Thursday, October 31, 2013

How Many Keys?

Each book of J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier contains twenty-four Preludes and Fugues—adding up to what one might casually describe as two such pairs of pieces in each major and minor key. Dmitri Shostakovich also wrote two books of piano pieces in all twenty-four major and minor keys: the early (and lightweight) Preludes op. 34, and the more mature (masterpiece) Preludes and Fugues op. 87. Similar examples could be cited. Each of these major works demonstrates the full range of musical tonality by centering a piece, or a pair of pieces, on the major and minor scale that starts on each of the 12 tones of the western musical tuning system—the seven white notes on the piano from A to G, plus the five black notes in between. Each is a demonstration of the possibility, within a certain system of musical temperament, of doing "Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti" on all twelve of these notes, as well as the minor-scale equivalent (the less well-known "Do Re Me Fa Sol Le Te").

If you're a musician, and you already know all this, bear with me. I'm trying to make this clear enough for non-musicians to understand.

Because the major and minor scales are series of pitch-intervals going up and down, they sound similar (i.e., like a major or a minor scale) regardless of what black or white note they start on. Because each scale consists of only seven out of twelve possible notes, they keep the same intervals by adding or subtracting black notes. If you're reading one of the preludes or fugues in the works mentioned above, you can tell which major or minor key it is by observing the "key signature" at the beginning of the piece, where the clef signs are followed by a more or fewer sharp-signs or flat-signs. How many notes are sharp or flat, and which ones, will determine which major or minor key the piece is in.

I'm going somewhere with this, but for the sake of the musically unformed among us, let me lay a bit of groundwork from "Music 101." If it goes Do Re Mi (with a whole-step between the second and third note of the ascending scale), it's a major key. If it goes Do Re Me (with a half-step up to the third note), it's a minor key. For each key signature, each series of sharps and flats laid out at the beginning of a piece, there are two possibilities: either it's the major key that goes Do Re Mi, or the minor key that goes Do Re Me. To tell which of these possibilities applies in a given piece, you have to look at the opening and/or closing notes or chords of the piece.

So, if there are no sharps or flats in the key signature—if the scale uses only white notes—you have a choice between the "Do Re Mi" of C Major or the "Do Re Me" of A Minor. Each time the "tonic" note goes up by an interval of a fifth, the key signature adds one sharp or subtracts one flat. So a fifth up, one sharp, would be either G Major or E Minor. Another fifth up, two sharps, would be D major or B Minor. Another fifth up, three sharps, is either A major or—careful, now!—F-sharp Minor. Four sharps, up another fifth, is E major or C-sharp Minor. With five sharps—B Major or G-sharp Minor—you have used up all the black notes going in the sharp direction. But you haven't used up all the possible keys. You could, for example, re-interpret the white note commonly called F as an E-sharp, making six sharps: F-sharp Major or D-sharp Minor. And you could also make all seven notes of the scale a sharp, adding a B-sharp (what musicians say is "enharmonic" with a C) to make the key C-sharp Major or A-sharp Minor.

You can also cycle the other way, going downward by fifths to subtract sharps and add flats to the key signature. A fifth down from C Major or A Minor is either F Major or D Minor, each with one flat. Another fifth down takes you to B-flat Major or G Minor with two flats. Three flats takes you down another fifth to E-flat Major or C Minor. Four flats gives you A-flat Major or F Minor. Five flats, again using all five black notes on the piano (but in a different order), gives you D-flat Major or B-flat Minor. And again, you can keep going a bit further to six flats, G-flat Major or E-flat Minor, with a C-flat at the end of the key-signature, enharmonic to B; and even seven flats, where the major key of C-flat actually starts on a white note (elsewhere known as B-natural) and has an F-flat (a.k.a. E) as well. The minor key of that key-signature is A-flat Minor.

So there you have all the major and minor keys, right? But already we have a problem, if there are supposed to be 24 of them. You see, I've just described a range of major/minor keys ranging from 7 flats to 7 sharps, plus a pair of keys with no black notes in the key signature. That adds up to 15 major and 15 minor keys, a total of 30. How can this be, when there are only twelve notes to start with? I've already given you a clue. It's the word "enharmonic." Though the note may be "spelled" more than one way in the score, it's the same key on the piano. So, for example, the scale of C-flat Major (seven flats) shares the same keys on the piano as B Major (five sharps). The same goes for D-flat Major (five flats) and C-sharp Major (seven sharps). G-flat Major and F-sharp Major are, literally, six of one and a half-dozen of the other; but the keys on the piano are the same.

And that's not even discussing all the theoretically possible, but stupid, keys that have double-sharps or double-flats in their key signature. There are tons of ways the same sequence of seven notes could be spelled in musical notation. Some of them are simply impractical, because they require the performer to do too many mental operations between reading the note in the score and playing the corresponding key on the instrument. But the six major keys above, plus their corresponding "relative minor" keys (i.e. whichever minor keys have the same sharps or flats in their key-signatures), are examples of entire keys that, for the purposes of real and practical music, could be spelled more than one way. And so they constitute the additional six major and minor keys, bringing the total number of reasonably meaningful keys up from 24 to 30.

Is that insane? Only a little. Obviously, most people are going to find it easier to read a piece in B Major than to read the identical piece (in terms of the keys to be pressed on the instrument) in C-flat Major. Technically it would be the same piece, but psychologically it would require more effort from the note-reading musician. Some pianists and organists have a bias either towards sharps or flats, finding the one easier to read than the other. So one pianist might prefer to play a Bach prelude in G-flat (six flats) rather than in the enharmonic key of F-sharp (six sharps), even though they end up being the same sequence of black and white notes on the piano. He or she might even prefer the seven sharps of C-sharp Major over the five flats of D-flat, as Bach evidently did, to judge by both books of the WTC. And even if the musician is equally comfortable playing these pieces in either key, there is anecdotal evidence that if you show him the same piece in both keys—say F-sharp and G-flat Major, for example—what he plays will sound like two different pieces. For even with a full mastery of note-reading in all the keys, even using the same fingering to play the notes, the psychological difference between six flats and six sharps will register in the way he performs each version. What I'm stumbling at is this: F-sharp and G-flat Major may share the same notes on the instrument, but they are not the same key.

And so we find that a description of Bach's WTC and Shostakovich's op. 87 as works that exploit "all 24 major and minor keys" is inaccurate. And that isn't just a theoretical quibble; it's a matter of record. In the first book of Bach's WTC, Prelude No. 8 is in E-flat Minor (six flats). Fugue No. 8, however, is in the enharmonic key of D-sharp Minor (six sharps). So WTC Book I, all by itself, exploits 25 different keys. To be sure, Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in Book II are both in D-sharp Minor. But given a choice between sharps and flats, Bach seems to prefer sharps. In his Inventions and Sinfonias, each a set of pieces in 15 different keys, he avoids using key-signatures with more than four sharps or flats; but in both sets, the keys he chooses include both E Major and C-sharp Minor (four sharps), but only F Minor and not A-flat Major (four flats). Thin this evidence may be, but then consider: In both books of the WTC, Prelude and Fugue No. 3 are in C-sharp Major (seven sharps) rather than the arguably easier-to-read D-flat Major (five flats). Again, in both books, for Prelude and Fugue No. 13 he chooses the six sharps of F-sharp rather than the equally challenging six flats of G-flat Major. And while it may be a no-brainer to opt for B Major (five sharps) rather than C-flat Major (seven flats) for Prelude and Fugue No. 23 of both books, his preference in the relative-minor instances of No. 18 (G-sharp Minor rather than A-flat Minor) isn't as easy to rationalize away, given his preference for seven sharps over five flats in the case of No. 3. The only times, other than Prelude No. 8 in Book I, that Bach uses a key signature with more than four flats in the WTC are the Preludes and Fugues No. 22 in B-flat Minor in both books (five flats, as opposed to the seven sharps of A-sharp Minor). This could be his way of making up for snubbing D-flat Major in both books. But it doesn't erase the impression that Bach leaned more towards the sharp side of the Circle of Fifths than to the flat.

One notices that in both op. 34 and op. 87, Shostakovich arranged things a bit differently. Bach started both books of WTC in the key of C Major and, alternating between the major keys and their "parallel minor" keys (e.g. C Major and C Minor), went up by half-step through all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, ending with B Major and B Minor. He did something similar with the Inventions and Sinfonias, raising the tonic note by half-steps from C up to B, with parallel major and minor keys appearing in that order, and only skipping a few of the harder-to-play keys. Shostakovich, likewise, begins both his sets with C Major, but from there on things go differently. Alternating the relative major and minor keys (those that have the same key signature, such as C Major and A Minor), he travels around the circle of fifths in the sharp direction until he gets to F-sharp Major; then, again in both op. 34 and op. 87, he side-slips into the flat side of the circle with E-flat minor (enharmonic to D-sharp Minor, and hence the relative minor of F-sharp Major), and continues subtracting flats from the key-signature until he ends with the pieces in F Major and D Minor (one flat each). So, unlike Bach, Shostakovich chooses D-flat Major in both sets rather than C-sharp Major, and E-flat Minor three times out of three, instead of the D-sharp Minor that Bach preferred three times out of four. Shostakovich avoids any hint of the sharps-over-flats bias suggested by Bach's choice of keys.

It is therefore technically accurate to say that Shostakovich exploits exactly 24 major and minor keys in these two sets of piano pieces. But many of the keys that aren't featured in the index of the book, make guest appearances in the middle of some tonally adventurous pieces. The same could be said of Bach, and of other composers. Just because they didn't write preludes and fugues "in" C-flat Major doesn't mean you won't find that key, and others like it—full of tricky enharmonic spellings of white notes, double-flats, double-sharps, and the psychological shadings they bring with them—in the midst of a musical argument that often explores distant realms of harmony. There are indeed more than 24 major and minor keys; there are, in fact, more than the 30 keys for which a responsible case can be made for learning to play pieces written in all of them. The Circle of Fifths spirals into infinity—though it quickly passes out of the territory well occupied by reason and intuition. If a human performer could but learn to think he was playing in the key of F-double-sharp (rather than G Major), or D-double-flat (rather than C), the psychology of what he is doing might produce some strange effects that, I believe, would make a difference to the mind's ear of a sensitive listener.

POSTSCRIPT: I mentioned above that many keyboardists have a preference for either sharp keys or flat keys. Some organists and pianists that I have known carried this so far as to develop an downright aversion to one side of the Circle of Fifths. It's strange to relate, but it's a fact that many musicians—particularly those who might describe themselves as less experienced or less talented—develop a work-around that actually involves transposing a whole piece of music, by sight, from one key to another. It's one of the first tricks I was taught as a beginning organist, by a lady who was petrified of key signatures with more than two sharps: You play the notes on the same lines and spaces as printed, but you pretend the key signature has flats instead of sharps. In the music, if you see an accidental sharp sign, you interpret it as a natural; a natural sign, you interpret as a flat. The reverse works if you want to go from flats to sharps; and I have known organists to use this trick, not because they liked flats better than sharps or vice versa, but to avoid playing a key with five black notes when two was possible, or to avoid playing four sharps or flats when three of the opposite kind was possible. The difference between this tactic and someone who is genuinely afraid of, say, sharps, is that the latter will actually prefer to play a piece with five or four flats rather than two or three sharps. In either case, the irony has often tickled me: for all their musical insecurity, these people are falling back on a sophisticated and mentally demanding process—sight transposition—albeit with the aid of a simple rule-of-thumb.

One of the little mathematical tricks of music, made possible by the principle of the Circle of Fifths and whatnot, is what I like to call the Rule of Seven. Take any two major or minor keys that can be read on the same lines and spaces of the musical staff; add together the number of sharps or flats in both their key signatures; the sum is always seven. I'm not sure if there is a word for the relationship between these two keys, like "enharmonic" or "parallel" or "relative" (none of which apply). If I were to coin a word for them, it would probably be something like "homographic" or "mirror," or maybe "flipsy." So in short, the sum of the sharps and flats in the key signatures of two flipsy keys is always seven. The rule holds even when you get into those theoretical keys with double-sharps and -flats in them—only then you find the difference between the two key-signatures, taking care to count double-sharps or -flats as two of each.

So you can read a piece in B-flat minor (five flats) as B minor (two sharps), and as long as you remember the Rule of Seven, you won't have to strain your brain much to figure out how many sharps to lock into your mental key-signature: seven minus five is two. It's a simple formula that has come to the rescue of many a novice or shaky amateur. It has also, unfortunately, caused disasters. For example, take the organist who took a well-known three-part Te Deum setting (beginning and ending in B-flat Major, with a passage of B-flat Minor in the middle) and transposed the middle section into B Minor. She found it easier to play, no doubt; but the key change at the heart of the piece was wrong.

More math-e-musical rules of thumb, while I'm blathering on... There's a Relative Major/Minor Rule of Three: The tonic note of any minor key is a tonal third down from that of its relative major key (which has the same key signature). There's a Parallel Major/Minor Rule of Three: The key-signature of any minor key has a net total of three fewer sharps and/or three more flats than its parallel major key (which has the same tonic note). These are really the same rule viewed from opposite points of view. Then there's the Rule of Twelve: The sum of the key signatures of two enharmonically equivalent keys is always twelve. C-flat Major (7 flats) plus B major (5 sharps): 12. G-flat Major plus F-sharp Major: 6 flats + 6 sharps = 12. Here, again, you have to be prepared to count double-sharps or -flats as two each; so you could deduce, and correctly too, that the theoretical key of B-sharp Major (enharmonic to the white-note key of C) must have five double-sharps, plus two single-sharps (E and B). And again, when the total number of sharps or flats in a key signature (counting doubles as two) exceeds 12, you subtract instead of adding and the rule holds. Thus, the difference between the theoretical key of C-double-sharp (14 sharps!) and its enharmonic key of D (2 sharps) is 12. Isn't that cool?

P.P.S. Okay, smart-aleck. As if I haven't gone far enough off topic already... What happens to the Rule of Twelve when you're comparing the key-signatures of two equally stupid, theoretical keys? Like C-double-sharp Major and E-double-flat Major, which both happen to be enharmonic to D Major... Solution: Don't compare two stupid keys to each other. Therein lies madness.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Trial Hymn

A hymn for the feast of the Reformation, Matthew 11:12.
Alas, Lord! See Thy kingdom's course,
As forceful men seize it by force!
Though human strength bear off this hour,
Help us to trust Thy gospel's power.

Yea, bless us by this fiery trial:
Burn up the tinder of denial.
Spread light upon our shadowed path,
And leave unscorched our holy faith.

This flame shall purge what is impure;
Like steel, our faith shall prove more sure.
Our lintel bears the paschal mark;
We shall not perish in the dark.

For now we eat, as though in haste,
The passover we long to taste:
The chosen Word, the one I Am,
Himself becomes the offered Lamb.

Our needy hands stretch forth to Thine,
Accepting, under bread and wine,
The pledge to grasping sinners given:
The freely granted peace of heaven.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Powers

Powers
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the third book of the "Annals of the Western Shore," the author of A Wizard of Earthsea completes what appears to be a fantasy trilogy for young adults. I hope that appearances are deceiving in this case. I hope this series will continue beyond this book!

In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones wrote that a map in the foreleaves is an essential part of a fantasy novel. The Western Shore books are no exception to this rule. But from the beginning, the map of the Western Shore has been far more expansive than the territory covered by the story. This book's introductory map zooms in on a smaller area, and its narrator fills in more of the details of it by traveling around. And so the dots on the map become more than so many funny-sounding names. They become places with an interesting history, a distinctive culture, a deep background of religion and literature, and snaps of dramatic tension that propel young Gavir forward on his pilgrimage. They become real to the reader's imagination, as only a country created by a master of world-building fantasy can be.

Gavir grows up with no memory of the Marsh country he and his older sister Sallo came from. He was only a baby when they were taken as slaves and bought by the noble house of Arcamand in the city-state of Etra. Slavery at Arcamand isn't too harsh. Sallo and Gavir are educated alongside the children of the household. When Sallo comes of age, she is to be given to the family's older son as a concubine—which, given that she and Yaven love each other, could be far worse. Gavir is being groomed to succeed Everra the schoolmaster. With his gifted memory, Gavir soaks up everything he reads and hears: history, philosophy, poetry. Now and then, Gavir even remembers things that haven't happened yet—a power of the Marsh people that Sallo urges him to keep secret. All seems to be going well, except for a war that decimates the city, and a bitterly personal feud with Yaven's brutral younger brother and his equally nasty bodyguard.

But then something terrible happens that Gavir did not foresee in time. Out of his mind with grief, he sets of on a journey of forgetfulness and remembering. He forgets that his pocket is full of money and nearly starves to death. He even forgets, for a while, that he is a runaway slave—a feat made easier by the fact that his masters think him dead. He spends a summer recovering his strength in the den of a hermit. He survives the winter by joining a band of outlaws in the forest. He runs away from them and joins an even bigger and more ambitious band of outlaws, whose leader claims to be plotting a revolution based on the principles of liberty. He flees from one form of tyranny and slavery to another, discovering along the way where he came from and which of his powers will shape his life. He visits strange cultures. He finds peace, joy, grief, and danger in more than one place. And when he finally realizes where he must go to be free, he must make the journey carrying a vulnerable child while his deadliest enemy follows close behind.

What links this book to the first two in the series, besides dots on a map? Some of the poetry that inspires Gav on his journey is by authors we have heard of and met before, most notably Orrec Caspro (see Gifts). The gods and ancestral spirits reverenced amid the city-states are the same as, or similar to, those worshiped in Ansul (see Visions). And there is more as well, but I don't want to spoil it for you. On its own, however, this book reads like the memoirs of a man who underwent a heartbreaking odyssey in a world so convincingly real that any notion it never existed will seem to you like fantasy. The snippets of poetry and history embedded in this book are both beautiful and authentically human. And the landscape in which Gav moves exists so vividly in the mind's eye that its map becomes more than a page: it becomes a world. I have yet to see Ursula Le Guin accomplish less than this, even in a book half the length of this one; and this book is only what in most authors' hands would be average length. Not a tedious page in it, Powers powers through a landscape rich in thought-provoking ideas, deeply felt emotions, and well-paced suspense leading to a swift and satisfying coda. What more can we ask? I know: a fourth book!

Vanished

Vanished
by Kat Richardson
Recommended Ages: 14+

One of the few drawbacks of listening to this series in audio-book form, with Mia Barron reading for SciFi Audio, is that I don't know how to spell the name of one of the creatures introduced in it. Not knowing how to spell it also hampers my attempts to learn more about it on the internet. In the fourth Greywalker novel, featuring a tough female private detective with paranormal powers, Harper Blaine plunges deeper into the undead subculture and encounters varieties of vampire that I don't know how to spell. So it's going to be tough telling you about them. But I shouldn't complain, because if anybody has a tough time on this case, it's Harper.

It begins with a visit from the ghost of a former lover, challenging Harper to look into her own past if she wants to learn more about why she is what she is. Till now, she has always assumed that her brief taste of death at the beginning of Book 1 was the start of her Greywalking career. But a visit to her old stomping grounds in Los Angeles forces Harper to reconsider. Her demanding, man-hungry mother reveals that Harper's father didn't die of a heart attack, as she had always been told. A browse through his journal reveals that he was, in fact, a seriously disturbed man who killed himself because he couldn't handle seeing Grey things. It seems someone (or something) was grooming Robert Blaine for a horrible purpose. And when he died, the focus of those plans, like the Greywalking powers, shifted to his daughter. To Harper.

While she is still reeling from the discovery that death and the Grey have been woven into her life since childhood, Harper gets summoned into the presence of Edward Kammerling, the totally non-sparkly vampire king of the Pacific Northwest. Edward is concerned about his financial holdings in London, where his man-of-business has stopped answering calls. He suspects that something sinister (even for vampires) is going on in the London underworld, and he persuades Harper to suss it out. What she finds is a city divided between three clans of vampires, one of which I can't spell; let's just say it dates back to ancient Egypt and sucks more than blood out of its victims.

Joined by an enemy of Harper's and Edward's they both thought was dead, and by a river-spawn creature that hungers for human flesh, and by a Jewish sorcerer who has kept himself alive for centuries by the power of grisly rites, these what's-their-names have taken over the other vampire gangs and consolidated their hold on the horrible side of London. They also have working for them, at various times, a golem, a serial-killer ghost called Norren the Butcher, and a type of super-vampire, which I also can't spell. This guy's lust for blood and violence burns briefly but ever so intensely. And, oh yes, they have a hostage who makes it all very personal for Harper: her ex-boyfriend Will Novak.

But then, Harper has some help too. She finds support from a clockwork lady, a chorus of talking statues, a lion-headed Egyptian goddess, and a British Greywalker who can still see the Grey even after losing both his eyes. Will's kid brother Michael, who has hardly begun to believe in ghosts and vampires, is not so much a help as a dead weight. Mostly, however, Harper must rely on her own wit and grit, with a bit of luck sprinkled on top. Saving Will, to say nothing of Edward's financial empire, will mean plunging into the darkest crypt in Greater London, fleeing through its narrow and winding streets, and finally fighting hand-to-hand with creatures of the night in a graveyard loaded with magical energy. And for the first time in her career, she will have to kill to survive.

Harper Blaine's growth as a Greywalker takes another big step in this installment, but it is not finished. By the end of the book, she has only just learned the disturbing truth about who was behind her beating death two years ago, and she still does not know what use they are preparing to make of her. Count on it, more discoveries are in store for her, and for us, in the fifth book: Labyrinth.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Parable of the Nosocomephobic

A fellow blogger's post inspired the following thought...
The people of this generation excuse themselves from churchgoing because, they say, the church is full of sinners, hypocrites, and mean people. To what shall I compare them? They are like a man who refused to be taken to the hospital, even when he was dangerously ill, because hospitals are full of sick people. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Tacky Hymns 40

The hymns selected for Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW for short; Augsburg Fortress, 2006) continue to make the dishonor roll...

603 "God, when human bonds are broken" is a "confession, forgiveness" text by the late Fred Kaan (1929-2009),1 a British Congregationalist minister. It expresses some nice sentiments about the Christian virtue of forgiving one another, and even a bit about being soothed by a consciousness of God's forgiveness. My only problem with it is that there isn't anything in it about the absolution (i.e., the rite of declaring us objectively, unconditionally forgiven by the Word of God). It therefore lacks the essential je ne sais quoi that would make it a Lutheran hymn.

I have similar reservations about 605 "Forgive our sins as we forgive" by Rosamond Herklots (1905-87),2 a British lady about whom I know little except that she wrote dozens of hymns, mostly for children, after her retirement from an administrative role in the medical field. Again, it's a nice prayer for the grace to forgive one another, but the gospel (the message that we ourselves are forgiven by God) only comes in by way of giving an argumentative edge to this law of Christian love.

607 "Come, ye disconsolate" consists of two stanzas by Thomas Moore (1779-1882), plus one by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), set to the blandly pretty tune CONSOLATOR by Samuel Webbe (1740-1816). At the risk of maligning a hymn that was in my beloved TLH (The Lutheran Hymnal; Concordia, 1941) and that I myself found very comforting when I was an inwardly tormented teen, I now believe this hymn is tacky in the context of Lutheran worship, particularly when placed in the section of the hymnal where "confession, forgiveness" stand in for "confession and absolution." TLH at least had the sense to index it under "cross and comfort." It does not have a shred of sacramental thought in it. The mercy seat where (in stanza 1) you are directed to kneel and tell your anguish of heart, apparently exists in the shrine of your imagination, for all the help the hymn gives us in locating it. Stanza 2 mentions penitence and depicts the Holy Spirit as murmuring words of comfort into your heart. Stanza 3 rounds it off by mentioning the Bread of life, the feast of love, and the waters flowing forth from the throne of God, but without giving any specific reason to interpret these as the sacraments of the font and the altar; all this language could be metaphor for the healing balm of the Spirit's message that "earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal," etc. This refrain, slightly varied at the end of each stanza, finally locates the comfort that God offers in the hope that whatever we suffer now will pale beside the glory to come. So no, I absolutely see no shade of God's sacramental activity in this hymn. Alas!

608 "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling" is a sentimental altar-call hymn that I have already lampooned. So I won't say much about it here, except that its placement amid the "confession, forgiveness" hymns is especially unfortunate.

610 "O Christ, the healer, we have come" is a Fred Pratt Green hymn3 that opens the section of hymns on the topic of "healing." Is this meant to be another sacrament, or merely a topic of prayer? The hymn itself makes an interesting argument about problems of health revealing a need for "wholeness," but in my opinion there is something cold about a prayer that cannot simply ask for healing or release (with a "Thy will be done" as a check to our own impatience), without making it primarily about community-building and world peace. I don't think it best honors the value of the saints' suffering.

611 "I heard the voice of Jesus say" by Horatius Bonar (1808-89) is likewise a hymn I have dealt with before. If anything, its setting in this book is the least tacky I have seen of its many appearances in anglophone Lutheran hymnals. Set to the fine English tune KINGSFOLD, it sounds very noble and tasteful. But it remains highly subjective, and its sharp division of the work of the gospel into "the half that Jesus does" and the "half that I do" is a poor way to confess the Lutheran teaching that my salvation is entirely the work of Christ.

612 "Healer of our every ill" is yet another Marty Haugen opus. This Roman Catholic author-composer, who specializes in the "classical pop" stylings that have made worship in many American Catholic churches increasingly hard to distinguish from the Evangelical church down the street, seems in ELW to stand in the place many Lutheran hymnals reserve for a poet or composer laureate (often a member of the editorial committee). This is to say, he has sown his seed so prolifically in this book that it is strange not to find him listed among its editors. Typically, his hymn has a light touch, both textually and musically, offering such breathtaking originality as the rhyme of "tomorrow" and "sorrow," and of "sadness" and "gladness," etc. Some of its language is imported from the leadership-training cant current among church-growth gurus of the last fifteen minutes, such as "give us all your vision." And it quickly moves beyond any distasteful (for some) hint of the earthy, specific pains and sicknesses of the flesh, to ask for spiritual blessings, such as "strength to love each other" and knowledge of the "way of healing," i.e. compassion. So again, like the above-noted Fred Pratt Green hymn, it is a rather thin, lukewarm gruel of comfort for those enduring their own or their loved ones' bodily and mental afflictions. It irks me to observe that this hymn has the folk appeal to be popular far beyond its merits.

613 "Thy holy wings, O Savior" is translated from Carolina Sandell Berg's (1832-1903) original Swedish.4 I have previously remarked on Lina's reputation as the "Fanny Crosby of Sweden," which means that just seeing her name in a credit line puts me on alert for incoming tackiness. I have also learned to fear the name of translator Gracia Grindal, one of the movers and shakers of the ELCA's "Reclaim" movement (which is planning a hymnal of its own, in rebuttal of ELW), and whose essay on "What Makes a Hymn Lutheran" left me in grave doubt of her judgment on that question. This entire three-stanza hymn is devoted to the metaphorical imagery of us, as chicks, nestling under the downy wings of God, as the mother hen. Yet there are actually some pretty strong moments in this hymn, so I can't write it off as altogether tacky. I like the line "let my ev'ry moment be lived within thy grace" (stanza 1), and I can't shake the impression that Sandell Berg (or at least Grindal) means baptism when she writes, "Oh, wash me in the waters of Noah's cleansing flood." But this hymn has, after all, a certain warm, cuddly, infants'-nursery type of sentimentality that leaves me itching and running at the nose. Maybe it's a feather allergy.

614 "There is a balm in Gilead" continues the tackiness streak with words and music adapted from an African-American spiritual. Again it bypasses the opportunity to stuff this "healing" section of the hymnal with prayers for the physically and mentally ill, disabled, injured, etc., and goes straight at the need "to heal the sin-sick soul." Ordinarily I wouldn't object to this emphasis, if only I understood exactly what balm the hymn was talking about. That "there is" such a balm—in Gilead, at least—is the burden of most of the refrain; another instance of the type of impersonal, indirect language that made "There's a wideness in God's mercy" such a wide target for my scorn. Stanza 1 leads off with more of the same: "Sometimes I feel discouraged," etc. Stanza 2 provides the only clue to what the balm is when it says that, even if you can't preach like Peter or pray like Paul, you can say that Jesus "died for all." Stanza 3 concludes its promotion of the spiritual patent medicine by saying, "Don't ever be discouraged, for Jesus is your friend; and if you lack for knowledge, he'll ne'er refuse to lend." Eh? Lend what, knowledge? How does he do that? By direct link to your brain? What kind of interest does he charge? OK, so I'm picking nits. But nits is most of what this ditty offers us. And the historical knowledge that Jesus died for all is a starting point at best. I already know this, and yet "sometimes I feel discouraged." So then what?

615 "In all our grief and fear we turn to you" is another hymn by United Church of Canada pastor Sylvia Dunstan (1955-93).5 The "healing" for which this hymn prays is healing of interpersonal conflict: "the pain we put each other through" (stanza 1); "the angry word, the clenching fist, the wish and will to hurt" (stanza 2). Stanza 3 hits on a powerful truth: "You did not even spare your only Son..." And stanza 4 asks God to comfort us with his presence. Again, this hymn has its strengths. But it cries out for a clear articulation of the message of forgiveness—clearer, at least, than the refrain's "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord, grant us peace." The missed opportunity to apply Jesus' redeeming death in a purely gospel way (no strings attached) is what I find tacky here.

616 "Jesus, remember me" (when you come into your kingdom) is a Jacques Berthier/Taizé Community ditty consisting entirely of the words quoted above, repeated twice over a four-part harmonic texture that changes chords about once per bar. Rather than comment further, I refer you to everything I have said about Taizé worship songs in this thread.

I mention 617 "We come to you for healing, Lord" by Herman Stuempfle,6 mainly as an example of the kind of thing I've been looking for, so far in vain, in ELW's "healing" section. It's evidence that there really is such a thing as a hymn that covers what we ask in prayers for those who are sick. It's not tacky; it's really quite all right. There should be more like it, in my opinion. But there's just this one, and here endeth the "healing" section.

618 "Neither death nor life" is Marty Haugen's melodic setting of a goodly chunk of Romans chapter 8. It's got a refrain framing five stanzas, each of which needs to be set to a separate line of melody because of the extreme irregularity of the text's rhythm. The refrain is earmarked for "All" and the stanzas for "Leader or All," though I think it is ambitious enough to hope that the congregation will pick up the refrain in six tries; forget about the stanzas. Which, again, makes this mostly a solo number, and so a waste of precious space (two whole pages!) in the pew hymnal. Plus, you know, it's Marty Haugen music.

625 "Come, we that love the Lord" (refrain: "We're marching to Zion") concludes this segment with a text by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)—a poet whose pedantic moralism was a matter of satire even to Charles Dickens—and a tune specially written for it by Robert Lowry (1826-99), who has appeared frequently in this thread. Lowry also wrote the words of the refrain ("beautiful, beautfiul Zion..."). It leads off the "hope, assurance" section of the hymnal with the idea that we're passing blindly through this world, conscious only of the paradise to come. Besides, some of its elderly diction sounds a bit funny today. Stanza 3: "The hill of Zion yields a thousand sacred sweets..." To be sure, there is a place in Christian devotion for the consolation that, whatever wrong befalls us here, heaven will right it. But hymns of the "I'm but a stranger here, heaven is my home" ilk tend to annoy me with their hint (and sometimes more than a hint) that there is nothing at all important or even precious about this life; or that we don't have a responsibility to this world beyond marching roughshod across it en route to the golden streets of heaven.

Till next time...


1Tune: the beautiful, dignified MERTON by W. H. Monk (1823-89).
2Tune: the early American hymn-tune DETROIT.
3Tune: the early American hymn-tune DISTRESS.
4Tune: the lovely Swedish folk-tune BRED DINA VIDA VINGAR.
5Tune: Charles Anders' (b. 1929) melody FREDERICKTOWN, known to some as the tune to "When in our music God is glorified."
6Tune: Hugh Wilson's (1764-1824) MARTYRDOM.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Voices

Voices
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the second book of "Annals of the Western Shore," gifted maker (poet) Orrec Caspro and his animal-whisperer wife Gry Barre come to the city of Ansul, fabled for its literature and its scholarly culture. But it seems they have come seventeen years too late: for Ansul has been conquered by the Alds, the people of the Asudar desert to the east. Unlike the people of Ansul, who revere countless gods and ancestral spirits, the Alds are devoted to the worship of one deity: the burning god Atth, whose word is to be spoken and never written, and who deems all other gods to be demons. To the Alds, all writing is demonic by definition. So they have taken every book they can find in Ansul and thrown it into the sea, or buried it in the mud. The only irony is that they don't burn books, because burning is a symbol of their god's blessing. And now, seventeen years later, the library and university of Ansul, its learning and history, and even the city's thriving trade with neighboring states, are but fading memories—except in one house: Galvamand, the half-ruined headquarters of the Galva family.

In Galvamand there is a secret room, built into the hillside at the back of the house and warded by an invisible door that will admit no one but members of the family. In that room is all that remains of the city's culture, some of it preserved since the beginning of civilization on the Western Shore, some brought there in secret to protect the few books missed by the ransacking priests of Ald. And there remain two members of the Galva bloodline who can enter the room and read the books: the old Waylord, half-crippled by his torture at the hands of the Alds; and a girl named Memer, whose mother was raped by an Ald soldier at the time of the conquest, and who has no memory of the city as it was before.

When Orrec comes to Ansul with Gry, her trained halflion, two horses, a lyre, and a headful of epic poetry, his presence tips the balance of a city that is poised between slavery and freedom, between light and darkness. The Gand, who commands the Ald forces in the city, is at a tipping point between his love of poetry and the bitter righteousness of the priests. The Ald culture itself is at a tipping point between a new order that wants trade partners and allies rather than slaves, and an old king driven by a strange belief that Ansul contains the gateway to hell and that the battle to close it would bring about the end of the world. The people of the city are at a tipping point between waiting for the Alds to leave and driving them out by force. And Memer herself is at a tipping point between letting her hatred of the Alds close her mind, and opening it to find a new role for herself in the destiny of the city. At the pivot of all these tipping balances is a poet with a beautiful voice and a creative gift—a man who feels unprepared to be a symbol of the struggle between all these forces.

Disguising herself as a boy, as a groom named Mem, Memer sees the Gand with her own eyes, and meets an Ald boy who is desperate to have a friend. She struggles to reconcile her growing knowledge of the Alds with the anger she has cherished for so long. She faces her darkest fear at the shadowy end of the secret library, where a long-silent oracle waits to speak through her. And she witnesses the chaos of a failed attempt to overthrow the Alds, followed by the news that the avenging Alds are riding toward Galvamand. Up agaisnt her home's imminent destruction, she has only a few mysterious words of the oracle to steer by: "Broken mend broken," and the like. And finally, the fate of Ansul may depend on saving the tyrant who conquered it before she was born.

Once again, this young-adult novel by the author of A Wizard of Earthsea delivers rich, deep, world-building magic, with awesome hints of an ancient mystery at its bedrock, and a soil richly loamed with the heroic legends, religious rituals, and complex history of at least two different cultures. In certain ways it seems to resonate with the conflict between religions like Hinduism and Islam, or between nations like India and Pakistan. With Ansul's almost debilitating burden of worship towards its endless list of gods on one hand, and the Alds' at times fanatical devotion to one god on the other, it would take a miracle for the two peoples to make peace as equals. That there seems to be a chance of this by the end of this book, shows the gentle, kind, unjudging outlook of the maker who made this world. She amazes me, and moves me, with every book she writes. Nothing will delay me in reading the third book of this trilogy: Powers.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Parable of the Hazard Signs, Etc.

To what shall I compare this generation, which demands that ministers of religion teach the faith without comparing it to, or condemning, false doctrine?

It is like a state that voted to remove all hazard signs from its highways. This way people wouldn't be frightened or offended by approaching hazards, such as sharp curves, steep grades, falling rocks, slippery bridges, animals crossing the road, and approaching cross-traffic. Removing the signs does not remove the danger in these things. In fact, it makes the danger greater.

It is like a ruler who instructed his officials to strip containers of hazardous chemicals of their warning labels, because these warnings cause needless fear and worry. Removing the warning label does not make the chemical less poisonous or explosive or flammable or corrosive. Nor does it lower the chances of an accident.

It is like a kingdom whose posted laws never tell you what not to do, but only what is permitted. Crime is still punishable, but you have to figure out for yourself how to avoid committing it.

It is like a navy that issued sea charts to its officers, omitting the precise positions of dangerous rocks, reefs, and shoals. After all, why put pressure on people to be accurate? That just hurts their morale!

It is like a police force that stopped publishing wanted posters, giving the description of wanted criminals and the crimes they were suspected of. After all, why encourage people to be suspicious of their neighbors? That's bad for the community!

It is like an eagle that covered up one eye before flying out to hunt for prey. How well will it judge its swoop? Or it is like a bat that put a wax plug in one ear before flying out into the dark forest. How well will it echolocate its nighttime surroundings?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Two YA Baseball Novels

Choosing Up Sides
by John H. Ritter
Recommended Ages: 12+

More than five years ago, I reviewed The Boy Who Saved Baseball by this author, who is totally not the actor from Three's Company. In that review, I said that I planned to read more of his books in the near future. I was true to my word, but only to the extent that I have had this book and another by the same author on my shelf all these years. It's no reflection on my feelings for baseball fiction (which are generally warm) or for this author (intrigued, respectful). It's just an occupational hazard of being a book junkie whose shelves are jammed two books deep with titles I've been planning to read for ages. So many books, so little time!

One of these days, I'm going to reshelve my Book Trolley reviews by the Hogwarts subject each book pertains to. When I do, it may be easier to understand my reason for including sport-related fiction in the category of things that "if you like J. K. Rowling, you may also like." After all, Quidditch was a subject taught at Hogwarts. And such is the magic of sports that a story about, say, little-league baseball can also be about something much bigger and more powerful. Take this book, for example. It's not really primarily about baseball. It's about prejudice, and the ignorant place it comes from, and the harm it can lead to, and the radical change that must happen to break free of it. The game of baseball is a character in the story that illustrates the author's message about prejudice.

Luke Bledsoe wants to play baseball. He shows early signs of being good at it, good enough to help feed his poor family and to bring happiness to many others. But there seem to be many barriers between Luke and his dream. Really there is only one barrier: his father. A preacher in a very strict sect of Baptists, Luke's dad believes that sports like baseball are a sinful waste of time. And perhaps more importantly, he believes that Luke's left-handedness—including his phenomenal pitching arm—is a mark of evil.

Based on a literal interpretation of a few cherry-picked Bible verses, this belief—which would be described in theological circles as "legalistic"—threatens to smother the joy out of Luke's young life, to prevent him from rising to the strengths he has been blessed with. It's a tragedy that could affect not only Luke himself, but the friends who count on him, the girl who likes him, the family that loves him, maybe even his whole community in Prohibition-era, southern Ohio, where life is hard and enjoyment is precious.

Luke suffers a crisis of conscience. He is torn between the beliefs in which he was brought up and a misgiving that he hasn't been taught the whole truth. He fears his father for his brutal temper (and rightly so), but also admires and finally pities him. He yearns for acceptance. But above all, he struggles to fit the old man's arbitrary prejudice against left-handedness into a worldview increasingly shaped by baseball. What will Luke decide to do? How far will his father go to keep him in line? And what must happen before Luke goes free?

The author's note at the end of this book suggests that the comparison he had in mind was toward the civil rights struggle of the mid-20th century, the struggle against discrimination based on the color of people's skin. Today, the story's theme of prejudice against something one was born with (left-handedness) might be read in light of another issue. The extreme harshness of the Bledsoes' sectarian beliefs could also be taken as an unnecessarily harsh caricature of Christian belief, and a one-sided one at that, since the book depicts no alternative position within Christianity; and the climactic twist of the story, which seems to be the only way out for Luke, seems likewise harsh and terribly convenient.

But I guess it would be too easy for Luke to tell his father what he wanted to do, and see the old man unbend for him; and it wouldn't be making the point the book needs to make, if he simply ran away to live with his sports-writer uncle and lived life his way without caring how his folks felt about it. The agony of Luke's situation, and of people throughout history who have suffered because of irrational prejudice, is that "a way out" isn't enough. A way forward, with courage—versus the cowardice of running away—and with honesty and dignity, is much harder to find. And maybe there is no way to get there by gentle persuasion. But to stand up for yourself, even against a brutal father, and yet still to be a dutiful, brave, and honest son... the dilemma could not be less painful than what Luke experiences.

One thing you'll wish this book had more of, is baseball. In spite of its title, there is only one brief scene in which boys in a baseball scrimmage choose up sides. But then, it's a title with at least a double meaning: the best kind. Luke stumbles on the knowledge of his pitching ability by accident, and only gets a few brief opportunities to enjoy it, before events in the story put his baseball career on hold—temporarily. He gets to see Babe Ruth play in a benefit game. He gets his name in the newspaper. Other than that, Luke's baseball greatness is all in the future for him. Readers will wish him well. But while this is a promising first novel by this author of baseball-themed, teen fiction, you'll have to look up some of his later titles for more of a baseball fix. Some of them include Fenway Fever and Under the Baseball Moon.

Over the Wall
by John H. Ritter
Recommended Ages: 12+

In his baseball-themed novels for young adults, author John H. Ritter frequently combines ball-field action with a kid's personal struggle with an issue that impacts his ability to play the game. In The Boy Who Saved baseball, the theme was "baseball and the choice between progress and tradition, or between business and the environment." In Choosing Up Sides, it was "baseball and the injustice of bigotry." And now, in a story about a thirteen-year-old shortstop with anger-management problems, the theme is "baseball and the problem of conflict and violence."

Tyler is a San Diego kid spending the summer with his New York City cousins. His cousin Louie is especially excited to play summer-league baseball with him, because Tyler is a terrific athlete, in spite of his short build. Unfortunately, Tyler has an even shorter temper, and when he lets it get out of control, he almost gets kicked off the team in the first week. In order to have a shot at making the All Stars team, Tyler must rein in his angry impulses and show signs of sincere good-sportsmanship. It's a tall order for a kid with a short fuse.

Just making the painful apology and begging for a second chance is harder than anything he has done before. Before he has a chance of winning the battle against the berserker within, Tyler will need to dig down to the roots of his anger problem—and the causes of conflict in general. This connects naturally with his family history, including a war-hero grandfather who died in Vietnam, and an anti-war father who died inside the day he (accidentally) took a human life. As Tyler visits the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in New York, and other monuments in both cities, he learns to look at battlegrounds—including the athletic kind—in a different way. And when he has an idea on how to honor the victims of war with fairness and justice, it brings out a different kind of warrior in him.

All this, of course, is never far from the context of a youth baseball game, with the rivalries and razzing between kids who may be opponents one week and teammates the next. Tyler makes some dumb mistakes: some will make you laugh, while others will lead you to share his grief and shame. You might not agree with where his brainstorming leads him, but you will enjoy the adventures of this passionate, impulsive, thoughtful, good-hearted kid. And as he thinks and learns about war and courage and self-control, you may be challenged to do some thinking and learning too.

Author Ritter's other titles include a prequel to The Boy Who Saved Baseball titled The Desperado Who Stole Baseball; a book about baseball and luck titled Fenway Fever; and a book about music and baseball called Under the Baseball Moon.

More Weird Dreams

The other night, I awoke after a series of really interesting dreams, and they have stuck in my memory since then. I guess it was all one dream, but I can remember three segments of it.

In the first segment, I was preparing to play the organ at a wedding, picking out pieces and marking books of music. It was a happy dream, because I felt confident about what I was doing; but it was also a frustrating dream, because I couldn't seem to follow through on my intentions to grab a certain book and mark a certain piece.

Then it seemed to me that I was catching a ride home from a Symphony Chorus practice with one of the guys in the bass section (I can remember who he was, but it's not your business). He seemed to be driving a really fancy, super-compact car, like a Cooper Mini. And about halfway through the trip, we encountered a flooded street and had to back out of it in order to avoid stalling the car.

As we continued moving backward, we somehow became airborne and the scene changed. Below us, and from behind, scrolled the scene of a huge, lavish banquet combined with some kind of public ceremony in which some of the participants were those blue-skinned aliens from the sci-fi program Farscape. The last thing I remember was watching a tableful of these Delvians throwing their heads back in a roar of laughter. I guess that's when I woke up.

Far out, eh?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things
by John Connolly
Recommended Ages: 13+

The trail of "things to read after Harry Potter" has already led me past many books in which real-world characters get mixed up in the world where fairy tales and children's stories are real. Off the top of my head, these include the work of authors Chris Colfer, Eoin Colfer, Ian Beck, Frank Beddor, Michael Buckley, Marissa Burt, Michael Ende, Lev Grossman, Tom Holt, Lisa Papademetriou, and Sarah Beth Durst; even if I've forgotten twice as many, my point is made. If you've been following developments in my book review column, you might appreciate the variety that gives spice to this theme. These tales vary in the way our world intersects with the world of legend: sometimes, for example, everyday people fall through a book or similar gateway into the land of once-upon-a-time; while at other times, fairy-tale characters and creatures make their way into our reality. They also vary in tone, from juvenile mystery-thrillers to heartbreaking or horrifying novels for grown-ups. Often they also serve as opportunities to re-tell familiar old stories in an interesting, new way.

This novel, now—well, it's a bit hard to classify. It's basically an adult novel; but it also has some young-adult appeal, since its main character is a kid. Adults who have been through circumstances like those David experiences, will sympathize with him. Younger readers may or may not identify with him; without some maturity in their outlook, they may even feel quite troubled by his character and what he goes through. It presents a dark, grim (no pun intended), not-necessarily-happy-ever-after version of several old tales, ranging from ancient myths and the annals of the Roman Empire to Rumpelstiltskin, Red Riding Hood, and the Goose Girl. In the Crooked Man, it features a character so comprehensively evil, so gleefully devoted to the suffering of others, that the idea of his existence may sicken you. And in David it presents a hero whose blemishes of character are matched only by the bittersweetness of his fate. It may take a mature reader to forgive David his faults and appreciate how his character grows to the stature of a true hero. It may take the heart of a child to feel the full impact of the lessons David learns. I could have made good use of this book around 1985, when I was about David's age and shared some of his issues, such as getting along with stepparents and half-siblings, and not letting anger and grief get in the way of love and happiness. From somewhat farther along, I saw David and looked back through him at myself with a mixture of sorrow and warmth. I suspect there are more people today than ever before who, for their own reasons, would be moved by a book like this.

David is an English boy at the time of World War II. He has plenty of personal troubles. He is shattered by his mother's death. He is angry at his father for marrying again. He refuses to accept his stepmother Rose and half-brother Georgie as part of his family. He takes refuge in books, especially fairy tales and myths. They speak to him with an intensity that becomes downright disturbing. It isn't just the books on his own shelves that he hears whispering to him. He even hears the books in his psychiatrist's office muttering, making possible a scene that makes me smile every time I remember it. He hears his dead mother's voice calling to him. And now someone from his dreams, someone from the world inside the books in his bedroom, has come out into reality: the Crooked Man, who has some sinister plan in store for David and his brother. Then one night when the far-away bombardment of the Battle of Britain comes as close as David's own backyard, the boy is swept into a world where history is made up of the dark underside of all your favorite fairy tales.

In order to get back home, David must seek the wisdom of an old king whose rule is failing, and whose Book of Lost Things is supposed to hold the answer to many questions. But on the way to the king's castle, David meets some terrifying and horrifying things. Notice how those two words mean different things. Terrifying, for example, are the Loups: wolves who are gradually becoming more like men and women, but who are just as willing to rip your throat out as ever. Horrifying, on the other hand, are beings like the woman who cuts people's heads off and attaches them to the bodies of animals, so she can hunt them like game. The enemies David faces range from the merely scary (but very scary!) to the downright sickening, things you may shudder to think about long after you've finished the book. This is, after all, the type of magical world that makes the worst fears of visitors from our world come hideously, heinously true. It turns out that the Loups represent the worst fears of the king, who was once a boy like David and who made an awful sacrifice to become what he is now. And David, it seems, is being groomed to take the king's place—a swap that the Crooked Man wants for the vilest reason you can imagine, and that relies on the vilest motives in David's character.

Just getting to where he can find out all this will require David to face his own worst fear, as well as the nastiest possible version of "The Sleeping Beauty," Robert Browning's poem "Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came," "Hansel and Gretel," "The Three Billy-Goats Gruff," and so on. He will see mayhem and bloodshed, lose friends in a gruesome way, and experience a dark and deadly temptation. It's a fairly steady march from one horror to another, but it's not without lighter moments, such as the episode where David meets an awful Snow White and seven put-upon, communist dwarfs. Along the way, David begins to put grief and jealousy behind him, and to become a man. The difference this makes changes both worlds for him, and what happens afterward is both so truthful and so painful that you might almost miss the paradox wherein David "wrote a book. He called it The Book of Lost Things, and the book that you are holding is the book that he wrote."

Irish author John Connolly gives a distinctively dark and scary spin to many familiar old stories. I'm not quite convinced that he has done a good thing by them. In a sense, his retellings of fairy tales could be read as undermining the lessons about heroism and virtue that they promote. But remember, too, that the world David enters in this book has been distorted by the evil power of the Crooked Man, and that as David transforms himself into a true hero, he also changes the storybook world around him. Reality, however, remains persistently realistic. It is finally the role of the stories David loves, and of his story, not to help us escape from the vicissitudes of real life, but to learn to deal with it better. Mr. Connolly's solution is without God and without faith, which I regret as one who has faith in God; but somehow it has a heaven, and it has secrets that are not to be revealed until after one's death, and it acknowledges the power of story and imagination in defiance of naked reason. With respect to it as a book that made me laugh, cry, and reflect deeply, I must finally set my quibbles aside and say: This was an excellent book.

Connolly's other novels include the Charlie Parker fantasy-mysteries, whose twelfth installment is coming up in 2014. The first book in that series is Every Dead Thing. He has also penned a young-adult trilogy titled "Samuel Johnson vs. the Devil," beginning with The Gates; a spooky-looking novel titled Bad Men; a variety of creepy short stories and novellas; and, with co-author Jennifer Ridyard, at least the first book (Conquest) of a projected trilogy titled "Chronicles of the Invaders." These look like a promising new world for me to explore. You're welcome to come along!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Angel Isle

Angel Isle
by Peter Dickinson
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the story before the story before the story, four representatives from a peaceful, bucolic valley traveled into the Empire to the south in search of a magician who would build a magical barrier around their valley, protecting it from both northern marauders and the conscripting, taxing powers of the Empire. Eventually a magician named Faheel fixed things so that, as long as the male descendants of Ortahl the miller sang to the northern snows, an ice dragon would keep the pass closed to barbarian invasion; and as long as a female descendant of Urla the farmer fed barley to the unicorns and sang to the cedars, a sickness in the forest to the south of the valley would keep men from the Empire out as well. This protection held for twenty generations. Then, in the story before this story—see the companion book The Ropemaker—a second delegation of four proceeds southward in search of Faheel, and a renewing of the magic that has protected the valley so well. But now another twenty generations have passed, and the magical barriers have crumbled again. And so, for a third time, descendants of Ortahl and Urla must go aquesting.

After forty generations of Ortahlssons and Urlasdaughters being tied to the same mill and the same farm, all is not well in the valley. And after the previous book's heroes helped shake up the way the Empire polices magic, things have not developed there as well as expected, either. So the dangers the folks from the Valley face are the same—only more so. And the outcome of their adventure will be entirely different.

We first find Maja Urlasdaughter cowering in a crawlspace under the burnt ruin of her family's barn. Half of her family has been killed by raiders, and the other half have gone off to war, their fate unknown. What draws Maja out of her hiding place is the sight of her long-lost cousin Saranja arriving with a horse at her shoulder, and the figure of Ribek Ortahlsson limping up the road, and the stunning burst of magic that flows out when Saranja picks two long-cherished roc feathers out of the rubble of the farmhouse and uses them to give her horse wings. As the three of them fly over the valley on hippogriff-back, their mount is spooked by the sight of an airship—part of an invading force from a faraway land whose people Saranja, in her exile across the desert, has come to know as sheep-faces. As they travel southward, they learn that the sheep-faces, or pirates, are attacking the coast. And the new Watchers—worse than the old ones, who clamped down on the practice of magic in the Empire—are almost, but not quite, fully occupied with resisting the pirates with every power at their disposal, including (unfortunately) the unleashing of powerful demons. The Watchers themselves have become a kind of demon, absorbing powers and personalities into a single essence and using all of it in a quest for world domination.

These, then, are the dangers Maja, Saranja, and Ribek must face in their search for the Ropemaker, the great magician who gave the Valley its latest booster-shot against invading neighbors. But you still have no idea of the full seriousness of their situation. They won't find the Ropemaker without the aid of magic. But the Watchers will spot any magic going on outside their control, and rush to enslave it or absorb it into themself. (That last word is not a mistake. Trust me, and tremble.) Plus, once outside the Valley, Maja is so sensitive to magic that anything powerful going on near her could kill her. So no, this will not be an easy quest. With the aid of a talking lizard named Jex—an aspect of a being from another universe—and of a shepherd boy named Benayu whose natural talent for magic beats anything ever seen, they might just survive it. But only if Benayu grows into his powers fast enough to destroy the Watchers before they destroy him, and only if Maja can find the right balance between shielding herself from magic and being open enough to follow the magical trail leading to the Ropemaker.

The quest of these four people (plus one lizard, three horses, and a dog) is anything but simple and straightforward. No one knows where the Ropemaker has gone to. The few great magicians who remain untainted by the Watchers can do little to help them. They must face dragons, demons, a town where magic is prohibited, a difficult desert crossing, a risky and bizarre interlude in a seven-dimensional universe, time loops, magic that can take years off a person's life, the ultimate evil, and an airborne invasion from a steampunk country that (like some countries you and I might know of) seems to think the mission of making other countries do things their way is a good reason to go to war. They will have to become magical warriors, masters of disguise, diplomats, and interdimensional travelers, and all that mostly to save the Empire from which they mean to save their valley. A thankless task? You don't know the half of it. Along the way, some of these characters find love, and most of them find a future in store for them different from what they expected.

And what will you find? Another thrilling, immersing, world-building adventure, opening up an already huge and highly colored fantasy world to even wider vistas of familiar strangeness. With this book I wasn't struck by the beauty of the writing as much as in The Ropemaker. At times the overall shape of it eluded me. But the trade-off in this bargain was a wider scope of doings and a tendency to surprise. One of the surprises is a quantum-physical model of magic, on which Dickinson elaborates in an appendix where, among other things, the existence of other universes with a different number of dimensions suggests a possible "touching point" between science fiction and fantasy. But even if that goes over your head—and to me, some of the coolest bits are those that do so—there are still dragons and airships, winged horses (and one winged dog), horrible demons (one of them pink), a spy with a heart of gold, a magicians' death ritual (occult content advisory), and an act of impersonation so amazing that I don't dare describe it. In my books, that makes it a quest worth reading about, even if the original objectives are lost somewhere along the way. And the new destiny lined up for Ribek, Saranja, Maja, and their friends brings their story to a satisfying close.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On Worship: A Hymn

Dear Father, bless this holy space;
Be present with Thy boundless grace.
Fill all our conduct in this place
With rev'rence, as due Thine own face.
Cast out all things impure and base;
What boons we to Thy bounty trace
We here return to Thee.

Dear Christ, redeem this holy time:
It is not ours, but ever Thine.
Hour, season, year, old age or prime,
Thou givest us in love divine.
From Thine eternity sublime
Come now, into this moment shine,
That we may live to Thee.

Dear Spirit, charge Thy holy Word
With pow'r surpassing noun or verb.
We, speaking back what we have heard,
Rejoice with confidence superb.
May prayerful hearts to praise be stirred;
The enemy's false banter curb,
Till all true hearts agree.

Washed by Thy washing, we are clean;
Clothed in Thy righteousness, we gleam;
With Thy Word planted, faith we glean;
In Thy bless'd bread and wine we deem
Thy flesh and blood a rich cuisine.
We trust, whate'er a thing may seem,
What Thou hast said to be.

Rebuked, we would repent and live;
Our prideful boast we humbly waive.
Forgiven, Lord, we would forgive;
'Tis Thine alone to kill and save.
Thy service is what Thou dost give,
Thou Lord of all, of all the slave;
Thus served, we dare serve Thee.

Dear Triune God, enthroned on High,
Our guardian hosts Thy glory view:
Grant that a kind and careful eye
Regard all that the faithful do.
In all our striving, we but try
To praise what Thou, so just and true,
Hast done for such as we.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Shadow in the North

The Shadow in the North
by Philip Pullman
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this sequel to The Ruby in the Smoke, several years have passed. The year is now 1878, and Sally's business as a financial consultant is growing, together with her partnership with professional photographer Webster Garland, his dashing nephew Frederick who moonlights as a private detective, and their cockney friend Jim Taylor, who haunts the backstage of London theaters when he isn't writing melodramas or helping Fred and Sally. It is Jim who brings Fred his latest case: a stage magician named Mackinnon fears for his life after receiving psychic impressions of a murder committed by a powerful industrialist.

By a fateful coincidence, Sally happens to be looking into the same industrialist at the same time, trying to find out why a shipping firm went under after one of her clients invested her life savings in it. Somehow, the disappearance of an ocean liner, the murder of a Swedish engineer, the merger of a railroad firm and an armaments factory, and the powerful Axel Bellman's plans to marry the beautiful daughter of a bankrupt government minister are all connected. And at the center of all the connections is an evil that could shake the world.

So, naturally, Fred, Sally, and Jim carry on investigating it, even while their lives and livelihood are threatened. At first Fred swears that he is only in it as an investigator, with no interest in fighting bad guys. But then a buxom lady spiritualist get her head bashed in by a couple of hired bruisers, and now Fred's blood is up. While he and Jim go around frustrating the bruisers' plans to kill Mackinnon and destroy the life of a disfigured girl who loves him, Sally receives threats of her own. By the time she discovers a clue at the patent office, an assassin is already trailing her, looking for a way to get around—or through—the protection of her faithful dog Chaka.

One attempt on Sally's life goes awry, but another villainous attack on the friends proves tragically effective. In the throes of a grief that the reader will vividly share, Sally confronts the most evil man of her time, fortified by the recklessness of despair. Will it be the end of Sally Lockhart? Obviously not. This book, alternately titled The Shadow in the Plate, is only the second of four "Sally Lockhart Mysteries," followed up by The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess. And that is good news for readers who have fallen in love with a young lady who aspires to an independence enjoyed by few women of her time. The warmth of her friendships, the passion of her relationship with Fred (mild "Adult Content Advisory," here), the persistence of her quest for justice and her faith in the power of a liberal society, give this mystery a depth of emotional power beyond the ordinary; while the scale of the threat to civilization, represented by her enemy, makes it certain to thrill.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Underground

Underground
by Kat Richardson
Recommended Ages: 14+

Here is the third Greywalker mystery featuring Harper Blaine—a former ballerina turned private detective who, since a near-death experience two books ago, can see, move, and act inside the realm between the natural and the supernatural, called the Grey. Harper has already added experience with vampires, revenants, and poltergeists to her curriculum vitae. In this third outing, she gets to add zombies and a native American monster named Sisiutl.

She loses a boyfriend who can't handle the truth about creepy, crawly, paranormal stuff. She gains a boyfriend who is right in the thick of it. She wrecks her car, messes with the home lives of her friends Ben and Mara, throws a monkey-wrench into an NSA spook's mission to reacquire an asset (which, in plain English, means rounding up a runaway spook), and inadvertently gets in homicide Detective Solis's way—again. She explores the underworld of subterranean streets and street people lurking beneath downtown Seattle, the wisdom of a century-old witchy Indian woman, and the powerful uses of a weaponized pheasant feather. Listening the audio-book narrated by the very talented Mia Barron, I can't help wondering whether it's a coincidence that "Solis" sounds like "soulless." But so far, that is one avenue the Greywalker has not explored.

Harper's tech guy Quinton—the computer whiz who installed her office's security system—becomes her client and, eventually, her lover, and she learns more about him than she ever expected to know. She learns how he lives "off the grid," and what he is hiding from. She learns about his concern for the homeless people around Seattle's skid row, especially during one particularly cold winter when several of them have disappeared. In a few cases, grisly remains have turned up—sometimes only a few body parts—but always looking like something has been chewing on them.

And then, of course, there are the zombies. Harper's relationship with sexy, normal Will hits the skids when a shaggy creature out of native American mythology brings her a shambling corpse and demands that she do her Greywalker thing to it, right in the middle of a romantic date. Things weren't going so well, anyway; Harper was tired of having to keep her newfound world a secret from the man closest to her. But is she ready for a relationship with a man who has dangerous secrets of his own?

As Harper pursues her investigation, she gets immersed in the history of Seattle's underbelly—especially as it impacts, and is impacted by, the nearby Indian tribes, the city's periodic earthquakes, and the colorful characters who lead forgotten lives in its parks, squares, and tunnels. She grows convinced that one of these homeless people is controlling a monster that wears many forms, but that in its most basic form is a giant shaggy serpent with two snake heads (one at each end) and a human head in the middle. It then becomes a matter of finding out who, and why, and how to stop them before more innocent people become Sisiutl-chow. Even Harper, who has been killed before and lived to regret it, has no idea how dangerous this will be.

Slightly shorter than the first two books in this series, Underground is a fast-paced mystery full of supernatural weirdness, danger, and excitement. It has no lack of steamy romantic zest; indeed, an "Adult Content Advisory" applies. Nor does it skimp on the crime-solving procedures that will interest mystery fans. And though at times Harper's questioning of the usual suspects around Occidental Park seems to be going in circles, the book overall is tightly written, lean and compelling. There seems to be plenty of room for Harper's power and purpose to grow. Rely on it, I'll be checking out the fourth book in the series, titled Vanished.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles

The Vampire Chronicles
by Anne Rice
Recommended Ages: 14+

Before Twilight was a gleam in Stephenie Meyer's eye, author Anne Rice created a sensation with her series of novels about a race of beautiful, sensual vampires. Rooted in Egyptian mythology and very distinct from most vampire lore up to that time, Anne Rice's vampires were created by being drained of blood to the point of death, then allowed to save themselves by drinking in turn the blood of the vampire who made them. They did not fear garlic, crucifixes, holy water, or silver. Even wooden stakes were only a danger to them if the sun came up while they were struggling to get free. As each vampire grew older (and we're talking about a scale of hundreds of years, here), her or she looked less human and more like an animated statue, needed less blood to survive, and commanded greater powers, such as the ability to fly or to move things with their mind.

A few things, however, tended to stay the same for Anne Rice vampires at any age. Towards humans they remained blood-sucking monsters; towards rival vampires, savage competitors; and towards those they were most attracted to, living and undead, they remained sexy beasts. Amid all the horrors, betrayals, tragedies, mysteries, and blood-spattered battlegrounds that run through these books, one constant—and probably the reason many readers were devoted to the series—was the eroticism. Though vampires can't really have sex, they tend to be indecently sexy and to be drawn to each other in a way that is overwhelmingly erotic—and in many instances, homoerotic. "Adult Content Advisory," don't you know.

I've long wanted to put a word about this series out to my fellow fantasy fans, in case they've run out of Sookie Stackhouse fixes and found that Bella and Edward have lost their efficacy, and they need a jolt of bloodsucking romance to keep their spirits up. My dilemma was that I also didn't particularly want to start reading this series over again, but couldn't remember the books in enough detail to write intelligently about them. It's been a long time since I've read any of the Vampire Chronicles. I have not read all of the books, either. And so to refresh my memory a bit, I have read up about them on the internet. Any of you can do the same. Start with this Wiki, then follow the links to the pages on each individual book, if you're interested.

So, instead of pretending to review a series of ten (or twelve?) books, only four of which I have read, and those at least twenty years ago, I'll offer you the following three things: (1) blanket permission to find out for yourself what it so hot about a series of erotic (but by no means pornographic) horror novels published between 1976 and 2003; (2) a list of the books, with links to where you can buy them on Amazon, with the hint that you try them one at a time and only follow the series as far as it interests you; and (3) a very, very brief sketch of what each book is about, with the disclaimer that this is based on my own online research, excepting only the four books I have read. If I do continue reading the series (from Memnoch the Devil onward), and I very well may, I will of course post full reviews of each book from there on.

OK, so: Permission given. Go and try them, one at a time. Here are the titles:

Interview with the Vampire
A vampire named Louis tells a journalist about how he became a creature of the night in 18th-century New Orleans: his passionate love-hate relationship with the vampire Lestat, who made him; his twisted parent-child relationship with the child-vampire Claudia; and the awful reckoning they face among the vampires of Europe. Originally written as a self-therapeutic exercise after Rice's young daughter died of leukemia, this book became a sleeper hit, the basis of a 1994 movie starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, and the start of an epic series.

The Vampire Lestat
This sequel cashes in on the sex appeal of the first novel by telling the origin story of the vampire who created Louis. Born to a noble family in pre-revolutionary France, the beautiful and bisexual Lestat de Lioncourt takes up the bohemian life in Paris with his passionately close friend Nicolas. But it is Lestat's fate to be picked as the successor of a suicidal vampire, and after that nothing can ever be the same again with Nicki. Adrift without a mentor to show him how to live as a vampire, Lestat goes in search of the origins of his kind, and crosses paths with other menacing and magnetic characters such as Armand and his master Marius. By the end of the novel, Lestat has met the original pair of vampires and embarked on a career as the quintessential bloodsucker: a pop singer.

The Queen of the Damned
The world of modern-day vampires goes topsy-turvy when the mother of all vampires goes on a worldwide rampage, burning her own kind and enslaving ours. While we learn more about how the fanged folk came into being, the original vector of an epidemic of ancient Egyptian demon possession abducts Lestat in the middle of his own rock concert and offers to make him her boy-toy in a new world order where women inherit the earth. Of course, this means murdering most male humans at the outset; but who would have a problem with that? A few vampires do, and what they do about it is the subject not only of this novel but also a 2002 movie starring Aaliyah and Stuart Townsend.

The Tale of the Body Thief
In the last book of this series that I have read to date, a man with the psychic power to swap bodies with other people, takes possession of Lestat's powerful vampire body, and forces Lestat to come to terms with being a mortal human again. His appeals for help to fellow vampires fall on deaf ears, so Lestat must rely on a mortal ally to help him get his rightful body back. Like the earlier stories, which are so much sensational window-dressing for basically human problems (such as coping with grief and depression), this story serves the triple purpose of thrilling you with a supernatural crime caper, looking at human existence from an outside perspective, and dealing with the problem of guilt and the often-frustrated desire to atone for one's past crimes.

Memnoch the Devil
From what I have read about this book, it uses characters from the Vampire Chronicles to push the author's unusual religious agenda. Her reinterpretations of the relationship between God and the devil, the purposes of heaven and hell, and the meaning of various Bible stories, are also featured in books outside the "Lestat canon," and are hinted at in earlier books in this series. This, however, seems to be the first book in which they take center stage. In this story, the devil tries to get Lestat to help him start a religious movement, centered around a holy relic called Veronica's Veil.

The Vampire Armand
Another central character in the Vampire Chronicles recounts his origins story, beginning as an apprentice to a Renaissance painter who also happens to be a vampire. His early adventures include affairs with a vivacious courtesan, battles with evil humans and dark vampires, the founding of a new vampire coven, and tragic loss, all against the vivid background of Venice and Paris from the 15th century onward.

Merrick
This novel forms a cross-over between the Vampire Chronicles and Anne Rice's other ongoing series, "Lives of the Mayfair Witches." (This trilogy, in case you are interested, included the books The Witching Hour, Lasher, and Taltos.) In this book, a witch who belongs to the Society of Talamasca (mortals who police vampires) reveals her desire to become one of the immortal undead, after a long flashback to her adventures as a guardian of magic.

Blood and Gold
The vampire Marius, a regular in this series, finally tells us his origins story, going back to ancient Rome. Also involved (so I'm told) is a Viking vampire who revives after being trapped for centuries inside a glacier. This book also brings to a close the protagonists' long-running feud with the satanic vampire Santino.

Blackwood Farm
In this book, Lestat and Merrick come to the aid of Quinn Blackwood, a scion of an aristocratic New Orleans family, when he is tormented by an evil spirit. Again, it's a crossover between Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and Mayfair Witches series.

Blood Canticle
Again combining characters from her Mayfair Witches series with those of the Vampire Chronicles, this book follows the fortunes of a New Orleans witch named Mona Mayfair, who also becomes a vampire in her quest to find the source of a plague that afflicts her clan. Judging by the synopsis I read, love affairs between vampires and witches seem to be increasingly central to this fantasy world.

Where I hesitated above as to whether this series includes ten or twelve books, it is because Anne Rice also put out two books under the marque "New Tales of the Vampires," right around the date of The Vampire Armand. Apparently these books are set apart from the main line of Vampire Chronicles by the absence of Lestat from the storyline. These titles include:

Pandora
—in which the title character, a consort of the vampire Marius (cf. Blood and Gold), begins her adventures in ancient Rome, and eventually becomes jaded with immortality. Along the way she experiences character conflicts with her fellow vampires, a relationship with a strangely dominating fledgling (i.e., a vampire she made), and other issues that, again, suggest that the author was working through some spiritual problems of her own.

Vittorio the Vampire
—in which a young nobleman in 15th-century Italy is scarred by the murder of his entire family by vampires. Thanks to the love of a vampire named Ursula, Vittorio is allowed to refuse the Dark Gift and live. He also turns out to be able to see angels and the souls of the dead—a gift that remains with him even after he fails in his quest for vengeance and becomes one of the evil undead himself.

So, there you have it. I haven't said anything you couldn't find out for yourself on Amazon, Wikipedia, and IMDB. But perhaps I have spared you the trouble, so you can decide more quickly whether, and how far, to follow this series of steamy, bloody horror-romance novels. Keep an eye out, right here, to see what I decide. In the meantime, you might also consider some of Anne Rice's many other titles, including a trilogy based on the Sleeping Beauty, a series of fictionalized versions of the gospel titled Christ the Lord, a series about angels titled Songs of the Seraphim, and most recently, a werewolf series titled Wolf Gift Chronicles. Her standalone novels (and there aren't many of them) include The Mummy: or Ramses the Damned and a romantic ghost story titled Violin. Sorry, I'm done searching for Amazon links for today. From here on out, it's up to you!