Hey y’all! Wanted to drop another short post here with some recommendations for podcasts I enjoyed through the month of December and am eager to keep enjoying into the new year! Here we go!
American Elections: Wicked Game— This podcast by Lindsey Graham (the creator behind the podcast Terms, not the congressman) begins with the question: Was there actually a “good ol’ days” before partisan rancor dominated American presidential politics? (In a word: no.) Each week, AE:WG explores the history of presidential elections, covering each election in order from 1789 to 2016 (leading right up to the week before the 2020 contest in November). I’m 4 or 5 episodes in, and I’m loving this. It’s well-produced, well-researched, and engaging. While I have to assume that there will be some perspective-shading when we get to the more modern elections (because there always is, no matter who’s writing it), I hope it’s this enjoyable all the way through. You can bet I’ll be eagerly listening to find out.
The Redeeming Productivity Show — Reagan Rose hosts this look at how our theology must necessarily guide our desire for productivity. In one of his earliest episodes, Rose details how even the most popular productivity and efficiency gurus today all have an ideological and even theological underpinning, and he encourages his listeners to consider that everything–even productivity–is shot through with theology. This podcast is quickly becoming a favorite. If you’re interested in the productivity/efficiency/creativity space like I am, put this one in your podcast feed.
The Twilight Zone Podcast— I’ve been a fan of The Twilight Zone since I was a kid, but it’s only been in the last year that I’ve gotten to enjoy Tom Elliott’s episode-by-episode recap and analysis. If you grew up watching TZ and want to revisit some favorites, I’d encourage you to check out Tom’s podcast and download those episodes. Not only is his soothing British accent a auditory pleasure, but he provides some thoughtful analysis and helpful behind-the-scenes research to enhance your appreciation of Rod Serling’s masterpiece. Tom’s just finished his analysis of Season 3, and is gearing up for the somewhat-controversial fourth season of TZ. I’m excited to hear what’s in store.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones Sermon Podcast— I was first exposed to Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones about 10 years ago, but it’s really been in the last year that I’ve come to appreciate The Doctor’s preaching. It’s sometimes described as “logic on fire,” and rightly so. While his delivery may seem stiff at times, especially at the beginnings of his sermons, his passion for the truth explodes in his preaching. What I most appreciate is that no matter when he preached the sermon (anytime from the 1950’s to the 70’s or later), he doesn’t use too many contemporary analogies or illustrations, and his messages thus become more timeless and applicable. I’m so thankful that the MLJ Trust has preserved this treasure-trove of audio teaching for later generations. It’s well worth your time to check it out.
Fiction Podcasts — Okay, this last one is a cheat, but I’ve just recently started listening to fiction podcasts again. This is essentially the resurrection of the old-time radio serials of the 1930s and ’40s, but in 21st-century form. There are some really fascinating audio dramas being produced and released for free (with commercials) in recent years. I’ve downloaded 3 or 4 podcasts to check out but not yet listened to enough to recommend any of them fully (like Welcome to Nightvale, Blood Ties, and Dust, a sci-fi anthology show). The podcast I mentioned earlier (Terms by Lindsay Graham on the Wondery Network) is an excellent bit of political intrigue that sadly has only seen one season produced–and was left on a cliffhanger! All that to say, if you haven’t yet checked out serialized story podcasts yet, you should look around for some. While there are sometimes content concerns for sensitive listeners, there’s a whole world of options out there for you to enjoy.
What podcasts are you enjoying most, as you head into 2020? Recommend your favorites in the comments!
It’s a yearly tradition, so I can’t resist. Here’s a quick list of the books I finished* in 2019:
[*Since I always have several books in-progress, I count finishes and not complete reads in my yearly lists.]
>>Somewhere The Band is Playing – Ray Bradbury (novella)
>>The Tech-wise Family – Andy Crouch
>>Them – Ben Sasse
>>All Things for Good – Thomas Watson
>>Family Shepherd — Voddie Baucham
>>R.U.R. – the brothers Cajek (play)
>>Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>The Gospel and Personal Evangelism – Mark Dever
>>Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport
>>Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View – Wingard, Eliff, Chrisman, Burchett
>>Understanding the Lord’s Supper – Bobby Jamieson
>>Evangelism – Mack Stiles
>>Mortal Engines – Phillip Reeve
>>Forever and a Day – Anthony Horiwitz
>>The Dichotomy of Leadership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>Civil War: Spiderman – various (graphic novel)
>>The Spy who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre
>>Family-Focused Faith – Voddie Baucham
>>Competing Spectacles – Tony Reinke
>>A Murder of Quality – John LeCarre
>>The Looking-Glass War – John LeCarre
>>What is a Healthy Church Member? – Thabiti Anyabwile
>>Side by Side – Ed Welch
>>Enjoying God — RC Sproul
>>Deep Work — Cal Newport
>>Bad Blood – John Carryrou
>> Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John LeCarre
>> Fellowship with God – Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
>>The Go-Getter – Peter Kyne
>>Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual – Jocko Willink
>> The Apostles Creed – Al Mohler
>>Prayer – John Onwuchekwa
>>The Church – Mark Dever
>>Essential Readings on Evangelism – SBTS
>>The Need – Hannah Phillips
Did Not Finish (DNF)
August – Watchmen: The Annotated Edition – Moore/Gibbons (While the annotations were fascinating, this critically-acclaimed graphic novel was just too dark and depressing for me to enjoy, so I bailed about a quarter of the way through.)
Total Read: 35, including a novella, a play, and a graphic novel
The Split: 11 fiction, 24 non-fiction (16 specifically theological books)
Most Read: John LeCarre and Jocko Willink, each with 3; Mark Dever, with 2
Top Five Recommendations from My 2019 Reading:
Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin — This memoir/motivational book by former Navy SEALs sounds a little more Rex-kwan-do than it really is. Willink and Babin use real-world military experience as metaphors for best-practices of personal responsibility and individual discipline. While the book is very intentionally geared toward the business world (both men are now corporate consultants in their civilian careers), the ideas and insights are definitely applicable. Willink’s follow-ups are also worth a look, if you appreciate his style of writing, but this one is the must-read of his work.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John LeCarre — LeCarre is rightly considered one of the best spy-genre writers of the 20th century, and this story is one of his best, full of intrigue, betrayal, love, deception, and a moving consideration of the toll that even cold wars can take on the conscience. It’s not as flashy as one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, but it’s certainly more thoughtful and substantial. The ending of Spy will stick with you long after you turn the last page. If you haven’t dug into this genre of fiction, this one is a great entrypoint.
Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport — I’ve written about his one pretty extensively already, so I won’t rehash it here. Suffice it to say, this one is a book that I’m glad I read and took summary notes on, because I want to keep coming back to Newport’s idea of intentional, limited digital technology use as a way to limit the negative effects of social media and online life.
Bad Blood, by John Carryrou — I don’t often read current-year exposes or true-crime non-fiction, but I first heard about the fascinating freefall of Theranos on a podcast early this year, and the story intrigued me enough to want to dive further in. Carryrou is a reporter who first broke the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, one of the biggest scams in American medicine and technology in the last few years. He details the story of this brilliant young woman whose charisma and drive to succeed helped her to perpetuate a multi-million-dollar medical research scheme that eventually exploded in her face. Some of the events are so outlandish as to defy belief in even a fictional account. I really enjoyed this one. You will, too.
Competing Spectacles, by Tony Reinke — I’ve written about this one as well, so I’ll just reiterate that this book is an important one for our visual and digital age, because it not only addresses the artifice of digital spectacles, but it focuses on how it affects our hearts and souls as people made in the image of God. This theological aspect is something missing from many other analyses of the affect of screen culture on human life.
And as it happens, Competing Spectacles is the free audiobook for the month of January over at ChristianAudio.com, so if you are interested in checking it out, you should head over and sign up to get your free download. (No sponsorship/affiliate link there–I just found out about this today and wanted to share!)
What was the best book you read in 2019? Let us know in the comments!
After a [checks]month-long break[seriously?], I’m back in the saddle and ready to re-engage.
December was…full. Good–but full. Work demands were high, church demands were a bit high, and honestly, I really wanted to reconnect with my family more. That was my “theme” of the month that I wrote down in my snazzy “Monk Manual” journal (I’ll have an update post on that sometime this month): the theme of “Connection.” So I focused on connecting with my family and friends.
This month’s theme? “Restart.” So here I am, readers!
I passed the 1-year boundary on the #52Stories project, but I do want to finish that, so I’ll try to round that out in the coming weeks. I may or may not continue the Minor Prophets series. Let me know if you want to see more of those.
Coming Up: Later on today, I’ll toss up my 2019 Reading List because, by golly, some traditions must not be abandoned. On Friday, I’ll post a Friday Five with some podcast recommendations, so keep your eyes peeled. That’s all the blog planning I have in me at the moment. (Have you subscribed to email updates? That makes things much simpler. Check out the widget to the right or below the posts, depending upon the device you’re using to read this.)
Happy New Year! Take a walk, drink some water, do something nice for yourself, and we’ll see you in a bit.
Buckle up, gang. Here’s my “capsule-review-style” run-down of the stories I’ve read this fall that haven’t yet made it into a #52Stories post. This one may take a little while, so pack a lunch.
And I’ll go ahead and tag this with a big [SPOILER ALERT], because who has the time to be coy?
#30: “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)
The Premise: Montressor finally gets his revenge on the unsuspecting (and ironically- named) Fortunato.
The Payoff: I read this story in high school and decided it would be fun to revisit. It was…not fun, exactly, but not bad. The narrator, Montressor, begins the tale by arguing that Fortunato deserves revenge for his alleged injuries or insults, though it’s clear that Montressor isn’t looking for equal justice. He’s a madman, a villain in the truest sense, and the little we see of Fortunato gives no justification for Montressor’s dastardly plot. It’s revealed at the end of the story that this wicked deed was done 50 years prior, though the way Montressor obsesses over the slights Fortunato gave him sounds like the wounds are still fresh. While this story doesn’t have the impact of some of Poe’s more famous tales, it’s still worth a look if only to demonstrate how to give the villain center-stage.
#31: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
The Premise: A wife is made to take a long rest in a country estate…until she notices something unusual with her room decor.
The Payoff: I missed reading this story in college, but I’m glad I came back to it now. This tale of psychological horror is the story of a caged woman losing her sanity. The nameless narrator is the wife of an authoritarian doctor who infantilizes and controls his wife “for her own good.” The wife’s thoughts and feelings are downplayed or dismissed, and though she is being kept in the country house for the improvement of her health, it begins to take a toll on her sanity. What’s so effective about this story is that it’s not clear if there is actually any supernatural element to it. Gilman gives us a truly unreliable narrator, but leaves just enough doubt that you’re tempted to believe her. At one point, I wondered if her husband John was actually gaslighting her to cover up an affair, or if he was just a know-it-all chauvinist and she was losing her grip as a result. This one was wild, and I would definitely recommend it.
#32: “Something From Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman (1993)
The Premise: This charming children’s story follows the life cycle of a beloved blanket.
The Payoff: I didn’t realize that this was a children’s book until it arrived from the library. I found it to be a delight to read, both for the way the story was written and the detail that the illustrator put into each page. In this Jewish folktale, a tailor makes his baby grandson a beautiful blue blanket, and as the boy grows, the blanket is transformed over and over, becoming smaller and smaller each time. By the end of the book, the blanket is all used up and lost, but the story and memory remains, which is the final point. This is a sweet book. Pick it up at your local bookstore or library, and share it with your kids (or other people’s kids whom you know and like).
#33: “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell (1936)
The Premise: A British imperial officer stationed in Burma must deal with an elephant-sized problem.
The Payoff: In “Shooting an Elephant,” the narrator, a British officer stationed in the British colony in Burma, is forced to address the situation of a potentially wild elephant that killed a man and may need to be destroyed. This essay by Orwell may or may not be be based on personal experience, but it is surely a sobering critique of British imperialism and mob mentality. Orwell describes both the self-hatred of a soldier forced into a task he doesn’t believe in and the hatred he feels for the locals he is tasked with overseeing. Themes of racism and the fallout of imperialism loom large in this story, as the officer is essentially forced to put down an elephant that has already calmed down after killing a man, specifically because the officer feels pressure from the crowd to do so and he’s afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t kill the creature. The narration is in turns self-critical and self-pitying, and while the reader might feel some sympathy for the crowd dynamics at play, the narrator doesn’t seem to be presented as heroic or victimized. At the end of the day, he must take responsibility for his actions (morally, if not legally, as his actions are exonerated by his superiors). The metaphor for Britain’s treatment of conquered nations is transparent.
#34: “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury (1946)
The Premise: Sim is born on a planet where people live only 8 days, but he knows there’s more out there, including a possible way of escape.
The Payoff: Bradbury’s story is about a race of humans who crashed on a planet so close to the sun that their lifespan is reduced to 8 days, birth to old age. While the story is set in a far-off future of space exploration and advanced technology, the new lifespans reduce the humans surviving on this planet to neolithic cave dwellers who can only come outside for a few hours before the deadly heat or deadly cold kills them. The main character, Sim, is described as “the 5,000th in a long line of futile sons,” yet he is born with the collective memory that there might be a way to stop the aging process by escaping the planet. I have to admit, this is the second time in this project I’ve been disappointed by Bradbury. This is an interesting idea, but he doesn’t do anything with it. Sim and his mate Lyte eventually reach the capsule and survive past the 8th day. They go back to rescue others and bring them to the capsule, and the remnant of humanity escapes the 8-day cycle of birth and death. In the end, it feels like a dream. And that’s it. I was pretty disappointed, both times I read this.
#35: “A Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell (1924)
The Premise: A big-game hunter washes ashore on a private island where another famous hunter is eager to introduce him to a new challenge.
The Payoff: This story is one of those tales in which you’ve already heard the twist (General Zaroff is hunting humans!), but it was interesting to see how Connell works out the story. There’s a pretty obvious set-up at the beginning, as Rainsford scoffs at the idea that hunting is not sporting for the prey, stating that the animal has no understanding. When the hunter becomes the hunted (wah-waaah!), his tune changes. Zaroff is presented as a paradox–highly civilized yet showing no value for human life. In the end, Rainsford survives by incorporating skills and traps he learned in his big-game hunts around the world, as well as his experience in the Great War. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere as well.) His personal mantra was that he mustn’t lose his nerve, though as the prey, he now understands the fear of death in a way he hadn’t before. And while he is ultimately triumphant over the sociopath and his henchman who were hunting him, the ending is still a bit unsettling. In his vengeance, Rainsford is as much beast as man.
#36: “Lady of the Skulls” by Patricia McKillip (2005)
The Premise: Adventurers journey to an enchanted tower in search of treasure and an audience with the mysterious Lady of the Skulls.
The Payoff: This one took me by surprise, because it’s essentially a story about relationships, cosplaying as Lord of the Rings. The lady in question is a woman who was taken from a tavern (by the curse of a sorcerer) and put in an enchanted tower reflecting “the tower in her heart.” When the latest band of adventurers arrives in search of treasure and glory, she critiques and mocks their pomp and bravado. The author satirizes fantasy fiction that treats women as either set-dressing or idealized archetypes (the pure, untouchable maiden; the enchantress; the prostitute). Through the words of Lady Amarynth and the knight Ran, McKillip both critiques and employs fantasy tropes to describe how men and women idealize or vilify each other as a means of self-protection. By focusing this fantasy story on “one of those faceless women who brought you wine in a tavern,” McKillip forces the reader to re-examine the cliches of this genre and what they say about gender. I liked how this story shifted my perspective.
#37: “Raised in Captivity” by Chuck Klosterman (2019)
The Premise: A man finds himself sharing his first-class plane flight with an unexpected fellow passenger.
The Payoff: The titular story of this bonkers collection is short and to-the-point: the narrator is taking his first ever first-class flight on a business trip, and when he opens the lavatory door, he sees a full-grown puma. Once he establishes he’s not hallucinating, he has a conversation with another passenger about how this could have happened. That’s it. And while that description may not sound compelling, this story made me laugh out loud. Klosterman takes an insane premise and leans right into it. The dialogue is funny in an almost self-aware way. It’s unclear over the course of the story if the narrator’s new friend might even be in on it. I just loved this story, as well as this collection–I found myself reading the next six or seven stories, and frequently guffawing or gasping. Klosterman is a TRIP.
#38: “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” by Grace Paley (1974)
The Premise: A middle-aged woman has a romantic relationship with a non-committal cab driver, to poor effect.
The Payoff: Okay, I’ll say from the outset: I just didn’t like this one. I couldn’t really connect to the main character Alexandra. I thought Dennis the cabbie/rock-singer was a shallow jerk. It’s not a bad story, to be fair. I can see Paley’s skill; she’s not a bad writer, and the characterization was mostly effective. I just didn’t enjoy reading it. I don’t have much more to say about it.
#39: “Tower of Babylon” by Ted Chiang (1990)
The Premise: The men of earth built a tower to reach heaven, and God didn’t stop them.
The Payoff: I didn’t realize, until I saw the cover of the movie tie-in edition of the story collection, that Chiang wrote the story that became the movie Arrival (which I really quite liked). So that set up my expectations for “Tower of Babylon,” which is an alternate-history take on the Tower of Babel. In this version, the tower keeps being built until the people actually reach “the vault of heaven,” a granite ceiling hanging above the cosmos. Once they punch through, the main character finds himself carried upward in a flood of water, but instead of being destroyed by God’s wrath, he is deposited back near where he started. He later compares the physical reality of the world to a cuneiform cylinder, with the top being connected to the bottom. There’s obviously a fantastic element to this story, both in the descriptions of the tower and the resolution of the story. What surprised me was that Chiang seemed rather respectful of the Biblical source material and the discussion of God (YHWH) throughout the story. Once I realized the story was Biblical alt-history, I was bracing for the inevitable blasphemous critique of the God of the Bible. As far as I could tell, that really didn’t happen. Other than the obvious difference between the two stories, Chiang is careful to write this fictional account as ancient near-eastern folklore rather than a 21st-century satire of religious belief. This fact makes me want to read more of Chiang’s work–not because I am looking for more religious stories, but I find myself willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if he dabbles in religious themes again.
That’s all for now. Thirteen stories left in this project, with one month to go. Coming up this month: my thoughts on stories by Ambrose Bierce, Phillip Van Doren, James Joyce, Isaac Asimov, Truman Capote, Robert Heinlein (again!), Chesterton, O’Connor, Harlan Ellison, and a few others. It’ll be a photo finish, but I’m looking forward to it.
Your Turn: Have you read any of these stories? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
So if you have been reading my #52Stories posts, and you have a functioning calendar, you’ll know that I’m just over halfway through my promised reviews with just over a month to go in 2019.
So, yeah, about that…
The honest fact is, I just haven’t been able to devote the time to reading, re-reading, analyzing (“Dave, you actually do analysis? We couldn’t really tell”–shut up, you), and writing posts about these stories.
I’ve got notes on at least 10 stories right now and just haven’t taken the time to sit down and write out the corresponding posts. I’ve got another 5 stories that I’ve read through 1 time, but haven’t yet revisited or taken notes on.
For the month of December, I’m changing things up. My goal is still to read and discuss all 52 stories by the end of the year, but the reviews will not be as detailed as they have been thusfar. Instead, my plan is to provide a one-sentence summary and then a few paragraphs of response without going into the level of detail that I did before. Who knows? If it’s a story I really enjoyed, I’ll gab about it a bit more. If it’s not, I’ll give you a brief description and maybe a reason why I didn’t enjoy it.
Why the change?
Frankly, I’m tired, y’all. This year, and especially the last few months, have been really demanding, personally, professionally, and relationally. And while this project has introduced me to a few new writers to check out in the future (which is excellent!), these posts have turned into another chore I’ve been neglecting, rather than an experiment I’ve been enjoying. And at this point in my life, blogging shouldn’t feel like a chore for me; if I’m not enjoying what I’m doing, I just shouldn’t give any more time to it.
Depending on how things go this week, I may take advantage of a little extra personal time around the holiday to queue up a few #52Stories posts for next week so I can drop as much of my prepared #52Stories material on you as I can. After that, we’ll see how things go. It may be a steady pace to the finish, or a Christmas-week binge. We’ll see.
I’m sorry I couldn’t give this as much time as I thought I could. If you want to see how something like this is done well, check out Jay’s work over at Bibliophilopolis. His “Deal Me In” reading challenges are the boss sauce.
That’s all for me this week. See you next Monday, and Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans (and American-adjacents who love food-centric holidays)!
Receiving clear and direct feedback is necessary, especially when it’s uncomfortable.
Over the last few months, I’ve been pondering how I can build a readership, serve my audience, and use my writing to build up others, especially fellow Christians. Thanks to Jeff Goins’ recent series about email lists and Seth Godin’s book Tribes, I had a flash of inspiration a few weeks back: What if I put together an email newsletter?
I could focus the content toward guys like me–lay pastors who want to grow as teachers and communicators and faithfully lead their families and churches. I’d be writing as a peer, not as an expert, and would focus on encouraging the brothers. Maybe I’d even throw in some writing advice or Scriptural encouragement.
I was instantly excited about this idea, so I decided the best way to gauge potential interest in this project would be to ask my Twitter follows; after all, they’d be my core audience for such a venture.
I put the question out there as a poll, with the plan that, if I got at least 20 or 25 “yes” responses, I would start brainstorming for an early 2020 roll-out.
I certainly got an unambiguous response.
In the words of Alex Hitchens (Will Smith’s character from Hitch))…
I’ll admit, my pride took a bit of hit. When a brother started asking very specific follow-up questions about what exactly I would include in such an email, I started to get defensive, mainly because I hadn’t thought it all through yet. I had an exciting idea but no plan of how to get there, and no real clear goals. Truth be told, I may have been more enamored with the idea of having an email list than actually serving my readers, which would have been almost instant death to any goodwill if anyone had signed up.
What’s more, this clear response said something else I wasn’t eager to hear: An email audience is earned, and I hadn’t put in enough work to earn that level of trust.
Let’s be real: of the 170 or so “followers” of this blog, there are maybe 20 of you who actually read my posts. (In fact, do me a favor: if you’ve made it this far, reply in the comments with your favorite ice cream flavor. Just humor me–or Good Humor me, if you prefer.) Most of my blog follows are other bloggers looking for follow-backs, or folks looking to sell me something. If I tracked actual engagement via likes and comments, the number is much, much smaller.
As Jeff Goins puts it, joining someone’s mailing list means giving them specific permission to get into your “space” and speak to you directly. This is a closer level of access than a blog post that can be ignored. For an email newsletter list (of any kind) to grow, readers must believe I have something worth saying that is worth their valuable time to read. It’s clear I haven’t done enough to prove that yet.
It may not have come the way I wanted, but I’ve heard my 2020 challenge loud and clear: I need to give my audience a better reason to listen.
AND I need to have a better answer for the inevitable “why” question. Maybe that starts by deciding why I’m really interested in the idea of an email newsletter at all.
Suffice it to say, I won’t be creating an email newsletter in 2020. I’ve heard you loud and clear, folks.
Now, a podcast, on the other hand–there’s an idea…
So I wasn’t planning on November being a “No-Post November” but it’s sure starting out that way! So what’s the story, morning-glory?
Well, it comes down to this: margin.
I don’t have much margin in my life right now. Like so many of you, I have lots of demands, and to be honest, I’m struggling to meet all those demands. And no, I’m not going to cue up the sad violins and run through the litany of what’s on my plate, because that doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t help me.
So instead, I want to talk about stress.
This past weekend, a loved one was briefly hospitalized because he pushed himself so hard that his nervous system decided a hard reboot was in order. This person, in prime physical health in his middle age, gave himself a seizure, due in part to a combination of unaddressed stress, inconsistent diet, dehydration, and high levels of caffeine usage. No matter how otherwise healthy he was, he still hit his limit.
…And I just hit mine, so to speak–there goes my timer. So, I’ll summarize this way:
What this experience reminded me of is that I am not omnipotent. I can’t burn the candle at both ends for long, before I get scorched and the light goes out, as it were.
We human beings are designed to belimited, because this reminds us that we have a Creator God who is not.
So what does that mean for you, practically? It means get some sleep. Be smart about how you fuel yourself. Accept that you can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Maybe try decaf once in a while.
Come face to face with the fact that you can’t do it all, or run the risk of ending up face-down on your bedroom carpet.
A stark reminder, but a necessary one.
More posts this week, if possible. Maybe sign up for notifications in the sidebar to the right (or below, if you’re reading on mobile)? Just in case I don’t get back here soon.
Finally, a fascinating 20-minute video about video games: The video’s creator (Razbuten) examines what it’s like for someone who never learned the “language” of video games to experience playing them for the first time. As someone who has played video games on and off for more than 30 years, I realize now how much of my experience I take for granted. If I could talk my wife into the experiment he lays out (no small task), I expect she would have some of the same reactions as his wife did (albeit less profanity-filled!). [Note: This video does contain a fair bit of strong language, so if this is a concern, don’t watch.]
Have a great weekend, friends! I’ll be back on Monday with the next installment of #SmundaySchool and more #52Stories a bit later in the week. See you then!
This week, I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss briefly 3 “locked-room” mysteries I read. In basic terms, a “locked-room” mystery is exactly what it sounds like: a crime (usually a murder, but sometimes a theft) takes place in a room that appears to be locked from the inside or otherwise inaccessible, and it’s up to the clever sleuth (or in some cases, observant travelling salesman?) to discover who is responsible and how the crime was committed.
I’ll confess that my commentary is going to be pretty light this time–not because I enjoyed the stories any less than others, but because, by this point, I think we’re familiar with the ins and outs of mystery stories. Also, there isn’t a great deal of subtext, so these were easy, quick, fun reads.
All three of today’s tales came from Otto Penzler’s Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, borrowed from my local library. This volume is HUGE, so if this type of story is your bag, you should definitely pick it up. (Penzler also edited a volume of stories about villains and rogues, which I’ll mention in a later post!) I appreciated the fact that this collection was actually organized by crime committed and/or weapon used, which is a neat approach.
Okay, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Let’s pop open the lock and dive in!
#27: “The Murders at the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)
The brilliant C. Auguste Dupin involves himself in the investigation of a grisly murder scene to repay a service performed by the man accused of the crime.
I both enjoyed and endured this story. It was written nearly 50 years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first published “A Study in Scarlet,” and it’s undeniably how much ACD borrowed/stole from Poe’s 3 “Dupin” stories. While the set-up in this story was pure Sherlockian goodness, the ending left…well, a LOT to be desired. Nevertheless, without Dupin, we would likely not have a Holmes (or at least not one in any way recognizable). For that, I am very grateful.
Here are some story observations for your consideration–and spoilers forthcoming, so go find the story for yourself if you have any interest in reading a proto-Sherlock mystery.
Poe spends several hundred words describing the power of deductive reasoning (or as Poe described it, “ratiocination,” the creative imagination and logical prowess that Dupin employs to work out the mystery). The miniature essay itself was heavy reading but instructive–I had to remind myself that this narration/prologue was the invention of Poe, instead of a nonfiction treatise by an actual investigative professional. That alone is noteworthy.
If you’re at all familiar with Doyle’s tropes, this story feels paint-by-numbers, to the point at which you begin to resent Doyle’s acclaim for what is transparently a ripped-off character. (Hold that ire a moment, reader.) The narrator is an anonymous “Watson” type who meets the Detective at the library, where they are seeking the same book and become friends. Technically, Dupin isn’t a detective but a former man of means whose family fell on hard times. He does a bit of “Sherlocking” early on, appearing to be able to read his friend’s thoughts before explaining in a perfectly logical way how he came to that conclusion. You almost don’t even need to read this first section of the narrative; just imagine a Holmes and Watson meet-cute and you’ve got it nailed.
The mystery presents itself: gruesome murders, shouting in foreign tongues, a locked room. Much of the story’s length is spent in newspaper accounts of incredible and grisly detail of the crime, or detailed recounting of the witness statements (must have been the late edition of the Exposition Times). Dupin involves himself in the case because he owes one of the suspects a favor. He’s not a detective; he’s just smart.
The path to the resolution is copied wholesale in Doyle’s stories: interviews, latching on to a random-seeming detail, an action by the “detective” that makes no sense in the moment but eventually becomes the spring to set off the trap for the guilty party.
Aaaaaaaand it’s an orangutan. That’s the killer: an orangutan. I nearly dropped the book at this point. The resolution is so silly, so stupid, you could almost wonder if this was meant to be a farce. However, this is where my opinion of the Dupin-Sherlock connection changed. In the end, it isn’t merely that Doyle ripped off Poe wholesale (though he very, very much did). Doyle took the parts of the Dupin stories that worked and improved them substantially. The brilliant hero *should* be a detective. The sidekick isn’t just a cipher, but an actual character whose history can play into the story. Don’t lead off with a treatise on the detective’s methods; show rather than tell. Flesh out the Detective’s story a bit more. Give just enough exposition to give the characters something to do and then let them dig. Doyle takes the formula and remixes it to create literary magic.
It’s undeniable that without Dupin, the world would have missed out on Sherlock Holmes. But it should be equally without question that, without the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the next generation’s “August Dupin” would have quickly faded from memory, rather than having the cultural staying power that he still enjoys.
In summary, good writers steal ideas; truly great writers steal and masterfully improve ideas.
#28: “The Dream” by Agatha Christie
The venerable Hercule Poirot is summoned to meet an eccentric tycoon, who tells of a recurring dream of suicide–a dream that comes true the next day.
Until now, my familiarity with Hercule Poirot has been mostly the book-length mysteries (or the Masterpiece Theater teleplays, which I suspect may be based on shorter works). This bite-sized Poirot mystery works, but feels very quick and thin. In my experience, Poirot needs time to chew on a puzzle before working it out. This story was almost over before it began, and while the ending was satisfactory, it wasn’t resonant.
A few scattered thoughts on this one (from memory, since I failed to take notes):
I have to admit, as I read this story, I kept thinking back to one of the Thin Man films (either the second or the third), in which Nick Charles is threatened by a man who has dreams of his enemies dying in horrible ways, but always has an alibi when one of them dies. (Sidenote: if you’ve never watched the Thin Man movies [the original being an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel], I cannot recommend them strongly enough. Truly great stories, both as detective/mystery stories and as 1930’s comedies. Nick and Nora Charles are one of my all-time favorite screen couples, and it’s just a delight to watch them solve cases together.)
A point in the story’s favor is that Christie makes it easy for the reader to accept everything as presented at first. The whole situation feels a bit unusual, and the author noting that even Poirot is bemused by some of the theatricality helps the reader ease in and take things as they come.
I think what I like best about Poirot stories is that you can watch him slowly work out the answer to the mystery. He’s methodical, asking careful questions and keeping his cards close to his vest. That’s where the short story length starts to lose me as a reader. It happens so quickly, there doesn’t seem to be time for Poirot to figure the mystery out. On the other hand, the list of suspects is short, and the action and dialogue are pretty pared down, so it suits the format better.
In the end, the puzzle is solved and the death is proven to be murder, not suicide. Some of the details seemed like a bit of stretch, but the main twist worked for me. I think I’d like to read more of Christie’s shorter Poirot tales before making a decision about whether or not I prefer the novel-length to the short-story format. It’s hard to judge them all by just reading one.
#29: “The Poisoned Dow ’08” by Dorothy Sayers
A travelling salesman revisits a former customer to discover his wares may have been involved in the man’s murder.
This one…worked, I suppose. I think I had the most trouble connecting because the protagonist was a random door-to-door salesman. It was tricky to get a bead on his character, so when he provided perceptive commentary and insight, I was more confused than intrigued.
A few comments on this one as well, bereft of detail but capturing the essence:
As I noted, the main character seems to be a one-off (and if I’m wrong, you Sayers fans should certainly correct me in the comments!), providing no connection points for the reader. While the level of “Sherlocking” this character does is kept to a minimum (and makes sense, given his particular expertise), it just seems out of place. The police inspectors give him entirely too much leeway in these conversations, making the whole thing feel a bit convenient and taking me out of the moment.
The resolution does seem a bit rushed and was tricky to visualize as I read. The final clue that the salesman says tipped him off still sailed right past me, even upon re-reading his explanation. The whole venture seems a bit rushed, as if Sayers had a good idea but was murky on the details and just wanted to push through to the end. While there’s something to be said for trimming unnecessary detail down to the bare bones of the plot, the atmosphere and location seemed like sketches rather than settings.
If I had my druthers, a much stronger ending might have been for the salesman to actually have been the killer, who uses his quick thinking and on-the-spot explanations to dispel the detective’s suspicions and put him on the wrong track. Obviously, that’s a bit off-brand for Sayers, from what I know of her work. Nevertheless, I would have found that a bit more interesting.
That’s all I’ve got for you this week. Check back tomorrow for either a #FridayFeed post or perhaps some current-events commentary (depending on how feisty I feel).
Your Turn: What’s your favorite mystery short story? Let me know in the comments!