Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review: The Mystery of Things by Debra Murphy

Like good wine, sometimes a book is meant to be consumed in its time. Such was The Mystery of Things by Debra Murphy for me. Although I purchased an autographed copy in 2004 on its publication, the book was an intimidating 400 pages—intimidating because I had small children then and was lucky to finish novellas.
However, as the kids have gotten older, I’ve had time for little luxuries like sleeping in, watching complete television shows, eating the food I’ve prepared for myself, and reading long novels. 
While seemingly overdue for both reviewing and reading, the author tells me the long-awaited second book in the The Ashland Grail Cycle should be out next year, which makes reading this first book of the cycle now just about perfect. I summered on the lake with Mystery. You should spend the autumn with it.
A suicidal college student walks off the eighth floor of Milwaukee’s city hall with a photocopy of the Prophet Isaiah’s description of the fall of Satan. Next to it, he has written “Introibo ad altere Dei” (I will go to the altar of God), the first words of the old Latin Mass. 
This juxtaposition of the descent to hell and reaching for heaven sets the theme for the novel which takes place among humans—the only beings who can nearly simultaneously accomplish both. The suicide raises questions, but before they are answered, a priest is dead.
Then, women begin to die at the hands of a serial killer. What binds the women, the priest and the suicide together is a connection to James Ireton, an English literature doctoral candidate at a local graduate studies institute.
The murders are gruesome. The alibis are tight. The guilt is as deep and broad as Lake Michigan, the great inland sea on the shores of which the story takes place. 
And, of course, there’s Shakespeare. But, is it Othello or Hamlet or one of the lesser works Ireton and his fellow students are reading that will be the key to unlocking the mystery? Or will it be the poems of Edmund Spenser that reveal all to a 21st Century cast of professors, priests, police officers, prostitutes, and a penitent homosexual. Just to break the alliteration, there’s also Lupe, James’s unlikely but beautiful Mexican-Irish love interest, a dragon, and Our Lady. 
In Mystery, Murphy accomplishes what many Catholic writers have set out to do over the past 15 years: She has written a compelling, Catholic novel that explores the real lives of Catholics, their culture, and those both coming to and running from the Church. There are no ready-made saints for Murphy, just sinners living in a fallen world.
If there is any weakness to this novel it is in the love story. While one is carried along completely by the murder mystery, it takes some concession on the part of the reader to see James and Lupe as romantically involved. The characters seem too different. It is also perhaps the case that there is an imbalance in how the characters were developed by Murphy. In the end, we fully know James Ireton, but it seems that Lupe Cruz has yet to come into her own. However, the concession is minor and the story is otherwise rich and intelligently written. It will take you through twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the end.
Some reviews have compared the writing in Mystery to Flannery O’Connor. I think Mystery is at the intersection of Agatha Christie and William F. Buckley, good mystery and a really smart read. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

When I'd Rather Be Unplugged

I still remember learning to type on electric typewriters. I’ve never regretted the disappearance of these one-time workhorses of the office. Word processing is much better. I’ve also never regretted leaving behind the LP first for CDs and then for MP3s—records don’t sound as great as audiophiles claim, and you were always one good scratch from buying a new copy.
Similarly, radio is much better over the internet, and streaming movies and TV shows without commercials easily beats both the three broadcast channels of my childhood and the cable TV that has ruled since. Computers and the internet have changed much of what we do for the better.
Still, amidst the technological deluge, there are times when I’d rather use older forms of technology or be unplugged altogether:
1) Corded telephones. First the cordless phone then the cell phone sent most of the phones I grew up with to the landfill. However, if I can find an old phone with a long cord that lets me walk around the living room and talk but forces me (and my kids) to go back to the receiver that’s attached to the wall and hang it up, I’m buying it. We’ll always know where the phone is and not worry about whether it’s charged or not.
2) Taking notes. Paper beats notes taken in any form on my iPhone. For starters, the touchscreen keypad was never meant for adults, no matter what Steve Jobs said when he walked among us. I spend way too much time going back and correcting my own mistakes or battling a device that wants to correct my spelling even though it doesn’t know what word I’m writing.
Also, whether recorded or written, notes on my iPhone are out of sight and out of mind. I forget I have them and frequently that’s not good. I’ll grant the possible exception of using the camera to quickly copy a large amount of written material, but for me an old school reporter’s notebook gives me plenty of space to write what I need to remember without inviting me to take down way more than I need. And, not only do I remember better what I’ve handwritten, I can flip back and forth between notes easier than on my phone and even look at them side by side.
3) Magazines and newspapers are better on paper. I’ve tried reading them on laptop, iPad and Kindle, but those devices have too much else going on. Rather than reading, I find myself checking email or Facebook, or playing backgammon or Tetris. On my early generation Kindle Keyboard, I don’t have those diversions, but I also don’t get the pictures that are often very much a part of a news story.
4) Books are better in paper form for much the same reasons as magazines and newspapers, but my Kindle Keyboard which doesn’t surf the net or have other extraneities is a close second. Being able to download a book whenever I want sometimes beats two-day or overnight shipping, but being able to make notes, flip back and forth through several dog-eared pages at the same time, and read without worrying about battery life still give traditional books the edge.
5) Pocket or wrist watches. I’ve used my cellphone as a pocket watch for years. That was fine when it only made phone calls and showed the time. Now, a quick check of the time leads to a pointless check of the weather, a redundant check of recently checked email, and the chatter of a Twitter feed. I took my old pocket watch to the jeweler and had a battery put in it. My cell phone has found a new home in my briefcase. It has aspired to be a laptop for years now, time for it go to where laptops live.
I look forward to new tech each year, but four decades into the computer revolution I’ve found it’s time to revisit older, better tech and non-tech. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Return of the Blog—Still Sweeter

Early in September, I announced an autumn recess for Dulcius Ex Asperis. It seemed I had run out of writing energy and had lost focus on why I was writing it in the first place. I expected to take a few months to recharge, recollect, and refocus. I also went off to do other things on the internet.

I didn't entirely abandon DEA. I posted a couple of talks I gave at my church. Then, yesterday, I felt inspired to write about my Veterans Day experience. Although I had envisioned a three-month break, a good two months of not thinking I needed to post something to keep the blog going has recharged my writer's spirit and caused me to think that it's time to fully return.

The time off was good. During my absence, I finally figured out how to use Twitter both as a social medium and as a way to distribute my blog posts (after a few irritating efforts at it in the past). I took a run at writing a blog on Tumblr which is a beautiful and extremely functional blogging site, but I could never quite coalesce my thoughts around how to use it to the effect I want. I think, like Twitter, I'll eventually figure it out, I just haven't yet.

I also looked at less-promising blogging sites and decided that Blogspot/Blogger, my current service, is as good as any of them. However, I took the statistics widget off this blog. I can't completely shut off the counters that tell me how many people are at least accessing these pages (sometimes more, sometimes less but still in the backwaters of the Web), but having only general numbers will help me focus less on what I didn't really want to focus on in the first place.

Finally, I decided to start writing more short-form posts. I had started with the idea of reviving long-form writing, but I'm not sure that ever really worked. And, when I look at my own internet-reading habits, a post or story really has to be compelling all the way through if it's going to go more than five or six short paragraphs. So, while I will not abandon the long post, I plan to write more posts that, while still substantive, are in the range of 600 words (my average has been around 1,200).

In conclusion, I rededicate this blog to just writing because I think God wants me to. If you've come along for the ride or are just now joining me, I thank you for your readership and hope you find upcoming posts worthwhile.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Thousand Handshakes—My Veterans Day 2014

A thousand handshakes.

After the Veterans Day assembly at my son's school this morning, I lined up with the other veterans and active service members in a reception line through which came each and every one of my son's schoolmates:

"Thank you for your service."

"You're welcome. Thank you for having us at your school today."

A thousand is an estimate, but not an exaggeration. I've been flexing my fingers most of the day trying to get my hand back to its normal feel. I also took some Motrin. But, for the other vets and me it was an honor to get to touch the next generation and pass on to them some of our stories.

Mine is not nearly as gallant as some. I was in the armored cavalry patrolling the East German border in the late Eighties. Most of the time I drove an armored reconnaissance vehicle through the snow. We were armed with live rounds, but the border zone had been calm for a couple of decades by the time I got there. And, the walls, fences and minefields between East and West Europe started coming down and being dismantled less than a year after I left. Of course, no one could have known it at the time. I remember looking out across the border thinking it would come downin about 50 years.

I've always been bad at telling the future. And, at the time, I wouldn't have been able to tell you that 25 years later I'd have a wonderful wife, three great kids and a house in the suburbs. Or, that my son would delight in telling his classmates how, when I was on duty at a border outpost, we once thought a significant border incident was about to take place during a snowstorm because the ground radar was showing a "heavy" moving in our direction. It could have been a Soviet tank. But, as it got closer (and we got closer in order to really see it), we found it was much less threateningit was a snowplow.

To hear my son tell it, though, we launched missiles at it and blew it up (we didn't). He laughs while he tells it.

The men and women who would later serve in the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and in Afghanistan will have better stories to tell their kids. Still, for most veterans it was a matter of being where you were needed at the time. And, that's something we need to pass on to our kids--your country needs you be it for the most daring or most routine of missions, in the most exciting or most dull periods of our history. Not everyone will be a hero. But everyone should do his part. Serve in your time and your nation will return its thanksone little handshake at a time.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

After the Election: On Politics and Being Catholic in the American Empire

This morning, in the wake of the American mid-term elections, I gave a talk to the Men of the Upper Room at St. Bernard Church in Tulsa. Celebrating the favorable election returns, I also looked at what I think will be severe challenges for American Catholics in the future. The talk is too long to reprint in its entirety here. However, I have posted the complete text of the talk on a separate page here

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Becoming an Ark of the Covenant: On Attending Daily Mass

While I have taken a break from making regular posts on Dulcius Ex Asperis until December, I continue to give talks at my church as the lecturer for the Knights of Columbus. I've posted my most recent one on a separate page for those interested.

Monday, September 8, 2014

An Autumn Recess

Dulcius Ex Asperis will be on break through the fall. Having written this blog fairly consistently for the past two years and eight months, I've decided to spend some time looking at other social media avenues of expression, re-evaluating my mission as a writer, and refocusing my goals. I plan to do this without going to meetings or watching PowerPoint presentations, so it may take awhile. I appreciate your past readership and hope you will join me again in the future.