Friday, January 31, 2020

Debt is plural

After Matthew 6:12

He didn’t say my debt,
he said our, defining
debt as collective,
repayment as collective,
atonement as collective,
confession as collective,
day-to-day life as collective.
Debt is plural; we repay it
together. Forgiven people
forgive together.

Photograph by rupixen via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

“The Man Who Played with Fire” by Jan Stocklassa

Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) is best known for the Millennium Trilogy of crime novels, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005). He was also a short story writer and a journalist. Inspired by his grandfather. Larsson for years tracked and documented the activities of Sweden’s far-right and neo-Nazi groups, amassing and maintaining voluminous files. 

Stieg Larsson
In February, 1986, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was walking home with his wife after seeing a movie in Stockholm when a lone gunman shot and killed him. The gunman also fired at Palme’s wife, but her slightly turning away caused the bullet to tear through her clothes and only leave powder burns. A massive investigation followed and continued for years, but the killer has never been identified or found. 

Jan Stocklassa is a Swedish writer and journalist who was working on a story about how places involving crime scenes seem to have their own legend. He was studying at a luxury apartment in Stockholm that had been the scene of a triple murder in 1932, when he learned that the apartment had also been occupied in the 1980s by a couple once suspected in Palme’s assassination. That led him to the Palme investigation, and eventually he discovered that Stieg Larsson had also investigated the assassination as a reporter, and his research was included in a large file of documents.
Olof Palme

Stocklassa found the documents. And Stocklassa, like Larsson, became riveted by the Palme story. And he learned that the story stretched from Stockholm to London, Cyprus, Prague, South Africa, and rural Sweden. The Man Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin (translated by Tara Chace) tells that story. It’s the story of the Plame assassination, of shadowing groups and associations, and state security officers who were willing to do anything in the name of state security. And it is also the story of Stieg Larsson, a man almost obsessed with opposing far-right activities.

The story told by Stocklassa involves pseudonyms, strange telephone calls, a contact in Prague who decided she would come along for the investigatory ride, the confessions and amnesties after the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, hacking of Facebook conversations, surreptitious video and audio recordings and other borderline and not-so-borderline legal activities.

Jan Stocklassa
Stocklassa is based in Sweden and reports on international affairs. His first book, Caught by Prague (2007), dealt with corruption in Saab and British Aerospace’s plans to sell jetfighters to the Czech Republic. He’s also helped launch newspapers and has been a documentary film producer.

The Man Who Played with Fire keeps your eyebrows near your hairline, with shocks and surprises that seem to happen on almost every page. Stocklassa tells an exhaustingly detailed story, but by the end, you fairly certain of what happened to the Swedish prime minister.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

"On the Shoulders of Hobbits" by Louis Markos

I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the late 1960s, using what I didn’t know were pirated editions published by Ballantine. I reread authorized editions in the mid-1970s, and again in the early 2000s when the Peter Jackson movies were released. My youngest and I saw the movies three times each at the movie theater. We also watched the DVD of each movie. And the extended DVD set. 

I read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis in the mid-to-late 1980s, when our oldest was six or seven years old and loved being read to. The hands-down favorite character for all of us was Reepicheep the Mouse, a humble character called to great things much like Tolkien’s Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. 

Over the years, I’ve bought a lot of books by and about Lewis and Tolkien. On one of our trips to England, I spent two hours in Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford; I stared in wonder at the whole section devoted to the two authors and the Inklings. If there is heaven on earth, it is called Blackwell’s in Oxford.

Facebook has taught me that I am not alone in my admiration for Lewis and Tolkien. We are legion.

When a scholar like Louis Markos publishes a book about both authors, it’s an event for Lewis and Tolkien fans like myself. And rather than rehash what we already know, On the Shoulders of Hobbits takes a fascinatingly different approach – it considers The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia as guideposts to the classical virtues, like courage, friendship, temperance, discernment, justice, faith, hope, and love.

Louis Markos
Markos begins with the road, or the journey, featured in both of the works. He considers the call of the road, the response to it, its dangers, and what happens at the end. The road isn’t necessarily a physical one; it can be any kind of extended task that’s fraught with difficulties and where the outcome is by no means certain. He moves then to discuss the classical and the theological virtues, and the roles they play in both stories. And then he examines the idea and problem of evil, and how it is portrayed, confronted, and battled. 

Markos is a professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University. He speaks widely on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Christian worldview. His books include Atheism on TrialApologetics for the 21stCenturyFrom Achilles to ChristWorldview Guides to The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The AeneidC.S. Lewis: An Apologist for EducationLewis Agonistes, Literature: A Student’s Guide, and Heaven and Hell: Vision of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition. He lives with his family in Houston. 

On the Shoulders of Hobbits also serves a good reminder that great stories about virtues, the call of the road, and fighting evil aren’t only for the young. That’s what the book is ultimately about – what good stories like these can teach us, no matter what our age or experience or station in life. 

After all, Frodo Baggins was 50 when he leaves the Shire with the ring to travel to Rivendell.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Poets and Poems: Daniel Leach and “Voices on the Wind”

Some 40 years ago, a new school of poetry emerged, one that today we’d call retro. Named the “New Formalism,” its poets engaged with traditional poetic forms, ones where meter and rhyme were integral. The best-known of the New Formalists are Dana GioiaMark JarmanMolly PeacockPhillis Levin, and Timothy Steele. They come from varied backgrounds, but they were all generally part of the Baby Boom generation, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Daniel Leach
Another name for New Formalism might be “classical poetry,” the poetry that many of us grew up with in English and literature classes, like the sonnets of William Shakespeare and Philip Sidney, the epic poetry of John Milton, the story poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the traditional poetry of Sara Teasdale, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Lee Masters. Modernism, led by T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Dylan Thomas, was in many ways a full-scale assault on traditional and classical poetry.

One of the unexpected benefits of the internet and social media has been the renewed interest in poetry, and that includes classical poetry. Related to the New Formalism, classical poetry is beginning something of its own revival, and classical poets are finding each other and new platforms to publish their work. These include the Society of Classical Poets and The Chained Muse.

Poet Daniel Leach publishes classical poems on both as well as others.

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

Monday, January 27, 2020

"Sherman's March to the Sea" by John Marszalek

Many events of the American Civil War would reverberate and be remembered for decades afterward – the Battle of Gettysburg, the siege of Vicksburg, and the firing upon Fort Sumter among them. But few had as lasting an impact as Sherman’s March to the Sea.

In September 1864, the army of General William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta, an important Confederate city and transportation hub. In addition to giving President Lincoln a significant election campaign boost, the fall of Atlanta disrupted the South’s rail system and posed the possibility of dividing the Confederacy east of the Mississippi (the fall of Vicksburg had already severed the eastern and western halves of the South). 

General William Tecumseh Sherman
In Mid-November, Sherman began to move his army of 62,000 men in three columns from Atlanta eastward toward Savannah. This became the lore of “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” hailed in the Union and reviled in the South. The army had no effective opposition, and about three weeks after the march began, the Confederates abandoned Savannah to the oncoming Union army. 

Those three weeks would loom large for decades after the war. What the Union army did and didn’t do would become an integral piece of the South’s “Lost Cause” story, used to justify Jim Crow laws, “separate but equal” arguments with schools, and a host of other actions an programs. 

In Sherman’s March to the Sea, historian John Marszalek takes a look at what happened. He evaluates what evidence exists from official records, reports in Northern and Southern newspapers, diaries, and other sources.

Marszalek considers why Sherman decided on the march, one that would cut his army off from supply lines and force it to live “off the land;” how the march was organized and went forward; what happened to the towns; farms, and plantations in the path of the army; what happened to the slaves on those farms and plantations; and whether Sherman achieved his objective of eliminating a supply base of food and support from the Confederate armies. 

The general met his objective; the march dealt a mortal blow to Southern psychology and supply lines. Unintended if to-be-expected results, however, included untold misery on the civilian population, white and black alike. Union soldiers who strayed too far from the advancing to pillage and loot were often caught and hanged by Confederate troops. Reprisals would follow, sometimes on civilians. Farms were stripped of livestock and food supplies, and buildings burned. 

Marszalek devotes two chapters to what happened to the slaves. As the federal army moved through the countryside, slaves abandoned their owners and attached themselves to the army. Sherman had expressly forbidden the “contrabands,” as they were called, to do this, but try telling that to people long enslaved getting their first taste of liberation. Disillusion at ill treatment by the federals soon developed, but thousands of people kept following the army eastward. While food was plentiful, like it was in the early days of the march, Sherman companied about the contrabands but did nothing to stop them. But the food situation worsened as the army moved more eastward into areas where food supplies and livestock were less plentiful. 

John Marszalek
At Ebenezer Creek, one corps used a pontoon bridge to cross. Some 650 liberated slaves, many of them women and children, were held back, until the bridge was cut loose and floated down the creek. The people threw themselves into the creek, trying to get across. A Few succeeded; others drowned. Most were left on the shore, where they were quickly rounded up by Confederate troops. Reports of what happened quickly surfaced in Washington, where they were used by Sherman’s political enemies. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sailed to Savannah to see for himself and met with local black church leaders, who supported Sherman.

Marszalek is professor emeritus at Mississippi State University, where he taught courses in the Civil War, Jacksonian America, and race relations. His published works include Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for OrderCourt Martial: A Black Man in AmericaCommander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of Henry W. Halleck, A Black Congressman in the Age of Jim Crow: South Carolina’s George Washington Murray, and several others.

The following years would see Sherman lionized in the North and reviled as Satan incarnate in the South. Legends grew up about the march, and it’s not easy separating fact from Lost Cause propaganda. Sherman’s March to the Seamakes the attempt, even as the author’s sympathies lie clearly with Sherman.

Top photograph: Sherman’s soldiers destroying a railroad in Atlanta.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

What is a debt?

After Matthew 6:12

What is a debt, to be
forgiven? A momentary
transaction, to be sure,
but the implication is
larger, something owed.
It might be monetary; but
the idea of debt suggests
something owed. Gossip
is a debt; a damaged
reputation is a debt. Fraud
is a debt. Substitution
is a debt. Life is a debt.
To repay the debt, we are
to forgive as we are
forgiven, to live a life
of honor and service,
a life of atonement,
of mercy given freely,
of good bestowed widely,
as it has been given to us.
as it has been atoned
for us. 

Photograph by Ian Espinosa via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Saturday Good Reads

In 1834, Amos Bronson Alcott founded a school for children in Boston. His assistant, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, began writing a book about it, called Record of a School. One of the school’s students, noted in the book is Louisa May Alcott. Claire Beam at The Millions describes how that school experience formed the backdrop for Little Women.

In 1850, it’s estimated that five percent of the population of New York City was abandoned children. There and in many other cities, the problem of orphans had reached crisis proportions. And one solution was “orphan trains,” in which abandoned children were placed on trains and sent west, stopping in various cities so the children could be paraded and possibly adopted. By 1929, some 250,000 children had ridden an orphan train. See “The Heartbreaking Tale of Orphan Trains” at Notes from the Frontier.

History can be, and often is, messy. Humans are flawed beings; we make mistakes, we sin, and we can cause pain and misery to others. But we can also do heroic things, deeds that inspire and lift up. Sometimes we can do good and bad at the same time. Frank Jastrzembski at Emerging Civil War reminds us of one such individual – a Union general who was a Civil War hero and within two years of the war’s ending became a corrupt carpetbagger. Should General Milton Littlefield be honored? Frank Jastrzembski at Emerging Civil War asks if it’s the right thing to do.

In 1987, Allan Bloom wrote a book that became a national sensation: The Closing of the American Mind. It detailed how American higher education had failed both students and democracy. Academics and the higher critics dismissed it as a rant from the right. Joseph Horowitz at The American Interest takes another look, and he says the book now looks prophetic. 

Years ago, a friend suggested rereading the Lincoln-Douglas debates, substituting the word “abortion” for the word “slavery.” I took his advice and read one of the debate reports. It was an eye-opener. Jesse Johnson at The Cripplegate takes a look as well, and he finds some disturbing connections between the arguments defending slavery and the arguments defending abortion.

More Good Reads

Life and Culture

‘1917’ and the Ruin of Beautiful Things – Jeb Ralston at The Soul of a Sparrow (H/T: Nancy Franson). 

Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite – Michael Lind at The Wall Street Journal.

A Nation with No Memory Has No Future – Joseph Pearce at The Imaginative Conservative.

On Being Kind – David Heddondorf at Front Porch Republic.

Leviathan, Zarathustra, and the End(s) of Liberalism – Brian Mesimer at Mere Orthodoxy.


5 Features That Made the Early Church Unique - Tim Keller at The Gospel Coalition.

All This Useless Beauty – Jessica Hooten Wilson at Church Life Journal.

Love in Ordinary Form – Jennie Cesario at Dappled Thoughts.


‘Song at Sunset’ and ‘Poor Gluteus’ – Connie Phillips at Society of Classical Poets.

On hearing the swallows’ song – Joe Springza at Joe Spring Writes.

The pleasant mandolin(e): T. S. Eliot’s musical enthusiasms – N.S. Thompson at The Times Literary Supplement.

British Stuff

A Vicar Saves His Flock – Dr. John Little at English Historical Fiction Authors.

American Stuff

It’s Hard to be a Patriot – Amitai Etzioni at CityJournal. 

Address to the City of London – Dwight Eisenhower via The Imaginative Conservative.

Writing and Literature

Getting to the next level as a writer – Janet Reid, Literary Agent.

Searching for a Los Angeles Cop Novel of My Own – Lee Goldberg at CrimeReads. 

A Constellation Near and Wide: Thornton Wilder and Sigrid Undset – James Como at The Imaginative Conservative.

Rediscovering the Lost Power of Reading Aloud – Meaghan Cox Gurdon at Literary Hub.

Jerusalem – CityAlight

Photograph by Aris Sfanianakis via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Why daily?

After Matthew 6:11

Why are we to pray
for bread, daily?
Why not weekly or
monthly, or at least
quarterly, a perfect
planning period
for corporations so why
not us? Surely, we
know our own needs
well enough to pray
for our quarterly bread.

Unless, we don’t know
what we need, not really;
perhaps we barely grasp
what we need daily;
who thought daily 
might be abstract?
Except it is. And asking
for daily bread keeps us
on our knees, a reminder
of how little we know,
how little we control.

Photograph by Monika Grabkowska via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"The Geordie Murder" by Roy Lewis

The Office of Fair Trading is trying to crack down on loan sharks. It hires Newcastle, England attorney Eric Ward to help find a victim who will testify – something few victims would even consider doing, given the possible physical consequences. 

One victim might be amenable, but holds off, until he comes to Ward with a more serious problem. His 13-year-old daughter has been kidnapped from school. She just happens to be the 13-year-old granddaughter of an Irish business tycoon, in town to negotiate the sale of a land parcel from Eric’s wealthy wife Ann. 

The police are of no help. They seem completely disinterested in pursuing the kidnapping case, which tells Eric that the Irishman is definitely involved and leaning on the police to do nothing. Then there’s a murder, and all of these disparate cases and pieces of cases just might possibly tie together.

Roy Lewis
The Geordie Murder by Roy Lewis is the sixth in the Eric Ward mystery series, originally published in the 1980s and now being republished. And it’s a good thing, too. These are first-rate mysteries, exploring the underside of not only the criminal class but the higher levels of society more than willing to work with the criminal class to get what they want. 

And Eric Ward, the attorney who had to quit the police force because of glaucoma threatening his eyesight, manages to maintain his sense of fair play, ethics, and justice while casting a knowing eye at the institutions that are supposed to do that.

Lewis is the author of some 60 other mysteries, novels, and short story collections. His Inspector Crow series includes A Lover Too ManyMurder in the MineThe Woods MurderError of Judgment, and Murder for Money, among others. The Eric Ward series, of which The Sedleigh Hall Murder is the first (and originally published as A Certain Blindness in 1981), includes 17 novels. The Arnold Landon series is comprised of 22 novels. Lewis lives in northern England.  

The Geordie Murder maintains Lewis’s reputation for top-notch mysteries stories. We learn about human frailty, venality, and idealism, often combined in the same characters.


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Love's Thankful Heart" - Three Novellas

The Amish romance has been a strong sub-genre of Christian fiction for close to four decades now, and it seems to be still going strong. A decade ago, I posed the question, “Does it always have to be an Amish romance?” – a kind of vague complaint. Then one of my favorite authors, Dale Cramer, pulled from his own heritage and wrote a series of Amish romances. And I started the series, because it was Dale Cramer, and actually read (and enjoyed) them. But that was my total experience with Amish romances. Until now.

Love’s Thankful Heart is a collection of three novellas by three authors, all writing an Amish romance centered on the Thanksgiving season. Laura Hilton has written a number of works in the genre, as has Rachel Good. Thomas Nye writes in a kind of sub-sub-genre – Amish romance horse stories (I didn’t know this sub-sub-genre existed).

In Laura Hilton’s “Gingerbread Wishes,” Becca Troyer is selling late-season vegetables in a small-town Missouri farmer’s market when a member of a performing mime group kneels and presents her with a toy ring and a proposal. She’s flustered and embarrassed, not the least reason being she’s quietly attracted to a local boy, Yost Miller, a good friend but one who seems disinterested in romance. The mime, of course, is Yost, and he’s anything but disinterested. His problem is shyness. He’s also a volunteer firefighter, and a crisis occurs that changes their relationship.

In “Thanksgiving Stranger” by Rachel Good, Crist Petersheim is a former Amishman disillusioned with faith after a family tragedy. He’s wandering around a rough area downtown area of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, appearing to be homeless. He’s actually working undercover, trying to spot and identify illegal drug activity. Faithe Beiler and her mother operate a restaurant in downtown, and it’s here that Crist seeks a cup of coffee. Over the days and weeks leading to Thanksgiving, the man who’s lost his faith will fall in love with the woman who ardently holds on to hers, no matter what the circumstances.

“Thanksgiving Frolic” by Thomas Nye, Monroe is in love with Rosemary, and she’s possibly in love with him, but he seems to take too many chances with the fancy horse he uses for his buggy. They’ve been courting for three years, but Monroe seems to not want to move beyond courtship. Part of the problem is a silly bet he made with a friend, and part of the problem is Monroe’s father, who believes in charity begins at home and looks askance at any farmer who doesn’t take care of his own farm first – like Rosemary’s aging grandfather. These obstacles, and more, look like they’ll stop any hope the two have for marriage. Or will they?

The three novellas of Love’s Thankful Heart share the Thanksgiving season in common, but they represent three very different approaches to the Amish romance.

Top photograph by Randy Fath via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Editor of the Legendarium: Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020)

Imagine being a child, listening with your siblings to bedtime stories about Bilbo Baggins, or being enchanted at Christmas-time as your father read the latest installment in the Father Christmas letters, featuring the antics of Polar Bear. Then imagine being that child at five years old and grasping enough to point out inconsistencies in your father’s stories. Or being a young man in your 20s, and joining the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and others for a weekly pint at the pub – participating in one of the most famous literary discussion groups of the 20th century,

Perhaps it’s no wonder that J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) eventually chose his youngest son Christopher Tolkien (1924-2020) as his literary executor. An academic and writer in his own right, Christopher would preserve and extend his father’s legacy for nearly 50 years after the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings died. It is because of Christopher’s dedication to this task that we have The SilmarillionThe Fall of ArthurThe Fall of GondolinBeren and LuthienThe Children of HurinThe Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, and many other stories and tales. 

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

Monday, January 20, 2020

"Heroes of the Fourth Turning" by Will Arbery

It’s almost too much to imagine: a play with five characters, four former students returning to their college in Wyoming to celebrate the appointment of their mentor as college president. All five characters are some shade of conservative, as is the college they attended. They come together, and they clash, each articulating a perspective and wanting to convince the others of the rightness of what they believe, or at least be understood.

What’s hard to imagine is that this play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery, was successfully staged in New York City and received positive reviews by the New YorkerThe New York TimesCatholic HeraldTime Out, and Vulture, among others. And the characters are not treated as caricatures, as conservatives often are in contemporary culture, but as real people with hearts, minds and passions.  

Justin is the older student, in his late 30s, playing a kind of caretaker role and always trying to help. Teresa lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by progressives, and she is on a crusade to save America from progressive destruction. Emily is ailing and physically frail, or thinks she is, and wants everyone to see all sides of everything. Kevin is the almost hostile skeptic, deciding he’s lost his faith, or perhaps not. And Gina, the new college president, is the pragmatic Never Trumper conservative. This five come together, and soon the fireworks begin.

The title of the play is taken from a book published in 1997, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny by William Strauss and Neil Lowe. They hypothesized four recurring cycles in American history: a period of confidence, followed by a period of rebellion, then an unraveling, and finally the crisis of the “fourth turning,” a rebirth of a new order. Teresa argues that the crisis of the fourth turning is upon America, and it’s time to fight for what they believe. No one else agrees, especially Gina, the college president.

What is bared is that the characters are indeed facing a crisis, but it’s more personal than a rebirth of the existing social and political order.

Will Arbery
Arbery received a B.A. degree in English and drama from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from Northwestern University. A playwright and filmmaker, he’s written five plays: Heroes of the Fourth TurningPlanoEvanston Salt Costs ClimbingWheelchair, and You Hateful Things. He’s currently under commission from Playwrights Horizons and Shadowcatcher Entertainment.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a fascinating play to read. Conservatives might be surprised to see some of themselves in each of the five characters. (I was.) Non-conservatives might be surprised to find conservative characters depicted as living, breathing, intelligent people, instead of the usual cartoons presented by the news media. More important are the ideas and often challenging discussion around empathy, academia, and what many perceive as the collapse of the social order.

(Note: The play is not available at any of the usual outlets, including Amazon, but can be found at Playwrights Horizon.)

Top photograph: A scene from the recent production of Heroes of the Fourth Turning in New York.