Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Top 20 Mystery Writers

Below I list, in alphabetical order, my selections for the Top Twenty Mystery Writers of all time.

Before you scan through it, though, be aware that we define the mystery genre rather broadly. We don't insist, for instance, on the mystery novel being separate from the police procedural or the courtroom drama or the detective story. Indeed, we think the best mystery novels are ones that cross the lines, that effectively give you elements of all kinds of stories -- plot, character, insight into human nature, historical color, adventure, and more.

With that in mind, go ahead and check out the list and see how it compares with yours.

* Eric Ambler

* John Buchan

* John Dickson Carr (also those under his pen name Carter Dickson)

* Raymond Chandler

* Leslie Charteris

* G.K. Chesterton

* Agatha Christie

* Charles Dickens

* Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

* Dick Francis

* Erle Stanley Gardner (also those under his pen name A. A. Fair)

* Donald Hamilton

* E.W. Hornung

* Helen MacInnes

* Alistair MacLean

* John D. MacDonald

* Ngaio Marsh

* Dorothy Sayers

* Josephine Tey

* Ellery Queen

Monday, March 23, 2015

Converting to Kindle? Not Quite.

It was with no small reluctance that Claire and I entered the Kindle age a few years ago.

However, we did so because Kindle gave us access to so many books we either couldn’t afford or that we couldn’t get at all because they were out of print. Now, through Kindle's own catalog and by converting works to the device that are available through public domain sites, we have acquired an amazing collection that otherwise would have beyond our reach

Examples? How about buying over 50 works of H.G. Wells for $2.99? Or 23 Zane Grey novels for $1.99? Or the entire works of Robert Louis Stevenson and William Shakespeare for 99 cents? And there’s a whole lot more besides those. Indeed, our Kindles (we have two of them now) contain the texts of hundreds of books. That’s more than thrifty. It's magically handy too.

Having a Kindle means that you can check out certain books from the library too... even if it’s midnight and you’re sitting snugly in your bedroom. Also, copying a lengthy passage from an actual book takes forever but using a Kindle, one can do it in a matter of seconds. You then have a typed copy ready to upload, e-mail, or store away.  All of these things make Claire and I unapologetic Kindle users.

Well, to a degree.

I must be honest.  Claire has adjusted to the little screen very well. But I have not.   Indeed, for me, reading an electronic text is still uncomfortable and I doubt that it will ever compare with the familiarity, the focus, and the sheer joy that I find in reading an actual book.  A book I can hold.  A book that has pages I can physically turn.  A book that allows me to keep my place with a toothpick. A book that has bulk, texture, color, and sometimes user history.

Indeed, sometimes the user history of a book adds wonderful character to my reading experience. I recently finished A.E.W. Mason’s stirring novel, Fire Over England. It is a novel originally published in 1936 but set in Queen Elizabeth’s England just before the campaign of the Spanish Armada. As such, the parallel themes of a free nation being threatened by a sinister and superior enemy (as England was in 1586 by Spain and in the mid-20th Century by Nazi Germany) are striking.  Particularly when the very book you’re holding was printed in England in 1942 and has a handwritten inscription on the flyleaf which reads, “To Jean with all my love, October 10th, 1942.”

Imagining Jean reading this heroic and hopeful story while the bombs fell upon England certainly added to the power of my experience reading the book (the very same book) 73 years later.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen with a Kindle text.

So, have we converted to Kindle?  There are, as I stated above, many practical advantages and we are truly grateful for the technology, availability, ease, and savings the Kindle brings.

But a thorough conversion? No. We love books, both for what they contain and for what they are, too much.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Doing Battle with the Nothing: The Challenge Within Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story.”

In these dreary, late winter evenings, wrapped in a blanket and yearning for the soft signs of spring, I am re-reading Michael Ende’s masterful The Neverending Story.  The novel is a modern fairy tale, wonderfully replete with surreal characters, magic, heroism, and bold adventure. It is extremely entertaining. The Neverending Story, however, is a very special fantasy to me, one that provides a bountiful share of spiritual applications in its thrilling and memorable pages.

The Neverending Story has much to excite and inspire the reader — exemplary lessons about imagination, creativity, honesty, loyalty, bravery, sacrifice in the pursuit of virtuous causes, kindness, and friendship. But I find the most compelling arguments of The Neverending Story are that evil truly exists; that evil has deliberate and sinister designs upon men and women, even boys and girls; that modernity’s prime evil spreads through the lies of nihilism; and that evil must be fought hard and uncompromising.

In our age of moral relativism, to expose such evils is a daring thing. To dramatize the dire importance for men to actively resist those evils is even more rare…and thus more necessary.

Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (first published in German in 1979 with the standard English translation by Ralph Manheim printed in 1983) is not a Christian novel.  But using classic fairy tale themes, he effectively presents realistic human problems in ways that Christians can respond to, particularly how evil manipulates and uses people for its own ends, destroying them after their usefulness is up. And how evil thrives upon ignorance, confusion, hatred of moral tradition, and fear.

But standing in the way of the Nothing (Ende’s apt term for the evil force
which is destroying the world of The Neverending Story) and its vicious servant, Gmork, are the young warrior Atreyu, a luck dragon, and a human boy who begins reading the book in a deserted school attic but who is drawn into the story himself. Their courage and resolve and loyalty to the prime cause; namely, service to the sovereign of Fantastica, ultimately wins the day.

As most of you know, I read quite a bit and my reading winds its way from novels to theology, from politics to popular culture, from mysteries to history and biographies.  Nevertheless, The Neverending Story remains (on my fourth reading) one of the most inspiring and memorable books I’ve ever read. Probably because it inspires me to continue fighting the Gmorks of our own day, the servants of the Nothing who, like the devil himself, revel in lying, stealing, and destroying.

Reading the novel this time around has me thinking especially about parallels I see between The Neverending Story and the fairy tale tradition…also to other writers who have added their own spice to that literary genre, writers like Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, and Barrie. (Hmm. Maybe a research project is in the wings.) Regardless of how that works out, though, my late winter re-reading of The Neverending Story is providing fresh and vivid inspiration to keep fighting the Nothing and the culture of death it spawns.

Postscript. If you don’t plan on reading The Neverending Story (it is 444 pages), at least consider watching the 1984 film version. It is a beautiful and remarkable film that effectively captures much of the spirit of the things I’ve written about above. It’s one of the very rare examples when a movie may be as good as the book. (Claire thinks it's even better!)

And, by the way, don't bother with further film productions. They were not very good.

On Reading Books

“The Pew Research Center reported that nearly a quarter of adults had not read a single book in the last year.  As in, they hadn’t cracked a paperback, fired up a Kindle, or even hit play on an audio book while in the car.  The number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1979.”

The above paragraph is from Charles M. Blow in an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times last year.  He went on to observe, “I understand that we are now inundated with information, and people’s reading habits have become fragmented by bite-size nuggets of text messages and social media, and that takes much of the time that could otherwise be devoted to long-form reading.  I get it.  And I don’t take a troglodytic view of social media.  I participate and enjoy it.  But reading texts is not the same as reading a text.”

Is this diminished interest in reading books a problem?  I believe so.  Indeed, it reveals several things of serious importance – and none of them are good.  For instance, it gives us an indication of how our ultra-expensive education system is failing.  We’re paying more and more and our kids are in the hands of the state educators more and more. Nevertheless, America is getting dumber by the day. This diminished reading also illustrates that American society is corrupted by the shallow, self-centered atmosphere produced by television shows, smart phones, computers, etc. in which modern society lives and breathes.  And as Marshall McLuhan warned us long ago, our minds are being shaped not only by the content of media, but by its methodology, its sensuality (think not merely of sexuality but sensual pleasures of other sorts too), its all-encompassing nature, and its demand for our immediate subservience.

So, yes. I think America’s decline in reading books is a big deal.  We’re becoming dumber, lazier, more superficial, less discerning, and thus more easily led by an array of elite social controllers.  Beginning to read books again isn’t the solution to the messes America is in, of course.  But I contend it can be an important part of one’s personal defense against the encroaching acculturation and, if carried out well and by enough of us, it could even help provide for others a lighted path out of the darkness...

Read the rest of this month's LifeSharer at the Vital Signs Ministries website right here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In An Agreeable Manner: Jane Austen's "Persuasion"

“There is hardly any personal defect," replied Anne, "which an agreeable manner might not gradually reconcile one to.” (Chapter 5, Persuasion by Jane Austen)

Ah, Anne Elliot and her consistently optimistic trust in agreeable manners.

Such manners are, when truly genuine, which is to say, when they are the indications of a good and compassionate nature, are the nobility of the individual and the enlightened cohesion of society. And Anne Elliot, perhaps the clearest persona of Jane Austen in her canon, exemplifies agreeable manners in the highest degree.

With agreeable manners Anne Elliot overcomes the preening snobs which are her father and elder sister. With them she serves (usually without thanks) all those around her.  With them she eventually wins the love of her life.  And with these agreeable manners, Anne profoundly represents Miss Austen’s wonderfully persuasive argument of this fine and entertaining novel; namely, that kindness, humility, and a servant-orientation are blessings beyond value.

Persuasion, Austen’s last novel, is one of my favorites. The author once again gives us extremely realistic heroes -- characters who are imperfect and inconsistent in the very way that real human beings are.  Austen’s characters grow.  They change.  They benefit from experience and reflection and advice. They make mistakes and yet find motivation to persevere.  Such characters, along with Austen’s remarkable skill in depicting conversation, family relationships, and the nuances of love and affection, make for very rich reading indeed.

Persuasion provides the reader with not only admirable heroes (Anne, Captain Wentworth, Admiral and Mrs. Croft, the Musgroves) but with extremely life-like antagonists.  Austen doesn’t strive to create super villains. Instead, she gives us the kind we all deal with in normal life -- people who are rude, boring, full of themselves, tedious, and comically self-centered.  Persuasion has a couple of dandies in this line – make that three of them – all members of poor Anne’s family.  They are so disagreeable that one sometimes tires of having them on the scene, much like real-life people we cross the street to avoid. Still, Anne’s eventual triumph over their pettiness makes everything alright in the end.

And, though not wanting to be a spoiler to those who have never read Persuasion, I will at least say that Anne Elliot does triumph in this engaging 19th Century novel of manners. It is a story that harkens back to the Cinderella legend but with characters, plot, and writing expertise that pleases the modern reader in distinct and unique ways.

Our book club, the Notting Hill Napoleons, discussed Persuasion last Friday evening and we had a very pleasant, stimulating time.  In fact, it was one of those occasions (rather rare lately) in which we all liked the book very much and our conversation about it was fun and productive.  We did find a flaw or two (Mrs. Clay, what were you doing in the book?), but they were quite minor compared to the enjoyment we experienced.  So, by all means, take it as a recommendation not just from me but also from the Notting Hill Napoleons, Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a fine -- and quite agreeable -- way to spend a few evenings.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Heroism, Adventure, and Treachery: A Brief Review of "The Forgotten 500”

Gregory A. Freeman has performed an important service by writing a truly unique history.  It is a captivating, critical story that has inexplicably gone without herald, a story that features heroic Allied airmen, daring OSS agents, and Serbian freedom-fighters that have gone sadly unsung.  The book, published in 2007, is The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II.

It is a book that will illuminate, inspire…and, I'm afraid, infuriate you.  And I could not recommend it more highly.

The Forgotten 500 is the story of Operation Halyard, the monumentally daring and resourceful rescue of 512 Allied airmen downed behind enemy lines.  It is a story of adventure, courage, and dedication to liberty.  But it is also a story of cowardice and moral blindness on the part of government officials who were duped by Communist disinformation, made even uglier by subsequent conspiracies, cover-ups, and the failure to publicly recognize one of World War II’s most principled heroes.

It is this ignoble record of American and British duplicity (with special emphasis on the shameful lack of integrity demonstrated by the U.S. State Department) that is why you have likely never heard of this magnificent story.

The rescue was required because of Allied bombers (mostly American) being
shot down over Nazi-controlled Yugoslavia as they returned from unloading on the refineries and factories providing critical support for the German war machine in Romania.  Miraculously, hundreds from these aircrews were able to parachute out of the doomed planes and, with the brave and sacrificial help from freedom-loving Serbs on the ground, survived the frightening, bitter ordeals afterward.

But these men were far behind enemy lines in rugged and impoverished country, threatened constantly by enemy troops who were viciously vindictive towards anyone who provided even basic humanitarian assistance to the Allies.  The only way out was by airplane – lots of airplanes – and for many reasons, that seemed absolutely impossible.

But it was done.

To learn how they pulled it off is, of course, the obvious reason you’ll want to read The Forgotten 500.  But you’ll soon discover several other reasons too that make you very glad you ordered this thrilling 312-page history.

Among those reasons?  Harrowing personal stories of the young men who had to jump into the dark unknown from their crippled bombers.  Testimonies of challenge and endurance and sacrificial compassion on the part of the Serbian people who protected the young airmen. The role of the OSS, especially the intrepid efforts of heroes you’ve not yet heard of but whom you’ll not soon forget.  The incredible tactics used to facilitate the rescue.  And finally, the story of how General Draza Mihailovich (pictured above) was treacherously betrayed first by the Communist thug, Josip Broz Tito, and then by the highest officials from the governments of Great Britain and the United States.

And, believe me, that story is as riveting and important to the challenge we face today as any you’ll read in this careful history.

Best-selling author Gregg Olsen calls The Forgotten 500 “a literary and journalistic achievement of the highest order, a book that illuminates, thrills, and reminds us that heroes sometimes do live among us.  It will take your breath away.”  I completely agree.

Order your copy soon.

Postscript: I must tell you that I was alerted to this book through one of the airmen who was actually involved. Bernie Merwald was a brave and conscientious man who served in the Army Air Corps and was serving in one of the B-24s shot down over Yugoslavia. Claire and I met Bernie when presenting a "When Swing Was King" program at Brookstone Village back in October and, in conversation before the show, we talked of his wartime experiences and he told us about this book. We immediately ordered it and, when we returned for the November program, he wrote his autograph on the front page. We were moved and deeply honored at Bernie's graciousness, he and his wife's delight in the "When Swing Was King" program, and their kindness in talking so long with us on those two occasions.

Bernie Merwald passed away on January 2nd.

Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo. 

Looking for Serious Non-Fiction?

From Yuval Levin's brief NRO article, "Four Books."

“We are living in a great moment for readers (if not always for writers and publishers) of serious non-fiction books. I thought I’d bring to your attention, below the fold, four books published in the past few months that really highlight that in different ways, and that might be of particular interest to NRO readers: one about a great American statesman, one about a terrible American problem, and two books about other books (an especially valuable and under-appreciated genre, I think)... 

Read on…

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Favorite Historians, Huh?


I was wondering if you could recommend some of the best books on history that I should read.

Here was my reply:

Dear A-------,

You raise an interesting question. A key element would be the type of history you're looking for. The fellows interested in, respectively, the history of philosophy or ancient Rome or World War II are, most likely, going to be reading different historians. Thus, my favorite guys will tend to cover the areas of history I'm most interested in.

Another factor is that some of my favorite history books are not written by professional historians at all. A speech writer (Peggy Noonan) wrote my favorite history of the Reagan administration; a soldier wrote my favorite history of the American Civil War (Ulysses Grant); and my favorite histories of the U.S. space program were written, respectively, by two scientists and a novelist (Chris Kraft, Gene Kranz, and Tom Wolfe).

Another category similar to the above is the autobiography. Those can certainly be classified as history but few are penned by professional historians.

Novelists and playwrights can also serve as excellent chroniclers of history, usually of their own times, but certain writers dip expertly into other eras and write historical fiction that is of immense value. Especially appreciated in this latter category are Dickens, Scott, Tolstoy, Dumas, Hugo, Cooper, Austen, Dostoevsky, Waugh, and the Brontes.

So, if you can keep all of these things in mind, I will mention a few "professional" historians that have made the top rank for my interests and purposes. I'm quite sure I'll leave a couple out, but here's some names I'm thinking of right now (without classifying them as to time or subject): Shelby Foote, Samuel Eliot Morison, Walter Lord, John Toland, David McCullough, Antonia Fraser, Roland Bainton, Paul Johnson, Stephen Ambrose, Bruce Catton, William Prescott, Basil Liddell Hart, Laura Hillenbrand, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to talk over than this quick list -- including your input about topics, people, periods of history you're most interested in. So, why not give me a call or zip along an e-mail telling me what day next week would be best for lunch where we can discuss it further? I'll look forward to it.


Friday, February 06, 2015

"The Secret War Against Hitler"

After Claire and I had been watching re-runs of Spy, a British TV reality show from 2002, I found myself in the Northwest branch of the Omaha Public library where I checked out several non-fiction titles dealing with modern espionage. Those included Denis Collins' Spying: The Secret History of History written with the resources of Washington, D.C.’s new International Spy Museum and Espionage, and The Greatest Spy Operations of the 20th Century by Ernest Volkman.

But, by far, the most engaging and satisfying work I picked up was Bill Casey’s The Secret War Against Hitler, a detailed and fascinating description of the Allied espionage efforts directed against Germany during World War II.

The Secret War Against Hitler made for riveting, inspiring and sometimes maddening reading – maddening because it showed what dire effects upon military strategy can be wreaked by politicians (and sometimes by misled, egoistic and headstrong military leaders themselves).

Indeed, Casey points out several instances of how the success of Allied military efforts against the Nazi war machine was dramatically mitigated because of poor intelligence at the beginning of the war due to governments being so ill-prepared, and then later by grossly selfish motives by such men as Stalin and de Gaulle, and devastating mistakes made by blundering bureaucrats, political leaders, and even the military elite. Therefore, what could have been achieved by the inspiring bravery and skill of our fighting men was severely limited by tragic decisions at the top, making World War II longer and more terrible than was necessary. In addition, the post-war political and cultural scene could have been tremendously more just and safe and connected to the motivations that compelled our soldiers and sailors in the first place.

So, as captivating as Casey’s information is, The Secret War Against Hitler will not always be easy, enjoyable reading. But infuriating as some of the events in the book can make you, be assured that it is throughout an excellent and important read. Within its pages you’ll learn about the critical roles played by code-breakers, double agents, an indispensably powerful "paper army," and many superbly deceptive strategies developed by the Allied intelligence corps.

You’ll also see how close the contest was at several junctures, how FDR’s insistence on Germany’s “unconditional surrender” was such a disaster, how Hitler catastrophically misread Allied intentions, how small party and even individual heroism (as in the sabotage success against the Nazi’s atomic bomb hopes) helped save Europe, and much more.

Bill Casey, as many of you will remember, was the director of the CIA under President Ronald Reagan. But Casey’s introduction to intelligence service was in the OSS back in 1943 when he started as a senior clerk in Washington. He ended the war, however, as one of the key leaders in American military intelligence. His work brought this treasured note from the OSS' famous founder, "Wild Bill" Donovan:

It has been the policy of the OSS never to hesitate to assign major responsibility to young men who have what it takes. This policy has been, in my opinion, one of our primary sources of strength. I have been vindicated by the outstanding performances of many, but by none more than your own. You took up one of the heaviest loads which any of us had to carry at a time when the going was roughest, and you delivered brilliantly, forcefully and in good time.

Signed: William J. Donovan, Major-General

The Secret War Against Hitler is truly an outstanding history written by one of the 20th Century's most interesting and accomplished American patriots. I recommend it without reserve.

(Note also that The Secret War Against Hitler is available in audio form as well. Just take a look right here.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Of "Man's Almost Infinite Appetite for Distractions"

“But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

(Neil Postman, From the introduction of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985)