"We degrade Providence too much by attributing our ideas to it out of annoyance at being unable to understand it."

- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Secularism Isn't Destined to Win

James K.A. Smith sets up the next issue of Comment by asking, "What if secularism is loudest precisely because it is a final cry before it is unveiled as implausible and unsustainable? Doesn't the emperor shout loudest about the beauty of his raiment precisely when he least believes it himself?"

The Vision of St. John by El Greco

From our sports desk

I am given to understand that the Minnesota Vikings pre-season game tonight will feature a new attraction: Viking reenactors in authentic costumes doing... something or other between plays.

These reenactors will in fact be members of my own group, the Viking Age Club and Society of the Sons of Norway. We've been discussing this deal for some time, but I didn't want to announce it before I had definite confirmation.

However hard you look, however, you won't see me. My mobility problems, plus my looming study schedule in the future, make it imprudent.

Still, just so you know, these are my friends. Maybe when they're rich and famous they'll remember me.

Samuel Johnson's Works All Online

Yale now offers a digital edition of the works of Samuel Johnson, which include this prayer recorded in 1752:

"BEFORE ANY NEW STUDY.

"NOVEMBER. Almighty God, in whose hands are all the powers of man; who givest understanding, and takest it away; who, as it seemeth good unto Thee, enlightenest the thoughts of the simple, and darkenest the meditations of the wise, be present with me in my studies and enquiries.

"Grant, O Lord, that I may not lavish away the life which Thou hast given me on useless trifles, nor waste it in vain searches after things which thou hast hidden from me.

"Enable me, by thy Holy Spirit, so to shun sloth and negligence, that every day may discharge part of the task which Thou hast allotted me; and so further with thy help that labour which, without thy help, must be ineffectual, that I may obtain, in all my undertakings, such success as will most promote thy glory, and the salvation of my own soul, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen." (via Thomas Kidd)

An announcement and an appeal



I've been keeping a secret from you. We plan, God willing, to release a new novel of mine within the near future. This is a draft of the cover, with a lovely painting by our friend Jeremiah Humphries, and cover design by our own Phil Wade.

How is this possible, you ask, when I keep complaining of having no writing time because of graduate school? Well, this is a book that's been pretty much finished for some time, except for a couple plot problems. I took my brief study hiatus this summer to work on those holes, and now I think she's ready for launch.

The novel, entitled (obviously) Death's Doors, is sort of a sequel to Wolf Time, but not what you'd call a close sequel. The location is the same, the town of Epsom, Minnesota, but a few years later, and with only a couple of the same characters showing up. In the world of Death's Doors, assisted suicide has become a constitutional right. The main character, Tom Galloway, is trying to keep his depressed daughter from exercising that right, with no help from the authorities. On top of that pressure, a stranger drops into his life -- the Viking nobleman Jarl Haakon (whom you may remember from The Year of the Warrior), who has passed through a door in time.

What we're asking of you, at this point, is just your opinion on the cover above. Phil isn't sure he's satisfied, and would appreciate your input.

Thank you for your support.

The Thomas Prescott novels, by Nick Pirog



Nick Pirog’s Thomas Prescott novels are worth reading just to watch a writer learning his craft. The first book in the series, Unforeseen, is even admitted by the author, in his introduction, to be a freshman effort. Still (I’m not sure why) he offers the Kindle edition without alteration. And yet… in spite of its faults I liked it enough to read the sequels, which show considerable progress and offer many rewards.

At the start of Unforeseen, Thomas Prescott, former cop, former FBI consultant, and current criminology professor and millionaire, is living in Maine with his sister Lacy, an artist with Multiple Sclerosis, and their narcoleptic pet pug, Baxter. Thomas is recovering, physically and emotionally, from a struggle with a serial killer which ended in a fall off a cliff into the ocean. Everyone thinks the killer is dead except for Thomas. Sure enough, soon identical murders begin to occur, and all the victims are women with whom Thomas has been, or is now, associated.

The story is lively, though there are improbable elements, but the big problems are Pirog’s occasional bad diction (“The building was large, gray, and projected a cadence of death”), and a problem with the main character. Pirog’s trying to write a thriller with comic relief here, but he seems to think the formula for such a work is equal parts dramatic tension and jokes. Too many jokes, especially when innocent people are suffering, just comes off as callousness.

Still, I was intrigued enough to move on to the next book, Gray Matter. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Nerds in a Magic Land

Yvonne Zipp says Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land reminds her of Lewis' The Last Battle while remaining original.

“I bet it’s because of heresy like that that the world is ending. Your earthy, irreverent sense of humor has doomed us all,” King Josh tells Queen Janet. (If Peter was “The Magnificent,” and Edmund was “The Just,” in Narnia, Janet of Fillory should just be known as “The Awesome.”)

If that’s not enough of a selling point, The Magician’s Land also features a motto that should be emblazoned on T-shirts, embroidered on pillows, and hung on walls in dorm rooms everywhere: “Give a nerd enough time and a door he can close and he can figure out pretty much anything.”

Does 'Novel' Mean 'Book' Now?

"When Truman Capote called In Cold Blood a 'nonfiction novel,' he meant something very specific: that the book used the techniques of fiction but was completely factual," explains Ben Yagoda, but today many people appear willing to talk of fiction or nonfiction "novels" as if that word means a bound work of any form. In high school, this usage is everywhere, and it's prevalent in college too. Have you ever done it or seen it done? (via Mark Bertrand)

Viewing report: 'Ripper Street,' 'Single-Handed,' and 'Jack Taylor'

I took the past week off from work, and spent it at home, “pottering,” as they say, though no pots were in fact potted. I expected to blog more than I did (sorry about that), but relaxation is a demanding discipline. I spent a lot of time watching English and Irish mystery series on Amazon Prime and Netflix. Descriptions follow.

I had intended to watch the modern cop series Whitechapel, which had been recommended to me, but after one episode I realized I’d started with the second season instead of the first, and the end of the first season had been spoiled. I decide to leave it for a while, until my memory of it fades, which my memories are wont to do.



So I turned, without high expectations, to a series set in the same neighborhood but a different age – Ripper Street, a BBC series about policemen working in the wake of the Jack the Ripper scare. Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew McFadyen) is an inspector recently returned to work after a steam ship accident in which his daughter was lost. Her body was never found, and he’s convinced she’s still alive, though he can’t find a clue as to her whereabouts. He’s assisted by Sgt. Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn) a sort of Little John character, not especially bright but strong and brave, and soft at heart. Also an American doctor, Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), formerly of the Pinkertons, who serves as Inspector Reid’s forensic expert.

There’s a lot more action than you usually expect in a British mystery series – in fact you might call it an English western. There’s a lot of talk about the poverty of Whitechapel, and so some leftist themes come in, but they didn’t drive me away. I found it a lot of fun. Cautions for language, themes, and brief nudity. Read the rest of this entry . . .

eBooks Projected to Outsell Print/Audiobooks by 2017

Amazon owes 2/3 of the eBook market in part because they have followed their dreams to reach the unreachable star. Now we all may get burned.

Fantasy author Brent Weeks says the reality for many readers is that if they don't see a book on Amazon, they assume it isn't available. With eBooks, they may not know where to else to go to buy them. Amazon is also attracting authors as a publisher, not just a distributor. with promises of high royalty percentages. This and other factors are hurting big and small publishers alike.

“We're at the point now where the publishing houses are being undercut by the river of indie publishing, and at some point in time the front porch is going to drop in the river. At that point maybe they'll have to acknowledge it, but right now they just don't want to,” attorney David Vandagriff said.

The Trouble with the World

Earlier this morning, I read some a piece on how smart phones and similar tech have banished boredom from our lives and caused the very same problem for us. We don't know how to be bored, or better said, we don't know how to go without entertainment. Some say it comes from having small minds, but more than that, it trains us in small instant pleasures that will not build us up.

Have you ever asked yourselves why no one notice something wrong, perhaps something horrible, happening right under our noses? Whatever the reasons may be, we are polishing up our blind spots so that we will miss even more of those problems with our mobile tech and other distractions.

We don't have to check email while waiting on the cashier. We don't have to give our kids movies while we do errands around the city. It isn't that children shouldn't play when they are essentially waiting on us. It's how we are training them to play--what we're telling them is important.

Patrick Kurp wrote about this last year. He said, "T.S. Eliot claimed most of the trouble in the world was caused by people who want to be important. I would add a corollary: Most of the people in the world who want to be important have convinced themselves they are bored and that life is boring."

These self-important people do not see the value in small things or quietness. They want the exotic orchid, not the difficult research and travel to obtain it. But then, am I any better?

WWI and Tolkien's Fantasy

John Rhys-Davies on how The Lord of the Rings may have been influenced by World War I.

"Tolkien's experience of war left him with 'a deep sympathy and feeling for the "tommy," especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties.' He based the character of Samwise Gamgee on common soldiers that he had known during the war, men who kept their courage and stayed cheerful when there was not much reason to hope.

'Calvary' Isn't for Hipsters

World magazine is praising a new Irish movie called Calvary, which depicts a Catholic priest whose life has been threatened by a parishioner who suffered abuse by another priest in the past. Writer and director John Michael McDonagh wanted to talk about serious issues in this film, not smirk like a hipster at anyone who claims to believe something.

The film is not made for ironic hipsters who are slouching through life, never coming up with any emotional or intellectual response for anything. As if that’s too—‘Oh, I don’t want to get into all that, let’s just watch some TV show.’ To me, it’s a film made for those people, who I assume is all of us, who are striving for some kind of philosophical decision about why we’re here. Fox Searchlight probably won’t like me saying this, but it’s a film about death. There’s lots of references to death all the way through, and it’s coming to terms with what’s going to face us at the end of our lives.”

He goes on to describe his love for Flannery O'Connor.

How English Has Changed: Psalm 23

Psalm 23 in English

'The King's Hounds,' by Martin Jensen



This one should have been a winner. Certainly for me. A hard-boiled mystery set in the Viking Age, written by a modern Dane to illuminate King Cnut (or Canute, or Knut) the Great, conqueror of England, a remarkable man mostly forgotten by history. I really wanted to like this book.

Sadly, I was disappointed with The King’s Hounds by Martin Jensen. Not that it was awful. It just didn’t grab me much.

Our detectives in this story are Winston, an English illuminator (he paints pictures in books) and Halfdan, a half-Danish nobleman’s son, recently deprived of his family estates.

They join forces while on their way to the city of Oxford, where King Cnut has called an assembly. A noblewoman has summoned Winston to draw a portrait of the king for her. But when they get there the patroness is gone. Instead they meet the king who (for somewhat unconvincing reasons) decides Winston is just the man to investigate the recent murder of a Saxon nobleman. They have a three day deadline, or the king will Be Displeased, and probably kill them.

So they start wandering around the town and its many visitors’ camps, asking questions. Along the way Winston falls in love, Halfdan kills a couple assassins and saves a pretty girl’s life, and a bewildering number of nobles are forced to reveal their secrets.

It’s hard to say why it all bored me, but it did. The authenticity level wasn’t bad. The royal deadline on the investigation should have raised dramatic tension. But it seemed like just one repetitive scene after another. Characters blurred into one another; even Winston and Halfdan didn’t really come alive for me.

I don’t think I can blame the translator. I was impressed with the absence of the stiffness I generally note in translations from Scandinavian novels. In fact, the prose kind of reminded me of my own – except that I would never put neologisms like, “bugging me,” “debriefed,” and “gold digger” in a story set in the 11th Century.

Didn’t work for me, to my great regret. Your mileage may vary. Only mild cautions for language and mature content.

12 Books on the Bible

Twelve books that present the grand scope of Scripture.

The Cockalorum Boasts of His Importance

Top 10 insulting words you need in your vocabulary.

The Ghostwriter Speaks

"There's an old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. Today, perhaps, that conventional wisdom has rarely had more meaning. To a degree that might astonish the reading public, a significant percentage of any current bestseller list will not have been written by the authors whose names appear on the jackets."

Andrew Crofts, "one of Britain's most invisible and yet successful writers," has written out his experiences as a ghostwriter for 40 years. Bestselling ghosted works include a lot of "misery memoirs." (via Prufrock)

Viewing report: 'Deadwood'

Just now I’m traversing what somebody (I think it was Bunyan) termed “a plain called Ease.” I have a few weeks off from graduate school, so I’m doing a little more reading for pleasure, and also watching quite a lot of TV, both the broadcast kind and the kind you get from Netflix and Amazon Prime.

A couple weeks ago I got to thinking, as I sometimes do, about Wild Bill Hickok, to me one of the more interesting characters of the wild west. I decided, with some reluctance, to watch the series “Deadwood,” which is getting to be fairly old as cable series go, but I’d avoided it.

It proved to be what I’d heard – lively, gritty, and profane. I watched the first season, mainly to see how they treated Wild Bill. Taken in that regard, I was mostly pleased. I’ve waited a long time for a really good portrayal of Wild Bill, and Keith Carradine’s character here is pretty close to the reality, as I see it.

Nevertheless, I finished that first season with the same resolve I reached when I finished the first season of “Mad Men.” I couldn’t think of a reason to spend more time with these extremely unpleasant people. Wild Bill is dead. Seth Bullock and his partner are pretty good, but most everybody else is either a fool or a knave. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Reader-friendly Bibles

"Traditionally, reference Bibles look like dictionaries that you look things up in," [Mark] Bertrand said. "Reader-friendly Bibles are more like novels. I think what is happening is that we're lamenting that people don't read their Bibles enough, and now we've realized the design of Bibles has an influence on that."

The acceptance of this new format for Bible reading may come out of our distracted habits of Internet reading, notes Dane Ortlund of Crossway.

Restaurant Complains of Your Bad Review. Pay $2,000.

Phare du Cap FerretA French woman blogs her bad experience at an Italian restaurant in an up-scale French tourist town on the Atlantic, and her review eventually ranks fourth in all Google searches for that restaurant. That was too high and hurt the establishment's reputation, lawyers argued, so a French court has ordered her to change the post's title (she retracted it entirely) and pay $2,000 in damages.

French lawyers say this won't become a precedent at all. Sure.

I won't name the restaurant, in case it adds to the blogger's grief, but the CS Monitor says that while the bad review is offline (though archived by Internet gnomes), many comments are being posted about how this restaurant can't take criticism.

Also in this report: "German politicians are considering a return to using manual typewriters for sensitive documents in the wake of the US surveillance scandal." This is probably a smart move.

Kreeft Talks About 'Till We Have Faces'

Some members of my local C.S. Lewis Society shared this video from the Anglican Way Institute Summer Conference 2014, held earlier this month. Dr. Peter Kreeft spend a session talking about "one of the greatest novel ever written," C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. Kreeft says one of the reasons it is such a good book is Lewis' wife helped him write it.

'A New Dawn Rising,' by Michael Joseph



The scenario is an old standard, and still works just fine. Sam Carlisle used to be a cop in the English Midlands, but after a traumatic loss he climbed into a bottle, quit the job, and moved north. Now he’s out of money and looking for work. A local real estate big shot observes him stopping a purse snatcher and offers him a job as his driver and bodyguard. When Sam asks him why he doesn’t hire one of the established security firms, his answer is evasive.

Still, Sam needs the job and he takes it. And that’s the beginning of A New Dawn Rising by Michael Joseph. Things go all right for Sam until his employer is killed in a fire, and it looks like arson, and the police target Sam as the perpetrator.

I liked A New Dawn Rising, mostly, except for one very large plot problem. There’s supposed to be a big surprise near the end, but it’s one that’s been used a thousand times before. It was obvious even to me, and I’m pretty easy to fool. I felt badly for the author, because all in all the book was a creditable attempt, with interesting, well-drawn characters and good dialogue.

You might enjoy it too, if you’re tolerant of plot chestnuts.

The Worst 50 + 10

The Intercollegiate Review presents "The Fifty Worst Books of the 20th Century."

Add to this D.G. Myers' list of 10 worst prize-winning American novels of all time.

'The City,' by Dean Koontz


After you have suffered great losses and known much pain, it is not cowardice to wish to live henceforth with a minimum of suffering. And one form of heroism, about which few if any films will be made, is having the courage to live without bitterness when bitterness is justified, having the strength to persevere even when perseverance seems unlikely to be rewarded, having the resolution to find profound meaning in life when it seems the most meaningless.

One of the many things I love about Dean Koontz is the breadth of his artistic pallet. Your average bestselling writer (and I do the same though I’m not a bestseller) will keep doing the thing that made him famous, over and over. And the public likes it most of the time.

Koontz improvises. He tries stuff. He can write horror or fantasy or mystery. He can be funny, or heartbreaking, or profound, or terrifying. The City, his latest, is mostly a fusion of the lyrical and the tragic.

Jonah Kirk, his narrator and hero, tells us of his childhood in the 1960s, first of all in an apartment house in a poor black neighborhood, his father mostly absent. That’s the downside. The upside is that he’s part of a big, loving, extended family. His grandfather is a legendary jazz pianist, his mother a gifted vocalist. And Jonah himself soon finds he has the makings of a great piano man. He also finds a friend in a neighbor, Mr. Yoshioka, a survivor of the Manzanar internment camp.

Moving with his mother out of the apartment and to his grandparents’ house, he soon meets two neighbor kids – Malcolm Pomerantz, an archetypal geek who is nevertheless a talented saxophonist, and his beautiful sister Alathea. They’re all gifted dreamers, and their dreams are large…

But there’s a destiny hanging over Jonah. He once had a dream of a beautiful woman strangled to death, and the next day he met that woman on the apartment building stairway. That touch of premonition in his life kicks off a series of visions and revelations.

And visions and revelations, the author makes it clear, come at a price.

I loved The City. It was a beautiful story, beautifully written. It broke my heart. I read it with fascination, but could only take it in small chunks, because of the sadness.

Highly recommended. But keep a hanky handy.

Impressive Presentation Showing Sen. John Walsh's Plagiarism

It's remarkable when someone does the research to demonstrate extensive plagiarism from a public official or someone of high profile, but the NY Times' presentation of how Senator John Walsh (Democrat-Montana) is elegant. Highlighted sections of this master's thesis pull up comparison copies of their sources, so you can see how closely worded they are. A bit of explanation, like the following, is one thing: "Though a footnote indicates that this information came from a report on a State Department website, the language appeared in a post by Dean Esmay on his Dean’s World blog nearly verbatim." Showing comparisons is step up. (via Hunter Baker)

Who Created Batman?

Today is Batman Day. The Bat-Man, as he was once called, is 75 years old today, and DC Comics wants everyone to celebrate. Ignoring rumors that one-year-old prince George is being groomed to take on the Dark Knight's mantle (don't call him Robin), Jim Lee talks about the future of the character with Entertainment Weekly. He mentions strong fan-boy love for Batman ’66 on Blu-ray. I guess the cheese is never too far from Gotham City.

Apparently there's one part of Batman's history the publishers have never quite settled: who actually created him? Today they are giving out special edition reprints Detective Comics #27 (1939), in which The Bat-Man first appears. The cover of this issue states it was "illustrated by creator Bob Kane and written by Bill Finger." The official word from DC Entertainment is that Bill Finger was a great guy who helped write many things, but Bob Kane was the first to imagine the hero.

[Steve] Korté, a 20-year DC Comics veteran, explains the sequence of events that lead to the creation and development of Batman. “After Superman debuted in 1938 and became an instant hit, DC editor Vince Sullivan asked Bob Kane to come up with a superhero, which he did with Batman,” he adds. “During that process, he went to a friend, Bill Finger, who gave him some tips on costume adjustments. For example, Bob initially drew bat wings on Batman. Bill suggested a scalloped cape. After Batman became a hit in May, 1939, Bob brought in more people throughout the year.”
Both men are dead now, but Finger's granddaughter is rally fans to give Bill the credit she believes he deserves.

R.I.P. The Rockford Files (James Garner)



The death of James Garner this weekend has affected me more than is reasonable. I certainly didn’t know the man, and we very likely wouldn’t have gotten along if we’d met. He was a lifelong lefty, and by all accounts a pacifist. His favorite movie of his own was “The Americanization of Emily,” an anti-war film whose message (as I recall it) was that anybody who fought in World War II was a chump.

I read Andrew Klavan’s laudatory post today, along with our friend S. T. Karnick’s more equivocal one. Klavan sees Garner’s Maverick and Rockford characters as laudable examples of American individualism, lost today in a flood of cop shows. Karnick finds the anti-heroism of those same characters a sign of cultural decline.

For me, although I like Maverick, The Rockford Files is a personal touchstone. I consider it the best network detective show ever produced in America. Over a six year run the characters remained lively (often very funny), the acting excellent, and the scripts only slipped a little at the end.

I read a critique once that described the Jim Rockford character as “pusillanimous.” I don’t agree. What he was, in my view, was a believable good guy. Unlike the standard American TV hero, he had no illusions of invincibility (you could sometimes detect the limp that came from Garner’s real life bad knees). Like any sensible man in the real world, he didn’t fight if he could talk his way out, and he’d run away if he had a chance. Because fights with other guys are rarely a good idea. But when he had no choice, or when a principle, or a friend or client, was threatened, Jim stood up and gave as good as he got.

The relationships made the show work. Jim’s father (the great Noah Beery, Jr.) loved him dearly and worried about him, and Jim clearly reciprocated. Nevertheless they nagged and teased each other all the time, and did not hesitate to trick each other out of a free meal or a tank of gas. Jim’s old prison buddy Angel (Stuart Margolin) was a brilliant addition – a man with no redeeming qualities whatever, but Jim remained loyal to him. We never knew why, but we loved him for his grace. His lawyer, the lovely Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett) admitted she was in love with him, but had accepted the fact that the guy couldn’t be domesticated. And Sgt. Dennis Becker of the LAPD (Joe Santos) put up with a lot of flack from the department in order to maintain a sometimes stormy friendship with the low-rent PI. It was an ensemble effort, and a thing of beauty (by the way, I pulled all those actors’ names out of my memory without consulting Wikipedia, which will give you an idea how many times I’ve watched the credits).

The rusty trailer on the beach at Malibu. The copper-brown Pontiac Firebird. The wide-lapelled 1970s sport coats. The gun in the cookie jar. The answering machine. It all felt, if not like home, like a friend’s home to which we were welcome once a week. It meant a lot to me. Still does. I watch it every Sunday on the MeTV broadcast channel.

Jim Rockford made me want to be a better man. And it didn't seem impossible to do it his way.

I’m not sure I want to live in an America without James Garner in it. We take ourselves too seriously already.

Alton Brown, Media Mogul

At least twice on my current list of regrets is that I have not learn enough from Alton Brown. The man is the mad scientist of culinary delight. Grade school kids should have classes based on Good Eats. Here's a recent morning interview he did that briefly mentions his many media products.

The Changing World of Publishing

Philip Yancey writes about this many years of experience in publishing.

I had an enlightening experience with e-books in 2013. In April I finished the book The Question That Never Goes Away, based on my visits to three places of great tragedy. My traditional publisher wanted at least nine months lead time to publish it, the typical schedule for a new book, yet new tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombings, tornadoes, and school shootings were occurring almost weekly, the very situations my book addressed. So I signed on for an Amazon-exclusive program to publish an e-book for 90 days before the hard copy book came out. Leaning on my friends for email lists, I managed to sell about 3,000 copies. On September 11 and Thanksgiving weekend I offered free downloads and 40,000 people downloaded the book! The moral of the story, as many have learned: things can quickly go viral on the Internet but it's a tough place to generate income.

'There Are No Jobs in Academia.'

Ryan Anderson is a grad student in anthropology (not the clothing store). "I realized how bad things were when I was about half way through my PhD program—and it didn’t help that the global economy was literally crashing right when I started. You know, the whole 'Great Recession' thing. After one year, I nearly dropped out. Looking back, maybe that would have been the better decision. But, for some reason, I kept going…in part because of a vague hope that things would somehow 'work out.' I too pinned my hopes on that imagined employer."

The bottom line, he says, is this isn't the 1960s and there are no jobs in academia. He points to data showing about 36,000 new PhDs for every 3,000 new positions created. Is this education making 33,000 better people or just dragging them and their families down? (via Anthony Bradley)

« Older Entries | Main | Newer Entries »