Traveling mercies

From animal stories to Jane Austen with testosterone

Issue: "Washington Gets One Right," Dec. 6, 1997

Lots of people are flying around the country and around the world this month, and things don't always go right. The Far Eastern Economic Review a while back had a list of signs seen by U.S. travelers in foreign countries, such as this one in a Copenhagen airline ticket office: "We take your suitcases and send them in all directions." Here are some of the English-language hotel signs that Review contributors observed: in Romania, "The elevator is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable"; in Athens, "Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. daily"; in Paris, "Please leave your values at the front door." Various businesses also had evocative signs. A tailor shop on the island of Rhodes recommended to customers, "Order your summer suits. Because of a big rush, we will execute customers in strict rotation." A Hong Kong dentist pridefully noted, "Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists." And many who abstain from liquor would enjoy the menu of a Swiss restaurant: "Our wines leave you nothing to hope for." I bring up these unintentionally humorous lines because this column has been somber the last couple of months. It's good for all of us to lighten up at times. At the end of the year, when academic Christians are asked to recommend to readers books worth perusing, the tendency is to put on airs: "Oh, whenever I have a moment to spare, I read Calvin's Institutes." (Actually, the last spare moment was spent leafing through Calvin and Hobbes.) So, in the spirit of full disclosure-and maybe the Clinton administration will catch it-I acknowledge that when riding on planes as I am frequently these days, I am not reading systematic theology textbooks. (That will come as no surprise to anyone who had been reading my decidedly unsystematic columns.) Instead, whenever laptop computer cannot be used, I pull out whatever my executive secretary, Daniel Olasky, an avid 12-year-old reader, recommends. Daniel introduced me two years ago to a series of 10 or so novels by Brian Jacques called the Redwall series: Titles include Redwall, Mossflower, and Martin the Warrior. The books are well-plotted adventures with vibrant animal characters; the heroes learn to be bold and courageous, and the villains show their depraved natures. The writing is rousing enough to engage children and clever enough to keep adults leafing through. The books are available in handy paperbacks to carry on airplanes, so that when a dad returns home he can go on a walk-and-talk with a waiting son and discuss what's happened. Daniel now has me on another series, the Aubrey-Maturin novels (17 or so) of Patrick O'Brian: Titles include Master and Commander, Post-Captain, and The Thirteen-Gun Salute. Written over the past three decades, these books are set largely on British navy ships during the Napoleonic wars; the sagas are aimed at adults, but the occasional adultery takes place off-stage and has moral repercussions. Elegantly narrated and accurately described sea battles make the books move; the two main characters give them depth. Jack Aubrey, a fighting captain who has great judgment during military engagements but staggers in civil society, and Stephen Maturin, an intellectual physician/spy who knows much but has to learn how to turn ideas into action, form a great partnership. The relationships of the two with each other, with the men who serve under and around them, and with the women in their lives, are intriguing. Think of Jane Austen with testosterone. Can I write an entire column without a sobering note? No, so I'll mention a just-published book I've introduced to Daniel, David King's The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia. The book shows through a series of photographs how dishonesty triumphed, for a time. Daniel was fascinated to see how a portrait of four Soviet leaders over the years was airbrushed and cropped into a portrait of three (Stalin had killed the fourth man), then two, and then only one, the man of steel himself. Through airbrushing, a photo of Lenin with a group of children and parents became a photo of Lenin with children alone; all the parents were executed. The book vividly shows what went on in the Soviet Union, providentially now only a grim memory-although its spirit survives in China. The Commissar Vanishes, the books of Brian Jacques, and those of Patrick O'Brian all show that life is a battle, but evil does not triumph forever.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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