Friday, May 31, 2019

The reasons for the story

After Luke 19:11-27

He told a story, a parable,
and for two reasons, it says
plainly, stated explicitly,
unusually, as if the reasons
were part of the story,
the parable

Because he was near to Jerusalem
Because they believed the kingdom
   was imminent

The story, overall, was arcing
to this point, events converging,
timings coinciding, and as
they near the city a sense
of crisis, of the climax arriving,
ready to burst open upon the world.

And it was, but it wasn’t,
it wasn’t the climax
they expected.
So he told a story instead,
a parable.

Photograph by Clint McCoy via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

“Throw Me to the Wolves” by Patrick McGuiness

A young woman’s body is found wrapped in trash bags and duct tape. She’s been brutally murdered. Suspicion falls upon a neighbor, a retired teacher from the town’s posh school, primarily because he’s helped her with errands and his DNA is found in her entryway and her DNA is found in the passenger seat of his car. The evidence is thin and barely even circumstantial.

Two experienced detectives investigate. They are about as unlike as possible. Gary is a practical, rather hard-bitten policeman who tends to follow the path of least resistance. Alexander is university-educated, with experience in posh schools because he attended one – the same one the suspect taught at. In fact, the suspect was one of his teachers.

Then the tabloid newspapers and the social media trolls enter the picture. The suspect’s name is publicized, before any charges are filed. A vicious circle starts, with newspapers and social sites piling on as fast as they can even though there’s no additional evidence. Without telling the detectives, their boss files formal charges. And then the outpouring of hatred becomes national. But the two detectives begin to suspect the man is innocent, and they quietly undertake the kind of investigation that’s needed, the kind that used to be done before the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and viral sensations on social media were even known.

Patrick McGuinness
Set in a small city in southern England, Throw Me to the Wolves by Patrick McGuinness is ostensibly a mystery novel. Reading past the first page brings a different understanding: this is a serious literary novel. Reading past the first few chapters deepens that understanding as the book becomes a serious, on-point reflection of journalism as it’s practiced today, what social media has done to “the public,” how what we Americans call private schools and the British call public schools really operate, and whether real justice can even be possible any longer.

It’s a stunning, profound book that completely blew this reader away. 

McGuiness is professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford, where he is a fellow and tutor at St. Anne’s College. He has also published the novel The Last Hundred Days; two collections of poetry, Jilted City and The Canals of Mars, and the non-fiction books Other People’s Countries and Maurice Maeterlinck and the Making of Modern Theatre, among other works. 

Throw Me to the Wolves is one of the best mysteries I’ve read. It’s also one of the best serious literary novels I’ve read. It will make you stop and reconsider your morning newspaper and your friends on Twitter and Facebook. It captures the spirit of our age.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

“The Man from Yesterday” by Florence Witkop

Carey lives near a small town in Minnesota, and repairs and resells old, broken furniture, mostly at flea markets. She’s walking her dog one morning when she discovers an unconscious man lying in field of flowers. All he has on him are a few old coins and beautiful gold watch, but no identification. She gets medical help, and once he awakens, Carey and the doctor discover their surprise visitor is suffering from amnesia.

The first thing he remembers is his name, Bryce. He also sees Carey’s old fence and is surprised by how broken down it is. And who removed the horse stalls in the barn?

Florence Witkop
Carey – and Bryce – gradually begin to understand that something is seriously wrong. He’s shocked to see a television and a microwave, not to mention that Carey’s pickup truck is painted red instead of the common black. They finally realize that Bryce has arrived from a hundred years earlier, and it has something to do with that beautiful watch.

The novella The Man from Yesterday by Florence Witkop is the story of Carey and Bryce, and how their slowly developing love for each other becomes an impossible situation, begging the obvious question:  Will Bryce have to return to his own time?

Witkop is a former teacher, IT worker, resort owner, ghost writer, editor, and fudge maker and distributor. She’s written several romance novels, short stories, and novellas, mostly set in her native Minnesota. 

The Man from Yesterday might have required an almost-impossible suspension of belief to accept its premise, but Witkop tells the story well. We’re not sure if the story will end with broken or fulfilled hearts, and Witkop maintains the suspense and the reader’s interest to the last page.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Poets and Poems: Shanna Powlus Wheeler and “Evensong for Shadows”

Poet and writer Max Porter tells us that grief is a thing with feathersShanna Powlus Wheeler would say it might have feathers, but grief is something that’s always with us, hidden but ever-present even in times of joy. Like joy, grief is part of life.

The title of Wheeler’s first full poetry collection, Evensong for Shadows, suggests the omnipresence of grief. Evensong is sung in the evening, as the day wanes. Shadows are a picture of what substance is, or was. Grief is life, or very much a part of life, a measure of the loss of love or happiness or relationship. The more intense the love, the greater the grief.

The opening poem, “After a Tour of Britain,” quietly introduces the theme. The poet is dreaming of “nameless ruined abbeys, / naves without roofs / like Holyrood in Edinburgh.” One thinks of Shakespeare’s “bare ruin’d choirs” in Sonnet 73, a lament of the passing of time and the approaching winter of old age.

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

Monday, May 27, 2019

Poetry at Work, Chapter 20: The Poetry of Retirement

I might have retired twice from the same company.

I officially retired in 2015, and I’d had given a year’s notice. I could have continued working, but the fact was that my skills, experience, and abilities were being wasted. I could have continued for a few more years, perhaps hoping for another general downsizing and a severance package, but work had become almost painful. 

When I told the head of the department of my plan to retire, the response was surprising. He became angry. It wasn’t as if I was irreplaceable. Without really knowing, I suspect it was more a case of I was doing it on my timetable, and it wasn’t something the department was planning on its timetable.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Literary Life.

"The Road to Grantchester" by James Runcie

I didn’t read the promotional blurb, so I saw the title The Road to Grantchester and assumed I was getting the new Sydney Chambers mystery by author, filmmaker, and playwright James Runcie. I was right on two of my three assumptions. It is a new Sydney Chambers story. It is written by Runcie, who’s published six previous Sydney Chambers mysteries. Where I erred was in the word “mystery.”

The Road to Grantchester is not a mystery. It is a prequel to the mystery series, and it has several of the characters who populate the mysteries. But it is an extraordinarily fine literary novel. I kept expecting a mystery to develop, and it never did, although there is a brief mystery that occurs and is solved by Chambers in one chapter, sufficient to prompt his friend and possible romantic interest Amanda Kendall to call him “Sherlock.” But it is only a slight taste, and the story settles quickly back into the novel it is.

The novel tells Chambers’ story, what his life was like before World War II, what happened during the war, how Chambers came to faith, and how he decided he was being called to the Anglican priesthood. It is also a phenomenally well-researched book; the impressive bibliography included as an appendix testifies to that. 

James Runcie
A significant character in the book (and not in the mystery stories, with good reason) is Robert Kendall, Amanda’s older brother. He is Sydney’s best friend and fellow Cambridge student. When the war begins, they join the same unit of the Scot Guards and eventually finding themselves fighting their way up the Italian peninsula, including the horrific battle around Monte Cassino. Robert is the natural leader, the life of the party, the golden boy who everyone expects will go on to do great things. Except Robert dies in the war.

At war’s end, Sydney is assigned temporarily to a British diplomatic mission in Trieste before returning home. The Kendall family remains devastated with their son’s death; Sydney himself is having a terrible time trying to understand his friend’s death and make sense of his own future life. It grows clear that Amanda is in love with him, but Sydney keeps deferring any of his own initiative. Instead, he focuses on what he comes to see as a calling to the priesthood, much to Amanda’s and his own family’s shock and dismay.

All the while there’s something lurking, something not disclosed or understood, in Sydney’s life. When it comes, the reader is at first shocked. And then the shock gives way almost immediately to clarity.

The Road to Grantchester is so good that I almost want to see Runcie set aside his mysteries and focus instead on novels like this one. But the novel and the mysteries are of a piece. A wonderful, often heart-wrenching piece. 


Sunday, May 26, 2019

Outside the tent

After Psalm 61

Outside the tent is the storm,
a whirlwind of sand and grit
etching skin and heart;
inside a silence and light,
cushioned and pillowed, 
food and drink, a place
away from the tearing,
the noise, the deafening
of the storm. Inside the tent
the storm no longer is,
dispelled and flicked away,
a memory erased.

Photograph by asoggetti via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Saturday Good Reads

In 2015, I read (and reviewed) the novel Laurus by Eugene Vodolazhin. He’s a Russian writer in the tradition of the great Russian novelists, grappling with big stories and big themes. He has a new book recently translated into English, The Aviator. At Front Porch Republic, Aaron Weinacht has an article about how Vodolazhin uses time and place in his fiction – and a concise overview of his works available in English.

A second good post at  the same publication: “The war to destroy memory and erase history is the battle to have any culture at all,” says Paul Krause at Front Porch Republic. He’s looking at the culture wars in a very different way.

I read the Get Religion blog daily. Its focus is how the media does – and doesn’t – cover stories involving religion. It’s usually about stories where the media miss the boat entirely, with the very occasional notice of reporters getting it right. For example, did you see how many obituaries for the comedian Tim Conway noted that he was a devout Catholic? I didn’t either. The point is this: ignoring religion or religious aspects to stories reflects a bias; it distorts the news and is a disservice to readers and viewers.

More Good Reads

Writing and Literature

The Dangers of Dime Novels – Nathan Ward at CrimeReads.

King Arthur: Surviving into Modern Times? – Richard Denham at English Historical Fiction Authors.

Some Writing Advice: Don’t Take Others’ Advice – Guy Gavriel Kay at Literary Hub.

Pushing Back Against Marilynne Robinson's Theology – Jessica Hooten Wilson at Church Life Journal.

Life and Culture

Back Row America – Chris Arnade at First Things Magazine.

Welcome to Manhood – David Warren at Essays in Idleness.

The liberal sciences and the lost arts of learning – Brent Orrell at the American Enterprise Institute.

What Our Attachment to Characters Tells Us about Cultural Apologetics – Zak Schmoll at Entering the Public Square.


Then – Robert Rife at Rob’s LitBits.

For Argument’s Sake: The Owl and the Nightingale – Eleanor Parker at History Today.

Poems Unwritten – Daniel Leach at The Imaginative Conservative.

Death is at the Door – Aaron Brown at Collegeville Bearings.

American Stuff

The Naked Truth of Battle–  James Macgregor Burns at American Heritage.

British Stuff

Gwydir Castle: Treasure of the Conwy Valley – Annie Whitehead at English Historical Fiction Authors.


News Media

If Not This Forum, Then Which? – Stephen Kneale at Building Jerusalem.

The Street Piano Man of Washington Park

Painting: Woman Reading, oil on canvas by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947).

Friday, May 24, 2019

A tale of two men

After Luke 18:9-14

Two men in the temple
to pray:
one a Pharisee,
one a tax collector;
one of the most admired class,
one of the most despised class;
one standing apart,
one just standing;
one thankful for his sinlessness,
one broken in self-recognition;
one proud in his separation
   from extortion, injustice, adultery,
one broken in self-understanding
   his heart pierced by self-awareness;
one seeking praise for his behavior,
one too ashamed to look up;
one condemned,
one justified.

Photograph by Caleb Betts via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Murder Solstice" by Keith Moray

It begins with an apparent husband-wife murder-suicide – but with no apparent motive, so the case is left open. Then, months later, the director of a local museum devoted to the “Hoolish Stones.” Similar to and perhaps older than Stonehenge, falls to his death after what looks like a bit too much alcohol. Not long after, a young woman in a hippie-like spiritual organization falls to her death while keeping watch on the stones for the approaching summer solstice. 

Inspector Torquil McKinnon of West Uist in the Orkney Islands finds his hands even more full. Someone has attacked Calum Scott, the local newspaper editor-reporter-owner, with a brick thrown through the window on the newspaper offices. McKinnon’s own constable is knocked out while investigating the brick incident. 

And Sergeant Lorna Glospie is assigned to McKinnon’s team by his arch-nemesis and boss Superintendent Lumsden to perform an audit, aka spying on the team to find something Lumsden can use to get McKinnon dismissed. What Lumsden doesn’t foresee is McKinnon and Glospie falling for each other.

Keith Moray
Murder Solstice by Keith Moray is the third in the Inspector McKinnon mystery series. And it serves up a mix of New Age spirituality, secret dogfighting, and a considerable number of crimes for a small Orkney community.

Moray has published five Inspector MacKinnon novels, with a sixth scheduled for later this year. He’s also published three historical novels, The Pardoner’s CrimeThe Fool’s Folly, and The Curse of the Body Snatchers; non-fiction books (under the pen name Keith Souter); and several westerns as Clay Moore. When he’s not writing, he practices medicine as a part-time doctor and medical journalist (he studied medicine at the University of Dundee). He lives in Yorkshire in England.

Murder Solstice takes its time in helping the investigation team realize that too many dead people are turning up in what can’t be coincidences, but once they understand, the story moves at lightning speed. The mystery is as enjoyable for its Orkney setting, inspector-sergeant romance, and often comic carrying on by the minor characters as it is for the primary crime story.


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"Joy on This Mountain" by Vikki Kestell

Joy Thoreson, daughter of Jan and Rose Thoreson, meets and falls in love with Grant Michaels. They marry, and she leaves River Bend, Nebraska, to settle with her husband in Omaha. They operate a hardware store, and all goes well, until Grant sails to England on a buyer’s trip and his ship is lost at sea.

Joy continues to work the store herself. She’s soon approached by a rather unsavory type of man (borderline thug) whose boss wants to become Joy’s business partner. After she repeatedly refuses, her store is destroyed in a fire, and she’s arrested and tried for arson. But the truth comes out, the guilty flee (or are killed), and Joy is exonerated. But her life in Omaha is over; she returns to her parents in River Bend to try to recover.

Her cousins in Colorado invite her to join them in a ministry aimed at helping women caught up in prostitution. They live in a mountain town two hours by rail from Denver, and it is a place with “houses” catering to some of the wealthiest men in the state. Joy accepts the invitation, and finds  gets caught up in a human trafficking issue right on the train to Denver. Wisely, as it turns out, she uses her maiden name – the mastermind behind the prostitution and human trafficking is the same man who ordered her store burned in Omaha. 

Add caption
Joy on This Mountain by Vikki Kestell is the story of Joy Thoreson and the third novel in her Prairie Heritage series (there are five more). It’s filled with the strong research of boom-and-bust Colorado, Pinkerton detectives, corrupt police and politicians, and young women caught up in degrading criminal activities. 

Before beginning her writing career, Kestell worked in government, academia, and corporate arenas, holding a Ph.D. degree in Organizational Learning and Instruction. She has also written four books in the “Nanostealth” series, three in “Girls from the Mountain” series, and several in the “Laynie Portland Spy” series, as well as a Bible study entitled “Growing Up in God.”

Joy on This Mountain, like its two predecessors The Rose Blooms Twice and Wild Heart on the Prairie, is an engrossing, page-turning, and hard-to-put-down read.


Monday, May 20, 2019

Poetry at Work, Chapter 19: The Poetry of Workplace Restoration

For a long time, I had what several of colleagues called the most interesting office at work. Because I was a speechwriter, I was expected to (a) read everything the CEO did, (b) read a lot of business books, particularly popular ones, (c) study books about speechwriting, and (d) read books on current issues. All of which meant I was doing a lot of reading. And the CEO likcd to read the novels of John Updike, just about anything by Charles Dickens, and anything published on the subject of Winston Churchill.

For a reader like me, this was a great job. 

One end of my office was floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Another wall had a smaller but still sizeable bookshelf. I also had a row of books on a credenza. It’s no surprise that my office was known as the building library. 

My “frequently consulted” books included poetry. That was by design. I had several old American poetry anthologies, and my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature (college textbooks) included considerable poetry by British writers. 

To continue reading, please see my post today at Literary Life.

"Where the Desert Meets the Sea" by Werner Sonne

Judith Wertheimer is arriving in Israel. Like many of her fellow survivors of the Holocaust, she’s arriving at night, in darkness, aboard a ship smuggling Jews into Palestine. It’s February 1947; the British Mandate still exists but Britain’s days of control are numbered. And then, who knows what will happen?

The British discover the smuggler ship: Judith jumps into the cold sea to get ashore. She’s desperate to find her one remaining relative, an uncle who emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s. When she discovers he’s recently died, she tries to take her own life and is taken to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. She needs a blood transfusion, and a nurse has a matching blood type – an Arab nurse. Juditch will later return the same favor to the nurse.

Thus begins Where the Desert Meets the Sea, the novel by Werner Sonne that tells the story of the people involved in Israel’s fight for independence in 1947 and 1948. It’s a story filled with tension, death, hatred, determination, and love, and Sonne tells it well through the lives of Judith; Uri, the Israeli freedom fighter whom Judith falls in love with; Hana, the Arab nurse who is rejecting a traditional marriage with an unwanted suitor because she’s in love with Dr. David Cohen, an American working at Hadassah who also happens to be Jewish; and Josef Goldsmith, a young officer in the British occupying army who happens to be Judith’s brother and who was on one of the last kindertransports out of Germany in 1939.

Werner Sonne
The story could have easily slipped into soap opera, but the ever-present reality of the political and social turmoil underlying the stories of the characters prevents that. Instead, the reader finds himself experiencing the mounting tension as the British army prepares to leave and the reality of war between the Jews and Arabs grows ever stronger before it finally explodes. 

The characters are fictional, but the events are historical. Sonne includes the infamous massacre of the Hadassah Hospital medical staff, their convoy bombed on the way to work. The irony is that Hadassah, funded by American Jews, served both Jewish and Arab patients. And on full display is the duplicity of the British, who theoretically were neutral but who were constantly tilting the scales in favors of the Arabs. In the hatred and rage that explodes in Palestine, efforts at understanding are lost and destroyed. One of the key themes of the story is how two women – Judith and Hana – come to see each other and their people as the enemy. 

Sonne was a German radio and television broadcaster for more than 40 years, covering the German government in Bonn and Berlin along with reporting assignments in Washington, D.C., Poland, and Moscow. He began his travels in the Middle East with the 1972 Yom Kippur War and also covered the war in Afghanistan. He writes on foreign and security policy and has written several non-fiction books. He’s also written several political thrillers and historical novels, but only this novel is currently available in English, translated by Steve Anderson, a political and historical thriller novel in his own right.

Where the Desert Meets the Sea is the kind of novel that you have to put down and walk briefly away from, because the tension grows overwhelming. You care for these characters, and you know it’s likely that some will not survive. Those who do survive will face a future of conflict and turmoil. It’s a great, riveting story.


Sunday, May 19, 2019

A named audience

After Luke 18:9

A named audience for the story,
not implied or to be inferred but
stated plainly and directly:
some (not all) 
who trusted (so far so good)
in themselves (whoa! We know
   where this is going!)
and what self-trust was about
   (we’re spiraling downward here):
their belief in their own goodness
   (yes, down the slippery slope)
with the result (expected and inevitable)
of treating others with contempt.
A coldness of self-recognition
creeps, wrapping its icy fingers
around our hearts, or enflaming
our self-trust in a defensive answer
or mutterings about this isn’t me,
is it?

Photograph by Davide Ragusa via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Saturday Good Reads

Simon Armitage has been named poet laureate of the United Kingdom, and it might be difficult to find a more worthy poet for the honor. He’s published numerous collections of poetry, travel writing, novels, and translations and retellings of classic epic poems and stories like The Odyssey, The Lilian, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Death of King Arthur. I reviewed his translation of the medieval poem “Pearl” for Tweetspeak Poetry.

Last weekend, we saw the movie Tolkien, starring Nicholas Hoult and Lilly Collins. It wasn’t entirely accurate factually, but it was still a beautifully filmed movie that told a good story. One big thing was missing though, barely hinted at in the movie, and Zak Schmoll at Entering the Public Square put his finger on it – where is Tolkien’s faith?

I saw the title “Why Our Pastors Need to Read the Founding Fathers” and at first thought it was going to be an article advocating political involvement by pastors. But that’s not what Hugh Whelchel wrote at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. Instead, it’s about understanding how America’s founders understood the concept of religious freedom. 

You’ll find little argument that social media, once heralded as “democracy for the rest of us,” has now become something very different – and often very destructive. The online journal The New Atlantis has brought a number of different subjects and themes together, and published an issue devoted to “The Ruin of the Digital Town Square.” It’s well worth reading.

More Good Reads


These nice guys – Joe Spring.

Beyond the Footlights – Helena Sorenson at The Rabbit Room.

Fashioning a Walking Stick – Charles Southerland at First Things Magazine.

Life and Culture

Very Much Shorter: Heavy Moments and Thin Places – Jake Lee at Very Much Later.

Evangelicals and the (Complex) Persecution Complex – Samuel D. James at Letters & Liturgy.

American Stuff

Music on the Spotsylvania Earthworks – Kevin Pawlak at Emerging Civil War.

News Media

Audit suggests Google favors a small number of major outlets – Nicholas Diakopoulos at Columbia Journalism Review.

How to Call Christians Out on Twitter – Thomas Kidd at The Gospel Coalition.

British Stuff

Bede’s Life of Cuthbert: The Remarkable Life of a Medieval Best-seller – Katharine Tiernan at English Historical Fiction Authors.

Que Sera Sera – Doris Day

Painting: Man reading a newspaper, oil on canvas by Stanislaw Eleszkiewicz (1900-1963)