Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

I went to see the new movie Cowboys and Aliens after work today. I knew it was going to be cool, but I had no idea it was so cool. From the trailer, I gathered that it featured Sam Rockwell (of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), who is cool; Daniel Craig (of the latest James Bond movies), who is cooler; and Harrison Ford (of, like, practically every Harrison Ford movie ever made), the coolest of them all.

But the previews hardly prepared me for the opening credits, in which I saw a much longer list of names from the mean streets of inner-city Coolsville: Keith Carradine (of Deadwood), Paul Dano (of There Will Be Blood), Adam Beach (of Windtalker), Walton Goggins (lately "Boyd Crowder" in TV's Justified), David O'Hara (of The District and Braveheart, and lately featured as Harry Potter in disguise), and by no means least, Clancy Brown (I don't know where to begin--Starship Troopers, Highlander, Pathfinder, The Shawshank Redemption--the guy is studliness incarnate). And that's only some of the coolness the cast of this sci-fi western brings to the screen; plus, in the hot mama department, there is Olivia Wilde of TV's House.

So. Let the coolness of the cast sink in. Then try to comprehend the fact that, in spite of the cosmically high expectations such a cast would raise for a film in which Old West bad guys, townspeople, and Indians face off against a bunch of freakishly nasty, gold-rasslin' spacemen... the film does not disappoint. Not at all. It meets and exceeds all expectations of a scary, thrilling, weird, sometimes funny, occasionally sexy, and super-super-super cool guy movie.

Craig plays the guy who wakes up in the desert with a strange wound in his gut, a strange metal thing clamped around his wrist, and a strange lack of memory of who he is or what has happened to him. Before he says a word, he takes down three armed men, rides into town, meets the local preacher (Brown), gets cross-wise to the local cattleman/crime lord (Ford) via his spoiled, cowardly son (Dano), drops by the local tavern (run by Rockwell), attracts the notice of the local extraterrestrial in human form (Wilde), and gets arrested by the local sheriff (Carradine).

Things aren't looking too good for Craig's character when he gets fingered as the ringleader of a band of stagecoach-robbing outlaws whose last known crimes were the theft of Ford's gold and the alleged murder of an alleged prostitute, none of which he remembers doing. They're about to send him up the river when, with perfect timing, the aliens show up in funky little single-seater jets and start roping people like steers at a rodeo. Craig discovers that the metal thing on his wrist is an alien weapon that can blast holes in things (like the side of the jail wagon he's locked in) and blow aircraft out of the sky. And from then on he's pretty much the hero, except when he isn't.

The townsfolk who survive the alien attack set out on the trail of the alien who survived Craig's counterattack. Their mission: to get their shanghaied loved ones back before the aliens hack them up in a series of cruel experiments. They're really cuddly aliens, though, sort of like a cross between the creatures in the Alien and Predator movies, with a touch of those critters in Beastmaster who could dissolve you down to your clean, white bones just by hugging you. Some bandits (Craig's old gang, including O'Hara and Goggins) get involved, as do some Apache warriors (including the bad guy from Apocalypto); Adam Beach (playing a character I haven't mentioned yet) gets you all misty-eyed, first with a speech about Ford's character and then with a touching death scene; the good guys flush the goons out of their lair with a bundle of dynamite, and they settle things the Wild West Way... only, with a side-helping of daring doings inside the creepy alien ship.

It all ends the way guy movies are required, by the California Legal Code, to end: with a big orange fireball, a booze-soaked shindig, and a wistful farewell in which the hero rides off into the sunset alone. And I haven't even mentioned the dog. Or the little kid. Or the upside-down steamboat in the middle of the desert. Sigh.... I'm so glad they still make movies like this. And to think we have director Jon Favreau (a.k.a. the fat kid from Rudy) to thank for it!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

One Night's Dreams

I've had an interesting, dream-filled night, frequently waking so that I can remember much that I have dreamed.

To start with, I dreamed passages from Prokofiev's Second Symphony, which I had listened to before I went to bed. In fact, I heard the first movement three times yesterday, liking it more each time in spite of its tumultous, thick-textured, violently rhythmic character of "iron and steel."

Then for a while I dreamed scenes from War and Peace, which I am again listening to on audio CD, having just reached the part where Andrei Bolkonsky proposes to Natasha Rostov; I think this was the part I dreamed about. A little later I found myself caught up in a surprisingly enjoyable dream about a zombie apocalypse. Then I felt that I was a journalist interviewing a king while he and his retinue were in a large garden, or perhaps a golf course—an interview interrupted by an assassination attempt, a bombing, and the spanking of an adolescent prince wearing a yellow uniform.

Further on, I dreamt that I was a photographer in the 1960s, taking posed portraits first of the Kennedy family, then of the Beatles and some of their friends. I sensed that the latter session was meant for the cover of one of their albums, but that things were not going well and that my photos would never be published.

Lastly, I dreamed a cameraman's view of two celebrity talk shows. One of them was a 1970-ish program featuring Chevy Chase as the host, and he was very rude to his guest, a curly-haired woman who seemed to be a fitness instructor and who punished him by refusing to speak. Then, jumping ahead to the 1980s, on a set decorated in shades of white, the program switched to a talk-show vehicle for sometime Cheers star Shelly Long—though I can't remember any guests. Finally, I woke up when my subconscious started replaying the song "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper, which I had heard piped into the laundromat where I spent part of Saturday afternoon.

So there you have a slice of my subconscious. Good luck finding the chain of associations in it...

EDIT: I now also recall a dream episode in which my right arm had been amputated and I had to learn to make do with my left. I believe this idea came from another book I have been reading, Ramage at Trafalgar, featuring Admiral Lord Nelson. Or maybe it just comes of lying on my arm wrong...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

From Your Cats...

Top ten reasons we, your cats, require our water dish to be cleaned every day:
  1. Leave water standing anywhere for a night and a day, and it will be gross.
  2. You try drinking water by licking it out of a bowl, and see if you don't slobber in it.
  3. You try picking up pieces of food with your lips, teeth, and tongue, and see if you don't spray crumbs all over the place. Some of it will get in your water dish!
  4. If you have hair on your head and/or face, wear a dark shirt some time and see if it doesn't collect little hairs, bits of dead skin & other crud. Now try not getting some of that in your water dish!
  5. There's a lot of traffic by here. Don't pretend you've never kicked any dirt into our water dish.
  6. OK, so we sneezed in it. Happy?
  7. If you're going to drop straw wrappers, receipts, milk carton rings, shreds of shrink-wrap and fragments of the plastic seal around the lid of a bottle or jar, don't blame us for taking an interest in their floating and/or absorbent qualities.
  8. You've got two cats, dude. Why do you always assume I'm the bad one?
  9. This is still yesterday's water, and we're pissed.
  10. We've been meaning to ask you whether we couldn't have a paw-washing station next to the litter box. It wouldn't be an issue if you hadn't declawed us. Ordinarily we would use our claws to keep our paws off the clay. But now...?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tenth Commandment Hymn

And so my series of decalog hymns concludes with this song based on the Tenth Commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor." My take on this commandment, way back here, is that it safeguards God's "gift of vocation: the relationships and situations where each of us belongs." Here is my devotion on this commandment; and now the hymn...

O Christ, to whom all love is due,
Whence comes this world's rejection?
What god would dare estrange from You
Our unreserved affection?
All worldly vices manage thus,
And thus our idols conquer us:
Our hearts crave misdirection.

So often, Lord, we likewise seek
To plunder from our neighbor
The help his calling would bespeak,
The partners of his labor:
Wife, children, servants, beasts, and friends,
We mean to master for our ends,
And thus bereave our neighbor.

For vile desires and crafty speech,
We turn in contrite sorrow.
Forgive us, Christ; forbid that each
Another's place should borrow.
For You have borne sin in our place;
With unmixed love, our ransomed race
Owes You the glorious morrow.

Ninth Commandment Hymn

Next is the Ninth Commandment which, as numbered by Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Catholics, says: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house." I wrote a devotion on this commandment some time ago; in another post, I identified it as the commandment that protects God's gift to us of "justice and legal rights." So even though it sometimes gets lumped in with its twin Tenth Commandment (also against a form of coveting)—and perhaps overshadowed by the latter's enumeration of ox and ass, etc.—I think the Ninth is important enough to get its own hymn...

Christ, You owned no resting place,
As where birds and foxes nested;
Even in death's brief embrace,
In another's tomb You rested.
Yet You never so conspired
As to gain a place, compelling
None to give it; You desired
But to win our heav'nly dwelling.

Christ, You know our cares and needs;
Shall we fret with restless yearning?
Shall we meditate misdeeds,
Others' rights and merits spurning?
How shall we, who own so much,
Give such play to thoughts of taking?
How can You, perceiving such,
Show us mercy, wrath forsaking?

For the sin of our desire,
Savior, kindly grant repentance!
Damp its all-devouring fire;
Loose us from its awful sentence!
Rather covet we Your cross
And that all might love You duly!
Till we share Your heav'nly house,
May we trace Your footsteps truly!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eighth Commandment Hymn

Continuing my series of decalog hymns, we come to one based on the Eighth Commandment: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." You may have noticed by now that these are not so much didactic, catechetical verses as actual hymns, addressed in prayer to Christ...

Pray, Christ, whose sprinkled blood lifts up
A better voice than Abel's blood,
Make intercession our sake
Before the mercy-seat of God;
For on Your righteousness alone
We rest our case before that throne.

Upon You, Christ, men's calumny
Brought evil death, though You are good;
Now raised to God's right hand, You plead
That we are righteous through Your blood.
Though we have sinned with lips and tongue,
In mercy, cover all our wrong!

Forgive, protect, and strengthen us
From sins that touch a neighbor's name;
Close teeth and ears against each word
That would belie, betray, defame;
Things spoken harshly, out of turn,
Uncertain, none of our concern.

Rein in our tongue, that world of sin,
That poisons, burns, and makes unclean;
Purge us of hurtful words, that we
Might learn to speak with grace serene,
Confessing You as we would be
Confessed by You eternally.

Seventh Commandment Hymn

The Seventh Commandment, again as Lutherans and Catholics number them, says: "You shall not steal." From this commandment I extrapolate the following installment in my series of decalog hymns. As with the other hymns in this series, I invite your specific, constructive criticism so that I can improve this "work in progress." And lest you think this invitation is the lie it often is, know that I have already made changes to the previous hymns in the series--including writing an entirely new stanza--in response to the advice of intelligent readers.

O Christ, to whom all things belong,
All pow'rs in earth and heaven,
We raise to You a thankful song
For all gifts you have given.
For all we have, a trust from You,
Account and tribute both are due,
Good faith toward You requiring;
Toward all men, love untiring.

Though faithless stewards we may be,
Some wasteful, others hoarding,
Depriving one of property,
Another ill rewarding:
Have mercy, Christ, as formerly
You bade the swindler, "Follow Me,"
And eased a robber's dying,
Your heav'nly hope applying.

A thief comes but to break and kill,
To steal another's treasure;
You, Christ, came with the stated will
To give life, passing measure.
Call to repentance those who steal,
And mark them with Your pardon's seal
Till we awake possessing
On high Your blood-bought blessing.

Sixth Commandment Hymn

The Sixth Commandment, by Lutheran & Catholic numbering, says: "You shall not commit adultery." Further to my series of hymns on the decalog, here is my shot at a hymn on this commandment... Again, it was tough to be as brief as I wanted, given the scope of the material that needed to be crammed into these stanzas. If anyone can write a tighter hymn that says the same thing, show me how!

O Christ, You are the Bridegroom
Who, for the Church Your Bride,
Laid down Your life to save Her
And rose up glorified:
Build up in faith and honor,
Renew with love and life,
This mystery embodied
In every man and wife.

O Christ, whose Virgin mother
Clove to her husband pure,
And whose unblemished virtue
Life's trial did endure:
Give us pure hearts and faithful,
Chaste both in word and deed,
And in each wedded union
Plant good and fruitful seed.

Christ, who at Cana's wedding
Gave gladness by Your gift,
So, through long years of marriage,
Our spouses' hearts uplift.
Make him and her together
One body, heart and mind,
And let no man divide them
Whom God in one shall bind.

Christ, who the fallen woman
Told, "Go and sin no more,"
Have mercy on our weakness;
Condemn not, but restore!
Forgive and heal the conscience
Seared by desire and sin;
Help us, by meek correction,
Your straying lambs to win.

By mutual submission,
Christ, keep our wedlock strong;
If any cannot marry,
Keep him from doing wrong.
At last, dear heav'nly Bridegroom,
Draw us into Your breast,
And joyfully present us
At Your high wedding feast!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fifth Commandment Hymn

By Roman Catholic & Lutheran reckoning, the Fifth Commandment is the one that goes: "You shall not murder," a commandment I have previously illustrated using the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here, then, is the corresponding number in my series of decalog hymns—though I'm not sure how clearly the Good Samaritan theme comes through...

Son of God, Your human nature
Makes mankind a holy race;
And Your care for every creature
Life itself endows with grace:
Bodies healing and reviving,
Unchained mind and senses giving,
Dying in the sinner's place!

How we fail each day in easing
One another's body needs,
Just as often these increasing
By neglect as savage deeds!
While we, in an inward fashion,
Murder daily in our passion,
For his killers Jesus pleads!

Christ forgive us, lest we perish
In blood-guiltiness and dread!
Christ forbid that we should cherish
Spite and grievance on our bed!
Change our hateful hearts to loving,
Even to our foes so proving,
As to be their friends instead!

By Your life-consuming labor
You made peace to heal our soul;
Acting as our needed neighbor,
By Your wounds You made us whole.
Of Your body, slain yet living,
Food and medicine now giving,
Guide us to our heav'nly goal.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fourth Commandment Hymn

And here, again by Roman/Lutheran reckoning, is the Fourth Commandment in hymn form: "the only commandment with a promise" (Ephesians 6:2)... I really picked a stinker of a meter for this one, and perhaps as a result of that, the length of the hymn got away from me a bit. If only there wasn't so much that needed to be said, especially at this late hour of the day!

Eternal, sole-begotten Son,
Forever with the Father one,
How wondrously you made Your way:
Child of a maiden mother born,
Her and her man You did not scorn,
But served them meekly day by day.

Grant that we children of today
Might likewise honor and obey
Father and mother, as we see
You do; that we might bear the rod
As you were subject unto God,
So far as dying on a tree!

And grant that parents also might
Rule in their homes as in your sight
Must ever right and proper be:
By gentleness rebuking sin,
By patience forming Christ within
The lambs You bid them oversee.

But in this present darkness, we
Must pray for every family,
Lest this world's prince, by snare and sword,
Destroy these bonds that You ordained,
Whereby all freedom is maintained;
Restore our families, gracious Lord!

Remind us that these bonds of love
Fit us to dwell in homes above,
Where we shall all inherit thrones.
How light our burden, that You give
This promise! Therefore may we live
As willing daughters, worthy sons.

Hear, Christ, the prayer of Your elect:
Though we be weak, let us reflect
The Father's perfect love for You
And Yours for Him; and when we sin,
Like hen and chicks, so draw us in,
That greater works we yet may do.

Third Commandment Hymn

This hymn continues my series of decalog hymns with the Third Commandment (as numbered by Lutherans and Rome): "Remember to sanctify the holy day." I hope this hymn (and ditto the others in this project) isn't as big a mess as I fear it may be. There are so many ideas that I want to cram into it, but the word of the day is TIGHT!

Son of Man, as Lord of Sabbath,
Who made new that ancient rest
Not a day to put Your children's
Strict obedience to the test,
But a day for comfort sweet,
Sitting at our Savior's feet
Lift again our sin-sore burden,
Fill our hunger with Your best.

When in hunger Your disciples
Plucked the heads of grain and ate,
Even this, You showed by David,
No strict law did violate.
For the Sabbath is for man,
And it was Your gracious plan
To refashion it when dying,
All things to regenerate.

Though You healed upon the Sabbath
Sick and lame and palsied hand,
Yet by loving, seeking, saving,
You fulfilled the Law's demand.
By Your Sabbath in the tomb
You freed us from death and doom,
And from endless, bitter striving:
Freed by faith in You we stand.

Evermore let us remember,
Lord, our day of liberty,
When You broke death's sting forever
And the grave's grim victory.
In Your saintly garments dressed,
Let us taste now of the rest
Sworn in sacrament and sermon:
Ever, Christ, our Sabbath be!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Second Commandment Hymn

Set to a different tune (though I don't know which tune), here is my run at a hymn based on the Second Commandment as the Catholic & Lutheran churches number them: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." You may notice, as this thread moves forward, that I am making every effort to make these hymns as Christ-centered as possible.

Christ, the Father's faithful witness,
As He speaks, You speak the same;
High above all things ascended,
Yours above all names the Name:
How we use that Name in lying,
Curses, oaths, God's patience trying—
Or, like Peter, You denying!
Oh! That we might weep for shame!

Christ, forbear, though oft among us
Lightly held your Name appears;
Christ, forgive when we deny it
In our passions, pains, and fears.
Though false prophets basely use it,
Though Your enemies accuse it,
Lest despairing we refuse it,
Pity our repentant tears!

Christ, whose works compel believing
Even where Your word's denied,
How our lips and lives together
Set Your precious Name aside!
For our actions scarcely render
Witness to Your love, so tender,
That You laid aside Your splendor
And for us were crucified!

Christ, restore us, as when Peter
Showed no rock of strength was he!
Glorify God's Name before us;
Keep Your doctrine pure and free.
By Your blasphemy conviction,
By Your guiltless crucifixion,
Make Your Name a benediction
That our lips made clean may be.

EDIT: For lack of an existing tune to fit this text, I wrote one on August 3, 2013. Here it is:

First Commandment Hymn

Here is the beginning of a 10-part project I have set for myself: a series of hymns on the Ten Commandments. Without further ado (and without a particular tune in mind), I give you the First Commandment, "You shall have no other gods before Me."

O Christ, the unknown God
Who makes God known to men,
Becoming man that men might know
A gracious God again:

You passed the tempter's lure
To rank idolatry,
Then bore our godless race's guilt
On the accursed tree.

What sweeter gift can be
Than to possess Your grace?
What loss more cruel than that You
Should turn from us Your face?

Henceforth be God to us!
Admit none else above:
Let naught divide our hearts from You
In fear and trust and love.

And so, Lord Christ, we pray,
Make God Your Father known,
That through the Holy Ghost we may
Him as our Father own.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Kent-Pope-Wolfe

In Gallant Company
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the third installment of the adventures of Richard Bolitho, a British naval officer of the generation before Hornblower and Aubrey, we find our protagonist stuck in the doldrums, becalmed. Not literally. Not actually in the tropics whistling for a breeze—he should be so happy! Rather, he is stuck in the position of Fourth Lieutenant (with an eff) on a huge, ponderous, crowded ship of the line, moored in the harbor of New York City during the early years of the American Revolution. Yes, my American friends, this book takes the point of view of the "bad guys" in the conflict that gave birth to our nation. And this is what I read over the Independence Day weekend! Is that unpatriotic of me? Perhaps not, given the superscription by no less an American poet than Walt Whitman: "Our foe was no skulk in his ship I tell you,... His was the surly English pluck, and there is no tougher or truer, and never was, and never will be."

Perhaps it is a compliment to the British Navy that a novel of its war against us can draw the excitement and sympathy of proud American readers. And perhaps it is just as great a compliment to our country that a British novelist, in glamorizing the greatest navy of that time, should depict our yet-unformed republic as a worthy foe. Though in fairness to all sides, I must admit the real bad guys were the French... as is only and always right!

With the French (and Spanish, and Dutch) more or less covertly aiding and arming the rebellious colonists, the forces of King George are stretched to the limit. In 1777-78, while corrupt government officials threw lavish parties in the ballrooms of New York, red-coated soldiers were dying by the score in a series of increasingly shocking military disasters. And as for the fleet, it would have to be everywhere at the same time to break the colonial supply chain... and to keep American and foreign privateers from doing the same to them!

Followed by his faithful shadow Stockdale, natural-born leader and tactical genius Richard Bolitho climbs the ladder of promotion on board the Trojan, in spite of the drunkenness, cowardice, arrogance, disloyalty, and downright villainy of some on his side—to say nothing of an enemy making every effort to kill him. Whether destroying a land battery or sailing a crippled merchantman into action, fighting the ship's guns amid a hail of round shot and wood splinters, boarding the enemy or being boarded, Bolitho shows the stuff he is made of... a naval hero to follow, a series of exploits to savor with pleasure.

Sloop of War
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the fourth novel of his adventures, Revolutionary War-era British naval hero Richard Bolitho gets his first command: the fighting sloop Sparrow. Barely into his twenties, a seaman from boyhood and the scion of a long line of seamen, Bolitho now gets his first taste of the loneliness of the captain's cabin, the full responsibility for his ship's success or failure, the danger of serving under a flotilla captain whose ambition is greater than his ability, and a passion for a woman who will try to kill him the moment he crosses her interests.

Now, I could rattle off a blow-by-blow account of the actions in this book, including exquisitely suspenseful sorties up the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays, and the character conflicts—such as, in particular, the friction between Bolitho's first and second lieutenants, one of whom is himself a colonist at war with the country of his birth. But you might as well take it on faith that there are a lot of goings-on, some explosive and others of the slow-burning variety, in this book full of character and incident; and that it is well worth the time of anyone who has an interest in the golden era of naval warfare. In fact, I believe this series has a popular appeal that could bring new readers to the genre.

Face it, Alexander Kent (whose real name is Douglas Reeman) is no C. S. Forester or Patrick O'Brian. His fiction does not have the depth and richness of the Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin sagas. But if the tradeoff for profound literary merit is brute sex appeal, this book may make the sale. To put it crassly, you can tell which end of the naval-historical-novel spectrum a book is on—the sliding scale between "literary treasure" and "essential beach-or-poolside accessory"—by how good the hero is meant to look with his shirt off, and how much of his time he spends that way. Except while bathing under the deck pump or over the ship's side, Horatio H. and Jack A. were never seen in less than full uniform outside the privacy of their quarters; and the world heaves a grateful shudder for it. Meanwhile, our Dick B. seems to make a habit of strutting the deck in little more than his breeches, and to judge by the reactions of onlookers... Yes, girls, there may be something in naval warfare for you too!

To Glory We Steer
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

The title of this fifth Richard Bolitho novel comes from the lyrics of the song "Heart of Oak," one of the great musical symbols of Britain's sea power in the era of sail, wooden-hulled vessels, and great roaring guns that had to be loaded a shot at a time. As the newly appointed commander of His Britannic Majesty's Frigate Phalerope, Dick Bolitho will need a heart of oak. His mission: to bring his crew back from the brink of mutiny in time to face an enemy that shares his very flesh and blood.

It turns out to be a very bloody business. Mauled by an American privateer before he has even begun to make an efficient, fighting crew out of some right awkward hands, Bolitho is further hampered by a nasty piece-o'-work of a First Lieutenant, a Second Lieutenant with feet of clay, a frankly evil ship's purser, and a seaman specializing in whisper campaigns and diabolical conspiracies. Add to that the fact that his hot-headed older brother Hugh has gone over to the enemy—a fact Bolitho only realizes when he himself is taken prisoner—and you've got the all-but-assembled pieces of a machine for grinding young naval heroes into mincemeat. All this at a moment when the Royal Navy is in danger of losing its strategic foothold in the West Indies—which would spell doom for Britain's worldwide military and commercial empire. Will Bolitho be able to get on top of all these problems before the decisive naval fleet action of the decade?

Fans of naval history will love this book for giving them ringside seats at the Battle of the Saintes, the last crucial turning point in the tactics of naval warfare before the time of Nelson. Lovers of pure entertainment in print will delight in the simmering hostilities of the Phalarope's quarterdeck, the mystery of the purser's murder, the melodrama of the two brothers divided by war, and the suspense building up to the inevitable mutiny and its resolution. And followers of great sea warriors will feel the glow of Bolitho's aura of leadership, enabling us to overlook minor glitches like the series' need for a better editor. (Seeing "purser" misprinted as "pursuer" was only one of the numerous distracting gaffes to have plagued this book and its predecessor.)

If I could write authentic historical fiction set in the age of wind power, when flintlock guns were the latest thing and no one had ever thought of breaking a line of battle before, I would gladly do so. Since I cannot, I am more than content to absorb the fantastic yarns of Douglas Reeman, a.k.a. Alexander Kent. And I needn't worry about running out of them soon... there are 23 of them to go, and more may yet be written!

Ramage's Challenge
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 14+

The coast of Tuscany: how well Captain Nicholas Ramage knows it. He ought to, after spending most of his childhood in Italy, having plucked the beautiful Marchesa di Volterra off its shores during his first independent command, and even more recently having turned French gunboats against its shore in a brilliant attack on an enemy troop convoy. And now, in the fifteenth of eighteen adventures of this high-born British naval hero, he is back with a real challenge for his genius. His mission: to rescue British naval and military officers, as well as some important civilians, who were caught and taken hostage when France resumed hostilities. What makes it particularly chancy is the fact that they are supposed to be locked up in a walled town 30 miles inland from the Tuscan shore. Soon Ramage's seamen will have to learn a new trick: marching!

But this is only the beginning. While Ramage wonders about both of the women in his life—the still dear, though no longer passionately loved, Marchesa last seen in Paris during the brief peace, and now either in prison or dead; and his vivacious bride Sarah, who had escaped with him from Brest when the war began again, only to be put on board a ship that never made it home—not knowing whether or not his wife lives, Ramage risks all on a series of daring gambles, many of them under the knowing gaze of an admiral near the top of the seniority list, to say nothing of a vexing army colonel who all but asks Ramage for a duel on his own quarterdeck.

His private miseries contrast remarkably with the brilliant maneuvers Ramage carries out in this book, all without the loss of a single hand—his record in that area is remarkable, you know. All I have to complain about, besides the hero's habit of woolgathering during the moments leading up to an order whose timing is crucial—and the fact that this habit is so obviously convenient to the requirements of an author who likes to indulge in passages of historical and nautical explanation—all I have to complain about, I say, is that there will only be three books in the series after this, and Ramage ought to have quite a career ahead of him!

Ramage at Trafalgar
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the sixteenth of eighteen Lord Ramage Novels, the point of view of a fictional British naval hero gives us ringside seats at one of the greatest sea battles of the age of sail: Trafalgar. Though Napoleon still had ten years' worth of war to wage, after the Battle of Trafalgar he and his allies never again had a chance to invade England and conquer by sea.

The year is 1805. A combined fleet of some 40 French and Spanish ships has taken shelter in the harbor of Cádiz. News of this development reaches both Ramage—still a dashing young frigate captain with his whole career ahead of him—and Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the hero of such battles as Copenhagen and the Nile. In spite of his meager stature, the loss of one eye and one arm, and the scandal of his liaison with Lady Hamilton (another officer's widow, with whom he fathered a child while both were married to other people), Nelson is his country's best hope at a crucial point in the war against France. His brilliant tactics have revolutionized naval warfare, changing the nature of a fleet battle from a stately encounter between two straight, roughly parallel lines of ships to a headlong rush at a right angle to the enemy's line, with the unprecedented object of destroying the whole enemy fleet. And now these tactics are the only guarantee against Napoleon's unbeatable army landing on British shores.

Though His Majesty's Frigate Calypso took no part in the battle of Trafalgar, its crew and its captain adorn the historic battle with some fictional exploits of their own. Nevertheless, the great fascination of this novel is the opportunity to witness, as if at first-hand, the suspenseful preparations for the battle in which some 75 ships took part, including the largest ship in the world at that time. Vast forces are arrayed against each other, enormous stakes are on the table, and yet naval historian Pope stresses that through it all, both sides were at the mercy of fickle winds, menaced by treacherous shoals, and hampered by a shortage of spars, sails, rigging, and stores after a long blockade. Then there was the question of whether or not the French and Spanish would come out of Cádiz to fight at all; a question finally decided by a complex web of circumstances, including political intrigues, financial desperation, and a commander-in-chief's loss of nerve.

The results are spectacular, though for full details you might want to check into a non-fiction account. Not to be outdone by his nonfictional colleagues, Ramage takes some thrilling risks with his little frigate, in spite of frequent reminders that frigates are not supposed to get involved in the battle. And though Nelson's death made his final victory bittersweet, Ramage lives on to fight in two more novels: Ramage and the Saracens and Ramage and the Dido.

The Sorcerer's House
by Gene Wolfe
Recommended Ages: 14+

Baxter Dunn is an educated prison parolee who has come to a small midwestern town in the hope of starting over, with nothing but a small allowance from his mother to do it with. In a somewhat ambiguous narrative that appears to be pieced together from letters to and from Bax, many of them involving his estranged twin brother, he goes from not knowing where his next meal will come from to owning a huge house, complete with servants, plus a car, an enormous tract of riverfront property, and almost ridiculously abundant wealth. But how this happens is very mysterious, even spooky.

Things start to get weird when Bax moves into an abandoned mansion. When he goes to the realty office responsible for the house to ask whether he might live there for free in exchange for doing repairs, he finds out that the mysterious former owner willed the house to him years ago. This is only the first of numerous creepy discoveries Bax makes in and around the house, including people who seem out of touch with the flow of time, animals that change into persons without anyone quite noticing, a vampire who steals laundry off the clothesline, a killer who leaves her victims' body parts as love-gifts, a talisman that can make wishes come true, machines that come to life, a pair of teenage twins each of whom turns out to be dangerous in his own way, and surprise revelations about Bax's own family.

It's the kind of loopy, magical mystery that ought to be familiar to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, laced with riddles and monsters and ghosts and surprise twists that may force you to re-read it in a different light. Though at times it strains the credibility of even the most willing reader, The Sorcerer's House has the peculiar sort of charm that makes you worry about what sort of man the narrator will prove to be. And though the ending may leave you in some doubt as to exactly what happened, the adventure itself is full of outrageous, magical fun. And it may be a good way into the fantasy novels of Gene Wolfe, whose other books include The Wizard Knight, The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, The Book of the Short Sun, and a trilogy of novels about a soldier named Latro who wakes up every morning with no memory of his life before. For once words fail me; I cannot explain why, but for some reason I just want to read them all.

Litany of the Long Sun
by Gene Wolfe
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book is actually two books in one volume. At the same time, it is only half of a book. Litany of the Long Sun contains the first two parts of a quartet of fantasy novels collectively known as The Book of the Long Sun. Within this first half of that greater book are the lesser titles Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun. The second half, for your information is Epiphany of the Long Sun, and it in turn consists of Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. Whew! Now that that's perfectly clear...

These titles evoke religious rituals in a strange, dying, alien world. And the cover art suggests a certain decayed grandeur, combined with a hint at what in the universe a "long sun" might be. But it was the first sentence of the book that made me want to read it. I resisted buying it because of the hefty price tag on books of the "quality paperback" persusasion. Still, on my every visit to a certain bookstore, I picked it up, fondled it, looked at the cover, and re-read the first page or so. I couldn't get it out of my mind. Something about the words "Enlightenment came to Patera Silk on the ball court" filled me with the conviction that I must inevitably read this book, some time or other. That time came when a 40%-off coupon and a gift card combined to put this book in range of my pocketbook. I still haven't bought Epiphany of the Long Sun, though. As much as I enjoyed this book, I still think $20 is too much to pay for a book that has been in print since the year 2000 (and the separate books within it, since the early 1990s). Right now my strategy is to wait until the Borders going-out-of-business sale reaches the stage where sci-fi/fantasy books are 40% off, and hope that somebody doesn't buy the copy of Epiphany of the Long Sun that I've been caressing and coveting on my recent visits.

The story does indeed take place in a strange, decaying, dying world—a hollow, cylinder-shaped world illuminated by a long, straight beam of heat and light, whose rotating shade provides a rhythm of night and day to the cities and fields all around it. A world in which one can gaze up into the sky and see a faraway country, and perhaps a winged person gliding around at dizzying altitudes. A world where, after hundreds of years, people have forgotten that they are on a ship, and in which the leaders who put them there and who sometimes speak to them through glorified computer monitors are revered as gods: sacrificed to, prayed to, and feared.

In a rough part of a rough city in that world, an idealistic young priest named Silk receives a revelation from a minor god called the Outsider. His mission is simply to save the neighborhood manteion, more or less a combination of church, school, convent, and community service center—though, on that very same day, the cash-strapped church has been sold to a vile crime lord. Silk undertakes to save his manteion by any means, including burglary if necessary; but without meaning to, he becomes the center of a political revolution, and stumbles upon some mindblowing secrets that lurk beneath the streets of his city.

Author Gene Wolfe, regarded by some as one of the most eloquent voices in contemporary fantasy, writes with an intelligent style and clarity of detail that furnishes his bizarre new world with a sense of reality. Even so, his sense of pacing sometimes irritates me. At times events roll forward at such a leisurely pace that very little time passes within a pile of pages a half-inch thick; then there are bewildering leaps ahead that make you wistful for those hunks of deliberate exposition. I did not think, after reaching the end of Nightside the Long Sun, that I would have been happy reading it as a stand-alone novel; it comes to such an inconclusive conclusion. But having been on, around, under, and in Lake of the Long Sun, I won't deny that I'm impressed. Silk is a protagonist to watch, and the possibilities of his situation, and that of the world he lives in, are such that I really look forward to reading what comes next.

Library Grouchiness

I have been listening to recorded books lately. Various volumes of Patrick O'Brian's Aubreyiad, the first half of War and Peace... I've been borrowing them from the St. Louis County Library. But lately I've been having this problem. It goes like this:

You request and audio book, wait weeks and weeks for it to come in. When you go to pick it up, you prudently put in a request for the next book in the series, hoping you will be able to go straight from one to the other. When Book 2 arrives after several frustrating weeks, you decide to plan ahead and put a hold on several other titles. But now, instead of coming in at staggered intervals so you can enjoy them one at a time, they all come in at the same time. And even after you've used up the maximum number of renewals allowed (on those that you can renew), the library demands them back before you've had time to listen to them all!

In the case of War and Peace, I ought to have "read" it fast because someone else had it on request after me, and so I couldn't renew it. I should have started listening to it right away, rather than finishing the book I was already on, because by the time I started it I was already well into the "six days of grace" before overdue-book fines started to pile up. Eventually, in spite of several days of listening to it while driving to and from work, and while at work, and during a long round trip to visit my folks o
ver a holiday weekend, I had to turn it in when I was just a little over halfway through it. Of course I immediately put it on request again, but it will be weeks before I get it back. Grr!

As for the Aubreyiad, I had to return half a dozen titles from that series un-listened-to after getting a notice that one of them was nearing the end of its "six days of grace," also having been reserved by another reader, while most of the others were coming due & could not be renewed any more than they already had been. A knowledgeable informant tells me I should have put a "freeze" on my request for all but the very next book in the series, so that somebody behind me on the hold list could move ahead until I was ready to pick it up; or, perhaps, that I should have gotten a library card for each of my cats, and put them just behind me on the holds list.

These and other suggestions are more or less ethical, but it really doesn't relieve much strain off the question: How am I supposed to stay sane when the audio books I rely on to drown out 10 hours per week of road noise, commercial breaks, lousy music, and excruciatingly stupid talk radio, are never there when I need them--are suddenly all there when I can only listen to one at a time--and, too often, go back to not being there again before their time?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tackiness Heat Wave

As temperatures soar in St. Louis--and between the humidity and my perpetual allergies, each breath requires so much effort that I have begun to suffer from the waking equivalent of sleep apnea--I can't tell you how refreshed I wasn't by the following bit of hoopla from the neighborhood ELCA lettered church sign:

KEEP HYDRATED WITH THE WATER OF LIFE!

Even granting that someone might see that and take an interest in the theological significance of the phrase "water of life," the Evangelical Parish of Saint Shecky doesn't quite make the short list of fountains of knowledge that one seeking enlightenment might dip into. And if you think that joke is going to lift many chuckles out of the stressed-out passersby, who like me are all but smothering in this moist heat, you really need to go back to clown school.

In short, people, you're all wet!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Eggcellent Comfort Food

My stepmum let me copy these recipes out of her personal archive during the Independence Day weekend, during which she served one of them for lunch...

CHURCH COOKBOOK EGG-BAKE
What You Need:
8-10 eggs beaten
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
paprika for color
2 teaspoons dry mustard
3 cups milk
2 cups chopped ham
8 slices cubed bread
1 cup grated Cheddar cheese

What You Do:
Beat the eggs, salt, paprika, mustard, and milk together. Put the bread cubes on the bottom of a greased 9"x13" pan. Scatter the ham on top, then pour the egg mixture over it. Sprinkle the cheese on top. Cover with foil, refrigerate overnight, then bake 45 minutes at 350° F. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes or until it sets (i.e. until a knife stuck into it pulls out clean). Cut into squares, it serves 12.

This first recipe is a lot like the "strata" I fondly remember from many church functions. It can be a little heavy, though, owing to its bread-puddinglike consistency. The next recipe is a nice alternative, omitting the bread and having more of the character of a fluffy baked omelette:

CRUSTLESS QUICHE
What You Need:
3 eggs beaten
1/2 cup Bisquick
1/4 cup melted butter
1 cup half & half
dash pepper
1 cup mozzarella or other cheese
1/2 cup ham (or crab meat or shrimp)
1/4 cup diced green onion
1 small can mushrooms, drained
1/4 cup diced bell peppers

What You Do:
Blend the first six ingredients and pour them into a lightly oiled quiche dish. Add cheese, then ham, then the remaining ingredients, and press them down with a spoon. Bake at 350° F for 45 minutes or until it tests done, as above. Serves 6; though you can also double or treble the recipe and use a 9"x13" pan. Leftovers keep nicely in the freezer, individual portions cling-wrapped to a plate and reheated for lunch.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Self-Defeating Tackiness

This week's message from the neighborhood vortex of ELCA lighted sign tackiness:

CAUTION! GOD AT WORK, PEOPLE IN PROGRESS

This is an incomplete sentiment, however. There was plenty of space left over to have added the obvious words:

KEEP CLEAR!

Personally, I was more edified by the bumper sticker I saw on the next block up the street: BE THE PERSON YOUR DOG THINKS YOU ARE