couple days ago, but didn't materialize, and suddenly last evening I looked at the Weather Channel page, and there it was—heavy, wet snow tonight, mixed with sleet.

And this morning, as I ungaraged Mrs. Hermanson and shifted her into four-wheel-drive, I knew the couple inches that had fallen overnight were already too heavy for my snow blower to handle. And that was before an expected day of additional snow and sleet, plus mild temperatures.

Tonight we had Sno-Cone snow, heavy as a shovelful of wet concrete. I attacked it with a push shovel, with the assistance of my neighbor (we share the driveway). She's a couple decades younger than me. Eventually she gave it up, but she let me borrow her ergonomic snow shovel (example below).

Picture credit: Scott Catron.

I've always been suspicious of ergonomic snow shovels. New-fangled new age gimcracks. Hippy implements. No respect for tradition.

I'm a believer now. They reduce the perceived labor about 50%. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Misreading Through Self-Centered Eyes

"It’s possible to read the Bible, study the Bible, and memorize large portions of the Bible, while missing the whole point of the Bible. It’s entirely possible, in other words, to read the stories and miss the Story," writes Tullian Tchividjian.

That's Become Unthinkable

James Taranto writes on "how feminism deforms intellectual culture," by accepting, even praising, perversion and shouting down morality.

In related news, The University of North Carolina investigated a few months ago complaints about a Christian singing group which had rejected a member over his views on homosexuality. University admins cleared the group of any wrongdoing, but are now reviewing fought-over policy. (login required)


Reading report

Just a reading report today. Two books (one of which I finished), that I don't think require full reviews.

The first was another Dick Francis, Straight. Reviewing Francis is kind of a redundancy. The details differ, and provide a lot of interest (don't get me wrong), but in general the things you can say about one apply to all of them. However, Straight did displease me in two minor ways, which I shall elucidate:

First, an extramarital affair (actually two of them) was treated more sympathetically than I like. But hey, we all know I'm a prig.

Second, the hero, a jockey, starts out the story with a broken ankle. And he steadfastly refuses to let a doctor put a cast on it, even though the bad guys keep re-injuring it—often on purpose—throughout the story. If you just tape it up, apparently, you don't lose muscle tone, and you can race again sooner. All I could think about that was, “Hey kid, you're not young forever.” Eventually age will bring pains, and this guy was asking to be crippled at sixty.

The second book is an obscure one, The Geronimo Breach, by Russell Blake. I got it free for Kindle, and thought it might be an amusing light thriller. I think it's meant to be comic, but I couldn't be sure, because We Were Not Amused. The main character is a drunken, slightly corrupt diplomat in Panama, who agrees to help smuggle a Colombian citizen out of the country, not knowing the CIA is after him. I plowed through a lot of scenes of drinking and vomiting, and a fair number of scenes of violence committed by evil American agents, before I gave up on the thing. Not a likeable character in the heap.

I generally feel guilty cutting a book loose before it's done, but knowing I didn't pay for it helps.

The Flatey Enigma, by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson

It's my judgment as a translator in a different Scandinavian language that the English title of Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson's Icelandic novel The Flatey Enigma was poorly chosen. The Flatey Riddle or The Flatey Puzzle would have better expressed the idea (I found much, frankly, to criticize in the translation in general). On top of this, the use of the name “Enigma” in World War II codebreaking suggests to the reader that this book is probably some kind of thriller. But that's not what it is at all.

It's actually hard to assign The Flatey Enigma to a category. It seems to resemble the “Cozy” school of mysteries, but that's misleading. Cozies are generally set, as the name implies, in comfortable settings. Middle or upper class homes, tea in the afternoon, that sort of thing. The setting for this book, on the other hand, is what we Americans would call “hardscrabble.” It's the Icelandic island of Flatey, in the Breidafjord (I think I saw it from a distance on my one visit to Iceland), only a little more than a mile long, where the locals eked out a meager existence in the early 1960s (the time of the story) by fishing, hunting seals, gathering eiderdown, and anything else they could do to get by. Radio service was limited and electrical power almost unknown.

When a skeletonized body is found on a nearby islet, Kjartan, the hero (so to speak) of the book is sent to investigate. He's not actually a policeman of any kind. He's an assistant to the district magistrate, a summer job he took because he's a law student and wants experience with legal documents. In fact he's extremely shy with people, and dreads going around asking lots of questions of strangers. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Mad Genius Club. Half right in this case.

Thanks to the good offices of Sarah Hoyt, a short piece by me appeared at Mad Genius Club this weekend.

What's Natural Doesn't Have To Integrate

Jeffrey Overstreet writes about his distaste for talk of integrating one's faith with one's art. "If you are a Christian, and your art does not reflect that, the problem is not primarily with your art but with your faith — because true faith transforms what we are and do."

I heard Mark Noll say something like this in an interview. He didn't like the word "integration" because it lightly assumed the things being integrated were essentially different, but if the Bible is right, if it describes real life, then work, art, and play are naturally Christian for the one who follows Christ Jesus. We don't add our faith to these things in an effort to Christianize them.

Worst Movie Gadgets

There was an awards show the other day, wasn't there? I must have been making another mediocre omelet again. I tell you, ever since I watched videos of Julia Childs and Jacques Pepin making omelettes, I have tried to make my omelettes better than ever. I've succeeded in part, but I usually make only a decent one, sometimes a flavorless one. My egg and cheese bagel this morning was pretty good, despite the smoky scent all over the bagel. I know. You hate it for me.

Anyway, lists like this on worst gadgets ever used in movies strangely appeal to me. Here's their take on the main character of The Terminator movies, the robot itself: "Now we know what you're thinking. That the Terminator is actually an incredibly cool "gadget". But look: he shouldn't even be in his own films. Kyle Reese clearly says that "things with moving parts" cannot be sent back through time, in order to explain why he doesn't have a ray gun, and why the robots don't just send a big bomb back through time to kill John Connor. So how did the Terminator get back to the present day? "He's covered in human skin." So why not just cover a ray gun in human skin? Do these people/cyborgs take us for fools?"

"The source of these outrages is known..."

Nothing in my head tonight, so I'll just share one of my favorite snarky passages from the Sherlock Holmes stories. This is the opening of The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger:

When one considers that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty-three years, and that during seventeen of these I was allowed to cooperate with him and to keep notes of his doings, it will be clear that I have a mass of material at my command. The problem has always been not to find but to choose. There is the long row of year-books which fill a shelf, and there are the dispatch-cases filled with documents, a perfect quarry for the student not only of crime but of the social and official scandals of the late Victorian era. Concerning these latter, I may say that the writers of agonized letters, who beg that the honour of their families or the reputation of famous forebears may not be touched, have nothing to fear. The discretion and high sense of professional honour which have always distinguished my friend are still at work in the choice of these memoirs, and no confidence will be abused. I deprecate, however, in the strongest way the attempts which have been made lately to get at and to destroy these papers. The source of these outrages is known, and if they are repeated I have Mr. Holmes's authority for saying that the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant will be given to the public. There is at least one reader who will understand.

Opening strong

Picture credit: Bidgee.

I'm going to write this very carefully. Because it involves a real book, written by a real human being, with feelings, and I don't want to cause that person any kind of embarrassment. I'm going to use the neutral but awkward pronoun “them” when referring to them, so that not even the gender of the writer will be apparent. You will not, I hope, be able to identify them by what I write.

A little while back, this person contacted me about a novel they'd e-published. It was a Christian novel (I won't say what genre), and the author seemed to know their business, having been published in the non-fiction field. So I started the book with some hope.


Although this person knows how to spell and cast a sentence, they don't know the craft of fiction, which is a different thing from the craft of non-fiction. Their approach to the story was wrong. It was static. It lacked life and drama.

What this person doesn't understand is that in fiction, you don't just tell a story. You stage a story. You dramatize a story.

I'm going to show what this person did wrong, and then show how it could be done better. The first little narrative nugget below is not what that person wrote. The characters are different, the situation is different, the genre is different. Only the technique is (more or less) the same. Then I'll fix it, to demonstrate how to make it work. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Bullet for a Star, by Stuart M. Kaminsky

The good news—almost wonderful news, except for the One Problem that I'll detail at the end of this review-- is that the late Stuart M. Kaminsky's delightful Toby Peters novels are being released for Kindle by Mysterious Press. I downloaded the very first book of the series, Bullet for a Star, and read it with pleasure.

The Toby Peters novels, if you're not familiar with them, are light mysteries set in Hollywood. Toby is a very small-time P.I. who nevertheless keeps getting hired for cases involving famous movie stars (and a few other notables) of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

In this story, an executive at Warner Brothers (which fired Toby as a security man some time earlier) asks him to look into a blackmail scheme. Someone has sent them a print of a photo of Errol Flynn in a compromising position with a very young girl. Flynn admits the accusation isn't out of the question, but in this case he's never met the girl. The studio wants Toby to make arrangements to pay the blackmail anyway.

But instead of a simple exchange, there's a fight, and Toby gets knocked out, and somebody gets dead, and then the action takes off. Read the rest of this entry . . .

It's All Derivative to Some Degree

Poet Eric Weinstein writes about things he wished he had always known. One point opposes originality as often defined: "All writing is collage. The more and wider ranging influences you have, the more connections and juxtapositions you can create in your own work."

Darwinian criticism

Darwin Garrison of Darwin's Evolutions reviews Troll Valley.

Angel in Black, by Max Allan Collins

The bright lights of Hollywood Boulevard took on a shimmering radiance, neon burning in the coolness of dusk, the hard, unpleasant edges of an ugly one-industry town blurred into blemish-free beauty. Like an aging screen queen with a great makeup artist, a gauze-draped key light, and a Vaseline-smeared camera lens, Hollywood didn't look half bad.

Continuing my random-order reading of the novels in Max Allan Collins's Nate Heller historical mystery series, I came to Angel in Black, his treatment of the Black Dahlia murder.

1947 finds Nate Heller newly married and honeymooning in Los Angeles. He's riding along with a newspaper reporter when they follow a police radio call and become the first two people (after the murderer) to see the naked, bisected female corpse that will soon become a national sensation.

Heller, a former cop and well-known private eye, is invited by the chief investigator to help out. He agrees, for reasons he keeps secret. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Spectator sport

I have a new article up at The American Spectator Online today. It's a review of the Netflix comedy series, "Lilyhammer."

Not recommended for those with delicate sensibilities.

Web Salmagundi

1. John takes a gorgeous photo of a sunset over the Pacific ocean and pays $6,612 for it.

2. An app for iPad of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is barely more than an ebook of the same. ... “[t]o have turned a profit so quickly, however, may say as much about The Waste Land app’s production budget as its undisclosed sales figures.”

3. Dining After 'Downton Abbey': Why British Food Was So Bad For So Long

4. More Republicans (8x more) than Democrats are impressed (or positively influenced) when a political candidate expresses his religious convictions. (via Trevin Wax)

5. Venerable literary magazine, The Paris Review, is on Pinterest. In other news, Google has announced an official retroactive alliance with the once-and-future Soviet Union.

"It didn't seem natural, nohow..."

When I was a boy, every school child knew about this, but I suspect they don't teach it in schools anymore. In honor of Presidents Day, a snippet from Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years:

Having learned to read Abe read all the books he could lay his hands on. Dennis [Hanks], years later, tried to remember his cousin's reading habits. “I never seen Abe after he was twelve 'at he didn't have a book some'ers 'round. He'd put a book inside his shirt an' fill his pants pockets with corn dodgers, an' go off to plow or hoe. When noon come he'd set down under a tree, an' read an' eat. In the house at night, he'd tilt a cheer by the chimbly, an' set on his backbone an' read. I've seen a feller come in an' look at him, Abe not knowin' anybody was round, an' sneak out agin like a cat, an' say, 'Well, I'll be darned.' It didn't seem natural, nohow, to see a feller read like that. Aunt Sairy's never let the children pester him. She always said Abe was goin' to be a great man some day. An' she wasn't goin' to have him hendered.”

They heard Abe saying, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who'll git me a book I ain't read.”

When the Question is "natas", the Answer Is What?

I have thought of myself as a citizen of the Internet, but yesterday I took a step deeper into the swamp of Netdom. I made a video response to a You Tube video. I've been watching the online morning show, Good Mythical Morning, by the singing comedians Rhett and Link. Last Friday, they asked what the best board game ever is according to their fans, and I recorded for them my story of playing a few minutes of Backwords with a some friends in college. Backwords is not the best board game ever by far, but I thought my story would add to the conversation.

See my response here, and if you want to watch the original video, go here.

Faces in the Fire, by T. L. Hines

I have to give T. L. Hines a lot of credit. In Faces in the Fire he has, first of all, broken with standard Christian genre fiction in making his message implicit, not explicit. You'll search in vain here for a conversion moment or an explanation of the way of salvation.

Secondly, he's messed with the form. It's not that nobody has ever written a story out of sequence before, it's just that Christian novelists, in general, don't have the confidence to do something so experimental. Faces in the Fire begins with Chapter 34, and proceeds to tell the major characters' stories out of sequence, showing us the consequences before we see the causes. He does this pretty well, with the result that the reading experience closely approximates the mystery that is all of our lives.

Also, it's the rare Christian novel that features a hit man, an e-mail spammer, and a drug addicted tattoo artist as sympathetic main characters.

We're talking grace here, not works.

The story begins with Kurt Marlowe, a metal sculptor and sometime over the road trucker, who hears ghostly voices (he calls them “spooks”) in the used clothing he buys at estate sales. He does not respond to the voices, but uses their messages as inspiration for his art. Then one day he picks up a pair of shoes that put a picture in his mind more compelling than any he's seen before. It's an image so compelling it scares him. So he tries to throw the shoes away. But they keep coming back to him.

He meets a woman in a truck stop, who gives him a ten digit number written on a napkin, in a plastic bag. Then the story switches to her background, and passes from her to yet another character...

It all comes together pretty neatly in the end. The plot strains a bit at points, I think, but that's almost inevitable in a tightly woven story of this kind. All in all, a very good read.

Recommended, with cautions for adult subject matter.

Inception Park in Buenos Aires

If this were The Thinklings site, this would be filed under Awesomeness and This is Freakin Bizarre. Uber-kudos to Black Sheep Films for their skills in putting together this amusement park footage.

A niche in a Nook

If you're a faithful Barnes & Noble customer, and have been waiting for Troll Valley to appear on their site, I have wonderful news for you. B&N is now carrying the e-book for the Nook.

Alas, we haven't been able to include the cover art with this file. So here's a nice big version, which you can save to your favorite device and have for your very own:

Tell your friends. Tell your acquaintances. Tell your co-workers and courteous, trained service providers.

I haven't gotten a new review in a couple days. Feeling a little antsy.

Fun Impressions in Shakespearean Monologue

Impressionist Jim Meskimen performs Clarence's speech from William Shakespeare's Richard III using the voices of George Clooney, George W. Bush, Woody Allen, Jimmy Stewart, Boris Karloff, Morgan Freeman, and many, many other public figures. I love it. I'm sure the Bard would love it too.

Blood and Thunder, by Max Allan Collins

Like the rest of the country, I'd seen in the papers that Huey had, on the floor of the Senate, accused FDR of aiding and abetting a murder plot against him; something about conspirators meeting at some hotel somewhere. But I'd really merely read the headlines, skimmed the stories. Nobody was taking it very seriously. After all, Huey made a habit out of such accusations. He was a wolf who kept crying little boy.

I'm delighted to have rediscovered Max Allan Collins's Nate Heller novels. They're textured and well-written, and something like George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels in providing entertaining, excellently researched history lessons. I knew almost nothing about the death of Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long before I read Blood and Thunder, but now I do.

The novel starts in 1935. Chicago private eye Nathan Heller has been persuaded by Senator Long (who met him on an earlier visit to the windy city) to become one of his bodyguards. After a visit to the Oklahoma State Fair they return to Louisiana, and Nate is introduced to the continual circus that is Huey Long's presidential campaign. Formerly a supporter of the New Deal, Long has broken with Roosevelt, and dreams of taking his populist wealth redistribution campaign to a national stage. He entertains visitors and reporters in his hotel suite dressed in green silk pajamas. He writes music. He parties hard. He has connections with organized crime. Heller has about had his fill of it all (in spite of an enjoyable affair with one of Long's ex-mistresses) when Long is shot to death. According to eyewitness reports he was killed by an angry dentist who was then riddled with bullets by Long's furious bodyguards (Nate is off on an errand at that moment). Nate goes home. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Not Worried About the Novel's Future

Dan Rosenblum writes about author Jennifer Egan's talk on technology, life, and reading:

But Egan said she wasn’t afraid for the future of the novel because of the form’s genesis as a “crazy grab bag” had left it with the ability to assimilate many different forms.

“Really, almost everything that’s been done since was done in Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy. So I find that very heartening, too. Just remember this was invented as a flexible, strong and swaggering form that could do all kinds of things that other forms couldn’t do,” Egan said.

Preaching a Different Gospel

The remarkable growth on Christianity in Africa "has been tainted by an American-style prosperity emphasis that focuses on health and wealth at the expense of sin, redemption, and repentance." Nigerian Femi Adeleye is fighting back in his book, Preachers of a Different Gospel: A Pilgrim’s Reflections on Contemporary Trends in Christianity, drawing clear distinctions between biblical gospel with the message of self-satisfaction.

"Damsels in Distress"

Ooh! Ooh!

After more than a decade without a new Whit Stillman film, his new one, "Damsels in Distress," is coming:

The trailer doesn't say when it's being released, but Movie Insider says April. I want very much to see this movie. It looks great.

I explain my passion for Stillman's work here.

Tip: First Things.

For a Change of Pace

A photo of the oldest recorded supernova

For something a little more romantic for Valentine's Day, a panorama of the U.S. East Coast. I can almost hear Louis Armstrong singing now.

DVD review: "The Beaver"

It was a great misfortune (but not a forced error) that the movie The Beaver came out just when pretty much everybody in the country was mad at its star, Mel Gibson. Alas, Mel's particular form of weirdness doesn't fall within the bounds of Acceptable Deviancy under Hollywood rules, so not many people saw it. But you can get it on DVD, which I did this weekend, and I found it well worth viewing.

The story is of Walter Black (Gibson), the president of a once-dynamic toy company now drifting aimlessly, due to Walter's chronic depression. Walter inherited the company from his father who (we are informed almost parenthetically) himself fell into depression and committed suicide. Walter has a loving, frustrated wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), an adoring young son, and an older son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), who hates him out of fear that he himself will end up as his grandfather did, and as his father seems likely to.

When Meredith finally kicks Walter out of the house for the sake of the children's safety, he (in a remarkable scene of black comedy) attempts unsuccessfully to commit suicide. It's in this awful moment that The Beaver, a discarded puppet he found in a dumpster, starts “talking” to him. (It's always very clear that Walter is saying the words, but the personality differences are great enough that the Beaver takes on a weird reality of his own.) The Beaver tells him he's come to save his life, and under his inspiration Walter revitalizes his company with new ideas, and reconnects with his youngest son and his wife (though she's very skeptical). Son Porter alone refuses to play along, seeing in the Beaver the flowering of the insanity that scares him. (There's also a very nice subplot about Porter courting a girl at school, trying to find his own way to be a man while terrified of himself.) Read the rest of this entry . . .

Twice the critical goodness!

Today we have two blog reviews of Troll Valley.

First, from Will Duquette at The View From the Foothills:

They always tell aspiring writers that they should write what they know. As commonly understood, I think this is hogwash—a writer needs to be able to go beyond his personal experience to date. But there’s no denying that when it’s done well, the personal touch can bring an immediacy and a concreteness to a work. And that’s precisely what Lars has done here.
Then, from Loren Eaton, at I Saw Lightning Fall:
For the record, I hold little in common with the characters of Troll Valley. I'm not of Norwegian descent, I'm not Lutheran, and the closest I've come to even setting foot in Minnesota is a trip to friend's wedding in Wisconsin. But I still found them engaging. Walker understands that literature is supposed about the stuff of universal human experience, and he uses his characters' specific situations to touch on it. Alienation and belonging, love and lust, faith and doubt -- all make appearances.

Thanks to both.

Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane

I think the general consensus is that, of all Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie/Angela Genarro private eye novels, the most perfect, memorable, and troubling was Gone, Baby Gone, which was also turned into a very good movie that not enough people saw. In that story, the detectives, who were also lovers, nearly split up for good over the decision of what to do about a little girl kidnapped from a neglectful home. The conclusion of the book was heartbreaking and a real moral puzzler.

After more than a decade, author Lehane has picked up the story again in Moonlight Mile. Much has changed for the Boston investigators. Patrick, having barely survived a gunshot wound, has turned to less dangerous forms of detective work, doing contract jobs for a large firm. Angela is working on a graduate degree. They have a four-year-old daughter who is the light of their lives. Money's tight, but if they can hold out until Angela finishes school, life ought to be good.

And then the past shows up. The aunt of Amanda McCready, the little girl kidnapped in Gone, Baby, Gone, who originally hired Patrick and Angela, approaches Patrick. Amanda, now sixteen years old, has disappeared again, she says. She fears it has something to do with the girl's stepfather, an ex-convict and drug dealer with a record of sexual abuse.
Read the rest of this entry . . .

« Older Entries