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Daniel Taylor: Death Comes for the Deconstructionist

I just finished this wonderful book. You should read it. 

I'm busy with, among several other things, trying to put a mobile-friendly design for this blog into operation, so I'm not going to say a whole lot about it. I'll let the blurbs at the publisher, Slant Books, do that job for me: click here

Well, of course I can't resist saying something. Imagine, if you will [Rod Serling voice], a murder mystery written by Walker Percy. Imagine that it's Percy at his wittiest and most surgically painful and merciful. Like I said, you should read it.


Slant Books: Web Site and Blog

Perhaps you're aware of Greg Wolfe's new enterprise, Slant Books. Slant is:

a literary imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers specializing in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essay collections, and beyond. 

Wipf and Stock, as you probably know, is a theologically-oriented publisher. You can read a bit more about both the house and the imprint here

Slant has a new web site, and a new blog called Close Reading, which is off to a very interesting start. That title phrase is one I'm fond of, and haven't heard for a long time. It was a sort of ideal or at least a highly regarded practice back when I was on the fringes of literary academia, and to me it was tied up with a more or less moral ideal of intellectual integrity. I'm a little surprised that it's survived, since the kind of close reading I hear of these days often seems to be more along the lines of the "interrogation" practiced by post-modernists, for which the association of the word with secret police and beatings is often far too appropriate. But here is what it means at Slant:

Close Reading is the art of paying attention to the ways that literary form and meaning interact. In our politicized era, when craft and vision have often been replaced by propaganda, the art of close reading reminds us that great literature deepens our respect for mystery and the divided nature of the human heart — and in so doing offers us hope for healing and reconciliation.

I'll certainly be following the blog. And as for Slant's titles, well, at this point I don't have much personal experience, but what I have seen is excellent. As those who read this blog may be aware, I don't read a lot of contemporary literature, which is in large part because I'm still trying to read the classics. But I did buy Daniel Taylor's mystery, Do We Not Bleed?, some months ago.  It's the second in a series, and I enjoyed it for several chapters until I decided that I really needed to know more about the background of the narrator and his odd sister, Judy. So I bought Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, which I've barely started but is off to a great start: its more-or-less-accidental detective seems to be a Walker-Percy-ish sort of character, "expert on a thousand things I wish I didn't know." (That reminds me of one of my favorite pop song lines, Bob Seger's in "Against the Wind": "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.") 

One thing I can say with certainty is that these books are beautifully produced. Here are the links again:

Slant Books

Close Reading

3:10 To Yuma

Several years ago (more than several, actually) I had the notion of watching the old-time Westerns that are considered classics. I went through several of them--The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and maybe a couple of others. I was somewhat disappointed, especially as I loved Western stuff when I was a kid, and didn't go any further. 

The other day something reminded me of another film that's usually ranked with those others, 3:10 To Yuma, from 1957. I found it on the Criterion Channel, which I have not used very much and am wondering whether I should cancel, and watched it, in two roughly 45-minute sessions.

I really liked it, and it's definitely my favorite of its type at this point. It's a good story, pretty convincing for the most part in spite of the conventions of the time. It's about a rancher who ends up, more or less against his will, solely responsible for getting a captured outlaw on that 3:10 train, with the outlaw's gang trying to stop him. Glenn Ford, atypically, plays the outlaw, and is very effective--genial and charming with just a hint of menace. 

But what I really love about it is the photography. It's very crisp black-and-white, and full of the Western scenery that I love. The story is set in southern Arizona, and I think it may have been shot there, or perhaps in some part of southern California where the landscape is similar. You can get a sense of the quality in this Criterion Collection trailer:

The song, by the way, has nothing at all to do with the plot, except for the title reference. 

The movie is based on an Elmore Leonard story by the same name. Being an admirer of Leonard, I was curious about the original story, and found it at the local library in a collection called The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories. I suppose I have to say that I was disappointed in the story. It's pretty slight, its action including only roughly the last half of the movie. It's a case where you could argue that the movie is better than the story, though I don't really trust my judgment there, since I encountered the movie first. Some of the other stories in the collection are really good, though. And they have a sort of potato-chip, can't-eat-just-one appeal. I think I've read half of them now, and I only got the book a couple of days ago, with no intention of reading more than the one story.

There's a 2007 remake of the movie which apparently got pretty good reviews. I may watch it sometime. My interest was dampened a bit by a clip which I saw on YouTube, thinking it was just sort of a trailer, which gave away the very different ending.

Many years ago in college I had a Southern Lit teacher who had a very old-style  genteel southern accent, and who once, when whispering and giggling broke out in class, said to the culprits "I fail to see the humor." Only in his accent it came out as "I fail to see the Yuma."  It's unfortunate for me that I still remember that after almost fifty years.

The Eighth Day Books Catalog Is Back

I say that even though I had never seen it until a few days ago, when it arrived in the mail, announcing its return. I didn't know it had been away. I've been hearing about Eighth Day Books for years, but didn't know much more than that it is a highly regarded Christian bookseller, with an Orthodox slant. 

I think they got my name and address from one of the magazines I subscribe to. I can tell because they have my name as "Maclin," not "James M" or "Mac." Maybe it was Touchstone. Or Dappled Things. In any case, I'm glad they did, because it's a great catalog. If you're not familiar with it, but you used to get the old A Common Reader and/or Cahill and Company catalogs, this can fairly be described as a Christian version of them. I know, Cahill was/is Christian, but, as I recall, in a sort of lite way. And I seem to recall liking Common Reader more, but it's a shaky memory.

At any rate I did love the Common Reader catalog, which I think was killed by Amazon. It was a good read in itself, and although I did not order very often from it, because I didn't have much money to spare in those days, it did introduce me to some writers of whom I had not previously heard, such as Alice Thomas Ellis and Ronald Blythe. (I hope I'm not giving it credit that should go to Cahill and Company; these are decades-old memories.)

The Eighth Day catalog is just as good, just as much a good read. I've now looked through most of, and read much of, its 130 pages. I have to admit that I have no plan and not a great deal of desire to order books from several of its categories: Theology and Patristics, Ecclesiography, probably not even Spiritual Direction or Athletes of Prayer. At one time I might have coveted some of these, but at this point in my life much of it seems too specialized for me. But the literary stuff, and the more general philosophical-theological stuff--well, I've already marked several titles to be ordered.

For instance: George Steiner, known primarily as a literary critic, died recently. Many years ago (close to fifty) I read some of his reviews in The New Yorker and was impressed enough by them that his name stayed with me as a writer I might want to investigate further. I think it was one of these which included a remark which has stayed with me ever since: that The Waste Land was "a last run through the stacks before they close the library." I never have followed up on that impulse, but news of his death reminded me of him. And here's this catalog which includes two intriguing titles by him, Real Presences and In Bluebeard's Castle.

And I do intend to order them from Eighth Day, possibly even using the order form in the back of the catalog. Even if one disapproves or is suspicious of Amazon in principle, the temptation to use it is often almost irresistible, for reasons which I'm sure we all know, and which come down to "it's so convenient." For a while I tried to make myself use my local independent bookstore instead, but essentially everything I want is a special order for them, requiring two trips to the store (one to place the order, one to pick it up). Also: (a) I suspect special orders are more trouble than they're worth for the store, and (b) I don't think the store needs me. This has become a pretty affluent town over the past 25 years or so, and the store now includes a coffee shop and a music venue, and seems to be doing very well without my occasional few dollars.

Here's the Eighth Day Books web site. At a quick look I don't see a way to sign up for the catalog, but maybe if you order from them they put you on the list. Another reason for buying from them is to keep getting the catalog, though I suppose it doesn't change very much from one edition to the next.

Interesting Item for Twin Peaks Fans

Some intriguing comments from Mark Frost at the Welcome to Twin Peaks web site, which I guess I should look at more often. On The Return:

The themes we were looking at were different. All of that is reflected in the show. I think it’s an older and somewhat sadder and wiser look at the world.

I found the third season somewhat disappointing, but that wasn't the reason. I guess my criticisms are worse, really, because what disappointed me were some of the specific artistic moves. The minimizing of Agent Tammy Preston's role, for instance, for which Mark Frost's book The Secret History of Twin Peaks raised expectations. 

And I don't know about "wiser." Darker, for sure. 

It Pleases Me To Know That This Exists

CollectorsWodehouseThe publisher's description doesn't say, but multiplying rows and columns in that image gives me ninety-nine for the number of volumes. I think that covers all the fiction, though apparently sorting that out is complicated--the order and titles differ somewhat between British and American printings, for instance. This treasure can be yours for only $1975.00, and probably worth every bit of it. I say "probably" because I don't have much acquaintance with Wodehouse's work apart from the Jeeves and Blandings books. 

These are very, very nice editions. I have all but one of the Jeeves-and-Woosters, and a few others. I thought I had all the former, but discovered the other day that I lack one, Right Ho, Jeeves, and immediately sat down to order it. I came across this collection in the course of searching for Right Ho. It appears that some of the individual titles, perhaps many, have gone out of print. I hope they won't stay that way. 

I first became really fond of Wodehouse some years ago after a rather dispiriting Christmas, when I found that he is a very effective mood-brightener. And now reading one of his books around the holidays is...well, not exactly a firm tradition, but something I do most years. This year I couldn't remember which ones I'd read, so I arranged the shelf in order of publication and read the first one, The Inimitable Jeeves. This holiday season was a little on the extra dispiriting side, so I'm having a second helping, Carry On, Jeeves. This one I have read before, and am enjoying every bit as much on this second reading. 

A little quote from Evelyn Waugh is featured on the dust jackets of these editions:

Mr Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

It certainly hasn't staled for me. More of Waugh on Wodehouse can be found here. Also, here is what seems to be an authoritative list of the order in which his books were published, in their British editions as far as I can tell, and very handily divided into separate lists for the series. That was how I found conclusively that I was missing a Jeeves title. 

"Walking Like Agag"; Ngaio Marsh; Death of a Peer (Surfeit of Lampreys)

Let me explain that odd subject line. This post exists for one reason: to make search engines come up with a quick and definite answer for anyone who encounters the phrase "walking like Agag" in the Ngaio Marsh novel Death of a Peer, which was originally (and better) titled A Surfeit of Lampreys, and turns to the internet for an explanation. It took me a while to find one.

Here is the context in which the phrase appears:

At their first meeting Dr. Kantripp had warned Alleyn that Lady Wutherwood was greatly shaken. "I suppose she is," Alleyn had said; "one expects that, but you mean something else, don't you?" And Kantripp, looking guarded, muttered about hysteria, possible momentary derangement, extreme and morbid depression. "In other words, a bit dotty," Alleyn grunted. "Curtis had better have a look at her, if you don't mine." He left the doctors together and afterwards accepted Dr. Curtis' view that Kantripp was walking like Agag....

The reference is to 1 Sam 15:32. In the King James version, which is almost certainly what Inspector Alleyn would have known, it goes like this:

Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amal'ekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past.

So Alleyn means something akin to "walking on tiptoe," or maybe "walking on eggshells" when those are used metaphorically in reference to someone's conversation: speaking carefully, in short. Dr. Kantripp is not saying outright, but strongly suggesting, that Lady Wutherwood is in fact a bit dotty.

Apparently that translation is now considered inaccurate, at least by some translators. Here's how it goes in the New American Bible:

Afterward Samuel commanded, “Bring Agag, king of Amalek, to me.” Agag came to him struggling and saying, “So it is bitter death!” (NAB)

According to both translations, Agag in the first was quite mistaken and in the second quite right about what was coming: the next thing that happens is that he is " pieces before the Lord."

The book is excellent. I took it with me on a long flight last weekend and didn't finish it, and sat down with it as soon as I could after I got home. My old paperback edition has a blurb claiming that Marsh writes better than Agatha Christie, and I'm inclined to agree, though it's been a long time since I read anything by Christie.

The story involves a rich, charming, feckless family, the Lampreys. They're delightfully portrayed in the way that only the British can do, possibly because they're the only nation that produces people like them. I wondered if the word "lamprey" meant the same thing in England that it does here, and I deduce from the original title that it must, though the family, who can be fairly considered somewhat parasitic, is not monstrous. On the other hand, it certainly suggests that Marsh didn't consider them, at bottom, very charming.

Death of a Peer-1

Not, unfortunately, the edition I read, but art work more accurate than many mystery novel covers.


The current edition. Not especially appropriate art, except for the Art Deco vibe.

The Innocents

I finally watched this 1961 movie, reputed to be the best adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and also a pretty dang good movie on its own terms. I agree with both opinions. It is really very good. To my mind it's an unusual sort of success: the filmmakers took a very good book (ok, novella, whatever), made a film based on it which simultaneously took a lot of liberties and remained faithful, and produced something that is as good a film as the book is a book. 

Well, almost. I don't know how hard I'd defend that last statement. I mean, maybe it's not quite up there with the acknowledged masterpieces of cinema. But then the same could be said of the book in its category. If it were all we had of Henry James, he would not be considered a major writer of fiction. Anyway, it's an exception to what seems the usual patterns: good book to bad or inadequate movie; bad or mediocre book to good movie; good book to good but not very faithful movie. And of course bad book to bad movie is a perennial. But none of that is as true as it once was; movie-making has improved in a lot of ways since 1970 or so. 

The Innocents is actually based directly not on the novel itself but on a play by the same name, adapted from the novella by William Archibald, who, along with Truman Capote, is credited as screenwriter. The play seems to be Archibald's only other claim to fame. It would be interesting to compare the movie to the play, to get an idea of how much Capote contributed. I had forgotten till this moment that I read Other Voices, Other Rooms many years ago, and the scraps of memory that have returned make me think it would be worth revisiting. 

You can find the trailer on YouTube, but it's sort of trashy, so I don't think I'll post it. I notice several comments to the same effect. 

So, for the moment, ends my fascination with The Turn of the Screw (see this and this). I'm tempted to read it again but other authors, other books have claims on me. I still count myself in the "apparitionist" camp as regards the reality of what the governess sees, but, as I mentioned in the second of those posts, I grant that the arguments for the opposing view. I'm inclined to stay with my original view: that the ambiguity arises from the fact that Henry James wrote a Henry James ghost story, arguably subtle to a fault. Apparently he never said anything to indicate that the apparitions were not real, but of course that doesn't prove anything. 


While I'm at it: I also watched the Breaking Bad sequel, El Camino. I saw a review somewhere that described it as "inessential," which I guess is true, but that's ok, it's a very good story, as well-done as you would expect, considering that it was made by the same people who did the series. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who likes the series.

Also: I recently watched the fourth series of the British mystery show Shetland. And maybe it's just me, but I thought it was a cut above its previous series as well as most similar dramas, close to Broadchurch territory. You need to have seen at least the preceding series, though, to fully get some of the things that are going on.