Sunday, March 29, 2020

The law


After Romans 3:1-20

We love the law.
The law is a sweet thing,
designed to keep us in line,
aimed at limiting our behavior
and action, focusing on reminding
us that we fail in the face of it. Perhaps
that’s the point. Even when we think we
keep it we don’t. We can’t, even when we
set ourselves as our own little laws, wearing
our self-made crowns, congratulating ourselves
on how good we are especially when compared to
the person standing next to us, to me. Yes, we love
the law,
our law.

Photograph by Anna Sullivan via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Saturday Good Reads


Jen Avellaneda is a writer, speaker, wife, mother, foster mother, and likely a number of other things. She and her husband had fostered some two dozen children over the years. She lives in Washington State, and right now, she and her family are on lockdown due to the coronavirus. She’s been writing about their experiences, and she’s well worth reading. 

All of the entries below under the title of Faith are about the coronavirus, because that is what on the minds of people of faith. There are some really good things being written – on the fear-driven life, on pursuing community when community cannot come together, about when life becomes like war, and how we may actually be becoming more like the New Testament church.

More than one person has observed that our cities in 2020 are looking more and more like paintings by Edward Hopper – lots of buildings and very few people. Ephemeral New York makes this point about New York City. And while it was accepted for publication sometime before coronavirus became a household word, James Matthew Wilson had a poem published in The North American Anglican that has a Hopper painting for illustration and oddly seems to anticipate the change that’s coming.

And last year, as the St. Louis Blues skated and battled their way to the Stanley Cup, a little girl in a hospital became a symbol, a mascot, and virtually a member of the Blues team. The video below shows what happened when Laila met the young man who donated his bone marrow to her and saved her life.

More Good Reads

Poetry

Ebenezer 2020 – Joe Spring at Joe Spring Writes.

'The Soul Waking Up' by Veniamin Blazhenny – D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

 A Poem on the World Health’s Organization Praise for Beijing – Bruce Dale Wise at Society of Classical Poets.

Writing and Literature

Wendell Berry: The Poet of Place – Silas House at Garden & Gun.

An Exile’s Return: Hugo and the Paris Commune – Tom Darin Liskey at Literary Life.

On Tolkien’s “Fairy Stories” – Nayeli Riano at The Imaginative Conservative.

Faith

The Fear-Driven Life – Jared Wilson at The Gospel Coalition.

Pursuing Community When We Cannot Gather – Michael Kelley at Forward Progress.

Like lovers, parted by war – Rebecca McLaughlin.

When Corona Makes Us More Like the New Testament  – Andrew Wilson at Think Theology.

Life and Culture

Rainy Nights, NYC: Portraits – Jennie Cesario at Dappled Thoughts.

Are We There Yet? – Seth Lewis.


American Stuff

The 245th Anniversary of "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" – Phil Greenwalt at Emerging Revolutionary War Era.

Babe Ruth and the Moment American Baseball Changed Forever – Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith at Literary Hub.



British Stuff

The Pearl of York, Treason, and Plot: Political Intrigue in Tudor York – Tony Morgan at English Historical Fiction Authors.

Laila meets her bone marrow match



Painting: Woman Reading, oil on canvas by Susan McDowell Eakins (1879-84).

Friday, March 27, 2020

Not even one


After Romans 3:1-20

I obey the law, well,
mostly, except for
an occasional lapse
with speed limits or
responding to an errant
driver or when I’m
treated unfairly or
I have to wait in line 
or when those politicians
do something really dumb
instead of normal dumb or
when I don’t get my way 
because I should. 

No, I don’t kill, outside
the tongue; I don’t steal,
except when I take credit
I shouldn’t; I don’t covet,
except for the BMW;
I don’t worship other gods,
apart from everyone else,
like when they worship 
money, position, power, 
righteousness, achievement,
whatever. 

No, not even one,
not one,
not one righteous.
To be judged by the law
is to die by the law.

Photograph by Ali Morshedlou via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

“Constable on the Hill” by Nicholas Rhea


Nicolas Rhea, the pen name for Peter Walker (1936-2017), was a Yorkshire policeman for his entire career. He was also a writer, and beginning in 1979, he published more than 35 books in his beloved “Constable” series. The books, essentially a series of ongoing memoirs, became the basis for the ITV program “Heartbeat,” and were beloved in Britain. Now they’re being republished, and the first is Constable on the Hill.

It’s a delightful story. Think James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small) if he had joined the police force instead of going to veterinary school. And it begins at the beginning of Rhea’s career – a move to a small Yorkshire town with his wife and three children, to become the village’s new bobby.

He’s looked upon somewhat suspiciously as a newcomer, until he drops his polished accent and instead speaks with the Yorkshire accent he was born and raised with. From then on, he’s “one of ours.” And he finds himself in all manner of interesting situations, providing a glimpse into what an English village policeman actually encountered on the job (and it wasn’t anything like Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, or anything else we’ve seen on television). In fact, in this first book, the closest Rhea gets to a murder is the death of a wallaby hit by a car after it escapes from a local zoo.

Nicholas Rhea
Rhea finds himself dealing with complaints by local gossips, all kinds of dog problems, a fox hunt that legally cuts across his front yard, how to pay for the funeral of a local squatter, the problems faced by a Catholic policeman when asked to read at an Anglican church service, and the sergeant who likes to give him all the plum assignments, including leading the circus parade. He also figures out a way to help a delivery truck unload a multi-ton piece of Scottish stone for a local sculptor.

Sometimes the issues are more serious – local youths breaking into a dovecote and killing the birds and theft of the prizes at a dance. But Rhea always seems to find a way to solve the problems and keep the threads of community woven strongly together. (And some of his solutions are ingenious, including how to deal with the complaining gossip.)

Constable on the Hill is a charming book, filled with local color and memorable characters. It’s no wonder that the series was so popular in Britain.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Rabbits at War: 2 Green Ember Stories by S.D. Smith


For several years, children’s writer S.D. Smith has been creating a series of swashbuckling adventure stories – all starring rabbits. First was The Green Ember, told from the perspective of two children whose lives are upended with an attack by wolves. And it is much greater than an isolated attack; the wolves are making war upon the rabbit world.

The Black Star of Kingston is a prequel to The Green EmberEmber Falls is the second installment in the main series, and the third – Ember’s End – is due to be published next week (its publication date moved up a bit because of the general upheaval from the coronavirus epidemic). 

Smith has also published two related stories, more of novella length.

The Wreck & Rise of Whitson Mariner takes place during the great wars. King Whitson Mariner is sailing to safety, carrying a precious cargo – the royal jewels, elderly women, other women and children, and his own family, Queen Lillie and Prince Lander. Sailing on another ship with him is Lord Grimble, who might be better named Lord Grumble, a sour and resentful aristocrat who seems to believe hem and not Whitson, should be king.

And sure enough, Grimble turns out to be a traitor, in league with the feared dragons. Whitson’s ship is tricked onto treacherous rocks and is shipwrecked. Queen Lillie is kidnapped by dragons. The cargo is lost, and those aboard who are not rescued die in the water. Lieutenant Massie Brunson is ordered by the king to stay with Prince Lander at all costs. The prince, for his part, is soon seen running into the woods on shore. Massie knows he’s needed with the rescue, but he obeys the king and follows. And a great adventure ensues.

In The Last Archer, Jo Shanks is Living at Halfwind Citadel. It’s wartime, and Jo is desperate to prove he’s as good an archer as the famed Nate Flynn. But he doesn’t seem to make a very good soldier – he oversleeps, he has an unpolished sword, and his commanding officer has little use for him. But there’s an archery contest, and Jo proves his skill by not only placing but coming very close to beating Nate.

Nate needs a temporary replacement on his team of archers, and he asks Jo to fill in. Jo discovers that Nate is nothing like Jo imagined him to be. He still has trouble with the commanding officers, but he finds he’s fitting in with Nate’s crew. And then the wolves attack and enter the citadel itself.

Both stories have underlying lessons aimed at children (but equally valid for adults). They’re about obedience, mistaken impressions, trust, and having courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Using rabbits instead of children likely takes some of the immediate terror out of the situations, but children will identify with Massie, Prince Lander, Jo, and Nate. These are rollicking good stories, with good messages. 

Related:




Top illustration by Zach Franzen: Whitson Mariner takes up the Stone Sword of Flint

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Poets and Poems: Tom Sastry and “A Man’s House Catches Fire”


In 2016, the then-Poet Laureate of Britain Carol Ann Duffy chose Tom Sastry as one of the Laureate’s Choice Poets. He published a well-received pamphlet (what Americans call a chapbook) entitled Complicity, which became a Poetry School Book of the Year and a choice of the Poetry Book Society. 

His first full poetry collection, A Man’s House Catches Fire, was published in Britain in late 2019. In one of those strange things that can happen, the collection fits the current moment of coronavirus, self-quarantines, and societal and economic upheaval. I had ordered it several weeks ago, long before the virus came ashore in the United States. I grew wider-eyed as I read it, and simply because it fits.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, March 23, 2020

“Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915” by McWilliams and Steel


In 1914, Ypres was a small city in western Belgium, not far from the French border and the North Sea. It had a long history of at least two thousand years; the Romans raided it in the first century B.C. Surrounded by several small villages. The city was known for its production of cloth and especially linen; one of the most imposing structures in Ypres was the Cloth Hall. 

The came World War I. Ypres found itself the focal point of two battles, the first in the fall of 1914 and the second in April of 1915. Technically, the second battle extended into May with additional engagements, but the intense period was April 25-27. 

This second battle became famous for many things, including the first time a colonial army (the Canadian) ever stopped a European army (the German) on European soil. But it is best known for how it started – with the use of chlorine gas by the German army, attempting to break through the Allied lines of defense. Against almost overwhelming odds and chemical warfare (the Germans ignored the Geneva ban), the Canadian, French, and British troops first gave and then regained their ground. Like so many other battles on the Western Front during the war, it subsided into stalemate.

First published in 1985, Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915 by J.L. McWilliams and R. James Steel tells the story of the Second Battle of Ypres. And it tells the story almost hour by hour, from the first plans by the Germans to the eventual end. 

It’s a thrilling, fascinating account.

  • The Germans would come close but never quite manage to capture the city of Ypres itself. They did do their best, however, to shell it into destruction. 
  • Both the British and the French had first-hand reports, from German deserters and spies, that the Germans were preparing to use gas. Disbelief and incompetence prevented the knowledge from being acted upon. 
  • German commanders had no reluctance to use the gas to force a breakthrough. They also had no reluctance to send their own troops too soon into the dissipating clouds. So eager and desperate they were to break their stalled plans to drive to the sea.
  • The top commands of the Allied armies were already demonstrating the prodigious incompetence they became known for. Located far to the rear of the fighting and in relative luxury, the generals and their staffs rarely grasped the reality of what was happening during the actual battle. 

Allied soldiers blinded by the chlorine gas
The use of gas would backfire on the Germans, and in two ways. First, the Germans had to wait for a countervailing wind; normally, the winds in the area blew west to east. Second, using the gas freed the Allies from any ethical constraints on their own use of poison gas, and they had the advantage of the prevailing wind direction. Over the course of the war, more German troops would be afflicted with poison gas than what was attempted on the Allies. The Germans had tipped their hand too early and in too an unfavorable position.

McWilliams and Steel are also the authors of The Suicide Battalion: One Remarkable Battalion’s Journey Through the First World War and Amiens 1918: The Last Great Battle.

Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915 reads like a well-filmed documentary, placing the read right in the middle of all the key events. It’s also a story of the common soldier, who, despite the villainous use of gas by the Germans and the incompetence of their own top generals, stopped what could have easily been a German victory.

Top photograph: an aerial view of the gas attack at the Second Battle of Ypres.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Letters


After Romans 2:12-29

The letter of the law
matters most when
it becomes the practice
of the law, the serving
implied by the law,
the obedience made
obvious by the law,
the carving of the law
upon the heart so that
it lives within
and lives without.

Photograph by Mikhail Pavstyuk via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Saturday Good Reads


I take a walk, or I look outside my window, and everything looks exactly like it looked a week, a month, six months ago. But I look more closely, and I notice how much time passes before a car goes by on the street, or I see the deserted center of my little St. Louis suburb when it should be thronged with cars, shoppers, and people dining out, and how many people are walking – singles, couples, and families – and smile and nod as they swerve broadly around you, unless I swerve first.

It’s a strange time, perhaps the strangest I’ve ever experienced, and we’ve only just begun. Tim Challies suggests we consider newspaper headlines in their context, and reminds us that preparation is not panic and confusion is not chaos, no matter how much we want to politicize the moment. E.J. Hutchinson at Mere Orthodoxy has a different take on what we can learn from COVID-19; he looks back to C.S. Lewis in World War II. And American expat Seth Lewis writes about how different St. Patrick’s Day looked in Ireland this year – and St. Patrick knew a thing or two about calamity himself.

More Good Reads

Poetry

One chilly March morning – Sonja Benskin Mesher.

Beyond the Lines: Frost's "Fire and Ice" – Adam Sedia at The Chained Muse.

Three Poems – Paul Brooks at Fevers of the Mind Poetry Digest.

‘Brave Soldiers We’ and 'A Very Old Tale' – Beverly Stock at Society of Classical Poets.

Safe – Paul Tripp.

Faith

The Catholic Artist in a Neo-Pagan Age – James Matthew Wilson at Church Life Norte Dame.

A Liturgy for Those Flooded by Too Much Information – Doug McKelvey at The Rabbit Room.

Art

The Spiritual Mechanics of Labor and Rest – Jack Baumgartner at The School for the Transfer of Energy.

Edward Hopper: The Loneliness Thing – Laurence Fuller. 

American Stuff



Common Soldiers Writing Song: “Oh, How Do You Like the Army?” – Sarah Kay Bierle at Emerging Civil War.

The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, Part 1 and Part 2 – Eric Sterner at Emerging Revolutionary War Era.

British Stuff

Plague and Pestilence – Barb Drummond at Curious Historian.

Writing and Literature

The Haunting of America: Russell Kirk’s Ghostly Fiction – Ben Reinhard at The Imaginative Conservative. 


T.S. Eliot’s Animus – Adam Kirsch at New Criterion.



A Catholic Reading of the Spirituality in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon – M. Shawn Copeland at Church Life Notre Dame.

John Piper Reads Romans 8



Painting: Old Man Reading the Paper, oil on canvas by Louis Charles Moeller (1855-1930).

Friday, March 20, 2020

The prosecutor speaks


After Romans 2:12-29

The prosecutor stands, casting
his voice at the accused,
those who know but don’t act,
those who believe but don’t do,
those who speak the right words,
make the right claims,
teach the right precepts,
espouse the right behavior,
boast in their belief but
do none of it,
break all of it.
The prosecutor casts his voice
and pronounces the crime
of uncircumcision,
the judgment of condemnation.

Photograph by Ben Rosett via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

“True Blue Detective” and “Criminal Instinct” by Vito Zuppardo


Zach Nelson is a retired New Orleans police officer. He’s been living with his son and daughter-in-law; his wife was murdered many years before during a robbery. Family circumstances require a temporary move to a retirement home. Zach, irrepressible on a bad day and exuberant on a good one, soon makes friends – and an enemy in the retirement home’s administrator. 

The home is a place where strange things happen, strange as in untimely deaths. While Zach and his friends are trying to figure out what’s going on, the reader knows – the doctor who owns the home has a gambling habit, and he needs money for both gambling and paying off debts owed to unsavory people. So he arranges an accident for a retirement home resident and magically produces an organ donation agreement. The organs are sold to a shadowy figure who flies in and out of the New Orleans Lakefront Airport.

True Blue Detective is the first of several in the series of the same name by Vito Zuppardo. There are currently six in the series, most of them featuring New Orleans Police Detective Mario DeLuca (True Blue Detective does not). This one is alternately horrifying and funny; the craziness of the life depicted in this retirement home almost boggles the reader’s mind. The book includes a host of memorable characters who seem to walk right out of the New Orleans culture. There’s also a great chase scene up St. Charles Avenue that ends on the River Road.

Criminal Instinct is a prequel to the series (likely written after the series was underway). It’s a novella featuring Detective DeLuca, who is sitting with his girlfriend at a restaurant while watching a diner staring at a couple dining nearby. DeLuca recognizes what is about to happen – the diner is going to shoot one or both of the people he’s watching. 

The detective intervenes, stops the shooting before it starts, and finds out what’s going on. The woman is the diner’s sister, and the man is a drug pusher, woman abuser, and general low life. DeLuca makes a promise to bring the low life down. And DeLuca always keeps his promises.

Vito Zuppardo
Zuppardo retired from the casino business in 2003 and began writing full-time. His the author of nine police novels in the True Blue Detective and Lucy Voodoo series.

If you like police stories packed with action, True Blue Detective and Criminal Instinct are for you. Along with underlying (and sometimes overt) humor and bodies – lots of bodies. 

Top photograph: a view of the New Orleans business direct from Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, by Ben Dutton via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

“A Blockaded Family” by Parthenia Hague


Parthenia Hague was a young woman living with her family near Columbus, Georgia, at the start of the Civil War. She was hired by a plantation owner near Eufaula, Alabama, to be a teacher for his daughters. Except for a couple of trips home to visit family, she spent the war years in southern Alabama.

The area of Eufaula was left physically untouched until the very end of the war – no nearby battles, no raids by federal troops, no forces of occupation. But the war increasingly left its mark on the plantation and the family. Daily life began to change. Certain common, everyday items became increasingly rare. Ingenuity replaced what had previously been taken for granted.

Twenty-three years after the end of the war, Hague published A Blockaded Family: Life in Southern Alabama During the Civil War. It’s remarkable in that, rather than focus on the events of the war, the work instead describes daily life on a plantation, a life that was changing and one that would soon be swept away forever. 

The account can often seem almost tedious, such as the in-depth descriptions of how the women of the family had to “make do” to sew their clothes. And while it’s easy for a modern reader to become impatient with all of the details of sewing, one slowly realizes that, in its own way, this was the daily reality women experienced while husbands, sons, and brothers were away in the army. 

Because of the Union blockade, coffee becomes prohibitively expensive and then completely unavailable. The alternative – the closest thing that tasted like coffee – was okra. Salt, used to season meat like pork, was recycled. On the rare occasions when new cloth was available, every scrap was used for something. And everyone worked, even the teacher, because everyone had to.

Only toward the end of the account, as Hague reaches the end of her story, does the war directly intrude. And that’s because federal troops are coming closer. Rumors sweep the area; valuable are buried and hidden and prize horses are taken off to the swamp. As it turns out, the Union army forces took another road, bypassing the plantation where Hague was living. Those plantations and farms in the army’s way did not fare well.

A Blockaded Family is something of a rose-colored glasses account; the accounts of the family’s slaves suggest all were happy and content, with a few even given to playful pranks that the family loved. Still, the story does offer a view of “the war back home,” and how women and children improvised with intelligence to “make do.”

Photograph: A plantation home in Alabama.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Poets and Poems: Mischa Willett and “The Elegy Beta”


Poet Mischa Willett is exploring the elegy. And more than exploring it, he’s modernizing it.

You reach a certain age, and you begin to understand why the elegy is an enduring poetic form. Its history stretches as far back as the Greeks and Romans. Typically associated with death and funerals, an elegy can be almost any poem that’s a serious reflection. Traditional elegies (think Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”) make full use of rhyming couplets. Contemporary elegies generally drop the rhyme, but they retain the concept of seriousness and solemnity.

The title poem in Willet’s new collection, The Elegy Beta, fits that contemporary understanding. 

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, March 16, 2020

"Between Two Millstones" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


In February 1974, writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was expelled from the Soviet Union. After years of his writings being published in the West, the triggering event for the Soviet government was the publication of the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s highly detailed account of life in the Soviet prison camp system. 

The writer was flown to West Germany, beginning an exile that would last until 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the restoration of his Russian citizenship, and his eventual return. But in 1974, his wife and young children had to be allowed to leave, his rather large archive of research materials, notes, and other documents had to be smuggled out, a place to live had to be found. He also had to navigate life in the West, survive the machinations of unscrupulous people disguised as helpers, and deal with a news media he found horrific.

Between Two Millstones, Book 1: Sketches of Exile 1974-1978 is the first of two volumes on the 20 years he spent in the West. Translated by Peter Constantine. The account provides a story of an internationally famous author bewildered by Western culture and society. He was at first embraced by the Western news media and intellectuals; he was something of a problem and embarrassment for the Richard Nixon / Henry Kissinger plan for d├ętente with Soviet Russia

The media the intellectual elites soon discovered, however, that Solzhenitsyn was not the Western-style liberal they expected; he was first and foremost a Russian, and a conservative one at that; the man actually worshipped faithfully in the Russian Orthodox Church. He learned quickly to distrust the news media in all of its forms

Solzhenitsyn must have kept meticulously detailed diaries or have a phenomenal memory, or both. The memoir covers an almost daily account of his first five years outside of Russia. He had to give countless interviews. He had to find a place to live, considering Switzerland, Norway, and Canada before finally deciding on Vermont in the United States. He had to deal with the constant propaganda efforts of the KGB, the Soviet counterpart to the CIA. And he had to gather together his archives, visit universities and research centers, and somehow find time to help his wife raise their children.

Solzhenitsyn and his three sons about 1975
It’s no wonder he often felt caught between what he called two millstones – the millstone pf the Soviets and the KGB, and the millstone of unending pressure from elements of Western culture, and Western culture itself. 

I have read most of Solzhenitsyn’s works (including all three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago) and his two earlier memoirs, The Oak and the Calf and Invisible Allies. I had believed that his falling out with the Western news media and intellectual elites stemmed from his 1978 Harvard commencement speech, published as A World Split Apart. More than one pundit observed that Solzhenitsyn had done something at Harvard that no one ever had done anywhere before – he gave a commencement address that was remembered a year later.  What Between Two Millstones makes clear, however, is that the falling out between the writer and western news media happened much earlier, almost as soon as he arrived in Germany.

Solzhenitsyn in 1974.
The memoir also provides a deep understanding of Solzhenitsyn experiences as he began to write his fictional account of the rise of the Bolsheviks and how they seized power in 1917. Doing research at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, he’s shocked to learn that the first revolution of 1917, in which the tsar abdicated and Alexander Kerensky took over as national leader, was not the glorious moment he and many other Russians had believed it to be. In fact, that revolution was just as much responsible for the eventual tyranny of communism as the second revolution of 1917, that in November that was celebrated as the founding moment of Soviet Russia. 

Between Two Millstones is for admirers of Solzhenitsyn, for critics interested in his writings, and for historians who want to understand a short five years that, in their own way, contributed to the ultimate dissolution of Soviet Russia.

Top photograph: Solzhenitsyn at his home in Cavendish, Vermont.