Monday, October 30, 2017

The Snowman

The Snowman
by Jo Nesbø
translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Recommended Ages: 15+

This serial killer thriller set in Norway struck a chord with me. It might be partly because it features characters with a certain hereditary disease that, I recently learned, runs in my family. But I doubt it. It's also possible that the timing of when the book appeared before me on a supermarket book rack was ideal, with the movie based on it having just come out in theaters. But since I'm too broke to see the movie, that's also pretty iffy. If you bring up the fact that I immediately spotted something about the main character, Oslo police detective Harry Hole, that fit the profile of a profiler as presented by the genuine article - for I paused in the middle of reading this to devour John Douglas' FBI memoir Mindhunter - I would say you're getting warm. But in my opinion, the strongest theory about why this book grabbed me has something to do with this quote, which I scribbled on a notepad that I keep within reach while I read: "When he was young and inexperienced, he thought that a bad memory was a handicap for a detective. Now he knew better" (The Snowman, p. 16).

It isn't just that this sentence was an early clue that I was reading the work of a terrific writer, with a powerful insight into the heart of a complex, troubled character, and the ability to establish a pervasive, unforgettable mood. It's also that I suddenly realized, from those two sentences alone, that hardboiled mystery is not dead. Thank God!

Like the best hardboiled detectives, the cooking fluid that cooked Harry Hole contained a significant percentage of alcohol. In this seventh of (so far) 11 Harry Hole novels, the brilliant detective has gone sober, and is trying to stay that way in spite of daily, almost unbearably strong temptations. It is apparent that he went straight a beat or two too late. The love of his life, Rakel, whose son Oleg in a moment of distraction inadvertently(?) calls Harry "Dad," has decided she can't be with him any more, and is getting married to a nice doctor named Matthias, who works in the anatomy department at the university. His best friend and partner, the late Jack Halvorsen, seems - if I'm picking up the right hints - to have died, just as he was about to become a father, as a result of Harry's drunk driving. He is too afraid of hospitals to visit his beloved mentor, who has had a stroke. And, in spite of his brilliant crime-solving skills, he is still too erratic to have the full confidence of his superiors at Police HQ. They're watching for him to make one misstep, so they can fire him. And unlike Harry, they don't think there is, or ever will be, a Norwegian serial killer. He keeps hoping to spot one.

And then, in this book, he does. But I think he ends up wishing he hadn't.

The killer seems to like women who are married with children. They disappear, never to be found (except the first one) on the day of the first snow every year, and somewhere nearby, a snowman is always found, watching over the scene. As Harry and his new partner Katrine Bratt investigate the crimes, they gradually connect the latest woman's disappearance to the others, and to the vanishing of another hard-drinking, troubled cop 11 years ago in the rainy city of Bergen. At first the missing cop is a suspect. Then a plastic surgeon looks good for it. Then another suspect. Then another, whose identity will blow your mind. But don't worry, the red herrings haven't finished dropping yet. It won't be over until a monster's story is revealed - a story so disturbing it has wrecked my sleep for the last two nights - and he faces off with Harry in a deadly game in which the detective's life, limb, love, and sanity are all at stake.

If I set this book down with the impression that I have been mightily well entertained, it isn't just because the revelation of whodunit was an immense surprise; I've said before that I have a knack for guessing the solution of mysteries, and accordingly, I had this one spotted. But it was the character details that made me shiver, and the bleak, depressive outlook on life that left me aching for Hole, as I have ached in times past for Marlowe, Spade, and Ned Beaumont of the most perfect detective novel of all time, The Glass Key. And don't think I didn't notice the Oslo depicted in this book contains a bar named after that book. I see what you're doing here, Mr. Nesbø. You're transporting hardboiled mystery to a climate where it will keep.

Saturday, October 28, 2017


by John Douglas & Mark Olshaker
Recommended Ages: 15+

This 1995 book, recently reissued with a new introduction by the authors and currently serving as the source material of a made-for-Netflix TV series, is the personal memoir of the original guy who took FBI behavioral profiling on the road, using revolutionary techniques to help police departments all over the country solve serial rape and murder cases. It tells how, from the early 1970s on, the bureau's Investigative Support Unit (or whatever it was called at different times) literally wrote the book on classifying crimes according to behavioral evidence, preparing for interviews with dozens of convicted creeps by a thorough study of the case files. The conclusions they drew started a process, still ongoing, of changing the way law enforcement agencies catch the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, and the way psychiatrists and psychologists evaluate them as they come up for parole.

It is a sometimes terrifying, sometimes sickening, emotionally grueling review of some of our society's darkest nightmares. It does depict some uplifting moments and acts of heart-touching courage. But it also shatters some of the myths that movies and TV dramas perpetuate about serial killers and other psychopaths who feed at the fringes of society. There were passages in this book that stirred up feelings of injustice as I read them, and frustration at a system whose slowness to accept change and "paralysis by analysis" probably cost additional lives.

You probably remember many of the stories related in this book from news coverage of, or pieces of entertainment based on the events. If you're looking for a sensationalized account, you may be disappointed. The fascinating thing about each anecdote is the lesson the behavioral-evidence analysts took away from it. Some of them may seem like no-brainers now, but within my lifetime, they have made it possible to solve crimes that might have gone unsolved much longer. You might think Douglas is being boastful when he describes cases in which his team's profile fit the guy who did it to a T, but it goes toward his thesis that what they were doing wasn't mumbo-jumbo or armchair philosophy; it was scientific, and it brought real results.

It isn't all about creating a profile that led to capturing the bad guy, either. Douglas and Co.'s techniques also extended to taking proactive steps to flush the killer out of hiding; effective approaches to interrogation; courtroom tactics to ensure a conviction; and reconsidering the penal system's and the psychiatric establishment's methods for deciding whether a convict should be turned loose on society once again. His views on some of these issues may be controversial, but he marshals convincing evidence to back them up.

I haven't seen the Netflix series based on this book, but reading books about cops chasing serial killers is one of my many pastimes (most of which can be described as "reading books about" something or other). I'm intrigued by the possibility that I'll be a more critical reader of that genre in time to come. For example, I temporarily put down Jo Nesbø's The Snowman to read this book, and when I picked it up again, one of the first things I noticed was something Norwegian sleuth Harry Hole has in common with Douglas: a preference for reading a case file himself, and drawing his own conclusions, to listening to the cops on the case defend theirs. He provides cautionary examples of half-assed attempts at criminal profiling, like one psychologist who focused on a single piece of behavioral evidence at a murder scene, rather than the whole of the scene; again, it gave me an appreciation for the task of real-world crime solving that should keep me humble about my knack for guessing the solution of a mystery novel, which is quite a different thing. Finally, I was intrigued by the connection Douglas himself drew between his knack for storytelling and his ability to craft an accurate profile of a serial killer, even one based on scientific principles. The latter ability makes this a worthwhile book to read; the former, an enjoyable one.

John Douglas, frequently in collaboration with Mark Olshaker (as in this book) and sometimes with other co-authors, has also written a half-dozen other true-crime books, a couple of non-fiction books about law enforcement careers, two crime novels, and some works on crime-solving theory. He also claims to be the real-life inspiration for the character Scott Glenn played in The Silence of the Lambs. Olshaker is an Emmy-winning filmmaker and author of both fiction and nonfiction books. Other titles they have in common are Journey into Darkness,
The Cases that Haunt Us
, and Obsession.

Friday, October 27, 2017

221. Cancer Hymn

This is in honor of a long-time friend of mine, and sometime colleague in the holy ministry, who is currently fighting cancer. In part, it was also prompted by another minister's observation about a text that doesn't get preached on very often. I didn't do myself any favors by imposing such a difficult rhyme scheme on myself. After writing it, I had enough trouble finding a tune to fit its metrical pattern that I decided to write an original tune, titled BLAKE, on the spur of the moment and with no pretense toward inspiration.
Dear God our Father, You are over all,
Work through all things, and occupy all places:
Help, when our flesh is frail and lies in thrall
To evil things that swarm our inward spaces.

Surround us with Your word's ne'er-broken wall;
Restore our hearts through daily minted graces.
Bind what we suffer to Your upward call,
That should we die or live, we'll sing Your praises.

Use our ordeal to teach us of the fall,
Sin's cancer growing in all tribes and races;
Bid us repent, as You admonished Saul,
"It's hard for you to kick against the traces."

By our own cross, show us one yet more tall,
That dwarfs our sin, and our disease embraces.
Let Jesus' hand our sickness overhaul,
The touch that filth with cleanliness replaces.

Our spirits fail; our throats close on this gall;
Our ears rebel against consoling phrases.
Still, blend baptismal water with this squall;
Feed us with Christ, whose death the lifeless raises.

Our darkest hour clothe in Your spotless pall;
Our cold bed lighten with a hope that blazes,
Till we be gathered to Your banquet hall,
Where no eye weeps, nor any fear amazes.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sword of the Rightful King

Sword of the Rightful King
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Ages: 13+

Here's a book that plays with the notion that pulling Excalibur (in this book, known as Caliburn) out of the stone was a public relations gimmick that Merlin set up to help Arthur solidify his political base. But though he knows in advance he will pull it out and why, we see here an Arthur who is torn about whether he wants to be a king, or whether he deserves to be. We see him facing an early crisis in his reign, which, without a happy outcome, would have spoiled the bittersweetness of the tragedy destined to play out later. And we see a Merlin confronting the end of his time and the limits of his power as an evil power looms over Arthur's hopeful young court.

From the author of the "Young Merlin" trilogy, not to mention some 200 other books, comes this alternate telling of the first part of the story of King Arthur. It is, as Yolen comments in the extras at the end of this book, the one part in the legend of Arthur you could end with "happily ever after," before it all turns tragic. Like T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone (Book 1 of The Once and Future King), it pretty much ends with the pulling of the sword Caliburn from out the stone, proving Arthur's claim to be "rightwise king born of all Britain." Like Mary Stewart's Arthurian Saga, this book puts the sword-in-the-stone test after Arthur has already become king, and depicts it as a strategem by Merlin (here called Merlinnus) to convince the other noblemen and lesser kings, who have been slow to accept him as high king. Like both of them, it shows Arthur and Merlin being opposed by Morgause, who wants the throne for her sons Gawaine, Agravaine, Gareth, and Gaheris, and who is also secretly the king's half-sister. Unlike both, it depicts Arthur at the time of the sword-pulling as already established at Camelot (here called Cadbury), with his knight companions already gathered at the round table - even including Lancelot, who arrives later in White and never in Stewart.

In this book, Arthur is a strong young king who has proven himself in battle, but who has not taken so well to the administrative side of being a king. He has doubts about himself, and knows less about his true lineage than in any version of the story I have read. He is good at reading people, however, and a flat-out genius where it comes to winning their loyalty. The scene in which he converts Agravaine to his man is simply astonishing; and there are others like it. There are numerous scenes, for instance, in which Arthur schools himself to soothe Sir Kay's insecurities. But his grip on the throne is still precarious, with the "North Witch" Morgause up in her tower, spewing vile magic in his direction - not to mention sending an assassin after him.

In a novelty of this telling of the "old story but a good one," Arthur increasingly relies on Merlin's boy servant Gawen to stay a step ahead of Morgause's plotting. On the other hand, no one who has read Stewart's The Last Enchantment will be very surprised by the trick Yolen plays on Merlin(nus), or by Gawen's secret, since they are like a trick and a secret we have seen before. You can't go over old ground like this without seeing familiar landmarks. What keeps it interesting is how each re-telling infuses the familiar story-shape with new ideas, such as (in this case) a postmodern idea like, "Perception is reality." If you're watching for anachronisms, you might snicker with Schadenfreude on encountering the term "bedlam," supposedly used centuries before the founding of Bethlehem Royal Hospital in 1330. On the other hand, if you're looking for beautiful, lyric writing, you can't beat sentences like, "Pain was an old campaigner on his body's battlefield; they had walked long miles together."

Jane Yolen is a writer whose love of Merlin and Arthur is evident in every paragraph of this book, and who writes with ample skill to make you love them again. For more examples of her passion and her skill, see also the Pit Dragon series (I learned just now this "trilogy" has a fourth book), the Tartan Magic trilogy, the Stuart Quartet (Queen's Own Fool, etc.), the Young Heroes quartet (co-written with Robert J. Harris), the Seelie Wars trilogy (co-written with her son Adam Stemple), and such stand-alone titles as The Boy Who Spoke Chimp, The Dragon's Boy, A Plague of Unicorns, And Twelve Chinese Acrobats, Armageddon Summer, The Scarecrow's Dance, and one about a schoolkid who builds a golem to protect himself from bullies, titled B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy). Written from 1964 to the present day, they all sound so interesting, I doubt I'll grow tired of them anytime soon.

Friday, October 20, 2017


Mistborn (a.k.a. The Final Empire)
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

As I wrap up my third experience reading a Brandon Sanderson novel (after Elantris and The Rithmatist), I recognize what already must be, and is likely to continue being, a common motif in my reviews of his work. It goes something like this: "I don't care how many fantasy authors' works you have read, even the ones known for having a flair for world-building; you've never visited a world remotely like this before, and you won't forget it once you do."

In the world created just for this book, then invited back for at least six return engagements, an apparently immortal being known as the Lord Ruler has ruled pretty much the whole known world for a thousand years. Backed up by a ruthlessly efficient church hierarchy and his own practically godlike power, he has destroyed all previously existing religions and countries, and brought the surviving population under the mailed fist of what is known as the Final Empire. It's a theocracy, basically, with technology and society stagnating at a medieval level of development: war is fought with staves, spears, swords, and arrows; transportation is mainly powered by the horse, or by canal barges; and a privileged nobility lords it over a vast caste of rural peasants and urban factory drudges known collectively as skaa. The skaa are beaten down by a thousand years of serfdom, brutality, starvation, and generally being treated as less than human, so they would never even conceive of rising up against the Lord Ruler. Anyway, if they did, the clerical orders - including the scary, eye-tattooed Obligators and the soil-yourself-terrifying steel-spikes-through-the-eye-sockets Inquisitors - would surely get them before they annoyed the Lord Ruler enough to require him to exert his power. So, even though a lot of evil stuff is going on, and though the land is blighted by falling ash so that nothing green can grow, and though the nights are haunted by a weird mist in which most people are afraid to move about, and though millions of people daily suffer deprivation, discouragement, and death, everyone pretty much agrees there is zero chance any of this will ever change, if they even dared to think about it.

But one guy does dare to think about it, and in less than 700 pages, he makes that change happen. His name is Kelsier, and he's kind of insane. Until a few years ago, he was just a thief who enjoyed robbing the rich and noble. Then he and his wife got nabbed while trying to plunder the Lord Ruler himself. They were both sentenced to labor in the Pits of Hathsin, which is tantamount to a death sentence, mining a rare but extremely valuable substance called atium from narrow cracks in the earth lined with razor-sharp crystals. Kelsier emerged from the pits, the only Survivor of Hathsin ever known, scarred by the crystals, mourning the loss of his wife, but energized with a new purpose. And also, energized with the powers of a Mistborn.

I was afraid this review would get around to explaining what those powers are. It's such a big subject, and such a big part of what I mean by "you've never visited a world like this," there seems to be no way to do it justice in a paragraph. I could, perhaps, blow the whole secret in a series of bullet points, or perhaps a small table like the one in the caboose of this book; but I fear that would spoil the beautifully deliberate way Sanderson feeds you this information - in tiny drops, spread out across numerous pages. You would best learn about it as the main character does. She's a street urchin named Vin, who gets adopted into Kelsier's conspiracy to overthrow the Final Empire. Until now, she never knew she was a Mistborn, like Kelsier, born with the ability to summon eight (or ten, or maybe twelve) distinct, superhuman abilities, simply by consciously burning certain metals in her stomach. The arts, which occupy a unique middle-ground between magic and superhero powers, are known collectively as Allomancy. Some people, known as Mistings, can only burn one of these metals. People like Kelsier and Vin, who can burn all of them at will (provided they swallow enough of each kind of metal), are known as Mistborns.

Keeping the powers of Allomancy out of the hands of the skaa is a major factor in why the Lord Ruler is so harsh on the little people, and for certain practices he requires of the nobility - like killing their mistresses before they can bear children, and killing skaa who show Allomantic abilities. Only the nobility are allowed to have these powers, but Vin and Kelsier are both illegal halfbreeds. So are the members of Kelsier's crew, including a Soother (who can manipulate people's emotions), a Thug (whose metal gives him superior strength and agility), a Tineye (who has heightened senses), a Seeker (who can detect other Allomancers), and a Smoker (who can conceal other Allomancers). These are only some of the types; but with their combination of all the Allomantic metals, Vin and Kelsier can literally fly through the misty night, executing robberies and assassinations that would make ninjas look like complete klutzes.

Vin's world has some other weird creatures and people-groups in it, like people who can store things like their own strength, intelligence, age, and even weight in metal receptacles, and use them later; shape-shifting creatures known as mistwraiths, feared by many; a specialized type of soldier called a Hazekiller, who specializes in fighting Mistborns; and, it is even hinted, some kind of giant or troll that can somehow be organized into a fighting force. How could anyone bring down a worldwide empire with all these dangers in it, one that has never been seriously challenged in a thousand years, one whose populace is totally cowed and whose nobility, while complicit in the Lord Ruler's crimes, is too preoccupied with internal rivalries to be much of a threat to him? How do you get rid of a ruler most people believe is literally God, or (to be theologically precise) a "sliver of the infinite," indestructible, overwhelming in his power, and possibly even deserving to be worshiped since he did, after all, save the world from certain destruction? The answer may lie in a recently discovered manuscript written around the time of his mysterious "ascension" from mere humanity to apparent divinity, when a now-forgotten prophecy singled out one ordinary, emotionally conflicted man as the Hero of Ages. It might have something to do with the "Eleventh Metal," which Kelsier has discovered can be allomantically burned, if only he can figure out what it does. Or it might just involve one big, complex plot in which Vin impersonates a noblewoman and spies on guests at all the best parties, while other members of the conspiracy raise an army, foment a war between the noble houses, infiltrate the Obligators, and work out strategies to lure the local garrison out of the city, lure the palace guard out of the palace, and rob the Lord Ruler blind.

Sanderson takes big risks as a writer, for example, depicting in detail long conversations in which the main characters hatch their plan. His risks pay off, though his characters' risks are not always so well repaid. Everything, inevitably, goes wrong. And yet hope remains alive, in a dramatic shape that builds to a massive payoff. It is alternately, and at times simultaneously, thrilling like an action adventure, deeply touching in both noble ideals and personal emotions, and mind-blowing in the perfectly-timed resolution of its central mystery. He has lifelike characters, captivating dialogue, and a setting for which the adjective "atmospheric" seems pathetically inadequate. I laughed. I trembled with agitation. I got a lump in my throat. And I took breaks from the book, the better to draw it out and savor it.

I had a book mark jammed 45 pages into this book for a year or two, but it remained close to the top of of the pile of books I planned to read. (Coincidentally, it was right under The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan, part of the "Wheel of Time" cycle, which this book's author completed after Jordan's death.) The trouble is, I kept jumping into whole connected series of books I hadn't planned to read, and reading them first, while stories I was truly enjoying cooled their heels on a table at the end of my couch. Sad to say, the stack goes down so deep, I'll probably never see the bottom of it - but, as some of my recent reviews show, I'm working on it. And the delay has nothing to do with my feelings about this book or Brandon Sanderson's writing. It's only the third book of his that I've read, but I think he's one of the great creative writers working today in the fantasy genre.

Part of the challenge of reviewing this book reminds me of another fantasy great, Raymond Feist: How do I even describe this book in bibliographical terms? I'm not even sure what the title is. The edition I read, possibly an early imprint, bears the title Mistborn, period. But apparently, that is now regarded as the name of the entire series, and current editions are giving this book's title as Mistborn: The Final Empire or simply The Final Empire. One online description of a spinoff novella (Mistorn: Secret History) acknowledges the confusion by referring to this installment as Mistborn, without italics, but adding (The Final Empire), in italics and parentheses; which is just weird. I guess this is how the movie originally known to all the world as Star Wars became rebranded as A New Hope, or sometimes "Star Wars Episode IV." Another problem is that this book is often described, even on its author's own website, as the first book in a trilogy, and the designation of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages as "the trilogy" persists even in descriptions of the fourth, fifth, and sixth books in the series (The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, and Bands of Mourning). So, basically, it's a book that has two or three titles, which is the first part of a trilogy, which begins a six-book series, plus that pesky spinoff book, which is actually described as a Cosmere novella - referring to a separate series of at least three books set in the same universe.

Moving past that, let's give Mr. Sanderson credit for the tremendous body of work he has amassed since about 2005. They include Elantris and its Hugo-winning novella companion The Emperor's Soul; five "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" books; four "Stormlight Archive" books (The Way of Kings, etc.); two "Infinity Blade" books; two "Legion" books, one of which is actually a novella; three "Reckoners" books (Steelheart, etc.); The Rithmatist, which is still hanging out there as the first book in a series but hasn't gotten a sequel yet; and some shorter pieces of fiction. Because I've been so slow reading this book, they've multiplied faster than I can keep up. Nevertheless, I want to read them all!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Memes I've Created

If memory serves, I created these memes before posting them on Facebook sometime during the last two or three years.

Apropos the 2016 presidential election.

The guy on the left is Lyndon B. Johnson.

Photography Potpourri

I've been neglecting the photography thread on this blog, while posting a lot of photos I have taken on Facebook. So, to remedy that, here is a bit of catching up, with selected photos I have shot and posted on Facebook from early 2015 forward. I make no effort to put them in logical or chronological order.

This bird was eating seed off the rail of the deck behind my parents' former home in Laurie, Mo.
That's my dad, then a co-worker in the newspaper business, walking up the path to the Missouri Governor's Mansion in Jefferson City.
A mural in the house chamber in the Missouri State Capitol.
A window in the house chamber in the Missouri State Capitol.
Various birds enjoying the nifty bird feeder my parents used to hang over their deck in Laurie, Mo.
A tree and a shed that I thought looked interesting on an Easter Sunday morning a couple years ago in Stover, Mo.
I shot this graffitied sign a block south of the public school in Stover, Mo.
I don't remember exactly where I shot this butterfly, but it was somewhere in Morgan County, Mo.
This dog found the real thing while straying in the business district of Stover, Mo.
This vehicle was entered in a car show in Versailles, Mo.
These classic cars were displayed in Stover, Mo.
This flag looked great against a clear blue sky outside the nursing home in Stover, Mo.
These and some other flowers shown below were spotted outside a Lutheran church in Stover, Mo.
I think I saw these wildflowers growing near the scene of some bridge construction I was shooting for the newspaper in the vicinity of Gravois Mills, Mo.
More flowers from that Lutheran church in Stover, Mo.
These flowers volunteered themselves in front of a house where I used to live in Versailles, Mo.
More flowers from that Lutheran church, Stover, Mo.
This bug gave me a start in the house where I used to live in Versailles, Mo.
I didn't shoot this. I'm the kid on the left, with my half-brother Jake (middle) and my brother Ryan, circa 1989, in front of our maternal grandparents' house in Minneapolis, Minn.
This killdeer was protecting its nest in the parking lot of the Stover Rural Fire Protection District office.
This was one of the last photos I took of my late cat Tyrone, who died last year age 14.
The late Tyrone with Sinead, who is now 10 years old and currently my sole cat.
I spotted this young goat at the Morgan County (Mo.) fair a year or two ago.
This interesting structure, in extreme western Morgan County, Mo., had something to do with a retention pond from a spring on the site of one of the county's earliest settlements, Byler's (or Boyler's) Mill. Taking this picture led me to write a feature story about the original mill.
Again, I didn't shoot this; this was shot of me, while playing the piano before a Christmas service at a little country church outside Stover, Mo.
Here are some shots I took of my alma mater, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., when I was on campus this past spring.
Shot of me, not by me. From left, my brother Ryan, his son Reece, my parents' dog Rudy, and yours truly.
The Aug. 23 total solar eclipse. I shot this through a special filter from Boonville, Mo.
Marketing, country style. I shot this in Florence, Mo.
Beware the soft ground. I shot this in Florence, Mo.
A beautiful old building that I shot in Florence, Mo.
Barred rays of the sunset, earlier this month over Stover, Mo.