Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Mystery of Mystery Novels

The mystery of mystery novels is how to find a good one! I love Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe stories from the 1940s (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, etc.), but I can only re-read them every couple years when I've forgotten the plots, and so in between I've been searching far and wide for other good ones (mostly in libraries and used book stores). As in most categories of art and entertainment, I've only found about one in a hundred that I like. I usually stop reading them shortly after I start, because they just don't draw me in enough, they're not my kind of thing, or they have too much offensive material. But once in a while I find a "keeper," so I thought I could save you some time searching yourself by telling you about a few that I liked...

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Childs is one of his many Jack Reacher novels.  I've read several others in the series, and they have pulled me in, but I was not pleased with the total product, partially because of uneven quality but also because Jack Reacher is so often amoral and immoral. Gone Tomorrow is consistently good and mostly unoffensive, except for the one brief but totally unnecessary episode of fornication toward the end. Fortunately it is not described graphically...but why do authors have to throw sex into every story?! Do they think that a relationship can't be good or complete without it? Anyway, the story is very interesting, the hero has some good qualities, and the cover is soooo cool-looking! (Yes, the way a book looks is important to me, and yes, I know I'm weird that way.)  [The next Reacher book, 61 Hours, is also very good, if you can stand the fact that it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.]

Image result for the good guy koontz

The Good Guy by Dean Koontz was a good read. I've tried several other books by Koontz and have only finished one (The Husband, which was underwhelming, especially at the end). But I thought The Good Guy kicked some derriere...probably largely because of my Christian sensibilities... the main character is actually a good guy, for goodness sake, and that was refreshing in this age of the anti-hero. I have to admit the end was a bit anticlimactic, but at least it was satisfying, and the ride to there was great. Check this one out.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane kept me turning page after page to find out what in the world was going was certainly successful by that standard. But it also raised some interesting issues about mental health, psychiatry, and even psychopharmocology that I enjoy mulling over. I tried a couple of his older private eye novels (A Drink Before the War, Prayers for Rain) but can't recommend them because the protagonists are so depraved and the ultimate "lessons" are so nihilistic or hedonistic. But though Shutter Island definitely shared some of the nihilism, it is more well directed at the depravity of man and his hopeless attempts to cure "mental problems" without God.

The Good Fight, Henry V Style! (Plus...What if Hamlet had gone to Wittenberg?)

Shakespeare's work, as much as any other, embodies what I mean when I say "Truth is no stranger to fiction."  His plays are are filled with illustrations of biblical principles, two of which stood out for me recently as I revisited a few of my favorites.

First, Henry V provides a wealth of insight into how we can "fight the good fight," as Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:18, and how we can motivate others to do so.  When I think about the spiritual warfare we face, Shakespeare's words in Henry V often come to mind... "Once more unto the breach!"  Here's that part of the play, with King Henry leading his troops at the battle of Harfleur:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger!

Image result for henry v movie once more breach

Then later, at the battle of Agincourt, in the famous "St. Crispian's Day" speech, notice especially the different ways that Henry motivates his troops, and imagine that God is using these ideas to engage you in the real ongoing battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil...

O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

What's he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland?
No, my fair cousin.
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires;
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, "These wounds I had on Crispian's day."
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford, and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

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As you read that, did you notice all the different ways that Henry motivated his men? (If not, go back and see if you can identify's fun!). He did so by the promise of reward, the shame of cowardice, personal satisfaction for the present and the future, leaving a legacy to the next generation, friendship and community with others, redemption from past sins, and a sense of great accomplishment. I love all those aspects of the speech because they all reflect biblical motivations that the Scriptures provide for us as well! That's why you should "fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience," as Paul told Timothy.

Secondly, revisiting Hamlet reminded me of a pet theory of mine, which is about how Shakespeare and the Reformation are more related to one another than a cursory observer might think. I would love to write a paper/article on this issue sometime, if I ever become disabled or otherwise end up with the time I would need to write everything I want to! But I'll give you a little taste here...

The Bard lived in a post-Reformation England, of course, and although he dabbled in Roman Catholicism (a "rebel heart" manifesting itself?), he no doubt was influenced by the brighter lights of the Protestant movement (and perhaps inspired to some of his biting satire by the darker parts). One of the most interesting examples of this, that almost no one is aware of, is in the beginning scenes of Hamlet, where he makes the point at least twice (it might be three times, I can't remember right now) that the young prince of Denmark was headed to school in Wittenberg--yes, the same German city where Luther had taught--before his evil uncle talked him into staying at the castle. The implication, to me at least, is that if Hamlet would have gone to Wittenberg, he would have learned about the grace of the cross and all the tragedies in this tragedy would have been avoided! In case you think that's too much of a stretch, I would add that Horatio, who represents the moral compass of the play (notice he's the only character who remains pure), was already enrolled in the school at Wittenberg and had spent the previous year there. It's all in the play...check it out some time if you don't believe me!

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Monday, June 26, 2017

The Best Dickens You've Never Seen

I've been thrilled lately to find that my three youngest daughters actually enjoy watching Dickens with me, so I'm taking advantage of it whenever possible.  Over the last month or so we've done David Copperfield (BBC version with Daniel Radcliffe), Great Expectations (BBC version with Gillian Anderson), Oliver Twist (BBC version with Tom Hardy), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (a BBC version where they finished it).  You might notice the "BBC" theme in that list...I find that I almost always enjoy their versions better than bigger budget Hollywood versions, and that includes non-Dickens material, like the long Pride and Prejudice version with Colin Firth that we also watched recently, happily choosing it over the shorter theatrical one.  I'd like to write some things about that great classic sometime, but the Dickens' story we watched this past weekend is the most fresh in my mind right now...

Some observations about the 2009 BBC version of The Old Curiosity Shop, in no particular order:

  • There are only 31 reviews of the movie on, so apparently it is relatively unknown among the Dickens film corpus.  Which is a shame, because I think it's great!  But that's one of the purposes of this blog--to introduce others to some "lost treasures" I've had the privilege of finding.
  • Toby Jones chews some major scenery (and a hard-boiled egg, shell and all) as the villainous Mr. Quilp, whose evil comes back on his over-sized head, of course (this is Dickens, after all).
  • Terrific casting for the lesser characters (like a pre-Hobbit Martin Freeman as an opportunistic puppeteer) and nice little touches like Sally Brass's slightly visible mustache.
  • Speaking of casting, one of the reasons I like the TV versions better is that Hollywood would have cast actors for Little Nell and Jacob that are as attractive as supermodels, but the ones here--though not unattractive--actually look like real people.  It's less distracting and more involving.
  • The scenery and set design are so beautiful... I love the rich warm colors in most of these British period pieces, and in almost every scene of many of them.  The Old Curiosity Shop was particularly beautiful to look at, from the bustling city and town streets to the English countryside, with the darkly symbolic but gorgeous snow in the later scenes.
  • The 90-minute run time of this adaptation was welcome, because it's nice to have a Dickens experience that don't last over six hours like Bleak House and Little Dorrit (great as they are), and this particular novel is one that actually benefits from some streamlining.

I personally liked the changes the writers made in the story (mostly for streamlining purposes, and to reach an emotional payoff in a shorter time), but I'm glad they didn't remove the themes of the gravity of sin and the glory of redemption, which were central to Dickens.  Nor did they shy away (as Bleak House and Little Dorrit unfortunately did) from the overt references to those gospel truths and their Divine Source.  In the novel, the guilty grandfather says after his repentance, "Aye! Thank God! I have prayed to Him, many, and many, and many a livelong night, when she has been asleep.  He knows."  And when he follows Little Nell into the next life, his body is laid "in the church where they had often prayed."  In the movie, there is less time to develop Dickens' powerful illustrations of human redemption, but they are still captured well by the writers in climactic moments that combine together disparate events in the longer novel.

When the Grandfather finally comes to his senses and sees the destructiveness of his addiction, he cries out "Forgive me!" to an unconscious Nell and then adds under his breath, "God forgive me."  Then later when she is awake but dying, she graciously volunteers "I forgive you" before he even begins to seek it from her, providing for us a picture of initiatory sovereign grace, even as her death itself echoes the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ by serving as the efficient cause of the personal redemption of her Grandfather, and others as well.  Even the gradual conversion of the careless Dick Swiveller occurs according to biblical principles--he is won over by the character of a good humble woman and a call to a cause greater than himself.

Speaking of biblical themes, I was fascinated in perusing the novel after watching the movie to find a section in which Dickens comments briefly on an idea that he explored later in much more depth in his novella The Haunted Man, which is that even the greatest evils in this world (like the death of an innocent) ultimately have good purposes in God's plan.  (Perhaps this was also a lovingly ironic stab at his readers, many of whom had complained bitterly at his decision to let the dear girl die.)  So I'll leave you with this favorite paragraph from the book, in which Dickens philosophizes after he recounts Little Nell's funeral and says that the mourners had "with tranquil and submissive hearts turned away, and left the child with God...."

"Oh! it is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach, but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and is a mighty, universal Truth. When Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the Destroyer’s steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to Heaven."