Friday, July 31, 2020

The law of death

After Romans 7:1-6

We chafe at is restrictions,
its do’s and don’ts, this thing
we call the law. We are 
free of the law only when
we die, breaking free from
the chains of rules and
statutes and amendments
and codes.

And so
when we die to death,
when a new birth lifts us
above the law, the way
of death, no longer are we
creatures of the law but
creatures of love,
belonging to each other,
belonging to the one
who died and
lives again.

Photograph by Kai Stachowiak via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

“The Marriage Murder” by Roy Lewis

Newcastle-on-Tyne Attorney Eric Ward has gotten himself into a serious fix. The former-policeman-turned-attorney has just had an argument with his wife Ann, right before she leaves for a three-week business trip to Singapore. Accompanying her is her own corporate attorney, a man nearer her age and one Eric has little use for. 

And now he has to attend an evening business reception, one of those boring affairs he hates. Finally getting away, he’s leaving the parking lot when an attractive woman who’d made something of a scene at the gathering flags him down; her car won’t start. and she needs a ride home. She also needs legal advice about something she says she’s gotten too deep into. Eric succumbs to her charms and finds himself in bed. 

She’s asleep when he leaves, and then he realizes he can’t find his car keys. Returning to her flat, he finds the woman dead in the living room, her neck broken. He eventually realizes that it will be only a matter of time before the police find her car, learn she was at the reception, and start interviewing attendees as possible suspects. He’s right; the police are also asking for DNA samples. 

Roy Lewis
One of Eric’s ne’er-do-well clients gets himself in a fix, owing a gambling debt and being framed for a burglary. And then the man is found at the scene of a murder with the interesting twist of the body being missing. Slowly, and with the help of his regular informant, Eric comes to see that the crimes are connected, leading in the direction of another client and the chairman of the board Eric serves on. 

It’s messy, it’s complex, and it’s a ripping good read. First published in Britain in 2000 under the title A Form of DeathThe Marriage Murder by Roy Lewis is the tenth in the Eric Ward series. 

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.

It appears that Eric Ward may lose everything – his good name, his marriage, and possibly even his freedom. And that’s the mesmerizing tension point in The Marriage Murder.


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Bill Grandi Reviews "Dancing Prince"

Pastor Bill Grandi has published a review of Dancing Prince at his blog, Cycleguy's Spin. 

"What I want to say deals more with my personal emotions," he writes. "I found myself twisting and turning with each turn of the plot. Unexpected twists. Unprepared-for turns. I simply had trouble putting the book down. If it hadn’t been for Glynn I might have gotten more stuff done at home. I might have decided to cut the grass instead of saying, “It’s too hot to do much of anything.” And doggone it if he didn’t make it hard to put the book down and go to bed!"

You can read the entire review at Cycleguy's Spin

How to Revive a Dying Church

The so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations – the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Methodist Church, and a few others – reached a high-water mark in membership in the mid-1960s. The Episcopal Church, for example, stood at 3.6 million members in 1966; today, the membership is 1.8 million. The decline of the traditionally major denominations is even starker in countries like Britain and Canada. 

Yet, individual church success stories persist. Not all individual churches have declined. Caswell Cooke, a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church (and seven-term city councilman) in Westerly, Rhode Island, took a look at the decline and asked some questions. Why have some Episcopal churches continued to grow and flourish, and others have dwindled? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

The Death and Resurrection of the Episcopal Church: How to Serve a Church in Decline is the result of that look. Cooke is an informed layman in the church. He served in the choir of his church during childhood. He’s a junior warden and acolyte warden in the parish. He’s a delegate to the Diocesan Convention. He leads the church’s communication committee. Cooke has also been a television and radio show host and a documentary producer and director.

He’s also passionate about the Episcopal Church. And he’s willing to face facts and urges clergy, vestry, and the faithful core of parishioners to do the same. Ignoring the national decline in membership, he suggests, will only guarantee more decline.

Caswell Cooke
He begins with basic tactics, like signage that doesn’t mystify, an internet presence that is current and inviting, and using communication technologies to their best effect. Capitalize on a great location. Even update those visitor cards on the backs of pews. 

He moves on to the national church’s policies and says it’s time to tell the church’s story instead of focusing almost exclusively on whatever the latest social justice cause is at the moment (he cites a few). He also asks what the ongoing revision of the prayer book has achieved, other than no growth and membership decline. And, he says, what if the church focused its energies and resources on proclaiming the gospel?

Cooke packs even more suggestions in this barely-100-page book. It’s not difficult to see the enthusiasm and the love he has for his church and denomination, and that enthusiasm and love frame both his criticisms and his proposals for a path forward.

My own church is a member of a conservative Presbyterian denomination. We’re celebrating our 175th year of existence, and the church has weathered the Civil War, plagues and pandemics, world wars, social upheaval, and economic depressions to continue to grow. It does exactly the things Cooke describes in The Death and Resurrection of the Episcopal Church, with the primary focus being the proclamation of the gospel. What he urges on his fellow Episcopalians really works.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Dancing Priest: What You Learn at a Group Book Discussion

In February, a woman at church asked me if I would be interested in talking with her book discussion club about Dancing Priest. She had read it, and the three published after it, and said she had recommended it to the club. The question became, how fast could I say yes?

Then came coronavirus, and everything went into hibernation. But Dancing Priest hadn’t been forgotten, and once our county emerged from lockdown (or sort of emerged), the discussion was back on. Last week, I sat for two hours with the club’s members, about eight or nine people in all, and talked about Dancing Priest, its successor novels in the series, and the new and final novel in the series, Dancing Prince

Virus note: Yes, we wore masks and sat in a socially-distanced-approved manner.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Dancing Priest.

Photograph by You X Ventures via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Monday, July 27, 2020

“At Gettysburg” by Matilda Pierce Alleman

You’re 15 years old. You live with your family in a small town, known for its college. Your brother is a soldier, and he’s currently away on duty. Your days are focused on household chores, looking after your younger siblings, and attending a girls’ school in town. There’s a war on, and occasionally you hear rumors of soldiers and action. But life is quiet, and it’s always good when the family receives a letter from the brother.

And then you’re in school one day, and enemy soldiers come running and riding through the streets. You hear gunfire. You see looting as you make your way home. This time, the rumors have turned out to be true.

From July 1 to July 3 of 1863, the life of Matilda Pierce Alleman (1848-1914), called Tillie by her family, was turned upside down. In 1889, more than 25 years after the battle, she published an account of those three days, At Gettysburg, or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle: A True Narrative.

As the clash got underway, Tillie’s parents sent her with a neighbor and the neighbor’s children to a farm outside of the town of Gettysburg. They had to make their way through the cemetery, hearing gunfire the entire time, before reaching a safe road to the farm. What no one knew at the time was how the battle terrain would be constantly shifting. And the farm was located near an area Tillie knew from picnics – what locals called “Round Top.” 

Matilda Pierce Alleman at 15
The farm became a base for the Union army and especially for its field hospital. Over the next three days, Tillie became a witness to horrific scenes of battlefield casualties, makeshift surgical operations, and wounded and dying men. She would help army doctors, bring food and water to the wounded, and occasionally sit with and offer comfort to the dying. The girl who had been sitting in a classroom two days before became the girl who saw the pile of amputated limbs next to the barn.

Civil War memoirs became and remained extremely popular in the 1880s and 1890s. Ranging from Ulysses Grant’s Personal Memoirs to accounts by privates and officers on both sides of the conflict, these books also included accounts like Tillie’s. The story of a young girl caught in a conflict, hers is especially moving as she responds with courage a spirit of service. She doesn’t downplay the personal fear, either; at one point she and the other civilians in the farmhouse have to leave because the area is being blasted by shells. 

At Gettysburg is a novella-length memoir, made the more impactful by offering an often-poignant glimpse of what many civilians experienced and endured during the four years of war.

Top illustration: Gettysburg in 1863 by Alfred Guernsey (1824-1902) and Henry M. Alden (1836-1919), Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Chicago: Puritan Press, 1894), Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Wages and gifts

After Romans 6:15-23

Slaves of sin
are paid a wage,
a wage whose
end is shame
and death.
Slaves of God
receive a gift,
a gift of life,
of life eternal.
A slave of God
is a slave
of righteousness,
the slavery of life.
The gift is free, 
no strings attached.
The gift is a choice,
freely made.
It is a strange thing
that this slavery 
leads to life. 

Photograph by Ravi Roshan via Unsplash, Used with permission.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Saturday Good Reads

Last year, I wrote about Walter Duranty, the reporter for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from the Ukraine in Russia, saying there was no famine and things were just fine. To be blunt, he lied for Stalin. It’s estimated that 11 million people died from the famine. In the 1990s, there were calls for his Pulitzer Prize to be revoked, but the Pulitzer board said no. As Francis Maier notes at First Things Magazine, there’s a new movie about what happened, entitled “Mr. Jones” and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I wonder if The New York Times will review it. 

The ghost of Walter Duranty may still walk the halls of The New York Times. Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist has the story -- the reporting that won a Pulitzer Prize for The New York Times (and shared with the Washington Post) in 2017 turns out to be a fabrication

I’ve seen the story in the Wall Street Journal but nowhere else. There is a rash of vandalism and arson attempts going on, directed at churches (especially Roman Catholic) in the U.S. and Canada. One particularly bad one was an arson attempt at a church in Florida, where the arsonist set the fire with people inside preparing for mass. Clemente Lisi at Get religion asks, where’s the national news coverage?

Speaking of news media, The Responsible Puppet has compiled a list of everything that the media say will come to an end because of the coronavirus. The list includes automobiles, globalization, auctions, tourism, college, bullfighting, luxury retail, your marriage, the open plan office, business travel, and useless meetings. That last item tells you how uninformed reporters can be – American corporations could not survive without useless meetings. 

More Good Reads


How to More Wisely Consume News – Brian Weynand at The Gospel Coalition.

Storm be still – Hyatt Moore.

Going Over Jordan: Images of Baptism in “1917” – Basil Burroughs at The Imaginative Conservative.

British Stuff

BP Portrait Awards 2020 Virtual Exhibition – National Portrait Gallery, London. The prizewinners can be found here.

Where are the bones of Hans Holbein? – Jonathan Jones at The Guardian.

Thomas Cromwell’s Reputation – Michael Coren at The Critic.

Lionel de Rothschild’s Azaleas at Exbury – Judith Taylor at English Historical Fiction Authors.

American Stuff


The wit and poetry of Billy Collins – Mary Harwell Sayler at The Poetry Editor.

Friday Harbor – Martha Hollander at Literary Matters.

Michael – Sonja Benskin Mesher.

Mary Magdalene: A Sonnet – Malcolm Guite.

Poetry’s Revival and Mr. Wilson – David Paul Deavel at Catholic World Report.

Life and Culture

The Left is Now the Right – Matt Taibbi.

Writing and Literature

Are You a Reader? – Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent.

A Love Letter to Developmental Editors – R.L. Maizes at Literary Hub.

What We Relate To When We Read Books – Josh Malerman at CrimeReads. 

Edith Wharton: The Best Seller Who Hated Best Sellers – Sheila Liming at Lapham’s Quarterly.

Bless the Broken Road – Piano Solo by The Piano Guys

Painting: Woman Reading by Candlelight, oil on canvas (1907) by Peter Ilsted (1861-1933)

Friday, July 24, 2020

The choice of slavery

After Romans 6:15-23

What you follow, who
you follow, becomes
your master, and you
their slave. It is
a choice: you choose
to obey sin, with
its death knell, or
you choose to follow
obedience, with its
sing of life.

You have chosen life,
you are set free from
death, you are now
slaves to life.

Photograph by Zulmaury Saavedra via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

"Grandma Rachel's Ghosts" by Jonathan Dunsky

In the late 1970s, I first started reading the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991). The event that sparked my reading was likely his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. He wrote and originally published only in Yiddish; eventually, his works were translated into English. Perhaps more than any other writer, his stories and novels helped to preserve, even if in a small way, the Yiddish culture of Poland and Easter Europe that was destroyed by Nazi Germany.

His stories are filled with ghosts and conmen, rabbis and rounders, saints and sinners. He had grown up in Poland’s Yiddish culture before he emigrated to the United States in 1935 (he saw correctly perceived the Nazi threat). From his own experiences, and those of family and friends, he had a huge well of memory to draw upon.

I was reminded of Singer’s stories when I read “Grandma Rachel’s Ghosts” by Jonathan Dunsky. The author calls it a fantasy story, but I have my doubts. Grandma Rachel is dying, and she’s unnerving her daughter and the family with what sound like ravings. She’s claims to be talking to her two dead sisters, and no one else can see them.

Jonathan Dunsky
That is, until grandson Jacob arrives. As a child, Jacob spent a lot of time with Grandma Rachel. And he’s seen the two sisters many times, dressed in long woolen dresses, talking with his grandmother and commenting on everything from how to raise Jacob properly to baking desserts. Jacob also knows the sisters’ stories.

Dunsky is best known for his Adam Lapid mystery stories, with five published and the sixth soon to be. The five are Ten Years GoneThe Dead Sister, The Auschwitz ViolinistA Debt of Death, and A Deadly Act. He’s also published The Favor: A Tale of Friendship and MurderFamily TiesTommy’s Touch: A Fantasy Love Story; the short story “The Unlucky Woman,” and other works. He was born in Israel, served four years in the Israeli Army, lived in Europe for several years, and currently lives in Israel with his family. He has worked in various high-tech firms and operated his own search optimization business.

This short story, like those of Singer, linger long after you finish reading them. It’s indeed about two ghosts, but it’s also a story of how culture and memory are transmitted through the generations. 


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Even More Billionaires and Romance

There’s an abundance of billionaire and romance books on the market; more than an abundance, actually. There are standalone novels, extended series developed along a theme, authors who specialize in this sub-sub-genre, and authors who join with others in creating a series of books. I’m not so sure this is a sub-genre as it is an industry.

I recently read three of these novels, by different authors and unrelated by series, looking specifically to answer a few questions: How do the writers imagine their billionaires to live? Where do they live? How did they make their money? And who are they, or what kinds of families do they come from?  Considering these three, and several others (see “Related” below), I discovered some very common similarities.

A few of the billionaires in these stories come from wealthy families; most have made a lot of money as entrepreneurs, usually in the tech industry. If they come from wealthy families, there’s some conflict with the family. Both kinds of billionaires will (inevitably) spend a lot of money, as in the tens of thousands, when they’re trying to impress a woman on a date, flying in servants and all kinds of specialty foods from all over. I don’t even have to mention that they’re always handsome (of course, who wants to write or read a romance about an ugly billionaire?). Ninety-nine percent of the time, the billionaire is a man; I can recall only one story in which the billionaire of the title was a woman.

One other thing these billionaires tend to do – they fall in love with a woman who’s down-and-out, or struggling to make ends meet, or raising a child or children as a single mother and living on a subsistence wage. Read enough of these stories, and you soon see that these novels are a variation on the “knight in shining armor” fairy tales, with a big house instead of a castle.

In Her Billionaire Inventor by Dobi Daniels, Phillip Dexington owns a medical technology company that’s developed a new product for knee replacements. It’s his second company; he sold the first for more than a billion dollars. Sarah Nash has returned home from California to visit her best friend from high school for Christmas. She’s just finished paying off debts run up by a lousy boyfriend who conned her mother into helping him to her credit cards. Her car has barely survived the trip.

Phillip and Sarah meet at the local town’s orphanage, where they’re both doing some volunteer work during the holidays. It turns out they have a history; Phillip knows it but Sarah doesn’t remember it. And in school, Phillip had been the class nerd who has somehow turned into a hunk.

You have to allow for a number of coincidences in the story, but it’s a tale of first love comes around again.

Her Billionaire Lifeguard by Sophia Summers involves a different industry – cosmetics. Trey Hemsworth and his partners have a highly successful cosmetics firm, and to get away for a break, they head to Cancun. They meet Scottie Redding, an artist with a small shop. Trey becomes entirely smitten with the beautiful artist. Meeting the group on the beach, Scottie thinks their lifeguards, working in Cancun for the summer. 

Then Trey discovers Scottie’s identity – the daughter of his mentor in the cosmetics industry, a man who recently died. Scottie had control of the company wrested away from her, and she fled to Mexico. They finally admit who they are to each other and begin to plan a way to win back Scottie’s company for her.

Some of the shenanigans that go on with the company board and the villain of the story tend to stretch credibility a bit, but the story eventually comes through with a tale of true love rewarded.

In The Billionaire Doctor by Deb Goodman, the billionaire in question is Owen Montgomery, working as an emergency room doctor. His family owns the biggest pharmaceutical company in the country, and his grandfather wants him to give up this hospital nonsense and take his place in the firm. He’s also still reeling from the end of his engagement with a woman she should feel thankful he got away from. But he doesn’t believe he can pursue any relationship until he understands what happened to the last one.

Natasha Campos is a former schoolteacher now running her own student academic improvement firm. She has a problem with commitment – staying committed to any career and any relationship. Often feeling overwhelmed with running her own business, she’s already thinking about applying for a position with Teach for America. She also harbors hurt feelings from high school, when she was often bullied by the school’s top cheerleader – the woman who was engaged to Phillip.

They meet, they develop a relationship, they start to fall in love – but. Will Phillip succumb to family pressure and leave for Chicago to run the firm? Will Natasha accept the position with Teach for America and leave any thoughts of Phillip behind?

By using diverse characters and a realistic billionaire, the story manages to avoid cliché that it could have slipped easily into. Instead, it becomes a rather absorbing account of two very different people trying to find themselves and each other.


Top photograph by Daniel Salcius via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Dancing Prince: The Exhibition at the Tate Modern

An exhibition at the Tate Modern plays a critical role in the story of Dancing Prince

Jason Kent-Hughes, whom readers first met in Dancing Priest as Jason Bannon. Jason, then 16, was one of the “warehouse children” living near St. Anselm’s Church in San Francisco. He’s drawn to Michael’s outreach program, a coffeehouse with live music. In A Light Shining, Jason is taken in by Michael and Sarah Kent-Hughes and eventually adopted. Almost accidentally, Michael and Sarah discover the boy has a gift for painting. 

By the time of Dancing Prince, Jason is in his early 30s, married and with two sons of his own. He’s an assistant curator at the Tate Modern. As Sarah recognizes in the story, their San Francisco street child has become an artist with a gift for art administration. As part of a regular staff activity, he gives a talk on the two paintings by Sarah owned by the museum. The interest is so great that the museum has to move the venue from a lecture room to Power Hall, the large interior space that helps define the Tate Modern’s architecture.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Dancing Priest.

Photograph by Dil via Unsplash. Used with permission.