Friday, October 9, 2015

Elizabeth Edmondson’s “A Man of Some Repute”

It is 1955. Hugo Hawksworth is an agent with the U.K.’s Special Branch, sent to what is essentially a desk job at a department in rural England. His leg was injured by a shooting in Berlin; he will likely be spending the rest of his life using a cane. In tow is his much younger teenage sister Georgia. Through the assistance of a colleague, Hugo and Georgia settle into temporary lodgings at the castle in Selchester, the ancestral home of the earls of Selchester.

They also settle into a good case of murder. Eight years earlier, the last earl was hosting a dinner party, and apparently walked out into the middle of a blizzard and was never seen again. Without a body, the estate cannot enter probate; there’s no successor to the title of missing earl, as his son and heir was killed during the British occupation of Palestine after World War II. His rather grasping daughter Sonia can’t do anything with the castle until the missing earl’s fate is determined.

And then a leaking pipe requires the digging up of part of the castle’s chapel floor. A skeleton is found, one wearing the ring the earl always wore. And it turns out to be the missing earl. The people who were the earl’s dinner guests, including his now-deceased son and his niece Freya Wryton, turn into suspects. The police are eager, perhaps too eager, to pin the murder on the dead son. But nothing is that simple.

Elizabeth Edmondson’s A Man of Some Repute is complicated, but no more so than any of the kind of English mysteries we associate with Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ngaio March and other classic English mystery writers. It’s full of hidden papers, family passions, and occasional twists and turns. It held my interest to the very last page.

Edmondson is a writer of historical mysteries. She’s written several set in Italy, the French Riviera, Dorset and even on an ocean liner. The stories are set in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
A Man of Some of Repute, published in July, is the first of Edmondson’s “Very English Mysteries,” and will be followed later this month by A Question of Inheritance, set in Selchester and with the same leading characters. She also writes as Elizabeth Aston (she is one busy writer!).

Elizabeth Edmondson
Hugo and the Selchester niece Freya work together to try to solve the mystery, with occasional help from the high-spirited sister Georgia and Hugo’s uncle Leo, a Catholic priest. As they learn more about what actually happened on the night of the dinner in 1947, they uncover a series of ugly family stories, with national security implications. And while the book is not a romantic mystery, Edmondson is masterful at creating the expectation of romance between Hugo and Freya, without a single direct reference to any romance at all.

A Man of Some Repute is a fully satisfying mystery. I’m looking forward to its successor.

Photograph by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. (The photo is actually of Arundel Castle, similar to but not the actual setting for A Man of Some Repute.)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Wendell Berry’s “Our Only World”

Until I retired in May, I worked for a company prominent in agriculture, a company that was no stranger to controversy. Maintaining a near-religious belief in science, the company often struggled with what it saw as the forces of “anti-science” arrayed against it. To observe openly, as I occasionally did, that this often intense criticism actually didn’t spring from “anti-science” but from something else was typically met with a blank look.

That something else was Wendell Berry. People in the company weren’t familiar with him. Michael Pollan, yes. Wendell Berry, no. It was a serious mistake.

For most if not all of his adult life, writer Wendell Berry (born 1934) has been remarkably consistent in his belief and his worldview that the industrialization of America had created a kind of violence upon the land, communities, and the people. In more than 50 works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, he’s adhered to that belief, which is informed by his Christian faith.

Industrialization includes everything from an agriculture dependent upon fossil fuels and chemicals and mining practices that scour the landscape to the destruction of forests. He sees both major political parties have having facilitated this, and indeed often with the collusion of environmental groups. And he sees corporate capitalism as having wreaked destruction upon the political, social, and economic landscapes as well as the physical landscape.

In Our Only World: Ten Essays, Berry continues his discussion of that violence and destruction, along with a focus on examples of where he sees people are making a difference. The title is something of a misnomer; the 10 essays are actually 10 articles, speeches and essays. But they are simultaneously vintage Berry and contemporary Berry. And he has much to say, and much that needs to be listened to and heeded.

Wendell Berry
The two longest essays in the book are the fullest discussions of his philosophy and belief. “A Forest Conversation” discusses historical forestry and logging practices but focuses on a family in Pennsylvania that has undertaken sustainable forestry for decades. “Our Deserted Country” focuses on agriculture, and considers how industrialized agriculture has changed local communities, the land, our attitudes about the land, and even our attitudes about the value of people.

“Caught in the Middle” tackles two social issues that Berry sees as connected to what industrialized has wrought – abortion and homosexual marriage. He generally opposes the first and supports the second, but he laments that both have become so politicized that the middle ground has essentially been destroyed. Even if you disagree with him on these issues, his gentle and thoughtful arguments will at least make you consider just how well your own beliefs are thought out. And his arguments are well worth reading.

Our Only World is not a long book but it is a worthwhile one. Much of what he says resonates with common sense, and much of what he says about industrialization is, I would say, on the mark. The question, as he well knows, is what do we do about it.


Top photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Hiding Place: It is All of Our Stories

We were living in Houston in the mid-1970s when I first heard of Corrie ten Boom and the story she had to tell in The Hiding Place. The book had been recently published, and a movie of the same title was released in 1975. It starred Jeannette Clift as Corrie, Julie Harris as her sister Betsie, and Arthur O’Connell as their father. I read the book but didn’t see the movie.

Forty years later, the story has stood the test of time. It is still a good story. It is still a heartbreaking story. And it is a story that keeps begging the question, what would I do in their situation? What question the story does not beg is could this happen here?

The answer to the second question is obvious – yes, it or something like it could happen here. Never underestimate the darkness of the human heart. We saw the same human lunge toward evil on Sept. 11, 2001. We see it in Syria and Iraq and Libya. We saw it in the killing fields of Cambodia, and with the tribal warfare in Rwanda, and in Bosnia. But this isn’t a problem limited to radical Islam or people in faraway countries. The same desire for authoritarian power and control can be seen all too close to home, and it isn’t an impulse limited only to governments.

In the Epilogue to the book, we read that Corrie and her family learn that her teenaged nephew Kik died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He was caught helping an American parachutist escape to the Dutch coast. In 1959, Corrie herself returned to the Ravensbruck camp, where she was imprisoned and where Betsie died. And she learned something both familiar and profound. A Nazi guard or commandant or functionary had mistakenly released her late in 1944. She was supposed to have been killed with all of the other women her age the following week, but someone had made a clerical error.

A bureaucratic mistake.

Or the hand of God.

Perhaps both.

We often hear people ask, if there is a God, how could he allow so much evil in the world? The real, and perhaps surprising, question should be, why isn’t there more evil than what we see? My answer to that age-old question is simple: if there was no God, if there is no God, then our world at best would look much like what Corrie ten Boom experienced during World War II. That impulse to evil exists within each of us.

What also exists within each of us is the impulse to reach for God.

The Hiding Place is the two of two sisters in a small city in Holland, caught up in a gigantic turn of history. Because of their faith in God, they embark upon a course of helping Jews hide and escape from the Nazis. That course eventually leads to their arrest. Betsie comes through the story as something of a saint, the believer giving thanks in all things, in all circumstances. Corrie questions and kicks against what happens. She is the most recognizable of the two, the most familiar, at least to me. She gets angry at God, she shakes her fist at him, she refuses to believe that she should give thanks for fleas, of all things.

Corrie survives the horror of imprisonment and the concentration camp. She survived with a purpose. She knew what God would have her do. And her path started with forgiveness, as difficult as it was.

In so many ways, the story of Corrie ten Boom is all of our stories. Perhaps not as extreme, bit it is – and can be – our stories.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we've been reading The Hiding Place. This concludes the discussion. To see more posts, please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph: A scene from the 1975 movie The Hiding Place, with Julie Harris as Betsie (left) and Jeannette Clift as Corrie (right).

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Poetic Voices: Joan Murray and Ellen Kombiyil

When I think of poets who tell stories, I think of Chaucer, Milton, Dante, Tennyson and Longfellow. Storytelling isn’t something I usually associated with contemporary poetry. Two recent collections by poets Joan Murray and Ellen Kombiyil, however, both utilize storytelling, although they do it in entirely different ways.

Murray has been publishing poetry for the last 25 years, and this year has an expanded volume, Swimming for the Ark: New and Selected Poems. In addition to new poetry, she draws upon poems from four volumes published between 1990 and 2015.

Her poems tell stories. In fact, given the poems included in this new volume, Murray has been a storytelling poet from the beginning.

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

Monday, October 5, 2015

Louise Penny's "A Fatal Grace"

C.C. de Poitiers isn’t the most likable of people. She bullies her husband and overweight daughter. She bullies the photographer she’s having an affair with. She’s deliberately hurtful and cruel to her new neighbors in Three Pines in Quebec, where she’s recently moved and occupied the largest house in the village. She is planning a major push for her book, Be Calm, in which she articulates of a philosophy of never showing emotion, and no one is going to get in her way.

But someone does. Someone devises and implements death by electrocution, with dozens of witnesses around who are watching a local curling match (a winter sport popular in Canada). The problem is that it might be easier to eliminate the few suspects who didn’t have a motive.

A Fatal Grace is Louise Perry’s second mystery novel featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Homicide Division of the Montreal Surete, and it is a psychological treat.

Gamache and his team, along with the same dysfunctional detective sent by Gamache’s superiors in the first mystery novel, Still Life, are dispatched to investigate. But this is more than a murder; the death of C.C. de Poitiers becomes a prism through which the characters examine themselves and others. This is even more true for Gamache, who is still struggling with the aftermath of a case that ended in a mess, and actually didn’t end at all. Penny uses this story to expand upon what happened in that case and what role Gamache actually played.

Louise Penny
The investigation leads back to Montreal, where the death of a homeless woman seems connected to the electrocution, and then returns to three Pines, for it is in this quiet village of writers, artists and antique shops where the truth lies buried, and lies buried in the distant past.

Penny weaves the two deaths, Gamache’s professional struggles, police department politics and the personal politics of the local townspeople together in an intriguing mystery. Particularly noteworthy is how she develops the physical setting as part of the story – a brutal Canadian winter.

A Fatal Grace is a winner. (And there are several more of the Gamache novels to read.)

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Purple cloth

After Acts 16:6-15

I deal in purple
I deal in purple cloth
the purple of nobility
the purple of wealth
the purple of position
the purple for the people
who want these things

I sit with the women
talking, in prayer
the river flowing by us
like tears
the two men come and
sit, and then speak words
that turn tears to sobs

my heart opens like love
unlike any I have known

Photograph by Maliz Ong via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Saturday Good Reads

Tim Challies finds words from some 1,800 years ago that seem just as real today. Mick Silva finds ways to outsmart distraction when you’re writing. Every day matters to Scott Todnem. The world’s current version of the “Monuments Men” – saving priceless relics from barbarians. John Blase poetically sends a son off to school, while Maureen Doallas tells us about storytelling.

And at a school in Buckinghamshire in the U.K., they surely do know how to serve schoolchildren their lunches.


The Heart of a Stranger – Ryan Dueck at Rumblings.

Be Kind to Your Little Children – Clement of Alexandria via Tim Challies.

Sunday Review: Cassian Folsom – Kate Murphy for The New York Times.

Just a cup of water – Winn Collier.


Planting for the Future – Cynthia Ruchti at Novel Rocket.

Three Ways to Redeem Time – Terry Whalin at The Writing Life.

Outsmarting Distraction – Mick Silva.


Cabbage Whites – Tim Good at Photography by Tiwago.

Pennsylvania Avenue, Tower Grove East – Chris Naffziger at St. Louis Patina.


Love, herself, lay dying: A Sonnet – Kerry O’Connor at Skylover.

Lilting light – Troy Cady at T(r)oy Marbles.

Martha Serpas – D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

Storytelling – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

The Mark of Adam – John Blase at The Beautiful Due.

Poetry and Religion - Richard Rohr (Hat tip: J of India).

Life and Culture

Every Day Matters – Scott Todnem at Life is the Future.

The Stranger and the Ring – Tim Butcher at BBC Magazine (Hat tip: J of India).

The Pot Hole – Lancelot Schaubert.

Unnecessary Goodness – Corey Poff at Torrey Gazette.

Why Whole Foods is Wrong to Eliminate Prisoner-Crafted Food - David Rupert at Red-Letter Believers.

History and Literature

The men saving Syria’s treasures from Isis – Jeremy Bowen at New Statesman.

Lunchtime at a school in Buckinghamshire (Hat tip: Gail Kerber)

Top photograph by Peter Griffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.