Brandywine Books
Saturday, April 30, 2005

And how was your day?

It was a day of much rushing to and fro for me, at least by my personal standards. By the standards of the average parent of a six-year-old it was probably pretty quiet. But I have no light but my own by which to judge these things.

Ate lunch at Wendy’s. It wasn’t really my first choice. Although I love hamburgers, my palate isn’t really sensitive enough to tell one from another unless they’re either very good or very bad. People tell me Wendy’s is among the best fast food places, meat-wise. I take their word for it. But I wanted to strike a blow for free enterprise, as I’ve heard their profits have gone down since that (apparently) ethically challenged woman claimed to find a disembodied finger in the chili. I didn’t go so far as to order chili, though. Don’t like the stuff. “No interesting food for Walker” is my iron-bound rule.

Then off to Columbia Heights to visit great-aunt Ordella. Aunt Ordella is 95 years old, the only remaining child of great-grandfather John Walker, whom I mentioned yesterday. Until recently she lived in a very nice apartment building for retirees, but she’s been slowing down. She and her family decided it would be safer to move her to a facility with greater care and supervision. Almost immediately on arrival she was rammed by a hotrodding wheelchair jockey and broke her hip and scapula.

I came on a mission of mercy and, like most of my missions of mercy, it was a bust. She'd asked for a large-print New Testament. I’d gone shopping for one, and the only one I could find was a King James. But she had specified that she didn’t want King James (yes, it’s true. My 95-year-old relative does not want the Bible We’ve Always Used). I finally picked out a thin-line New King James complete Bible, and hoped it would be light enough for her purposes.

Nope. Too heavy. I went to a different store on my way home, and checked with them. No. Apparently there isn’t much market for non-KJV New Testaments in large print.

Wait a minute. I run a bookstore. I can order one and get it at a discount! I’ll have to get used to this business of… business. It’ll take a week or so to get it, but I’m not likely to do better retail around here anyway.

Driving home I listened to the Northern Alliance Radio Network on my local talk station. These are bloggers from the Minneapolis area who’ve rocketed into national prominence, partly through the advocacy of Hugh Hewitt, and partly through the major role the Power Line boys played in getting the facts out on Rathergate. You can listen to their streaming broadcasts every Saturday at their website.

Anyway, one of their guests today was Michael J. Nelson (also a Minneapolis guy), an author and beloved host of the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000 television show. Mike’s a conservative and a Christian, and his appearances on NARN are always a treat (in the sense that Bakers Square French Silk pie is a treat, which is very treatful indeed).

But wait! It gets better! Who should call in to banter with Mike but James Lileks of the Daily Bleat! Which if you don’t read it, what’s wrong with you?

It doesn’t get better than this, folks. We’re talking the Algonquin Round Table here. We’re talking the Inklings with bathroom jokes.

All these guys live in my city. I ought to get to know them. Show up at Keegan’s Pub for the Thursday night trivia contests. Show off my useless knowledge. Cultivate them. Offer to run errands for them, light their cigars.

You think if I was really nice to them, they’d let me hang out with them, maybe come on the radio some Saturday and plug my books? Let me sit at the Cool Kids Table for a while?

No, neither do I.

Lars Walker

 
Friday, April 29, 2005

The Paris Review Wodehouse Interview

From The Paris Review's interview of Wodehouse, here's something that relates a recent post on how quickly writers write:

TPR: How long does it take you to write a novel?

Wodehouse: Well, in the old days I used to rely on it about three months, but now it night take any length of time. I forget exactly how long Bachelors Anonymous took, but it must have been six of seven months.

TPR: That still seems very fast to me.

W: It's still good, yes.
 

Wodehouse Interview Now Available

The Paris Review has released it's 1975 interview of P.G. Wodehouse, in which he says, "Once you go saying to yourself, 'This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it OK,' you're sunk."
 

Of my name

As I note on my website, Lars rhymes with “farce”, not with “cars”. No reason why you should have known that.

It isn’t my real first name, but I prefer it to the one by which I'm known to my family and most of my friends. And it proclaims my Scandinavian heritage, a job at which the real one fails utterly.

No, Walker isn’t a Norwegian name. There are various stories about how my great-grandfather and his brother, who came to this country in the 1880’s, ended up with a British name. The more respectable one involves a naturalization judge who said “You want to be called Kvalevaag? What kind of name is that? Norwegian? You’re in America now. Don’t you think you ought to have an American name?”

He then grabbed a telephone directory, ran his finger down the “W’s”, and said, “Here. Walker. That’s a good American name. Why don’t you call yourself Walker?”

And lo, it remains, even unto this day.

“Kvalevaag” was the name of the farm in Norway where my great-grandfather was born. Every farm in Norway has a name. If you know many Norwegians, you may know that they either have “son” names or "farm" names. “Son names” come from the old patronymic naming system. If Ole Knutson had a son name Sven, that son was known as Sven Olson, not Sven Knutson, because the last name isn’t a family name but just an indicator of whose son you are (daughters used “datter” instead of “son”). Since any parish was likely to have several Ole Olsons (for instance), the farm name was often added in official documents, again just as an indicator. Ole Olson Furuseth was a different fellow from Ole Olson Eidsmoe.

But the farm names weren’t family names either. If Lars Knutson Fjelgaard moved from Fjelgaard farm to Ovstebo farm, he became Lars Knutson Ovstebo.

This, of course, was all very silly and complicated, and back in the 1920’s the government forced everybody to choose a regular family name like the English had, either a “son” name or a “farm” name.

For the sake of the children, no doubt.

“Kvalevaag” means “whale inlet”. The name probably refers to an old method of whale hunting (still used sometimes in the Faeroe Islands) in which a whale would be driven into an inlet by men wielding spears from boats, until it beached itself in the shallows and could be killed there.

The name Walker has its own history. It doesn’t harken back to someone who walked around a lot. It comes from the old textile industry. There used to be a man who would get into the dyeing vat with the new cloth and tread on it, as French peasants stomped on grapes. His “walking” would work the dye deeply into the fabric. He was known as a “walker”. That was what “walk” meant originally – that part of the dyeing process. The word “walk” derives from an Indo-European root meaning “to roll” and is related to the Latin word from which we get “revolve”. I’m not sure how “roll” came to mean “step repeatedly on a bundle of cloth”, but so it was.

It was only later that the action of going from place to place by foot came to be called “walking”, because it involved the same kind of leg motion. At that point the old word “go”, which had meant precisely what we now mean by “walk”, came to have the more general meaning of “moving by any means from one place to another”. In Norwegian, the word “gå” still means precisely “to walk”.

And so we’re back to Norwegian.

Somebody stop me.

Lars Walker

 
Thursday, April 28, 2005

Tell the kids

New policy: From now on, I’ll do my headlines in red-brown, so you can skip over them in your hunt for Phil’s posts.

I want to write about persecution and anti-Christian prejudice, but not from the angle you’d expect.

Stanley Kurtz, in National Review Online today, had an article on “Scary Stuff”. In it he describes what he sees as a growing movement to marginalize traditional religious believers in American society. If things are truly going this way, I find it very sad. I’m tempted to call it un-American, but (in a sense, from our opponent’s point of view at least) it’s very much in the American tradition. We’ve always had marginal groups in America, people it was OK to uninvite. In the past certain racial (and religious) groups qualified. More recently anyone who was a member of the Klan or the neo-Nazis could pretty much give up any hope of prominent public office. In the view of the left, traditional Christians and Jews are precisely like Klansmen or Nazis, so “including us out” makes perfect sense. Whether the American people as a whole will be persuaded remains to be seen.

If it comes, the immediate prospect is probably not one of bloody mass executions (á la Jack Chick) or even concentration camps. It looks more like second class citizenship. Low-paying jobs. Exclusion from the best schools. We likely won’t go to jail unless we insist on saying offensive things in public. We may not get building permits for our churches approved (that would violate the separation of church and state, after all).

When I think these gloomy thoughts, one plan of action comes to mind:

Tell the kids about it!

I mean it. If you work with youth, or speak to groups that include youth, make these things clear to the young people. Tell them that if they give their lives to Christ, there will very likely be a real price to pay. They may not get into that school. They may not get that job. And things are likely to get worse within their lifetimes.

I strongly believe that youth is the time for heroism. Being emotionally retarded myself, I’m still sort of eight years old, after all. And I recall clearly the passion I felt when I was a teenager, to live a life that meant something, to live significantly, even if not long.

Frankly, I think this is one thing that’s been missing from our youth evangelism – the call to sacrifice. I’ve always felt that part of the failure of the Jesus Movement in the 70’s was that there was too much emphasis on what Jesus would do for us. Young people want to give their lives to something that demands their lives. It’s easier to die when you’re young, by some (merciful, I think) paradox of psychology.

Tell the kids what to expect. Then watch ‘em run with it.

Lars Walker

 

So What Is a Cozy Good For?

World's blog notes the upcoming Edgar Awards tonight with a quote from a veteren mystery writer. "Cozies are not serious literature. They don't deserve to win [an Edgar]".
 
Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Many Thanks

Jared praises the blog and Lars in a post today from Thinklings.org. "Novelist Lars Walker is one of the newest members of the god-blogosphere, but he is already one of the better practitioners of the Art of Blog. He has recently begun co-blogging at Phil Wade's fantastic literary blog, 'Brandywine Books,' and his posts are phenomenal. Seriously. Lars proves in my mind something I've long suspected: writers make the best bloggers. No offense to everyone who blogs because they 'have something to say' or because they 'are really smart,' but I'll take the writers any day."
 
If this isn't a sign of the apocalypse, I don't know what is:

Toads exploding in Germany

When I think over my "Encounter with a barbarian" post below, I am more and more impressed by how whiny it is. I think I should have ended it differently.

I think it's true that the pastor I spoke of acted like a jerk. I have a right to blame him for that. But I don't have a right to blame him for my reaction. My reaction was shaped by my neuroses and phobias, and I frankly don't know how I could have acted differently. But the pastor wasn't responsible for that reaction. That's on my head.

It ill behooves a conservative blogger to play victim.

Lars Walker
 

Part of the Carnival


Lars' post on his difficult experience at a retreat center is one of the 60 submissions to this week's Wittenberg Gate: Christian Carnival. Many of the other submissions look recommendable, especially Sherry's review and excerpts from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.
 
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Innumerate like me

I still work part-time at my previous job, doing stuff that has to be done, on an hourly basis. Today I was doing spreadsheet work for an annual report. I was floundering with the figures, as always, going back a lot to re-check my work, because that’s what I have to do. I’m terrible with numbers. When I add up a column twice, I generally get two different sums. I’ve come to expect this. I believe, in my heart, that the numbers move around on me while I’m looking away.

I got to thinking about my number problems. I think that most of us divide all mankind into two classes: arts-and-humanities types and math-and-science types. Each group feels superior to the other. This, I think, ought not to be.

I remember reading an article years back whose author, a mathematician, noted that many liberal arts types talk about being bad with numbers with a sort of pride, as if that was a badge of aesthetic superiority. This, he said, was wrong. Numbers are beautiful. Numbers are elegant. The ability to do mathematics is the ability to think logically. If you can’t do math, you’re giving a reason why people should pay less attention to your opinions, not more.

I agree with him. I take no pride in my innumeracy, even though I share the trait with C.S. Lewis (whose mother, oddly enough, was a prize-winning student of mathematics). I associate numbers with my own mother too. I remember telling her once, when I was very young, that arithmetic was my favorite subject in school. Somewhere along the line that changed. If I have my chronology correct, it changed right around the time Mom went batty and started knocking her kids around. I suspect there’s a connection.

But I still appreciate the precision of classical mathematics, if only as an abstract concept. Christians, especially, should appreciate the importance of numbers.

Back in the late Middle Ages, when modern science was beginning to show its first buds, the Christian scholars of Europe asked themselves a question. “If the God of Scripture really created the universe,” they asked, “what kind of universe would we expect Him to fashion?”

They decided that the God of Scripture, the rational God who called out, “Come, let us reason together,” would create a rational world, a world that followed systematic laws in the same way the moral universe worked by systematic laws.

“Let’s test this hypothesis,” they said. “Let’s see if the universe is logical.”

And so Galileo looked through his telescope, Copernicus studied his charts, Francis Bacon systematized experimentation, and, finally, Isaac Newton tested his laws of physics.

And behold, it was elegant indeed. It was rational. It was beautiful in its efficiency. It was just the kind of universe the Bible had led them to expect. No other culture had ever discovered this throughout all history, because they had either worshiped the universe as part of God, or derided it as a snare and an illusion. The Christians, guided by the doctrine of the Incarnation, avoided either extreme.

They were filled with awe at the glory of the Lord, expressed in the language of numbers.

I write of numbers as a deaf man writes of music. God bless those who have the gift to sing His praises in the high, pure atmosphere of advanced mathematics.

Lars Walker

 
Monday, April 25, 2005

Encounter with a barbarian

In my last post I talked about my quasi-romantic moment in Ohio back around 1971. When I think back, that week was a pivotal one in my life – not because of my fleeting brush with normality, but because of what happened a couple days later.

We were, as I said, working with a Christian student group at Ohio State University. We went on a retreat with that group, under the supervision of a campus pastor we hadn’t met before we left.

The first night of the retreat, sitting around in the lounge of the retreat facility, I was to lead a Bible study I’d led several times before. My theme was “Freedom”. I was arguing from Scripture, first of all, that the existence of evil is a necessary side-effect of free choice (i.e., it’s impossible for God to give me a hand with which I am able to help my neighbor and make it impossible for me to make that hand into a fist and smash somebody in the face); and secondly, that if choice is to be real, people must be free to reject God (hence there has to be someplace like Hell).

A young woman in the group was disturbed by what I was saying. She objected that we shouldn’t be talking about unpleasant things like this. We should be talking about love and acceptance and peace.

I noted her comment, but went on with my line of thought.

At that point the campus pastor put his oar in. He said that I was terribly thoughtless and insensitive to ignore the young woman’s preference. He stopped my study and said we would now all have Communion, which he would serve.

This put me in a terrible position. I was furious at him for cutting me off. I did not want to take Communion from him. For us Lutherans, Communion is a very serious matter. We believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the elements. It is not a prudent act to take Communion in a state of rage, especially when your rage is focused on the celebrant.

But if I didn’t take it, I felt, I would appear to be a hateful person, the very thing he’d accused me of.

So I took Communion from the man. I think I was wrong in that. I have felt ever since that (in some sense) “Satan entered into me” with the bread and wine, as he did with Judas.

I was never the same. When I debated with people thereafter, I found myself getting defensive, saying angry, sarcastic things that I wouldn’t have said before. I learned to avoid debates of any kind. I just couldn’t trust myself to act decently. I kept hearing that pastor’s voice accusing me, and I’d react to that.

To this day, even on the net, I avoid debates. When I occasionally respond to a comment (usually in Junkyard Blog), I only allow myself to post a couple times, and then I have to step back. I don’t trust myself.

I think that may have been the point where I began to be a political conservative too. Back in those days (though I was always a social and religious conservative) I voted Democrat (lots of us did), having bought the contention of my college professors that a large welfare state is the inescapable consequence of taking Christ’s teachings seriously.

I think that that evening I began to see that liberals really aren’t nicer people than conservatives after all; that a number of them hate reason and love to demonize their opponents and call names. This grew more glaringly clear over time, until there was no place left for me in the Democratic Party, and I registered as a Republican with a great sense of relief.

But that would have almost certainly happened in any case, with time (and the party's leftward drift). I miss the ability to debate, which that barbarian took from me.

Lars Walker

 
Saturday, April 23, 2005

A bit of luck for somebody

The title of this post harkens back to one of P.G. Wodehouse’s Stanley Featherstonehough Ukridge stories. I don’t think I’ll explain, but force you to go out and find it. It’s in The Most of P.G. Wodehouse.

I’ve had one wild and beautiful moment in my life; one enchanted evening when I saw a stranger across a crowded room.

I blew it, of course. You would know more? All right, I'll tell you if you insist.

I’ve mentioned before that I traveled with a Christian musical group back in the 70’s. We worked mostly with church youth groups, but we sometimes visited college Christian groups too.

We were staying at Ohio State University on this particular day, but we’d promised to drive to Capitol University, a Lutheran school, and meet with some students there. During the meeting, a girl walked in and sat in the back. I noticed her immediately. She was auburn-haired and wore glasses – bookish/pretty, which for me is about the epitome of hotness. In the discussion she mentioned that she wasn’t part of the group but was a new Christian and was interested in the things we were talking about.

Afterwards I was chatting with one of the guys in the group and this girl joined us. We talked pleasantly for a few minutes, and she offered each of us a stick of Dentine gum. The other guy left, and she and I talked alone for a short time.

I can’t remember a thing we said.

Finally she said she had to go. She turned to leave, then turned back for a moment and said, “You’re awful cute.”

Then she walked out of the building.

I should have run after her. I should have chased her down and gotten her name, address and phone number.

But I stood there flatfooted, replaying the moment in mind. “Did she say that? Could she possibly have said that?” The paralysis of cognitive dissonance.

And so she passed out of my life forever.

I rode back to OSU in a haze. I was staying with a guy in a room reserved for students receiving financial aid. It was located under the stadium. I had to walk over catwalks to get to it.

I felt pretty darn good on that walk. I didn’t know that this would be a one-shot deal; that never again would I meet a woman whom I found attractive who would feel the same way about me. If I’d known that, I’d have been depressed, but I was young and I thought it was a sign of hope for the future.

I kept that gum for a long time.

Lars Walker

 
Friday, April 22, 2005

The magic of books

Since I know you’re all as interested as I am in the history of Norwegian Lutherans in America, I’m sure you’ll be excited to learn that my translation of an article by Prof. Georg Sverdrup on “The Revived Congregation” will appear in the upcoming edition of the Sverdrup Society journal. I’d link to their website, but I don’t think they have one. (And yes, that’s where I got the last name of the hero of Blood and Judgment.)

Here’s something I tell groups in my lectures, when I occasionally dress up like a Norseman and make PowerPoint presentations to groups on the Vikings:

To say that books are “magic” is something more than a figure of speech. A good example comes from the movie “Black Robe” (and, presumably from the novel it was based on, which I haven’t read).

In the movie a French missionary in 17th Century Canada is being guided across the wilderness by a group of Native Americans. At one point one of the guides notices him writing, and asks what he’s doing. It becomes clear that the guide has no knowledge whatever of books or literacy.

The missionary says to him, “Tell me something that So-and-so-over-there doesn’t know.”

The guide says something like, “My grandmother died in a plague.”

The missionary writes those words on a piece of paper, then takes it over to the man he’d spoken of. The man opens the paper and reads, “This man’s grandmother died in a plague.”

All the guides are immediately terrified. This writing and reading is obviously magic!

And it is. Do you know what “necromancy” means? It means summoning up the dead.

Every time you read a book written by an author no longer alive, you’re performing a sort of necromancy. You’re receiving messages from the dead. Reading is, in a sense, the only form of magic that’s lawful for Christians.

Later, fellow Muggles.

Lars Walker

 

Philosophical Inquiry

I have a philosophical question for you. I introduce it in those terms because we usually answer this question in a social way, not really answering but returning the information sought within the context in which it's asked. But I want to ask it on a deep level. Answer briefly or verbosely, but honestly. Who are you?

I am a believer, a dreamer, and something of a follower.

And who are you?
 

Brilliant! Dazzling! Incandescent!

Great posts over on Collected Misc. recently. David Thayer writes on blogging and review today. "The new trend in reviewing is blurbing. Blurbs are fun and easy to create. Take a word like incandescent, add an exclamation point. Incandescent! Try adding an adverb. Really Incandescent! Keep practicing. If nothing else General Electric might sign you up as a copywriter."

Kevin reviews Our Napoleon in Rags by Kirby Gann, calling it "ambitious." "The strength of the work doesn't lie in 'hot button issues' or 'scathing commentary' but in the descriptions of character and setting. This part of urban America is worthy of exploration and description and Gann should be commended for taking it on."

I have a couple posts on blogging. One jumps off of an article in the Village Voice, challenging the notion that blogs are parasites on mainstream media, to which David responds with some humor. The other post asks if there really are only 35,000 readers of serious fiction and if the Center for Book Culture is partly to blame for it. My impression is that the Center believes life is purposeless, that happiness is a fantasy or only a moment within distraction, and that they promote "serious" books with depressing themes like this while complaining that no one wants to read them.
 
Thursday, April 21, 2005

The mystery of freedom

OK, more about free will and predestination. My own opinion is that one of the things that make it difficult to get a handle on this problem is that, although we all agree predestination is a mystery, we generally don’t realize that freedom is just as mysterious.

The best expression of this problem that I’ve seen comes (it almost goes without saying) from C.S. Lewis. In speaking of his conversion in Surprised By Joy, he says, “Freedom, or necessity? Or do they differ at their maximum? At that maximum a man is what he does; there is nothing of him left over or outside the act.”

Let me diagram the problem this way. Imagine the following scene with me:

A woman sits at a table in an elegant restaurant. Her eyes gleam in the candlelight, and those eyes are fixed on the man across the table. The man reaches his hand across and takes hers. “Darling,” he says, “would you do me the honor of consenting to be my wife?”

She clutches his hand tightly. “Yes!” she replies. “Yes, yes, yes I will marry you!”

OK, here’s my question. Is this woman’s act free, or determined (controlled)?

A Skinnerian psychologist would look at that scene and say, “Clearly her actions are totally determined. This woman is driven by hormonal impulses impelling her to make a nest and find a male with whom to reproduce herself. She has found a male who appeals to her pheromones, seems healthy and virile, and is willing to mate with her. She has no choice. She cannot help but agree to marry him.”

The woman, of course would laugh at that. “Accepting that proposal was the freest decision I’ve ever made,” she’d say.

"Was there any way you were going to say no to him?" the scientist might ask.

"Of course not."

"Then you weren't free, were you?"

I think the woman's right, of course, but neither I nor the woman could persuade the scientist. That which we know in our deepest heart to be a gloriously free act looks from the outside like a predictable chemical reaction.

“At their maximum”, as Lewis said, freedom and necessity become indistinguishable. Their maximum, I think, is Love. And Love is the very nature of God.

A high mystery indeed.

Lars Walker

 
Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Everything Has Its Uttermost Source In the One

Lars’ posts on Calvinism, fictional character motivation, and a fantasy on God’s role in the world reminded me of the story that leads Tolkien’s Simarillion. The One, Eru, who is called Illúvatar by the elves, taught the Ainur, his first creation, principles of music, and they sang for him individually and in small groups. After a time, he declared to them a majestic theme and said, “I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.”

Tolkien writes, “Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Illúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in a harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Illúvatar were filled to overflowing . . .”

But the music continued, Melkor, who was later called Morgoth and became the master of Sauron, tried to turn the music to honor him and increase his part of the song. His efforts cause discord, “and many that sang nigh him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered; but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first. Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard before foundered in a sea of turbulent sound. But Illúvatar sat and hearkened until it seemed that about his throne there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.”

Illúvatar stood and introduced a new theme which swelled in beauty amid the cacophony; but Melkor’s music fought for dominance. Illúvatar stood a second time. His third theme “seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there was two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Illúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.”

Finally, Illúvatar stopped the music. He said he would show the Ainur the result of their work. “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can an alter the music in my despite. For he that attemptesth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”

And then they saw a vision of the creation of the world and part of the history which they had sung into being. It wasn’t actually created, which some of the Ainur learned when they went into it, and they had to build it themselves; but it was predestined as it were by Illúvatar’s music. And he said, “Behold your Music! . . . Each of you shall find . . . all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added. And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.”

That eloquently describes how I view the world, a paradox of freedom and destiny.

 

Disjointed, superficial post

Dave Lull tells me that the reason D. Keith Mano is no longer producing novels seems to be not a lack of sales but the fact that he suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. I’m glad to hear he didn’t lack readers, but naturally very sorry about the health condition. I pray that the Lord will strengthen and comfort him.

I’ve finally decided it’s spring in Minnesota. One doesn’t like to jump the gun on spring in these parts. A late-April snowstorm is in no way out of the question. But the general weather trend seems to be serious balmitude, so I think I can relax now.

Michelle Malkin posted a report on a man who spit on Jane Fonda at a book-signing appearance. One understands his point of view, of course, especially as he’s a Vietnam veteran. But friends, this is not the way for conservatives to act. We’re the ones trying to keep a civil discourse going. It’s our opponents who believe passionate feeling justifies any kind of enormity (see my earlier post on “following your heart”). If you want to spit on people, become a liberal.

Lars Walker

 
Tuesday, April 19, 2005

D. Keith Mano

Here’s an author I think about now and then, probably because I feel an affinity with him (though he’s certainly a better writer than I). D. Keith Mano is still alive as far as I know, but he hasn’t published a novel in years. He got plenty of critical acclaim, but it seems he never found his audience. He was a Christian (Catholic, I think) author who wrote for the general market, as I do. His books, apparently, were too earthy for Christians and too Christian for everybody else.

I haven’t read all his novels, but I’ve read a few: Bishop’s Progress, Take Five and Topless. Bishop’s Progress in particular made a lasting impression on me.

Bishop’s Progress is the story of a bishop in some large Protestant denomination who is admitted to a hospital for heart surgery. The main line of the plot involves how he observes the quasi-religious nature of the hospital’s culture, and how he deals with this idolatry as the nearness of death draws him back to his own roots of faith.

But the most interesting plot element (to me) involves the bishop’s roommate, a lower-middle-class working guy. The man has a thousand religious questions to ask, and the bishop tries to answer them.

Here’s the twist: The bishop is sort of a Bishop Pike character (younger readers may substitute Bishop Spong). He has written a bestselling book in which he thinks he reinterprets Christianity so that average modern people can understand it.

To his amazement he finds that his “relevant” new theological ideas are no help at all to an actual contemporary man (his roommate). He finds that the message that brings comfort and hope to this real human being is in fact the old, “tired” gospel message.

Finally a day comes when the bishop is to be moved to a private room (something his aide has been working hard to arrange). The roommate says, “I was feeling bad because I wouldn’t be able to talk to you anymore and get you to answer my questions. Then I thought, ‘Hey. I can just buy your book. That’ll be just like I’ve got you to talk to.’”

To which the bishop replies, in horror, “NO! WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T BUY MY BOOK!”

Delicious.

Lars Walker

 

Partial praise for Peretti's Monster

Jared, who is no longer a blogger but is soon to be a strong author gifted by the Spirit to craft inspiring, insightful story and answer the questions of hopeful would-be writers like “Mr. Wilson, how can I become a writer?” (Learn to type), has quoted the Entertainment Weekly review of Frank Peretti’s lastest, Monster, in the comments of one of his excellent posts on Christians in art. And though I was silent before, let me say that Jared’s blog is an asset to the blogosphere. His writing is sound, his thinking clear; his heart appears to be honest. I didn’t write a tribute to him when he decided to drop blogging at the beginning of the month in part because I couldn’t decide what to say. I wanted to ring the bells and make him king for a day, but I held back in a shadow of uncertainty. I hope to have many opportunities to report on his publishing success in the coming years.

So, he quoted EW on Monster yesterday. They don’t like it. “Monster is flabby and not very thrilling, filled with undercooked attacks on evolution.” Christian Fiction Review takes up the opposing view, saying it isn’t Peretti’s best, but it is enjoyable. “The only problem with it is that some things are revealed too quickly. Following the initial terrifying first encounter with the monster, Beck is captured. While that creates the conflict for the rest of the book, it also allows the reader to see what Beck sees, which takes away much of the mystery and horror that surrounded the first encounter. The conflict shifts to trying to find her and trace the monster's origin.”

Publishers Weekly praises the prose, but finds the message overbearing. “The author's prose is clear and crisp, with only a few lapses into Lovecraftian hyperbole,” but the theme of the story begins to weigh it down about midway “and leads it to an unsatisfying and somewhat confusing end.”

Amazon reviewer Wade Tisthammer (which is a great name for a fantasy/sci-fi reviewer though I originally read it as trist-hammer which sounds more like an ambitious guidance counselor) says the book was “fun.” He suggests PW’s complaint about an overbearing message is “puzzling.” “The book does contain a single criticism regarding evolution: the paucity of observed beneficial mutations. But this grew organically out of the story and led directly to the cause of the main conflict.” He gives it 3 stars mostly because it has too many, under-developed characters.

Further: I want to include my impression of Peretti's last thriller, Visitation. I had high hopes for it and enjoyed reading it a few years ago. The subject has potential to the brim; but I think it is slower moving than it should be because it tries to develop a couple good characters. If that development had gone deeper, if more spirit had been revealed, than I would be satisfied, but it only peers into the deep water while staying on the shallow side. Many strong descriptions and personal thoughts are left unwritten. Still, I have no style complaints like some other Christian authors I've read. I think with the right editor or friend, Peretti could write a novel to make This Present Darkness look like a first draft.

 
Monday, April 18, 2005

You gotta have reason

I heard it again a few days ago, on some television drama or other. Hard to say which. They all use it sooner or later. Everybody uses it. It’s a sort of secular Catechism question. Somebody asks for advice, and the other person says sincerely (almost reverently), “The best way is to always follow your heart.”

“Follow your heart.” We hear it everywhere. It’s the all-purpose bromide, suitable for all ages and all conditions. We use it in private life, in books, television, and movies. An example that sticks in my mind is the very disappointing movie, “King David”, with Richard Gere. In the scene where David, on his deathbead, gives his final advice to Solomon, instead of saying what he actually said (which included, in so many words, “Make sure you kill all my old enemies”), David in the film says, “Always follow your heart.”

Bullhooey.

How did this nonsense get to be unquestionable popular wisdom? Where is the evidence that to follow your heart is the right decision more than half the time, let alone all the time?

You think Timothy McVeigh was following his reason? Eric Rudolph? You think child molesters are obeying logic when they kidnap children? You think Nazism was an intellectual enterprise?

All these horrors came from the heart, not reason. From passion, not mind.

I’ve mentioned before that I was an abused child. If there’s one thing an adult child of abuse knows (if he’s trying to improve his life skills) it’s that the heart is a lousy guide. If an adult child of abuse were to follow his heart, he’d believe that no one ever loved him or ever would. He’d believe that he either has to try to please everybody all the time, or else run away and become an urban hermit. If he wants to grow up emotionally he has to learn to tell his heart to shut up and listen to his reason when it says to him, “Your heart is an idiot. Relationship skills can be learned”.

I’m not saying reason is always infallible. My point is that neither is infallible. (See my earlier post on spirit and flesh.) But in a day when everybody’s told to trust their hearts uncritically, it makes good sense to beat a drum for reason now and then.

I try to do that in my books. Maybe I overdo it.

But not more than America is overdoing this “Follow your heart” nonsense.

Lars Walker

 

Kelly Hughes on Books and Publicity

As a would-be author, I like to fantasize that if I write it, they will read--they being millions, if not hundreds, of readers. I don't want to be famous; I just want to be read. But in the publishing world, many people work behind the scenes to produce and draw attention to a book. I have had the privilege of corresponding with one of those booklovers in the shadows. Kelly Hughes is president of DeChant-Hughes & Assoc, Inc, a Chicago-based public relations agency specializing in national media coverage for books on religious thought, spirituality, family life issues, personal growth, social and cultural issues and pop culture. Here are a few questions about her work and her love of books.

How does the publicity process work? Do you bid for services with a publisher? Are fees relative to sales?

KH: Generally, a publisher contacts me months before pub date to tell me about the book and check my interest in submitting a proposal. The proposal outlines my recommendations for the publicity campaign, along with fees and an estimate of expenses. Fees are not relative to sales, although a publisher's expectation of how well a book will do may influence their decision on whether to retain outside PR help.

How many books do you read in a week or month? Is it all for business purposes or are you able to get in some leisure reading?

KH: It's difficult to quantify because I have to read so many books for work. I do manage to find time for personal reading, too. I am reading three books this week, two for work, and one for me: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

I see that your firm marketed Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie. Was it anticipated to be a long-term bestseller before its release?

KH: Mitch always believed in the book and its potential to change lives.

His commitment was very deep, very personal. He was tireless in his efforts and his cooperation with the publicity process. Tuesdays with Morrie is a classic "word-of-mouth" book -- it got great media coverage, but when people bought it and read it, it affected them deeply, and they would talk about it, recommend it, and buy it for others as gifts. It was remarkable to see the enthusiastic support for that book from the readers.

How do you define a successful campaign? Is it totally subjective to perceived sales? Are there certain specifics, like a mention or review by select publications, which add up to success despite sale numbers?

KH: A successful campaign secures coverage in the media that reaches the potential audience for the book, and spurs the kind of word-of-mouth that can be so important to a book's success. Publicity is just one factor, however. Several other factors affect sales, such as distribution, availability, cover, other marketing efforts, competition and price, among others. There are some books that get excellent media coverage and still don't sell. Some books would have been better as magazine articles -- people will spend the time to read a long article about it, but that's all they feel they need to know, and they're not willing to shell out $25 for the book.

Do you care about Amazon.com ranking?

KH: Yes, but I take it with a grain of salt. I don't obsessively check it. I understand how unpredictable the ranking is--a sudden bump may reflect the sale of just one copy. It's all relative to how the other millions of books are doing. It is fun to see the ranking jump after an interview; it's nice to be able to trace it do some specific media coverage.

What made you a book lover in your youth?

KH: My parents were both avid readers. Our house was filled with books, newspapers and magazines. When I was a kid, Chicago was a four-newspaper town, and we had at least two and sometimes all four everyday. My parents encouraged our love of reading. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve books. We had big volumes of Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm fairy tales I remember spend hours reading. The first "grown-up books" I received as gifts one Christmas were a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories, and World's Most Amazing Baseball Stories (I was a big Chicago White Sox fan at the time). We made frequent trips to the library, and, we were allowed to order several books from each issue of Scholastic Book Club News. I remember clearly how much I looked forward to that newsletter, and the books that followed.

Do you have a favorite book or series or author?

KH: This is a hard one! I don't think I can narrow it down, so I'll just name some authors I love. I know I'm going to look at this later and think, "I can't believe I forgot so-and-so, my favorite author of all time!"

I read a lot of fiction, and Muriel Spark, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth McCracken, Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, John McGahern, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Richard Russo are tops on my list. Last year at the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing I was introduced to the work of Tim Gautreaux; he quickly became a favorite. One of the novels I will actually take the time to re-read is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I am endlessly amused by Wodehouse's Jeeves & Wooster series and re-read the stories often.

I also enjoy nonfiction, history and biography. Some of my favorites in nonfiction are Thomas Lynch, the poet and essayist; Paul Theroux's travel writing, especially The Happy Isles of Oceania and Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. I enjoy reading spiritual memoir, which is something of a "busman's holiday" for me, such as Anne Lamott and Kathleen Norris. The most charming, witty, engaging memoirs I have ever read, period, are two by the actor Alec Guinness -- both are part spiritual memoir and part life-in-the-theater memoir: Blessings in Disguise and My Name Escapes Me.

 
Saturday, April 16, 2005

Prolific Authors and the Writer's Mythic

Lars, your post skimmed from Writer's Digest reminded me of an article which has probably been discussed or linked to on most lit-blogs. It's from the CBA in Canada. The writer seems perturbed that some authors don't labor over their works "nursing their sixth cup of coffee and struggling to craft a sentence that won’t cause them to throw up their hands in futility and jettison the page to the wastepaper basket." Some authors--by which I mean some strong, popular authors whose books have a bit of shelflife--write quickly.

"Where most authors sweat to produce 1,000 words a day without self-mutilation, Alexander McCall Smith has been known to bang out three times that in a single sitting. He’s a living rebuke of the notion that novel-writing is the least bit arduous."
He writes mysteries without the off-putting gore; his books are driven by characters and setting rather than plot. . . . The books are amiably escapist, and because they’re crafted with something finer than the workmanlike prose of a John Grisham or Danielle Steel, they’re deemed serious fiction. “He makes you feel like you’re there,” says Marian Misters, co-owner of Toronto bookshop Sleuth of Baker Street. “You can drink the rooibos tea, you can smell the village. And I think people love to read that.”
The article complains that John Updike writes too much, saying, "It hearkens back to this notion we have of how 'serious' novels are created — that every sentence is the result of years of contemplation and agonized toil. Anything less is deemed . . . purely for a commercial audience. Nathalie Atkinson, Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, acknowledges the stigma. 'If a Jonathan Lethem produced something like The Fortress of Solitude every year and a half, I think he would be lauded a lot less,' she says. And yet, there are some literary authors who we embrace for their prodigiousness. Humorist P.G. Wodehouse wrote somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100 novels, but has never been viewed as a mere word factory."

I believe the number of Wodehouse novels is 93, but what is this about a good author writing too fast? Envy? If the books are good, praise them, buy them, talk about them; if they aren't, don't. If Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in three years instead of 17 or so, it would still be great book.
 

Dennis Lehane

In the interest of objectivity, since I bragged about the beautiful weather a couple days ago, I think I ought to admit that today was fairly miserable. High of about 50° with a steady rain. However I was out and about, and my famous hat kept my head comfortable. A soaking rain this time of year is good for the farmers, if I remember correctly from my childhood. Now that I’m home the skies are clearing. I think tomorrow’s supposed to be nice.

I noticed somehow that this is a book blog, so I suppose it’s about time I wrote about a book or an author. I’ve been meaning to talk about Dennis Lehane for some time.

Frankly, I was reluctant to read Lehane. I’d heard so much about the movie Mystic River, based on his novel of the same name, and so much of it had to do with the politics of the actors, that it prejudiced me. Also (I’m told) it’s implied in the movie that one of the child molesters who kidnap a main character at the beginning is a priest. There is no such suggestion in the book. The book is a wrenching and troubling examination of human motivations and choices, and of the meaning of evil. Many questions are left open at the end. That’s the way Lehane writes. I don’t consider this the same thing as preaching moral relativism, because life often presents us with complicated situations and conflicted obligations. Lehane leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions. I call that fair.

Challenging as Mystic River is, though, it’s not (for me) Lehane’s most memorable book. The most memorable is Gone, Baby, Gone, one in the author’s series of mysteries featuring the Boston private detective team of Kenzie and Gennaro. Kenzie is an Irish guy and Gennaro an Italian woman with family connections to organized crime. They’ve been secretly in love since childhood, it’s clear, but both married other people (badly) and have been divorced, and are gun-shy with one another.

Their detective office, interestingly, is located in the belfry of a neighborhood Catholic church. Nobody seems to know what happened to the bell, or if they do know they won’t say. Kenzie is a lapsed Catholic, while Generro is at least minimally observant.

Gone, Baby, Gone concerns a kidnapping case. A little girl disappears from her home while her alcoholic mother is “out”. It’s the mother’s brother and sister-in-law who actually call in Kenzie and Gennaro, and who make enough fuss to turn the kidnapping into a media event. As the detectives look more closely into the crime it grows more and more puzzling. The behavior of the FBI agents involved seems especially peculiar. All sorts of people are telling lies (what would a mystery be without people telling lies?).

But in the end the truth is discovered. It’s a troubling truth, calling for difficult decisions. The decision that’s made causes a break between Kenzie and Gennaro and forces the reader to ask what “the good of the child” really means, and what a family means.

Is the book pro-traditional family or anti-traditional family? I’m not sure. Lehane offers no easy answers. And that’s why I can’t forget it. I recommend this as a book to enjoy, and a book to wrestle with long after the reading is done.

By the way, I read that Gone, Baby, Gone is being filmed now. The director (saints preserve us) is Ben Affleck. I have no words.

Lars Walker

 
Friday, April 15, 2005

From May Writer’s Digest

Thought I’d pass along some information from the May Writer’s Digest, which has for years been my personal writing tutor.

This month they listed their 101 Best Web Sites for writers. Here are a few links, chosen by me at personal whim. Credit where credit’s due: The article was researched and written by Robin M. Hampton.

www.angleonwriting.com offers “a revision checklist, tips to start a writing group and give feedback, plus a 50-question character profile….”

www.apolloslyre.com has “book reviews, submission guidelines and publication venues. Young writers can check out its Junior Muses link.”

On the more technical side, www.howstuffworks.com will tell you “how to, say, pick a lock or walk on fire”.

www.fundsforwriters.com “lists paying grants, contests, markets and fellowships”.

For freelance writers, there is www.writerscrossing.com, with “market news, interviews with fiction and nonfiction authors, and book reviews. It also features articles and tips for niche writing”.

www.stands4.com explains abbreviations and acronyms (no more pretending you know what they mean until you get caught, and then asking for an explanation with a red face!).

www.bartleby.com is a well-known site. It provides “literary definitions, quotations and access to more than 370,000 web pages.”

For Christian writers, www.stuartmarket.com offers “Christian market and conference information or have the site’s director evaluate your book contract”.



The very next article talks about the work habits of famous writers, some of them pretty odd. George M. Cohan used to buy a train ticket and spend the entire trip writing in a Pullman drawing room. He could turn out a 140 page script between New York and Chicago. Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote while lying down. Stephen King, Norman Mailer and Elmore Leonard write in longhand. Shelby Foote writes with an old-fashioned dip pen and ink bottle (C.S. Lewis thought this method indispensable for getting the rhythm of prose right. Me, I never felt like a writer till I learned how to type).

Just in case you were getting me confused with C.S. Lewis.

Lars Walker

 
Thursday, April 14, 2005

Malleable time?

Just so you’ll know, we had a beautiful day in Minneapolis today. The high was about 65° F. The sky was clear, the sunlight gentle, as was the breeze. I took my afternoon constitutional, as I often do, walking the bike path that runs along Medicine Lake, which is near my place of work. I had Sissel Kyrkjebø’s Innerst I Sjelen album playing on my Walkman.

Sometimes it’s not so bad being me. All and all I wouldn’t recommend it though.

My earlier post on The Author As Calvinist sparked such an interesting discussion that I want to pursue it some more.

Suppose I’m writing a story. Let’s make it a simple one, for the sake of example. I want to end the story with the female lead (call her Mary) tied by the villain to the tracks in the rail yard, left to be crushed by the Midnight Train.

My intention is for Mary to be rescued by the stalwart John, my hero. My plot calls for John to show up in the nick of time to snatch Mary from the jaws of death.

But here I come to a problem. Why would John go to the rail yard at midnight? People don’t ordinarily take midnight walks in rail yards. They’re not beauty spots even in daylight. Here I am, near the climax of my story, and I realize I haven’t given my hero sufficient motivation to be in the right place at the right time to do what I need him to do.

What do I do? I change his past.

I back up on my word processor, to an earlier point in the story. I insert a new block of text.

This block of text explains how John, when he was a boy, used to play in the rail yard with his friend Benny. They used to dare each other to take risks, and one night a dare went bad. Benny was killed. John has never gotten over it.

Every now and then, when life is hard and he feels depressed, John takes a walk and finds himself at the rail yard again. Somehow he can’t keep away. He has an irrational feeling that somehow he’ll be able to make it up to Benny someday, if he keeps coming back.

Today John has had a bad day at work. He’s depressed, and he finds himself in the rail yard. What was that sound? It sounds like a human voice! In the darkness he can barely make out a form on the tracks, dimly illuminated by the headlight of the oncoming Midnight Train…

There you go. Bob’s your uncle. I’ve provided sufficient (or at least minimally adequate) motivation to manipulate my character into doing what I intend him to do.

What interests me here is that John doesn’t know what I did. He doesn’t know that once he had a life without any Benny; without any Benny’s death. As far as he can tell, things have always been the way he sees them now. Because I, the almighty creator, have changed his past, entirely unbeknownst to him.

That makes me wonder, “Does God ever do this in our lives?”

If He did, we wouldn’t know.

This possibility might contribute to our understanding of prayer. Have you ever wondered whether it was worthwhile praying for someone’s safety on a trip, because they might be home already? Or praying for someone’s health, when they could already be dead?

Maybe God sometimes changes the past because of our prayers. Our prayers would be answered, and we wouldn’t know it. We might even assume the prayer went unheard, because we don’t know how God altered the back story.

I’ve thought about writing a book or books about the universe after the Second Coming of Christ. We often wonder what Heaven will be like. I like the idea that we’ll have work to do. What work could be more important than “fixing” the past?

Perhaps God might send out a team of heroes to correct the great evils of history. The Crusades? Cancelled, or done better. The Spanish Inquisition? Nobody expects it because they never heard of it. The Holocaust? Never happened. One by one, the reasons people give for not believing in God (“I can’t believe in a God who’d allow Star Trek to be cancelled”) would be wiped away.

Such stories might tend to universalist theology, but I wouldn’t play it that way. In my view, most of the people who rejected Christ before would still reject Him, because it’s not really about their stated reasons, but about an attitude of the heart.

I’m actually afraid to write these stories, though, because it might seem heterodox.

What do you think?

Lars Walker

 
Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Book of Judges, coming soon?

Since I’m a fantasy author and all, it surprises some people when I tell them that my genre of choice for recreational reading is not fantasy but mystery (hard-boiled preferred). It’s not that I prefer a really good mystery to a really good fantasy (quite the contrary) but the fact is, there are just very few good fantasies out there. This may have something to do with the fact (mentioned in an earlier post) that publishers generally expect fantasists to crank out two books a year. Not much time for fine revision on that schedule.

I bring this up because of a common theme I’ve noticed in some of the mysteries I’ve read recently. The authors of the books don’t seem to be particular social conservatives (though if they were raging liberals I admit I probably wouldn’t read them). But three of these authors (if I recall the number correctly) have presented similar scenarios that caught my attention in recent books.

The situation they set up is like this: The detective (private or official) is faced with a brilliant, mad-dog, sociopathic killer who is adept at manipulating the system. The detective has the drop on the killer. He knows that, in the nature of our present judicial machinery, this criminal will not only not face capital punishment, he will probably be able to get off with a light sentence and be out murdering innocent people again in a few years.

So the detective kills the killer, and makes it look like self-defense.

This is something you rarely saw in mysteries a few years back. It suggests to me that there’s a new conviction abroad in the land that we cannot trust our judicial system to protect us from the worst social monsters. It suggests that the idea of private justice is becoming more acceptable to a larger number of people.

This troubles me. Part of the social contract, for quite a long time, has been that we surrender to the government our right to avenge murder. This denies us some emotional satisfaction, but prevents long-term feuding between families. It also keeps the most violent families from amassing too much power (read the Icelandic sagas).

I’m frightened that that part of the social contract is breaking down. I fear we are nearing a point where the police become a useless bureaucracy and the courts a joke. A point where if you want justice, you have to strap on a six-gun and do what a man’s gotta do. When that happens, say goodbye to your civilization. A new Caesar is surely waiting in the wings, to offer order at the price of freedom.

The classic biblical description of such a state comes from the last verse in the Book of Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

We’ve done without a king in this country for two centuries, because the Law was king. If that is no longer true, if the Law has been severed forever from any certainty or concept of right or desert, then a king may be on the way.

And you liberals may be surprised at this, but I don’t want a king. Not one whose kingdom is of this world.

Lars Walker

 

For Poetry, Follow the Links, Young Man

I remember saying that Sherry's blog, Semicolon, is a better lit-blog than mine, and if I did say that, I was I right. It still is. She has several poetry posts for this month, and today's begins with a great quote:

"There is nothing wrong with poetry that is entertaining and easy to understand. Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way." –- Charles Bukowski

Amen! Abscurity is not the highest virtue of poetry, though I wonder if some think it is and inwardly enjoy writing poems which are unreadable to most, holding themselves above the hoi polloi I suppose. But not here. And not at Semicolon either.
 
Tuesday, April 12, 2005

My learning curve

I’m starting a new job; in my training period. I’m the new librarian and bookstore manager for the schools of my church body. This period of learning a new set of duties and responsibilities is one of the things I hate most in life.

When I blogged a few days ago about how story plots are like life, in that we learn by making mistakes and persevering until we find a way that works, I didn’t mean to suggest that I enjoy the process. I hate not knowing what to do. I hate making mistakes. I hate having to ask for help.

A classic criticism of readers by non-readers is that readers are afraid of life. We hide from real life, they think, by burying our noses in books. In my case, they’re right.

During the dysfunctional childhood I’ve mentioned earlier, I didn’t get a lot of grace for making mistakes. Any performance below the level of perfection was disobedience. Disobedience was to be punished. Since nothing we did was ever perfect, punishment was appropriate any time, in any place. I walked in fear, never knowing when the hammer was going to fall.

I carry that insecurity with me all the time. Hiding with my nose in a book? You bet I am. I’m a born librarian.

If I can just learn the job…

Lars Walker

 
Monday, April 11, 2005

The writer as Calvinist

As a Lutheran contributing to a Reformed blog (note to non-Protestant readers: there’s a difference between Reformed and Lutheran. “Reformed” usually means “Calvinist, or having Calvinist roots”) I have to be careful when approaching the subject of Predestination. I’m informed credibly that Luther’s view of Predestination was in actual fact pretty close to Calvin’s, but most practicing Lutherans today try to avoid the subject altogether, partly because it’s unpopular and partly because we don’t really understand it.

I worshiped in a conservative Presbyterian (that’s a Reformed) church for a while some years back. It was a great church, where I made a lot of good friends in the Singles group. The pastor was outstanding. But I always refused to join the congregation, because I could not wholeheartedly subscribe to the Westminster Confession. I felt I owed it to my own conscience and to theirs not to pretend about it.

But at the same time, I was actually moving closer to the doctrine of Predestination than I ever had before. My thinking didn’t go as far as to actually convert me to a Calvinist stance, but I was beginning to see it in a new way. And this was because I’m a writer.

It occurred to me that when I build characters I’m extremely ruthless with them. If I create a character to be evil, evil he is. And if I bring him to an evil end, I feel no guilt whatever at punishing him for something I caused. Every evil deed of his sprang originally from my own mind, but I punish him anyway. And it feels perfectly right.

That’s classic Predestination.

Of course the analogy is far from perfect. My fictional characters are not living, feeling beings separate from me. They feel no real pain.

Also the analogy doesn’t cover the person in the real world who is not what most of us would call “evil” who nevertheless seems bound for Hell.

So it ain’t perfect.

But it does help me understand.

Lars Walker

 
Sunday, April 10, 2005

I’m old hat

Wore my new hat to church today. It’s a Christie’s foldable, a hat that looks like an ordinary fedora but is essentially unstructured, so you can fold it up and pack it if you’re (for instance) flying on a plane. It’s not a dress hat like my Homburg, which I wear to church in winter, but the weather’s not quite warm enough yet for my Panama.

I’m a hat wearer. It’s a decision I’ve made, a conscious attempt at cultural subversion, like a hippie’s long hair or a cross-dresser’s frock. I’m carrying on a one-man campaign to get men to wear hats again. And I’m not talking about baseball caps. I’m talking about grown-up hats with brims that go all the way around.

Urban legend says that hats went out of style when Kennedy failed to wear one to his inauguration. This is only partially true. Kennedy actually wore a top-hat to his inaugural, with his morning coat (I’m old enough to remember the pictures). But thereafter he refused to wear hats, not liking what they did to his longish hair. And since everybody wanted to be like JFK in those days, hat sales went into the toilet, where they’ve been ever since.

Only in Heaven will we learn how many head colds and skin cancers have been induced through this sartorial madness.

I consider hat-wearing part of a lost culture of adulthood. Giving up hats was a first step in the infantilization of our culture, which has since then sunk to the point where men go to church in tee-shirts and baggy shorts. Children’s clothes. (I’m not talking about people who can’t afford to dress well here. That’s another matter altogether. I’m talking about people who have the means to dress like grownups but prefer to run around like characters in an Our Gang movie short.)

The revolution continues.

Further bulletins will be issued from the field.

Lars Walker

 
Saturday, April 09, 2005
Charity check

It occurs to me that my previous post might be taken as a personal criticism of two individuals, Prince Charles and Princess Camilla. That wasn't my intention. It is not for bitter, 54-year-old bachelors, if they are Christians, to make snarky comments about wedding couples.

I was talking about the Royal Wedding as a social and political event, in the context of contemporary British society.

And maybe my invitation got lost in the mail...

Lars Walker
 
Snoozing toward Gomorrah...

I have the royal wedding on, on Fox, and I'm giving it about a third of my attention.

What I see is a lot of people sleep-walking their way through a ceremony that (for them) has been emptied of all meaning. They're doing it because this is "what is done", but nobody believes in it.

I've always liked the idea of the tradition of royalty (at least for other countries). I think it ties a nation to its history, gives the ancestors a voice (as Chesterton said).

But it seems to me there needs to be some vestigial core of belief that what is being done has a little bit of meaning. This is a post-modern wedding. "We're being hypocrites, but all of life is hypocrisy, so what difference does it make?"

God save the kingdom.

Lars Walker
 
Friday, April 08, 2005

How I was ruined by celebrity

If (as is not unlikely) I never get another book published, I nevertheless won’t be able to say I haven’t had my Fifteen Minutes of Fame. Mine came in August, 2001 in Stavanger, Norway (which explains why you probably missed it).

I was making one of my too-infrequent visits to my relatives in The Country Everyone Should See Before They Die. My relatives in Stavanger, however, were unable just then to provide me the free food and lodging I’ve come to see as my due. A friend, Mari Anne Nesheim Hall, who is a published author and an active participant in local historical groups, took me under her wing (and her family’s roof). She and a friend took me to see a number of sights I’d missed on my previous visit, and even arranged for me to meet museum personnel and to be interviewed by the Stavanger Aftenblad newspaper, as well as the newspaper of nearby Sola.

We met with the Aftenblad reporter in the Stavanger city museum. She interviewed me about my book The Year of the Warrior, which concerns Erling Skjalgsson, a prominent Norwegian (around the year 1000 A.D.) who lived at Sola. The reporter made a point of taking me to the old Royal Farm (now a park) in Stavanger, and taking my picture there. She talked to me about the theories of certain local historians, who contend that Erling did not live at Sola but in Stavanger, at what is now the Royal Farm, despite what the sagas say. I hadn't been aware that Stavanger and Sola have been in a long-standing tug-of-war over Erling, both claiming him as a favorite son.

This was where I made my Big Newcomer’s Mistake. I’d already given Erling credit for founding the city (another unproven theory) in my novel, so I said idly that “I could move Erling to Stavanger”.

The next day I found myself on the front page of the Aftenblad, an honor I shared with the Crown Prince and his fiancée (who were going to be married that weekend). A picture there showed me and my friends at the Royal Farm. On the inside (page 24) I had an entire page devoted to me, including a photo of me with Erling’s stone memorial cross that took up a third of the sheet (this wasn’t the picture you can see on my website, but same guy, same stone).

The headline on my story said, “Wants To Move Erling to Stavanger.”

My interview with the Sola paper was abruptly canceled.

I’m sorry, Sola. I talked before my brain was engaged. I’ve included a formal apology in the Afterword to the next (as yet unpublished) Erling book.

I can’t really blame the reporter either. I didn’t put my comment off the record, and to someone not a native English-speaker, the difference between “could” and “will” can be obscure.

Learn from my mistakes, youngsters.

Lars Walker

 

The Eloquent Professor Bellow

[by way of Powerline] Columnist John Podhoretz writes on a University of Chicago seminar series with Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom.
Bloom was a tall, imposing man--sloppy and careless, dripping cigarette ash that would burn little holes in his very expensive suits and ties. He spoke loudly, often exploding into laughter at his own cleverness and compelling attention with a strange stutter,

Bellow, by contrast, was neat and precise, slight and thin; he spoke in a quiet and deliberate manner that commanded attention as easily as Bloom's histrionics.

... [Bellow] would speak for three or four minutes. And when he was finished, you realized that what he had just done was spontaneously speak a beautifully written essay. Every word in every sentence had been exactly where it should have been, each sentence flowed perfectly from the last, without a pause or an "um" or any of the other verbal devices we lesser mortals use to gather our thoughts as we speak.
He goes on to describe a time Bellow showed Bloom that an old romance was wordy and difficult, not the "most profound depiction of romantic passion the world had ever seen" as Bloom thought it was.

John Podhoretz is a columnist for the New York Post and National Review Online, an editor with the Weekly Standard and ReganBooks, and a FOX News Channel contributor.
 
Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Poetry Is Harder to Read

The Scotsman reports that psychologists at Dundee and St. Andrews universities believe poetry is more demanding on your mind than prose.
By monitoring the way different forms of text are read, they found poetry generated far more eye movement which is associated with deeper thought. Subjects were found to read poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with prose. Preliminary studies using brain imaging technology also showed greater levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud.
The researchers say that while we would like to think this stimulation comes from intentional concentration and deeper thought, it mimics the pattern shown by dyslexic readers who have difficulty reading anything. One psychologist said, "Not many people pick up books of poetry anymore to read. You have to wonder if people find them too hard."
 
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