Sunday, August 26, 2012

Tunes for 2-Line Hymns

For a general introduction to this thread, click here.

Let's begin the proceedings by explaining that the tunes below are arranged in order of meter. In my really vast alphabetical index of tunes, the melodies are designated by more or less distinctive titles, often based on the first line of the hymn in its original language. These are also arranged in a metrical index, organized according to how many lines are in each stanza of the hymn and how many syllables in each line. Thus we come to designations such as "8.7.8.7.8.8.7."—translating to seven lines with so many syllables per line. Apart from these are a number of hymns whose meter is designated as "Irregular" or "Peculiar," either because the number of syllables per line varies by stanza or because the meter is too fiddly to bother writing down since only one hymn (ideally) fits the tune.

So, ignoring the "Irr" and "PM" entries at the top of my metrical index, we start with the meter 8.8.+ Alleluias, also expressed as 8.4.8.4. or 8.4.8.8. Because the text of the hymn only has two lines per stanza, not counting Alleluias, it can be regarded as a 2-line hymn and thus, the smallest meter on the list. This category of tunes comprises only one tune:

Gen Himmel aufgefahren ist
a.k.a. Melchior, a.k.a. Morning Star
by Melchior Franck, 1627
I found this tune in two hymnals (CSB 542, ALH 376), both times set to the Epiphany hymn "A Star is moving through the sky." I prefer the ALH version, which ends with the double Alleluia. It's a beautiful, simple, arch-shaped tune (like the sky) with a jaunty rhythm that makes it especially memorable. Bright, joyful, and energetic, it makes for a hymn that could be taught to children with great profit.

Now we enter the slightly larger category of tunes in the 10.10. meter. There are three of them.

Cœna Domini
by Arthur S. Sullivan, 1874
Three hymnals (CSB 187, SBH 273, LBW 226) pair this hymn with the Communion hymn "Draw nigh and take the body of the Lord." This arrangement requires chopping a hymn usually sung in four-line stanzas into half-sized chunks, which means more repetition of the same tune. Perhaps appropriately, the tune sounds like the second half of a longer, better tune. It tries hard to make a distinct impression, but there's just too little of it to get a handle on. What there is of it sounds just a little to the sentimental side of completely nondescript, the leaps in the second phrase notwithstanding. Alternatives? The abbreviated version of Old 124th, though savagely butchered to fit a four-line hymn, at least has the virtue of sounding whole (though it isn't) and getting through the text in half as many fits.

Lammas
by Arthur H. Brown, 1889
This is the tune for "Draw nigh and take the body of the Lord" used in LHy 150 and ELHy 314. It is about equally unremarkable as Cœna Domini, and therefore painful to think of singing as many times as it would take to get through that hymn (which, in John Mason Neale's original translation, would be ten times). It's interesting to note that the Latin hymn was originally in two-line stanzas, though Neale's translation seems to work best in groups of four lines. Anyway, if I had to choose between one of these three 10.10. hymns, this is probably the one I would pick; but don't expect me to be happy about it.

Pax tecum
by George Thomas Caldbeck, c. 1877
Though this tune would also fit the words to "Draw nigh and take," I only found it paired with the hymn "Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin," and that in two hymnals: CSB 413 and SBH 571. The text is not entirely without merit (Christ-centered, with more than one hint of the cross), but it runs toward tedium. What I have said about Cœna Domini and Lammas goes double for this tune: It’s amazing how brief a melody can be without leaving you wanting to hear more. Frankly, by the end of the first phrase I've lost interest. It might be hard to tell by the notes of the melody, but this tune is in the key of B-flat. It loses much of its vaguely sentimental, inconclusive effect when stripped of its harmony. Simple it is, yes; but it is also uninspired. So I think the time needed to teach it to a congregation, or even the children, could be better spent.

And finally, there is one two-line hymn in the 11.12. meter... sort of:

Resonet in laudibus (abbr.)
German carol, 14th century
It's really stretching a point to call this a hymn-tune or chorale. It is actually a fragment of a much longer tune, also known as Resonet in laudibus (a.k.a. Joseph lieber, Joseph mein), which we will come to by and by. And it is only named as a distinct hymn tune because two hymnals (LBW 68, LW 54), for some strange reason, parcel up the long Christmas carol "He whom shepherds once came phrasing" between three distinct tunes, though they have always combined to form one giant carol (the "Quempas"). Only the first of the three tunes, Quem pastorem, is ever heard on its own; more on that another time. Anyway, the Quempas is a wonderful, festive Christmas piece that can be divided between schoolchildren, choir, and congregation in a most effective way; though the LBW arrangement is superior to the LW one. The part of the carol represented by this tune fragment is the congregation's refrain, with the words: "God's own Son is born a child, is born a child; God and sinners are reconciled, are reconciled." And if you want to hear something breathtaking, listen to Michael Praetorius's arrangement of the Quempas as performed on this CD. You can thank me later.

Tunes for Anglophone Lutheran Hymns

In my upcoming series of posts labeled "hymn tunes," I plan to share the fruits of several years' worth of research and analysis I put into the music of Lutheran hymns in English-language. My work is incomplete, partly as a consequence of new hymnals being published that I haven't had time to assimilate into the body of data. So, allowing for the fact that Evangelical Lutheran Worship and The Lutheran Service Book (both published in 2006) and perhaps a couple other books have slipped through my sieve, to say nothing of minor works such as hymnal supplements—which call for a few more years of work before I can consider my study complete—here's what I have so far on hymn tunes that have been used in full-sized, commercially published, anglophone Lutheran hymnals.

Whether the tunes faithfully represent the spirituality of Lutheranism can be partly (though perhaps only subjectively) judged, based on a combination of:
  • the words most strongly associated with them;
  • the theology of the church body or spiritual movement that they have most strongly influenced, or been influenced by;
  • the attitude toward worship suggested by:
    • the music's level of artistic excellence, and/or
    • its suitability for being sung by a congregation, as opposed to a song-leader or choir; and
  • what form of spirituality best jives with the musical rhetoric of the tune, such as:

    • How subtle or obvious, genuine or cheap is its appeal to one's emotions?
    • Does it express either joy or lament without ambiguity? Or is does it land somewhere in between?
    • Does it come across as reverent, confident, and sacramental? Or does it err in favor of pious sentimentality, pomp and circumstance, folksiness or secular connotations?
Be aware that while I love classical music, I generally disapprove of the procedure of taking snatches of secular, classical melody and baptizing them as hymn tunes. Partly this is because many of these tunes do not work out so well as pieces for the congregation to sing. There are plenty of beautiful, churchly, and memorable tunes, well within the singing range of any well-nurtured Lutheran congregation, to suit any purpose that may arise in their hymnody; or, if not, there are still composers who understand the fine art—in my opinion, one of the greatest cultural and spiritual treasures of Lutheranism—of composing a chorale. Hymnals consulted, so far in my study, include:
  • ELHb—Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1912. Luth. Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS)
  • LHy—The Lutheran Hymnary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1913. Norwegian Luth. Church, Norwegian Luth. Synod, Hauge’s Luth. Synod
  • CSB—Common Service Book, with Hymnal. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1917. United Luth. Church in America (ULCA)
  • TCH—The Concordia Hymnal, Revised and Enlarged. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1932.
  • TLH—The Lutheran Hymnal. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1941. Ev. Luth. Synodical Conference of North America
  • SBH—Service Book and Hymnal. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1958. American Ev. Luth. Church, American Luth. Church, Augustana Ev. Luth. Church, Ev. Luth. Church, Finnish Ev. Luth. Church in America, Luth. Free Church, United Ev. Luth. Church, United Luth. Church in America
  • LHA—Lutheran Hymnal. Adelaide: Lutheran Publishing House, 1973. Luth. Church of Australia.
  • LBW—Lutheran Book of Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978. Luth. Church in America, American Luth. Church, Ev. Luth. Church of Canada
  • LW—Lutheran Worship. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1982. Luth. Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS)
  • CW—Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1993. Wisconsin Ev. Luth. Synod (WELS)
  • ELHy—Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary. St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 1996. Evangelical Luth. Synod (ELS)
In addition, I have been adding a much older Australian hymnal, several more American hymnals from the early 20th century, a late-20th century hymnal on which I have already posted extensively, and the two recent hymnals named above; plus a variety of pew supplements.

And so, without any further introduction (because each installment after this will start with a link to this one), I give you what I have discovered so far...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Fruit of the Spirit" Hymn

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23)

TUNE: Nothing in particular in mind. Any suggestions?


O holy Love, who gave Yourself for all
To win us from our selfishness and pride:
Feed us Your body, broken yet made whole,
That as one body, one accepted bride,
We may tear down the love of self, that wall
That each from each, and from You, would divide;
So live in us that Your love may control
Our life in You, and You be glorified.

O other-worldly Joy, that will not wane
Despite life's woe, death's fear, the world's despite:
Give us to drink Your blood, that vintage fine,
Which cannot fail to give the heart delight.
Thus, in dry hours of sorrow, guilt and pain,
We may rejoice with You to fight the fight,
Till this cup passes and we taste the wine
Reserved for the inheritance of light.

O Prince of Peace, who swore with Your last breath
That our strife with God's wrath was at an end;
Then, raised up three days later, did bequeath
Sin-loosing power on those whom You would send:
Give pardoning peace, sealed by Your righteous death;
Peace to the heart which pangs of shame still rend;
Peace, lest one at another set his teeth;
Peace that alone all broken bonds can mend.

O long-forbearing Patience, by whose love
Earth's watery unmaking was held back,
Till by his word and water You might save
Both Noah and his kin from sin's attack:
Now we, reborn by water from above,
Appeal for cleansing of a conscience black:
Forbear with us, whom to Yourself You lave;
Help us bear all, nor mourn for any lack.

O Kindness, who sends sun and rain alike
On good and evil, asking no return:
We sinners beg You, for Your kindness' sake,
Do not withhold the grace we cannot earn.
Lest we, wherever want or woe may strike,
Neglect to show unprejudiced concern,
Let Your feast, kindly laid, our kindness wake
Till we not sacrifice but mercy learn.

O Goodness, purest Light, of all things best,
Whom our world's dark pollution could not hold
While, rather, You brought glory to our flesh:
Remember not our evil deeds of old,
Nor let our faults divide us from the blest.
Make good Your word to us; no good withhold
Till, steeped in Your good Spirit, made afresh,
We bring forth goodly fruit, a hundredfold.

O Faithfulness incarnate, hold us fast
Through life's swift changes and our fiery trial;
As we face nothing that You have not faced,
You know best how to ease the coming while.
Console us with Your Word until the last,
And fix our eyes on You through every mile
Till, by Your nail-marked hands both led and braced,
We follow you by faith, and scorn denial.

O Gentleness of God, both meek and strong,
Who humbly bore the Servant's form, and who
Restrained Your pow'r till on a cross You hung:
Implant us with the mind that was in You.
As You serve us in preaching, rite, and song,
Fit us to serve all men, and as we do,
To trust Your promises, to which they clung
Who will, with us, inherit all things new.

O Self-Control, who governs all things well,
You govern best Yourself, as when you kept
Your silence in the dreaded judgment hall,
Content to die where others had misstepped:
Forgive us when we restlessly rebel;
Uphold us in our weakness; and accept
Our souls and bodies, yes, our very all,
Till all awake who in Your strength have slept.

UPDATE: I eventually wrote the following tune for this hymn, titled FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Titchy Tackiness

Spotted at the local Lutheran Church of the Lighted Sign:

TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE? SPEND A NIGHT WITH A MOSQUITO!

How cute... but depressing. It's not just that there isn't anything specifically Christian about this message... It's that I've seen the same slogan tied to a picture of the Dalai Lama. Amen, I guess! I mean, who am I to question the rightness of saving up an opportunity to dazzle passersby with a bumper-sticker-sized Christian message, only to spend it on the wisdom of a Tibetan Buddhist? My protest wouldn't change anything, except people would be irritated by the buzzing sound in their ears... and maybe slap at me to make it stop...

By the way, I have seen similar slogans attributed to others, including Bette Reese. Maybe the Dalai Lama didn't even say this. With the internet these days, who knows?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ways to Spot a Confessional Lutheran that You Won't Learn by Reading the Lutheran Confessions

Caveat #1: I kid because I love.
Caveat #2: I myself resemble many of these remarks.
  • Wingtip shoes
  • Serving scalloped potatoes at a funeral
  • Singing the rhythmic version of "A Mighty Fortress"
  • Roman-style clerical shirts (the "dot," not the "dog collar")
  • Not taking Communion at church conferences (By now I must be in trouble with somebody!)
  • Coffee that tastes like the inside of a tin can
  • Ending the table prayer with "Let THY gifts to us be blessed"
  • Saying "And with thy spirit" instead of "And also with you"
  • Manischewitz
  • Wondering whether communing twice in one month will cancel each other out
  • Singing "Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates" to the Third Tune
  • Always saying "quick" and "spake" even if "living" and "spoke" are printed in the book
  • Ever, even once, saying the words "pastor loci." (I spent my first 6 months in the ministry wondering when I was going to meet this Pastor Lohtse and why he always seemed to be absent when circuit functions took place at his church.)
  • Refusing to allow wedding marches by Wagner or Mendelssohn
  • The pastor speaking and the congregation singing in response
  • Reading the psalms responsively, half verse by half verse
  • Knowing exactly which flag (American or Christian) should be on each side of the altar
  • Pectoral crucifix tucked in shirt pocket
  • Full set of Luther's works serving a mostly decorative purpose; full set of Lenski commentaries worn to tatters

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Bray Dickens Eliot Farmer Fisher Wodehouse

The Sweet Far Thing
by Libba Bray
Recommended Ages: 14+

My usual process, when reading a trilogy, is to read the first book first, the second book second, and the last book last. Nevertheless, when I found an audiobook edition of this third novel in the Gemma Doyle trilogy, I decided not to wait until I had read A Great and Terrible Beauty and The Rebel Angels. Luckily, the third book summarizes enough of what happened in the previous two that it stands on its own. The downside is that I'll already know how the series ends before I start the first two books. The upside is that I got to listen to the amazing Josephine Bailey channeling all of the characters with her versatile voice, as convincing with male characters as female, and effortlessly slipping between any number of English, Scottish, Indian, and American accents, from East End urchins to Maggie Smithesque schoolmarms. I was going to write that Ms. Bailey should perform the entire cast of an animated film sometime—but with vocal talent like hers, who needs pictures?

Central to this book and to the trilogy named for her is a young lady named Gemma Doyle, who could be described as exactly what Harry Potter would be if he were a girl attending not Hogwarts but a Victorian girls' finishing school called Spence. Instead of both her parents being murdered by a dark lord, Gemma lost her mother only, to a dark lady who later turned up in disguise as one of Gemma's teachers at Spence. So she still has a father (whose consumptive condition is evident to the reader long before Gemma guesses it), a grandmother (whose ambition is to see Gemma curtsy daintily to Queen Victoria) and even an older brother (who is somewhat of a prat).

Also like Harry, Gemma has two friends who share in her magical adventures: the unconventional Felicity, whose inheritance hangs by a thread and is her only hope of escaping the life her abusive father has planned out for her; and the unassertive Anne, who unlike the other Spence girls is destined not for a debutante season but for a thankless career as a nanny, at the beck and call of her obnoxious nouveau riche relatives. Felicity dreams of being a bohemian artist in Paris; Anne, of finding fame on the dramatic stage. Gemma, for reasons best learned by reading the first two books in the trilogy, personally holds All the Magic; and her dream, after helping her friends achieve theirs and then restoring the magic to the Realms to which it belongs, is to be able to chart her own course in life.

Luckily, before the story collapses under the weight of its feminist baggage, things start happening that makes all this even more complicated. Gemma figures out how to open a way into the Realms, but she is not so successful at getting the tribes of magical beings to form an alliance before she returns the magic. On the contrary, they are so suspicious of each other and resentful of Gemma's hesitation that open conflict breaks out. Meanwhile, the groups that previously safeguarded the magic, working on our world's side of the gateway, demand it back and are willing to threaten everyone Gemma cares about. And at the same time, the dark forces of the Winterlands are gathering strength to take all the power for themselves in a plan involving Gemma as the victim of a great sacrifice. That can't be good. And nor can the fact that the only person whose advice Gemma trusts is the villain from the previous books, while a school chum who was lost forever in the Realms exerts an increasingly sinister influence on Felicity.

To say more would be to spoil too much of an adventure in which Gemma's mistakes teach her heartbreaking lessons about the moral responsibility that comes with great power. Let it be enough to know that Gemma experiences love and loss, strange visions and creepy mysteries, daring capers and horrors in the night, battles in our world between undead ghouls and inanimate objects come to life, and a great final battle to decide the fate of the magic, the Realms, and our world as well. So, pretty much what you would expect from Harry Potter in a corset.

Bleak House
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Ages: 12+

I have been a big fan of Dickens since I started reading his books, and I have loved most of them from the first time I read them. And yet for some reason, I was always too intimidated by this book to attempt reading it, until I found an audio-CD of it at the library. Why that should be so now escapes me. Perhaps it has something to do with the forbidding ring of the title, which suggests something unrelentingly and perhaps boringly serious. Or perhaps it was the discouraging prospect (glimpsed through the blurb on the back cover of either the Oxford or the Penguin edition) of a novel satirically skewering the long-drawn-out, ruinously expensive lawsuits before the English court of Chancery, also known as Equity, when I understood neither word and didn't care about the injustice of a system that has long since been dismantled. But thanks once again to the miracle of audiobooks, I can now take my literary medicine and be happy about it too. For I have learned that nothing beguiles a long commute to and from work like a book that takes 29 hours to read aloud. Be it ever so dull a book, it must be far less obnoxious than listening to the same radio commercials twice driving each way, every day. And to my delight (I should not have been surprised), this book turned out not to be dull at all.

The first thing to know about this novel, if you're going to judge whether it is worth the time and effort of reading, is that it is by Dickens. It was first published in monthly installments from 1852 to 1853, roughly the middle of his career. So, understandably, it is typical of Dickens's books in many ways. As such, you should expect it to be full of bustling life and humor, wicked puns worked into the names of characters, and many characters (wicked and otherwise) worked into a complex web of relationships and story threads. If you're a Harry Potter fan like me, you'll soon discover that Dickens is the author J. K. Rowling most takes after.

The second thing to realize is that Bleak House is also atypical in several diverting ways. For example, the book's point of view goes back and forth between a first-person, past-tense account by an earnest young woman named Esther Summerson and an omniscient, present-tense narrator. If I had realized this was allowed, and that it could be pulled off with something like literary success, I wouldn't have burnt the manuscript of the last novel I attempted to write and buried the ashes at the crossroads. Another highlight (since we're speaking of ashes) is that the story contains a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion, which ought to make the ears of 35 percent of 12-year-old boys perk up. Then there's the fact that the heroine receives a total of four proposals of marriage, although two of them come from the same repulsive character, while the man she really loves proposes only after she has consented to marry someone else; and yet these love affairs reach their final, happy issue without anyone being obliged to knock anyone else on the head. All this happens in spite of the fact that Esther, in flagrant disregard of romantic novel conventions, loses her good looks to a bout with smallpox halfway through the book. And for a final example, I'm starting to imitate Dickens's writing style unconsciously. I spent the weekend of my fortieth birthday immersed in this book, and thus it has left a water-mark in me.

The third thing to realize is that it is hopeless to attempt a synopsis of this book within the targeted length of this review. I could go on for five or six long paragraphs just hitting the highlights, and to do less would be to omit something crucial. Inevitably, my summary would be far too boring to serve the purpose of persuading you to read this book, or at least to listen to it. If you, too, find yourself intimidated by its thickness, the lengths of the paragraphs and sentences in it, the smallness of the type and the narrowness of the margins, and the odious chore of looking up end-notes at the back of the book to explain cultural references and archaic terms, your anxiety won't be relieved by a bunch of spoilers that, as a super-condensed version of the book, lack the original's charm and depth. You're better off just making a plan for how to get through it without losing heart, such as reading one chapter a night or, if you're feeling up to a bit more, one of the twenty "numbers" into which the book was originally divided. Meanwhile, all you will want to hear from me at this point is enough of a hint at what's in this book to keep it distinct in your mind from all the other books that you feel guilty about not having read, but will enjoy reading more than you expect.

So what can I say to make this book stand out in your memory? Well, maybe I can explain those words that I mentioned earlier, which I had to look up as I started to enjoy this book. Chancery, or Equity, was a system of justice in the U.K. that existed alongside Common Law. It was mainly concerned with civil suits relating to wills, trusts, property, and guardianship. Chancery was originally supposed to move faster than Common Law courts, providing swifter and more humane justice. Ironically, by Dickens's time, it had become quite the reverse. In some notorious cases, disputes over the disposition of a will dragged on and on until the original parties to the suit were dead, and their heirs were helplessly entangled in a conflict they didn't understand, until court costs wiped out the entire estate and everybody involved—excepting, of course, the court and its lawyers—was ruined.

Such a case is Jarndyce v Jarndyce, depicted in this book: a legal morass in which the hopes and ambitions of generations have been sunk. Because of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, one man blew his brains out; another, a likely young fellow who becomes addicted to the tantalizing delusion that someday the case will be brought to a verdict, squanders all his opportunities to develop a career of his own while waiting for this result. Tragically, the evil influence of this case leads this youngster (the interesting but disappointing Richard Carstone) to mess things up badly with his family, including a pretty cousin named Ada, the endearingly gruff but wise John Jarndyce, and sometime narrator Esther. Meanwhile, the scandalous secret of Esther's birth comes home to roost at a Lincolnshire manor house where a glacially bored lady of fashion conceals a secret (more tragedy!) that could ruin her stuffy, bigoted, but basically loving and devoted husband.

Meanwhile (still more tragedy!) one of the first detectives ever to grace the pages of a novel investigates several suspicious deaths and missing-persons cases, from an opium overdose to a murder for which the wrong suspect is initially arrested. Mixed up in all these things are a variety of characters, ranging from starving children to a despicably childlike and cheerful sponger, from a narcoleptic serving-girl to a philanthropic matron who shows heroic charity towards Africa while neglecting common charity at home, from a ludicrously jealous shrew of a wife to the master of deportment who lets his dependents work themselves to death so he can show himself in fashionable society, from a batty old lady whose mania for the law could make you either weep or chuckle to a paralytic old moneylender who, in spite of his greed and cruelty, often made me laugh aloud. If I were to direct a film adaptation of this novel, I would cast a ventriloquist's dummy of the Jeff Dunham persuasion, or perhaps a Jim Henson Muppet, in this role. But then I would want Barry Humphries to play both Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby, and he has already done a double Dickens role (cf. Nicholas Nickleby). In short, Bleak House is anything but bleak. It's a warm, rich, teeming cornucopia of vitally interesting characters that will wring tears of both laughter and sorrow out of you, if only you get past the intimidating cover. As with the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, once you sign on, you'll be hooked until the whole, tangled case is told... Only, you will end up the richer for it.

Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe
by George Eliot
Recommended Ages: 13+

After a youth misspent (some would argue) paddling amid the pools of science fiction and fantasy, I have come embarrassingly late to the headwaters of the English novel. And so it happens that book nut with thousands of reviews under his belt may manage to avoid cracking a single book by George Eliot until the eve of his fortieth birthday. After listening to a six-CD audiobook of Andrew Sachs reading Silas Marner all in one day, I am at a loss to explain why I was too intimidated to dip my toe into Eliot's work before now. Obviously it wasn't the length of the book, if it can be read aloud in six hours. Maybe it was the supposed seriousness of the book, though I have long since learned not to fear Austen, Brontë, Hardy, and other giants of the 19th century novel. But part of my mission in The Book Trolley is to provide evidence that books like Harry Potter can be a gateway to reading not only other books like Harry Potter, but good books in general. And so I screwed up my courage, bit the bullet, and gave myself over to Silas Marner. But I was in for a delightful surprise.

For all that it is the work of one of the great English novelists of the late 1800s, and is named on most reputable lists of the books you should force yourself to endure before you die so that you can make your miserable life seem longer than it is, it's not bad. In fact, my impression as I listened to the book was that it was probably the most intelligent piece of literature I have taken in since forever. That didn't stop me being so interested in it, after one round trip in my daily commute, that I couldn't put it down. I took it indoors with me and sat in the glow of my TV while the rest of the book played in the DVD player. My upstairs neighbor probably gained IQ points from the vibrations alone.

What makes this an unputdownable classic? Well, besides the fact that it's short enough to read aloud in one day, it's a very simple tale, told with great directness and economy of scene, character, and word. To be sure, there are several characters who lend a lot of local color to the story, but they add much more than that. The author's scrupulous descriptiveness and unsparing examination of the psychological motives of all that the characters say and do seems to account for a large part of the length of the story, and yet the telling is never bogged down in tedious detail. While the characters in the local tap room do double duty as comic relief and as serious character studies of country folk, most of the space is devoted to the tightly intertwined interests of a quite small group of people.

On the one hand, there is the title character. Silas Marner, a funny-looking shrimp of a man, first comes to Raveloe after a betrayal by his best friend and an unjust accusation of theft causes him to lose his fiancée and to be driven out of their religious sect. Disillusioned of God and man, Marner takes up a hermit-like lifestyle, weaving cloth for his Raveloe neighbors and otherwise keeping to himself. Because of his odd looks, his occasional cataleptic fits, his abstinence from churchgoing, among other things, Marner gains a reputation as an eccentric character. He pours all his love into the heap of gold that he accumulates during fifteen years of solitary labor on his loom, and then one night that gold is stolen from his cottage in a crime that goes unsolved for over sixteen years. Out of this devastating loss, however, comes something unexpected and wonderful.

On the other side of the coin is Godfrey Cass, the eldest son of the local squire, whose essentially good-natured character becomes a fertile ground for evil when his hopes of marrying the lovely Nancy Lammeter are blighted by the blackmailing, sponging, deceiving, and stealing ways of his brother Dunstan—well, all that plus his secret marriage to an opium addict and his unacknowledged fatherhood of a tiny little girl. When the old ball-and-chain drops dead on Silas Marner's doorstep, Godfrey makes a compromise with his conscience and allows Marner to raise his daughter rather than admit to being her father, so that he can marry Nancy. The final question, after a couple of really uncomfortable scenes in which the identities of both the thief and young Eppie's father are revealed, is: Who will have true happiness: the rich squire or the melancholy outcast?

While this novel explores the consequences of a burglary, a man's disappearance, a shameful secret, a child's abandonment, and a man's advancement through perjury and betrayal, Silas Marner comes across as a closely woven piece of work, cut and pieced together along the cleanest of lines, and fitted snug to its purpose. It takes thought-provoking pokes at religious faith, social hierarchies and prejudices, the industrial revolution, and the mixed nature of beings who (with perhaps one exception in this novel) have both a bad and a good side to them. It is a story brightened by the transforming presence of the angelic Eppie, and shadowed by the dark character and even darker fate of Dunstan Cass. And it is neither oppressively weighty nor tiresomely paced, like a reading assignment rightly to be feared. Instead, it is lightly, quickly, and enjoyably read, with a direct appeal both to one's mind and heart.

George Eliot was the pen-name of Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans, an unconventional woman who lived from 1819 to 1880 and set out to prove that novels by women didn't need to be full of fluff and vapors. Her half-dozen other novels include Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, and Middlemarch, which Virginia Woolf called "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people" (source: Wikipedia). I don't know why we still call her George when "Currer Bell" has gone back to being just plain Charlotte Brontë, but there it is. And as soon as one of Eliot's other books becomes available at my friendly local library, there I will be.

The House of the Scorpion
by Nancy Farmer
Recommended Ages: 14+

In a grim but possible future world, a unique boy named Matt experiences a unique childhood, made of equal parts privilege and horror, leading to a unique opportunity to change his world. And in this National Book Award winning novel by the author of the Sea of Trolls series, you get to go along for the ride.

In Matt's world, the United States and Mexico have found the winning answer to the problems of illegal immigration and illegal drugs. They have created a buffer country between them, a country called Opium, ruled by a group of "farmers" who are really drug lords, and policed by a "farm patrol" that is really a bunch of mercenaries. Hashish, cocaine, and opium are cultivated, officially not to be sold in the U.S. or Mexico, but for the overseas market. People trying to run from what used to be Mexico (now a Marxist dystopia called Aztlán) to the U.S., or from the U.S. to Mexico, must now risk being captured by the Farm Patrol and implanted with a microchip that turns them into "eejits"—zombie-like slaves who are then worked to death in the poppy fields.

The biggest and baddest of the farmers is the 150-year-old Matteo Alacrán, whose name appropriately means "scorpion," but who is usually called El Patrón. Behind his back, his bodyguards call him "the old vampire," which is just barely a figure of speech. Although Matt seems like a nice boy, he's actually a clone of the evil El Patrón. Unique among clones, because El Patrón has the power to break the rules, Matt has been allowed to enjoy as nearly normal a childhood as possible, given that he is the protegé of the richest and most ruthless man in the world, enjoys the luxuries of a mansion modeled on the lifestyle of a century ago, and is nevertheless considered by most people to be no better than cattle. Matt is unique even as clones go, because all other clones are required by law to have their minds destroyed and to live like the animals they are thought to be. As Matt learns with an infuriating slowness that must be put down to willful self-deception, he is just like all other clones in one respect: he exists to provide transplant organs to extend the life of the original, the old vampire himself.

How Matt discovers this, how he escapes, what he experiences in the equally horrifying Aztlán, and what happens when he returns home, are the matter of this book and make it well worth reading. It is a story of love and heartbreak, terror and courage, loneliness and camraderie. Above all it is a story about slavery and the struggle for freedom. The possibility that border control problems, the drug trade, advances in technology, and utopian ideology could combine to form such a dreadful future may be uncomfortable to consider, but this book makes a convincing case that such a potential is there. Even if there are good people in our world like Matt, his friends Maria and Fidelito and Ton Ton, and antislavery crusader Esperanza Mendoza, this book warns us to guard against the many darker realities that we can also recognize in our world. A few small steps would be enough to change the world as we know it into the world as Matt knows it. And that, perhaps, is why this sometimes hopeful, sometimes tender book is also, and above all, so very scary.

This book was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal, Michael A. Printz, Locus, and Mythopoeic awards, in addition to several other honors. It has been recorded as an audio book by at least two different narrators, of whom I heard Robert Ramirez: an actor with a youthful American voice that slips with equal fluency into Spanish cadences and the Scottish lilt of Tam Lin. Meanwhile, Nancy Farmer is also the author of A Girl Named Disaster and The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm.

Sapphique
by Catherine Fisher
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to Incareceron, former prisoner Finn—the first to escape from the prison-world of Incarceron since the legendary Sapphique—struggles to accept the new identity that has been thrust upon him. The Warden's daugther Claudia thinks Finn may be Prince Giles, heir to the throne of the Realm and her own betrothed, and that his supposed death at age 15 was meant to cover up a conspiracy between Queen Sia (Giles' stepmother) and the Warden to trap the Prince in Incareron and replace him with Sia's odious son Caspar. But Finn only has a few fragmentary memories of his life before the prison, and even he isn't sure that he is (or was) Giles. He had better be, though. Because a Pretender has stepped forward, claiming to be the real Giles, and his patter is so convincing that Finn himself half believes him. And if the trial to decide which is the real Giles is decided against him, Finn will be executed—and Claudia with him.

Meanwhile, back in the prison, Incarceron itself has developed a personality, and that person (like everybody else in the prison) wants to escape from itself. To do that, it plays on the hopes and ambitions of Finn's friends Keiro and Attia, the madness of a stage magician named Rix, and the temptation of a dragonskin glove (complete with claws) said to have belonged to Sapphique himself. While this group makes its way to the heart of Incarceron, facing spectacular dangers and the savagery of several weird groups of prisoners, the prison's plans are either helped or hindered (one isn't sure which) by the former Warden, who is now a prisoner himself. And back in the realm, a gravely ill sapient named Jared shows a surprising knack for survival as he races to get the secret of opening the door to Incarceron to his beloved Claudia before the Queen's siege of the Wardenry cuts off all access.

This is a complex story with many moving parts, many of them moving by feints and deceptions, so that the reader is kept guessing as to what is going on and how (or if) it will all work out. Its flawed characters all have their own selfish motivations, so that at times one may question whether any of them are worth caring for; and yet in spite of it all they care about each other. The world-within-a-world of Incarceron remains a place of scenic marvels, mysteries, and horrors, while the Realm outside—the "real world" that has been frozen in time by an amazing sci-fi concept called Protocol—turns out to be even more unreal that you might expect. And the challenges facing the main characters at the end are so great that one might dare to hope that this will become a trilogy. Even if it does not, fans of Incarceron will be glad to know that Welsh author Catherine Fisher has started a new series titled "The Island of the Mighty," whose first book is The Cat With Iron Claws.

My Man Jeeves
by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

One of my fellow audio-book enthusiasts put me on the scent of the hilarious series collectively known as "Jeeves and Wooster." These are a series of novels and short stories poking satirical fun at an idle rich young Englishman named Bertie Wooster, whose valet Jeeves leads him around by the nose but makes it worthwhile by always knowing what to do in any awkward situation. These stories were published in book form starting in 1917, though some of them had appeared in magazines as far back as 1911. The series continued all the way to 1974, a year before the author's death. And so Jeeves and Wooster lived a full life in real time! That's a long time for one author to be writing stories about the same characters, what?

This 1919 book, in particular, contains four of the earliest Jeeves-and-Wooster stories, together with four stories featuring a character named Reggie Pepper. While Pepper's antics take place in England and his valet isn't especially important, and Bertie is a British expatriate living it up in New York City, they have a similar goofball appeal. Each story is narrated in the first person in the sporting lingo of a British public-schoolboy of limited brains and ambition combined with unlimited wealth, preoccupied with gentlemanly leisure pursuits and given to meddling in the problems of men in his social set. These problems, ranging from romantic trouble to keeping themselves in favor with rich aunts and uncles who provide them with the means to live well, always prove fertile ground for humorous complications and droll remarks; and especially when Jeeves is around, there are always surprise twists.

The paradox of this type of satire is that you can look on the characters as kindly or as unkindly as you choose. Being narrated by the main characters, they are understandably gentle in poking fun at the thoughtlessness, idleness, and wastefulness of the playboy lifestyle; some readers may even get caught up in the fantasy of having such a difficult-to-attain level of privilege handed to one without merit or desert. On the other hand, reading between the lines, you could also read the stories as the remorseless confessions of a sociopath so oblivious to the harm he is doing to himself and others that he thinks of it as a humorous anecdote to dine out on. Depending on your interpretation, these stories could be read as either harmless little whimsies or chilling tales of irony and horror. But it would be hard to remain horrified for very long when either Bertie or Reggie is never many seconds away from saying something so disarmingly silly that you have to laugh out loud, and when everything works out all right in the end.

I listened to this book as read on four CDs by Jonathan Cecil, an actor whose voice brought out all the characters with a wonderful, light touch. Unfortunately, four disks accounted for only two days' worth of commuting. So I plan to look up as many of the other Jeeves-and-Wooster books as may be floating around the County Library system, regardless of where they stand in order of publication. This, for instance, is my first Jeeves experience, but the second (1919) book in the series; the first, if you must start at the beginning, was 1917's The Man With Two Left Feet. And yes, it was Wodehouse's Jeeves who lent his name to the internet search engine Ask Jeeves. If nothing else, that's a measure of Jeeves' reputation for having the answer to everything. And if each answer comes with as many laughs as the ones in this set, I foresee many fun road trips ahead of me.