Friday, January 31, 2014

Tacky Hymns 48

Approaching the end of Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), we continue to stumble (choking with laughter) over hymn selections that, in the context of Lutheran congregational singing, are just plain silly.

801 "Change my heart, O God" is a one-stanza hymn, with refrain, by Eddie Espinosa (b. 1953), copyrighted in 1982. It has the rhythm of a pop song, and so it will be of interest mainly to soloists who like that style, or perhaps a well-drilled vocal ensemble. This is not what congregations are catechized to sing. It is probably too tricky for them to perform without sounding embarrassingly lame. And its four lines of text (expressing a desire for sanctification, but with no gospel in view) don't seem to put the time set aside for a hymn to very good use. I mean, unless this is an excerpt from a much longer number, it would have to be repeated quite a few times just to last long enough to serve a real purpose.

805 "Lead on, O King eternal" by Ernest Shurtleff (1862-1917)1 is another hymn that prays for sanctification without speaking one word of gospel. It depicts the Christian walk, the struggle against sin, etc., in imagery of an army marching to war. The closest it comes to hinting at the means by which Christ enables us to overcome is a reference, late in the third stanza, to the "cross... lifted o'er us." Such hymns may have their uses, but I think one of them may be to wring the last drop of Christianity out of devout churchgoers.

808 "Lord Jesus, you shall be my song" (Jésus, je voudrais te chanter) is another notable example of this hymnal's attempt to make multiculturalism pass for catholicity, only with perhaps a slightly less useless token gesture than some of the others (given that some of the Ev. Lutheran Church in Canada's congregations and missions worship in French)—though one or two hymns in an otherwise anglophone hymnal are no substitute for the francophone book those folks really need. Yes, all four stanzas are printed in both English and French. Again, unsurprisingly amid the "Commitment, Discipleship" section of the hymnal, it is a hymn that offers Jesus one's devotion and witness throughout life's journey. The pleasant surprise comes in stanza 3, which actually confesses that Jesus "saved me by giving [His] body and blood," which puts it in a class above the previous two hymns, at least; though Stanza 4 is a little fuzzy as to how we locate Jesus' presence in our lives ("the sound of your steps by my side" just doesn't have a sacramental ring to it, in my opinion). In spite of the awkwardness of its meter, its musical setting makes it a very touching little piece. Perhaps the fact that it was composed by a Roman Catholic religious sisterhood, which has ecumenical ties to Taizé among other communities, highlights the even greater tackiness of many hymns supposedly representing evangelical voices in this book. I mean, how galling is it that a community devoted to good works gives us more gospel than half a dozen Protestant hymn writers put together?

809 "Send Me, Lord" (Thuma mina) is a South African traditional hymn whose English translation dates back to a 1984 album of "songs of praise and protest." Its three stanzas (not counting one in the original tongue) fall into the pattern "Jesus, ____ me, Jesus, ____ me, Jesus, ____ me, Lord," with the words send, lead, and fill each filling the blank for one stanza. There's a leader's part (hearkening to the "call and response" tradition) and some simple harmonies and rhythms characteristic of African music. Other than that and the flush of pride in our church's multicultural pretensions, there isn't much to be said in favor of singing this hymn during the worship hour.

810 "O Jesus, I have promised" is by John Bode (1816-74). This hymn grates on my sensibilities from Line One, simply by opening with "my" promise to the Lord as opposed to His promises to me. Later in Stanza 1, Bode boasts that "I" will not waver or wander so long as Jesus remains "by my side"/"my guide." This strikes me as a pretty weak confession of faith compared to Paul's "it is not I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). Stanza 2 begs Jesus to "let me feel you near me," also a far cry from the sacramental faith that says, "As Thou livest in me, let me also live in Thee," etc. Stanza 3 does well to ask Jesus to "let me hear you speaking," because until now one might have taken the impression that this Jesus we keep singing about is an imaginary comforter, molded to suit our needs. Stanza 4 does, finally, come down on the "Jesus, you have promised" note that should have sounded at the top. But in the second half of this stanza, we revert to discussing what I have promised, in a sort of reciprocal agreement with Jesus. How nice it is to have a god who meets you halfway.

812 "Faith of our fathers, living still" is the hymn by F. W. Faber that I sneered at much earlier in this thread. While no more needs to be said about that "anthem to a vague sense of religious conservatism," its first stanza crops up again in hymn 813, followed by three newly-written stanzas by Joseph Alfred (b. 1947). The new stanzas include one beginning with "Faith of our mothers," another with "Faith of our sisters, brothers too," suggesting that someone on the editorial board had fits over the sexism of the language of "fathers" and, missing the whole point of the hymn, felt that it could only be corrected by giving equal time to both genders. Perhaps this is an uncharitable flight of imagination, however; but whether it is or not, an unexpected consequence of it is a new wine that might actually deserve better than the old wineskin. Gender politics aside, the new stanza 2 emphasizes the spreading of God's word, stanza 3 the witness of those suffering today for the Christian faith, and stanza 4 the fact that faith is "born of God" and unites all who share "the struggle of the cross." In my opinion, the tackiest thing about Alfred's hymn is that he wasted the quality of his thoughts on a cheap knockoff of a classic hymn (or worse, an attempt to rehabilitate it by correcting its political deficiencies). When in doubt, err on the side of originality!

814 "Take, oh, take me as I am" is a John Bell (b. 1949) ditty in one brief stanza. Again, it is either an excerpt of something too long to print in the pew book, or a mantra to be repeated until the congregation reaches a suggestible state. Perhaps both. But... it is not a congregational hymn. Its text does not have the scope to be really useful as a teaching tool; its music comes to an inconclusive conclusion. It prompts thoughts in my head such as, "If the committee was so desperate to put the bottom half of this page to good use, why didn't they just print a nice block quote, or a prayer, or a half-plate illustration?"

815 "I want to walk as a child of the light" is by Kathleen Thomerson (b. 1934). Copyrighted in the 1970s, I've seen it around in some other books, so I'm surprised to find that I haven't touched on it before. Basically a harmless little piece, it troubles me for a few minor reasons. Firstly, in spite of its sweet and childlike appeal, it is really quite uninspired and could even be difficult to learn, once the congregation must come to grips with the length of its through-composed stanzas and the irregular way the text fits the notes. Secondly, very little of what it says or how it says it is at all striking. What little there is strikes me as putting too much emphasis on "my" own decisions and resolutions.

816 "Come, my way, my truth, my life" is a gorgeous poem by 17th century divine George Herbert, set to a really fine tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The tune is deceptively simple yet poignantly attractive, though the long melisma in its last phrase may either make it or break it for the musically unwashed. More troubling, however, is the prospect of singing this hymn as a congregation. There is no speed at which it could practicably be sung that would not cause the words and images of Herbert's lines to fly by too fast for most minds to grasp. To make it at all useful to the congregation, one would have to introduce the hymn with a lengthy dissertation on its structure and the intended meaning of some its allusions. I love that people get to see this hymn, just as I love the brave way The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary put John Donne's poem "Wilt Thou forgive the sin" out there for all to see. But both poems might more usefully be published in a supplemental volume of devotional poetry, complete with explanatory prefaces.

817 "You have come down to the lakeshore" (Tú has venido a la orilla) is a bilingual (Spanish and English) Bible-school ditty by Cesário Gabaráin (1936-91). In this sung narrative, the singer plays the role of one of the fishermen-apostles whom Jesus called to be a fisher of men. Singing it as a group presents difficulties, beginning with the very soloistic nature of the tune, and proceeding to the appropriateness of dramatic role-playing as congregational hymnody. In concept it blurs the boundaries between metaphor for an experience we are all supposed to have shared and testimonial of an unspecified individual's experience—and besides this ambiguity, there arises the question whether the experience here described applies to each Christian individually, or to the church as a whole, or to the ministry in particular. While you're tamping all these questions into your pipe, take a drag on this question: In what sense can everyone singing this truthfully say the words of the refrain, "Sweet Lord, you have looked into my eyes; kindly smiling," etc. I don't dare ask you what to make of the reference to "my fish nets" in Stanza 2, because I know you'll make a dirty joke out of it. And I won't even mention Stanza 4's line "You who have fished other waters," for the same reason. Granted, I'm a jerk for insisting that we interrogate each nice little ditty in this nit-picking way. On the other hand, you're a jerk for expecting me to swallow this bait without choking. After so many centuries of beautiful, churchly, and doctrinally clear hymnody, are we to make pew-book-room for such an awkward piece of trivial conceit as this?

818 "O Master, let me walk with you"2 is by Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a American Congregationalist minister who played an early leading role in both the Progressive and Social Gospel movements. These facts, together with the substance of his hymn, promote the depressed feelings that have grown throughout the survey of this section of the hymnal. If the editors had set out to replace any semblance of Lutheranism with an entirely different religious outlook, they couldn't have chosen a better selection of hymns whereby to do it. While asking Jesus to let us walk with him in paths of service toward others, Stanza 1 blurts out, "Tell me your secret"—but without specifying any further, it permits one to imagine that the secret in question is how "to bear the strain of toil, the fret of care." Since the application of forgiveness through Word and Sacrament isn't even remotely suggested, one gathers that this secret-telling is a transfer of moral rectitude that will take place via a direct working of the Holy Spirit within one's heart. Stanza 2 asks Christ to "help me the slow of heart to move by some clear, winning word of love," suggesting not so much the living and active power of the divine word proclaimed as the tact to say just the right thing at the right time, and in the right way. Stanza 3 again requests a more intimate sharing of Christ's presence, yet without any hint of sacraments; also, its phrasing "work that keeps faith sweet and strong" rather puts the cart before the horse.

819 "Come, all you people" (Uyaimose) is a Zimbabwean ditty in three stanzas, plus one stanza in the original language. As with several examples we have seen in this book, its music is written in the style of orally-transmitted harmony that African choirs, and even whole congregations, will readily sing, but that may find American Lutherans stumbling and blushing and mumbling in a most embarrassing way. The words and harmonies are very simple; the rhythms, not so much—not from the perspective of a realistic assessment of your congregation's musical abilities. The simplicity of the one and the difficulty of the other may lead put-upon parishioners to question—perhaps even aloud—whether it was worth all the hassle.

With hymn 819, the hymns' topical designation switches to "Praise, Thanksgiving"—a category that promises, if not deeper theology, at least fewer specific errors.

820 "Shout to the Lord" (first line: "My Jesus, my Savior") is a Christian pop song by Darlene Zschech (b. 1965), presupposing a congregation that can sing offbeat rhythms, wide intervals, and decorative flourishes in unison. Or maybe the assumption is that they'll just follow along with their eyeballs while a soloist or select ensemble sings it at them. Don't feel bad, CoWo fans. I would be just as unsparing of a classical tune that I thought was beyond the reach of a large group of musically untrained and unrehearsed singers. Those who stuff a hymn-book with such tunes have evidently lost sight of the reason hymn tunes, as such, were invented.

823 "Praise the Lord! O heavens, adore him" is set to Haydn's tune AUSTRIA, a.k.a. the Imperial Hymn, a.k.a. Deutschland über alles, for what it's worth. I happen to like the tune. But after witnessing the meltdown of a holocaust survivor upon hearing a different hymn set to this tune, I would advise hymnal editors to let it rest a while longer before re-introducing it. In the meantime, there are plenty of handsome alternate tunes that don't conjure newsreel footage of goose-stepping Nazis.

This segment of ELW ends with 825 "You servants of God," a blameless hymn of praise by Charles Wesley (1707-88), based on the angelic strains in the Book of Revelation, and set to a catchy tune by Michael Haydn (Joseph's little brother). I mention it only because of the fact that this hymn was a breath of fresh air. And when I am relieved to find a kernel from one of the fathers of Methodism sown among Lutheran furrows, it can only testify to the strain the last 25 hymns have placed on my composure, my dignity, and my philosophical outlook. To say nothing of my Lutheran good taste...


1Tune: LANCASHIRE by Henry Smart (1813-79). Many American Lutherans may recognize this as a tune to "The day of resurrection."
2Tune: MARYTON by H. Percy Smith (1825-98), a rather pale and uninspired specimen.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Brisingr

Brisingr
by Christopher Paolini
Recommended Ages: 13+

Many things discouraged me from reading the third book of the Inheritance Cycle. There was the backlash against my mixed review of Book 2, Eldest—almost, but not quite, the harshest feedback I have received. There was the disappointment of the film based on Book 1, Eragon—a hint that there would be less pressure from Fandom in General to stay on top of this series. And finally, there was the thickness of this book, which was supposed to be the finale of a trilogy—whereas, in spite of its length, it turned out to be the third movement in a quartet. This suggested that, at some crucial stage in its development, the storyline lost some of its planned momentum.

So, even with a hard copy of the book on my shelf, I felt no hurry to re-enter the world of Alagaesia, where there be dragons as well as elves, dwarves, magicians, and other wondrous things. I only felt its pull again when an audiobook narration by Gerald Doyle materialized, in answer to a prayer for something to play on the car stereo while driving several hours a day. And before I say anything else, let me be clear: Doyle delivers a fine performance. He even manages to make his repertoire of British dialects sound right for the story and its characters, though they sprang from the mind of an American author.

Also, the interview between Paolini and his editor at the end of the performance is a highlight of the album. It reminded me of the strength of the novel's themes, the subtlety of its structure, the depth of its background (including the fabrication of several languages), and the vividness of the author's insight into his characters, all of which tempted me to reconsider the mean things I had already planned to say about the book by that point. But although the tempo picked up a good bit toward the end of the book, my main impression of it remains the same. To wit: It has the potential to be a terrific book, if only it weren't so dashed slow-paced and talky.

To put it another way, here is a conversation I had with myself at more than one point during at least the first two-thirds of this book:

QUESTION.
Oh no, are they really going to have this conversation now?

ANSWER.
Yes, they really are.

(A Bit Later)
QUESTION.
Are they really STILL having this conversation?

ANSWER:
Yes, indeed.

(A Bit Later)
QUESTION.
Is something interesting going to happen soon?

ANSWER.
Er...

I jotted this dialogue down at about the same time as the following snarky comments: "1) It's like a great short novel, crammed into the dimensions of a long one. 2) Even when something exciting does happen, it seldom moves the series perceptibly closer to its final crisis. So it comes across as a book that the series as a whole could do without. 3) It has magic, bloodshed, horror, romance, mythical creatures, beautiful made-up languages, and a hero sworn to fight against an evil emperor. It's amazing how the author manages to fit all these things in and still have room for points 1 and 2." I now feel somewhat repentant about these jibes, though not repentant enough to keep them to myself. You should see the paragraphs I deleted. Well, no. You shouldn't.

Actually, the book did get better after the point when I jotted down those notes. And by the end, young hero and dragon-rider Eragon had indeed made important progress towards his eventual goal (to be faced in Book 4, Inheritance) of ridding Alagaesia of its dark lord, Galbatorix. His cousin Roran also sees much development as a second-string hero, executing eye-popping feats of warriordom and proving (once again) to be far better at leading than following. Then there's the big reveal about who Eragon's father really is—and this after he has spent the whole book wrestling with the previous big reveal laid on him by his estranged friend (and brother?!) Murtagh at the end of Eldest. Whatever the truth is, these guys are going to have some serious issues to work out between them in the next book.

Nevertheless, a ruthless wit might say of this book that it can be boiled down to one line, which Eragon repeats several times: "I need a sword." Indeed he does; and that need is driven home to him again and again until he himself is driven home (so to speak). And what a difference it makes when he gets the sword he needs. Everything else in the book could, by the same process of reduction, be described as irritating detours and intricately detailed accounts of what is going on "meanwhile, back at the camp." The camp where the war to retake Alagaesia from Galbatorix's Empire is heating up, and where the politics of the allied forces of humans, elves, and urgals proves to be dangerously hot already. Speaking of politics, there is also a side-trip to the kingdom of the dwarves, where a new king must be elected before the most ancient race in the land can decide whether to take part in the conflict of the age. And of course, Eragon must still learn new things about dragons, their riders, and what makes Galbatorix tick. There are a lot of threads to keep in play, a complex weave continuing to take shape. But my goodness, what a lot of talking goes on between the fits of violence and mayhem that make it all seem worthwhile!

Will Eragon be ready by Book 4 to face Galbatorix on his own? In a sense, he had better be. In another sense, he won't have to be—because he won't be alone. Besides his faithful dragon Saphira, he will also have friends and comrades from every race in the land, fighting behind him and beside him. But only he (or she) who makes it through some frustrating and (one might think) unnecessarily long conversations will appreciate just how ready and/or unready Eragon is at the end of this book. Don't take this the wrong way. I have a better feeling about this series after reading this book than I did before. But no recommendation of this book would be completely honest without reminding you that the inner dialogue quoted above took place several times. For what it's worth...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pegasus

Pegasus
by Robin McKinley
Recommended Ages: 12+

She has won the Newbery Medal (for The Hero and the Crown). She has won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award (for Sunshine). She has entertained us with tales of vampires, fairies, dragons, and Robin Hood, as well as folk tales spruced up as novels. As the wife of Peter Dickinson, she dwells in a reactor-core of magic and beautiful storytelling that could reach critical mass at any time. All that being said, if she doesn't produce a sequel to this book, I will be seriously miffed with her.

Pegasi are somewhat like horses with wings. But they are also somewhat unlike horses as well—and not only because of the wings. A noble, highly intelligent race, their delicate and graceful beauty makes them a source of awe to the humans of the neighboring kingdom of Balsinland. The two countries have been allies since the founding of Balsinland some eight hundred years ago: allies against the encroaching monsters of the surrounding wilds, such as wyverns, ladons, norindours, and taralians. And rocs. One mustn't forget the rocs!

It is widely held that the prosperity of Balsinland depends on their friendship with the pegasi. The pegasi, meanwhile, would not have survived without the help of their stronger human allies. So down to the time of Princess Sylviianel, there is a tradition of each important personage in the human kingdom being paired with a pegasus of similar importance. These bound pairs are often together while at court—the human court, that is. For while the pegasi often visit Balsinland, humans never visit pegasus country. And the two species never touch each other. And humans never, ever fly on pegasus-back. It's a matter of respect, apparently. Or maybe it's another aspect of the barrier that keeps humans and their pegasus bond-mates from ever becoming very close. For another thing that separates them is language. They can't seem to learn how to speak to each other, somehow. They rely on magicians to interpret for them.

But then, on her twelfth birthday, Sylvi meets her bond-mate: Ebon, who like her is the fourth child of his people's king. The moment they meet, they find themselves communicating clearly through the type of mind-speech that the pegasi share. You would think this would be good news for a kingdom—two kingdoms—entering a time of crisis, as their borders are threatened by increasingly frequent sightings of taralians and norindours. More open communication could be the very thing they need. But no! Sylvi's rapport with Ebon threatens the power of the magicians, and especially of an ambitious magician named Fthoom.

Fthoom overreaches himself, and his disgrace gives Sylvi and Ebon a few years of reprieve. During this time, while Sylvi prepares for whatever role she will have as the fourth child of the king, or as baby sister of the king after him, the two friends push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behavior for a bond-pair. They touch each other affectionately. They fly together (in secret). And finally, Sylvi becomes the first human in history to be invited to visit the pegasus kingdom of Rhiandomeer, and the sacred Caves where their history is preserved. She breaks through even more barriers between the races, only to return home to a more tense and dangerous situation than she left. And then—when Sylvi is within striking distance of a chance to change the world—when the kingdom is in its most precarious position in centuries—when the survival of both peoples lies at the point of a sword—when Fthoom is ready to make his next and deadliest move—that is when it becomes clear that Robin McKinley will write a sequel to this book. Or else.

The way Fantastic Fiction lists this book (as part one of a so far one-part series) suggests that my ideas on this are not original. Nevertheless, Ms. McKinley has published at least one book since this: 2013's Shadows. I have yet to catch up on some of her recent titles, including Dragonhaven and Chalice. I have yet to be disappointed by any of her books. And apart from the ending, which will break my heart if there isn't a sequel, I couldn't be happier with this book. Its fantasy world is a fascinating place to immerse oneself. Its lyrical beauty stirs the heart. Its language cries out to be quoted, though none of the passages I wanted to quote were short enough for the purposes of this review. And the friendship between Sylvi and Ebon is so wonderful that you may feel yourself becoming an invisible third partner in it, loving both characters and caring about their destiny. I advise her to unleash it (sequel! sequel!) before its pent-up energy causes the area around her and Mr. Dickinson's home to glow in the dark.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Scandal of the Cross Hymn

The challenge was to (find or) write a hymn about "turning lives and cities inside out and upside down... highlight[ing] the disturbing nature and disruptive effect of the Gospel." The Bible passages suggested to pilot the hymn included Luke 4:14-29 and Acts 19.

Challenge accepted! I, however, would like to focus more on passages from John chapters 8 and 10, 1 Peter 2, and a sprinkling of other places where Jesus stirred up controversy.
The stone by men rejected
Is made the cornerstone!
Christ, slain and resurrected,
Is Lord and Lamb alone;
Though guiltless, was corrected,
For sinners to atone.

Dear foot, of whose poor sandal
None dare untie the thong,
Are you a stone of scandal
To trip the raging throng,
Though He whom they mishandle
Placed not a footstep wrong?

What gentle voice, appealing
For weary hearts to rest,
Can also cry, revealing
The truth men's ears detest?
Though death His lips be sealing,
Our peace they will attest.

What hand—restoring, seeking,
Oft reaching out to heal—
Men's custom also tweaking,
Can bring the law to heel?
Show now, by gesture speaking,
Your nail-wounds, fresh and real!

Twice nearly stoned for teaching
That He with God is one!
Pressed near a cliff for preaching
Himself the promised Son!
At last, when all are screeching
To hang Him, it is done.

On Him an armed mob rounded,
Delivered with a kiss;
Yet, though abused and wounded,
He blessed and promised bliss.
Would that all lives were founded
On such a stone as this!

So strongly are the senses
Impressed by Him, to some;
He shatters vile pretenses,
Refuses to be dumb.
Indeed, woe to offenses,
And Him by whom they come!

Yet our great gain is owing
To His most grievous loss;
So we speak boldly, showing
A joy immune to cost:
Our hope, enriched by knowing
The scandal of the cross!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Necromancing the Stone

Necromancing the Stone
by Lish McBride
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this sequel to Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, college dropout, ex-fry cook, late-blooming necromancer Sam LaCroix begins to make sense of his long hidden powers, his network of strange and dangerous allies, his steamy relationship with the Alpha female of a werewolf pack, and the huge fortune left to him by the villain he recently vanquished. But he'd better hurry. More challenges are coming at him, as fast as he can deal with them.

First, there's the murder of Brid's fey-hound father. Whoever done it did not leave any footprints, fibers, or even a scent. It behooves Sam to find out what happened, not only because of his position on the Council of Seattle-area weirdness, but also because his talents make him the prime suspect. And while Brid and her burly brothers do not believe he is guilty, the suspicion makes dangerous enemies of some in the pack. Second, someone is threatening Sam's kid sister. So far it's only been a knife in her door, but it seems likely to escalate from there. And third, his responsibilities to the Council, along with Brid's sudden elevation to leader of the pack, make for many uncertainties in their relationship. Could it be over between them? Could that be the scariest thing of all?

Well, that's not likely when, unbeknownst to Sam, the late and unlamented necromancer Douglas Montgomery is trying to come back from the dead. Operating on a very Voldemortesque principle, he needs only an opportunity to recapture the spark that he stored away long ago, and then he can reclaim everything he lost to Sam—including the almost completed spell to steal Sam's powers through blood and death. Better yet (for Douglas), he has an ally right in the inner circle of Sam's rapidly growing family. And once the tables turn, there's no telling who will command the loyalties of the gnomes, the minotaur, the stone gladiators, the grabby shrubberies, and all the rest.

It's one of those mysteries where you, dear reader, know who done it, but what you don't know is whether he'll get away with it. Meanwhile, you can enjoy a hike in the mountains with Bigfoot, an investigation conducted by interviewing the undead, the surprising cuddliness of a chupacabra, and an even more surprising sensitivity to the warm and fuzzy touches in a Dark Lord's character. It is this sensitivity that may be both the novel's greatest strength and its weakness: a strength because of its rare empathy with the finer motives of a mostly nasty customer; a weakness because it dissipates some of the energy gathering towards the climax. Maybe I just feel that way because I am disappointed by the conclusiveness of the ending, suggesting that there will not be another sequel. But the size and diversity of Sam's new family both diffuses action that could be more concentrated, and lends a tone of sentimental indulgence to the closing pages.

These are small flaws, if flaws they are. As a whole, however, the book is most entertaining. It touched my feelings at times. It often made me laugh. It generated a fair amount of suspense. And although I must apply both Adult and Occult Content Advisories to it, it's a worthy sequel to the preceding book. Fans of the present-day supernatural scene in the state of Washington, whether of the Stephenie Meyer or the Kat Ricahrdson persuasion, must give it a look. Vampires, witches, satyrs, dryads, and many other types of fey creatures abound in its world, and who knows? Maybe another menace will arise, accompanied by the tunes your mind picks up from the lyrics quoted in the chapter titles. And maybe Lish McBride will consider my suggestion that she give Sam a road trip on his next outing, allowing for the title Death and Resurrection in Las Vegas. Just a thought. For now, her next project seems to be a novel titled Firebug, tentatively scheduled to be released in September 2014.

Hymn for the Word of Life

O Lord, whose great and awful day
May be a year, an hour away:
Were but a new Elijah found
To shake the earth with mighty sound!
Would that his voice called all as one
To turn from sin and kiss the Son!

Who warns us of the foe's attacks,
Or of the harvest's hewing axe?
What John prepares us, lest we burn
When, unexpected, You return?
Who, having raised the hurtful rod,
Points out the healing Lamb of God?

What fisherman, forsaking all,
Lays down his nets and heeds Your call?
What shepherd, for one straying sheep,
Combs thorny heath and canyon deep?
Who bears reproof and suffers loss,
Despising all things but the cross?

For such Elijahs, Lord, we plead:
O hear us in our humble need!
Confuse the devil's thousand arts;
Unto their babes turn parents' hearts,
And our rebellious ones make wise,
A people righteous in Your eyes!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Fat Vampire

Fat Vampire: A Never Coming of Age Story
by Adam Rex
Recommended Ages: 14+

From the author of The True Meaning of Smekday comes this lyrical, funny story about a fifteen-year-old loser who has just started trying to lose weight when someone bites him, and he becomes a vampire. Forever fat and fifteen in Philadelphia would be depressing enough. But when Doug Lee tries to take control of his unlife, tries to mold himself into something more attractive and powerful than the kid who is always picked last for team activities—well, that's when things really start to suck.

At first, Doug has a certain underdog charm. He compensates for his powerlessness by being funny. And his sad-sack adventures are funny too. Doug gets thrown out of a party while trying unsuccessfully to mesmerize a pretty girl. He tries drinking animal blood, only to get slapped by a panda at the San Diego Zoo. Desperate for blood, he actually robs a bloodmobile. But the more Doug learns the ropes of this vampire gig, the less you feel them tugging the corners of your mouth into a grin, and the more you feel them twanging at your heart. Doug's friends and peers in junior high school start to notice that he looks good. But some of them—starting with his best friend Jay, and the Indian exchange student he has a crush on—are also noticing that he isn't good. And he's getting worse.

Doug's descent from loser to monster is tough to watch. But all through it, there remains a hinted possibility of self-redemption. Whatever it is, it has something dangerous tied up in it. And it's not as if Doug's adventures are all of the self-obsessed teenager persuasion. Blood-sucking predators are involved. One of them made Doug, or rather the teenaged vampire who made Doug. One of them is threatening the safety of the people Doug cares about, or used to care about. Someone suspects what Doug has become. Plus, a cable-TV vampire hunter is closing in on Doug's trail, and if he becomes a threat to the vampires of greater Philadelphia, they could become a threat to Doug.

As the proverbial bats come home to roost, you may find yourself sympathizing with Doug less and less, even while he tries more and more to become the hero of his own story. But you may also find yourself uncomfortably re-examining yourself. After all, most of us could stand to be better people in many of the ways Doug falls short. Meanwhile, you can enjoy some of the most intelligent dialogue ever spotted behind the glossy cover of a teen vampire novel, satirical or otherwise. Chapter 22 alone puts this book on a level of its own; though some of Adam Rex's artistic touches may come across as a bit obscure. Also, besides a lot of adult language and sexual content that cry out for an Adult Content Advisory, it has one of those endings that fans will be arguing about years hence. Maybe you can just pick the ending you like and believe in it. I rather wish Mr. Rex had made his point a bit more obvious, after the build-up he gave it. As it stands, the book leaves you with your head full of interesting ideas and images, and a heart full of troubled feelings.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Last of the Mohicans

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
by James Fenimore Cooper
Recommended Ages: 12+

Forget about the 1992 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and based on this book published in 1826. All these years later, I still remember a lot of things about that movie. Very few of them faithfully represent things in this book. It turns out to be not so much a film adaptation of the novel, as a piece of original entertainment based on characters and situations in the novel. Oh, well. I still like the 2002 film The Count of Monte Cristo, even though I now know it resembles its source book even less. It's a trial to be both a bookworm and a movie buff. You really have to grow up a lot, and accept that the two art forms work in different ways and can never, even at their very best, reflect each other very accurately. Don't let the fact that this book doesn't resemble that terrific movie stop you from reading it, however. Particularly now that there are audio-book editions, such as the 1989 recording by Larry McKeever that entertained me during a week's worth of business miles, one can painlessly enjoy this historical romance, in spite of its old-fashioned language and the sometimes ridiculously flowery diction of its speaking characters.

Whether one can do so guiltlessly, with its perhaps embarrassing racial and sexual stereotypes, is entirely up to you. As a rule, I would suggest reading it anyway, and thinking for yourself, and letting the voice of an earlier period of cultural history speak for itself. I don't think we do ourselves or our culture a service by censoring the past, or by consigning our own society's arts and letters to the damnation of memory. Speaking of which, a living example of what we mean by the phrase "damnation of memory" is depicted in this book, along with several other American Indian customs that Cooper, at a time when the native races of North America seemed destined for extinction, felt it was his mission to preserve for posterity. These rich details fire the imagination, while the tragic romance of the last noble warrior of dying tribe, and of a British gentlewoman taken captive by his most savage enemy, pull at the heart-strings. These ingredients add up to a masterpiece of American literature that has inspired and influenced creative minds around the world.

It is, in fact, acknowledged as the masterpiece of its maker. James F. Cooper (1789-1851), while popular in his time, is today remembered mostly for this one book. Nevertheless, it is worth knowing that it is the second book in a series of five, known as the Leatherstocking Tales. Leatherstocking is one of several nicknames of the character known in this book as Hawkeye, the Scout, the Long Rifle, and La Longue Carabine. His real name, barely mentioned in this book, is Natty Bumppo; so it's no wonder that he goes by a variety of other names. Hawkeye is a white man who has lived among Indians all his life and adopted many of their ways, with certain refinements such as his trusty rifle, affectionately known as Killdeer. His most trusted companions are Chingachgook and his son Uncas, the last surviving chiefs of the fictitious Mohican tribe, which Cooper based on a combination of two or three tribes, some of whom survive to this day.

This trio of hunters, scouts, and warriors, come to the aid of an old Scottish general and a young British major, who have survived a horrible massacre by Indians allied with the French forces in the pre-American-Revolution conflict now known as the French and Indian War. Together with a silly, psalm-singing music teacher named David Gamut, they fly from one ambush, battle, or ordeal to another while trying to recover the general's two beautiful daughters, who have been taken captive by the Lenape tribe, and by one particular villain named Magua. Apart from this, you don't need to know anything in preparation for reading this book, other than to expect an almost unceasing series of exciting battles, suspenseful standoffs, daring ruses, dangerous rescues, and desperate negotiations. It all comes to a terrific climax in which Cooper does something even better than the expected "kill all the bad guys and leave all the good guys alive and well for the next installment." It's a fascinating document of how Native American culture was understood by Anglo-Americans, a captivating romance that will leave you longing for a (mostly) lost way of life in the once wild woods of long-ago New York, and a piece of literary entertainment that easily stands up alongside such classics as Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Dumas's The Three Musketeers.

Although it is neither the first book in the Leatherstocking series in publication or in canon order, this is probably the best place to start reading Cooper's work. If it really hooks you, you'll be interested to know the titles of the other books in the series: The Pioneers, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer. Here is a more complete list of Cooper's books. His novels and non-fiction works of naval adventure also come highly recommended; that may be the first area I explore after this.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Parsifal's Page

Parsifal's Page
by Gerald Morris
Recommended Ages: 11+

In the fourth of at least ten books in a series based on Arthurian legends, Wisconsin-based author and Baptist minister Gerald Morris brings more than an impressive display of scholarship. He also brings a very evident love of one of the world's most enduring and powerful stories, a knack for making old tales new in a way that will appeal to younger readers, and a charm for blending timeless myths with original characters and story-lines that speak to the present moment. Believable touches of human emotion, sparkles of merriment, glimmers of faerie magic, a glow of mystery and mysticism, flashes of athletic violence, and flames of romantic passion light up the page and warm the reader's insides.

The central figure in this installment is known variously as Percival, Perceval, Parzival, and Parsifal. He has been the subject of books, films, and stage works galore, including Wagner's opera Parsifal and the 1991 film The Fisher King. In the book, as in the 13th century German version of the story that it primarily follows, Parsifal is a strong, socially backward commoner who dreams of becoming a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. Going off in search of great deeds to prove his worthiness to be a knight, he is joined by a young page named Piers (Morris' invention), who tries to smooth the edges off his master's rough upbringing. After learning gentlemanly conduct from one master and knightly martial arts from another (who turns out to be Lancelot in disguise), Parsifal defeats several recreant knights in combat and wins the hand of a beautiful lady. But it all seems too easy. Unsatisfied, he leaves his wife in search of a truly great deed... and when he finds one, he blows it.

The great deed that Parsifal is fated to do, involves a fisherman king and a wounded king. In some versions of the tale (so Morris tells us in his typically informative Afterword) these are two different characters, and sometimes (but not always) at least one of him is named Anfortas. Anfortas lives in a castle somewhere beyond the border between the realms of man and of faerie, a castle whose location is only revealed to very select people, a castle renowned for its possession of a certain grail.

But the grail isn't the important thing in this story. The important thing is Anfortas' wound: a painful wound that will not heal, and that afflicts not only the fisher king but his people and his lands. Parsifal has a chance to heal this mournful malady. All he has to do is ask the right question at the right time. But because the very correct Piers (among others) has drilled into Parsifal's head an inhibition against asking personal questions, Parsifal misses his chance. And all his happiness and hunger for glory turn to dust.

But this is only the beginning of an adventure in which, for a time, Piers becomes the companion of Sir Gawain. While Piers learns some lessons that will serve him and Parsifal better in the future, he and Gawain also encounter their own strange adventures—ones that will eventually lead back to the Grail Castle and the touching resolution of Parsifal's quest.

Gerald Morris has a strong reputation as a storyteller. He hardly needs me to sing his praises. When I mentioned this book, among several others, in a Facebook status listing the books I had borrowed from the library, I instantly heard back from people who love Morris' work. None of this will be news to them, but if it's news to you, put a bookmark in one of his books today. The next book after this in the Squire's Tales series is The Ballad of Sir Dinadan. The tenth and latest book in the series, The Legend of the King, came out in 2010. His work also includes four chapter books (so far) in the Knight's Tales sequence, appealing to an even younger set of readers than this series. See The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great for starters.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Crimson Crown

The Crimson Crown
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Ages: 14+

Book Four of the Seven Realms series brings Han Alister, Raisa, and the Queendom of the Fells to the crisis of their age. And—just think of it—their age is scarcely eighteen! Readers around that age will be especially thrilled by the political intrigues, the deadly dangers, the perplexing mysteries, and the turbulent romance that swirl around these two main characters. He is a former street lord who only found out within the last year that he is a wizard, the heir of a so-called Demon King who has cast a shadow over Fellsian history for a thousand years. She is heir to the line of Gray Wolf Queens, yet she must fight an hourly battle to keep command of her own fate while the wizard council and the upland clans—mutually sworn enemies—make their own plans as to whom she will marry and how she will rule. Political pressure is one thing, but neither side is above using deadly force to get the result it wants. Between them, the Queendom is so divided that it may not survive an even bigger threat from outside. All Han and Raisa really want is each other. But simply surviving, and saving their country, will be hard enough.

In a final installment that more than fulfills the promise of the first three books, Han works with ruthless determination to help Raisa do just that. But it's a tall order. First he has to gain control of wizard politics, though everyone on the council despises him. Then he has to maneuver the wizards and the clans into working together, though he's the only person they want dead more than each other. To manage this, he must dig up the true story of the Demon King that has been buried for a millennium, along with a lost treasure-trove of magical weapons so powerful that it might be better for them to stay lost. And to make sure all that isn't too easy, he has to deal with a series of murders in which he is everybody's prime suspect, while trying to stay a step ahead of the Bayar family. And the Bayars have over a thousand years' worth of expertise in destroying their rivals, using every means from lies and dirty tricks to kidnapping, torture, and murder. They literally burn a whole quarter of the capital city, just to stick it to Han Aliser. And they're not even the biggest traitors. Long after the Bayar threat is more or less neutralized, Raisa and Han and their sometimes uneasy allies must face an invading army driven by religious fanaticism and the malice of a thwarted king. And there's still a killer on the loose.

When Raisa sees wolves circling, it's always a sign of danger. This is not because the wolves are out to get her, though. They're the spirits of the previous queens in her dynasty, appearing only to her and—for reasons you'd best find out for yourself—to Han. The wolves do a lot of circling in this book. Not only are people trying to kill her, take her prisoner, or force her into marriages of their choosing. They also want to use the power of her throne to divide the people of the Fells against each other, to dominate or destroy each other. Their fierce determination to unite the opposing forces of the Fells is what makes Han and Raisa special. It's why you'll cheer for them, even when they make mistakes, or begin to lose faith, or find themselves in seemingly hopeless situations. As the series-clinching climax approaches, they find themselves in some deep, dark places indeed. Come for the romance. Stay for the suspense, the action, the gosh-wow magic, and the complex interplay of political forces. Stay even longer for a final surprise that may even change the way you remember half of the book.

The Crimson Crown completes the quartet that started with The Demon King and also includes The Exiled Queen and The Gray Wolf Throne. The same Ohio-based author is also behind the ongoing Heir Chronicles, which is currently up to its fourth book: The Enchanter Heir. I'm eager to get hold of it—more than ever after reading this book!

The Cat Who Said, "What Up, Dog?"

My feline friend Sinead is stretched out on the couch. When I look in her direction, and she is looking back in mine, she sometimes says, "Meow," in an especially funny way.

It's not like the "When are you going to feed me?" meow, or like the "Gosh darn it, it's treat time!" meow, or (least of all) like the "Kowabunga!" yell she gives on the rare occasions when she tries to dart past me in the doorway to the vestibule of the apartment building. Nor is it like the plaintive, "Won't you cuddle me?" plea she makes when she comes over to me and asks to be admitted to my lap.

Rather, it's a unique meow, accompanied by a beckoning motion of her head, while the cat stays right where she is. It's as if she's ordering me to come to her and bring a bunch of loving with me. Or perhaps it's just a cat's cocky way of saying, "Yo. What up, dawg?"

Tacky Hymns 47

We continue our ongoing study of the hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) that are tacky in the context of Lutheran congregational hymnody...

780 "Shepherd me, O God" is an example of the latest fashion in psalmody, combining a free-verse paraphrase of a psalm, set in multiple stanzas to a rhythmically flexible tune, with an easy-to-learn refrain. Typically, the refrain is a sort of antiphon, except that it recurs more often within the psalm than was formerly the custom; and it is sung by "All" while the verses may be sung by a choir, a soloist, or other select forces. In this setting by Marty Haugen, the book designates "Leader or All" as the singers of the verses, though the congregation's chances of getting through it without mishap are reduced by such complications as two verses (4 and 5) that are set to unique strains of music; two verses (2 and 3) that have small ossia notes where a different number of syllables (vs. verse 1) implies a different turn of melody; and three different endings for the refrain (mostly in the form of how long you're supposed to hold the last note), depending on which stanza comes next. In other words, this piece is likely to be a confusing train wreck, possibly reducing parishioners to helpless tears, unless it is left (in most cases) in the capable hands of professionals. So I ask you: Why is it in the pew book?

781 "Children of the heavenly Father" is a nice, warm, cozy, Swedish hymn by Carolina Sandell-Berg (1832-1903), whom I have often name-dropped as "the Fanny Crosby of Sweden." Apart from anything else, this hymn stands out as one of the relatively few non-Hispanic examples in ELW of a hymn that can be sung in the original language as well as English. I just think it's interesting that only the first of this hymn's four stanzas is presented here in Swedish, given the cultural background of the churches most likely to be using this book. It's as though token gestures of pride in their outreach to other cultures (however empty and self-serving they may be) are more important than preserving and celebrating their continuity with the culture they came from. For what it's worth.

In a previous installment of this thread, I didn't feel mean enough to pick on Horatio Spafford's (1828-88) "It is well with my soul" (first line: "When peace like a river attendeth my way"), hymn 785 in ELW. I guess I've gotten meaner since then; and I refuse to be swayed by the sob-story of how, when, and why Spafford wrote it. The echo-y, part-song-y refrain—"It is well (It is well) with my soul (with my soul), it is well, it is well with my soul"—is enough to place this hymn well above the high-water mark of tackiness that is suitable for Lutheran worship. If your congregation can actually sing it in parts (which is doubtful, given our culture's late decline in musical skill and education), you might as well admit before doing so that it is aiming to become an old-timey Methodist church rather than a reflection of historic Lutheran ways and convictions. Does the text say anything wrong? No. But what it does say, it says with trembly, throbbing sentimentality that is guaranteed to raise the spiritual humidity of your meetin'-house to the dew point.

792 "When memory fades" is, all kidding aside, a hymn about dementia and elder-care by Mary Louise Bringle (b. 1953). What I really want to sneer at, however, is her (or the hymnal committee's) choice of tune, FINNLANDIA by Jean Sibelius, adapted from a theme in the orchestral tone-poem of the same name. As a fan of Sibelius' music, I am vexed that this, the tackiest of all the pieces he ever wrote, is the one best known to most people, including those who only know one piece by Sibelius. And I especially object to this tune, as one who holds that baptizing themes from secular, classical music, and converting them into hymn tunes, is harmful both to the music and to hymnody. This halting, hestitating, maddeningly-slow-to-get-to-the-point melody is perhaps one of the most egregious examples on which I could rest my case. I hated it when The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) paired it with "Be still my soul," and I hate it with this hymn. Whatever the text's merits or faults may be, it does not deserve to be pegged to a piece of sentimental, nationalistic propaganda, even if it is Finnish.

Then I would note that this hymn text, authored by a Presbyterian college professor and adult Sunday School instructor, has some goofy touches. Stanza 1 asks God to "speak to our souls..., speak to our hearts" without bothering to suggest by what means (if any) this is to be done; and to "empower us... by your grace infused," which some may regard as confusingly technical. And as stanza 3 contemplates the close of life, far from throwing the sinner at the mercy of the God who judges and justifies, it says: "No valued deed will ever be undone," and: "Your mind enfolds all finite acts and offerings." Which, begging your pardon, I take to mean something like, "They will be saved by the righteousness of their works." Really? In a Lutheran hymnal?

794 "Calm to the waves" is another hymn by Bringle, this time set to the contemporary tune CALM SEAS by Thomas Pavlechko (b. 1962). It is such a short text—one very brief stanza—that a quote of any length risks copying the whole thing. Suffice it to say, the hymn alludes to Jesus calming the storm, applies this to calming one's personal anxieties, and concludes: "In stillness, hear his voice." See? That description is actually longer than the hymn itself. So it suffers from the whole Taizé problem, frequently discussed in this thread, of being so short that the only way to make it effective as a hymn is to repeat it ad nauseam. Then there's the ambiguity of that final line. In stillness hear His voice, eh? How?

797 "Blessed be the name" (Heri ni jina) is credited as an "East African traditional" hymn, "as taught by Deogratias Mahamba." The only further information I have been able to gather about this hymn, or Mahamba, is that the original language of the text is Swahili. Both stanzas are here given in both Swahili and English, though ELW does not bother to identify the language by name, caring more for its triumphalistic token of multiculturalism than for any real and meaningful respect toward the specific culture it is taken from. Perhaps some of this disrespect is also implied by the very decision to transcribe a piece of oral tradition; but that's an open question, and I can see points for both sides of it. There is, finally, the question of how useful it will really be to have this song in the pew hymnal of an anglophone American church, where learning two stanzas of a hymn in Swahili is bound to take a lot of work, especially when performing it in a strongly ethnic style of part-singing. Finally, there is actually a solo or descant part written into the vocal score, where some individual or group is supposed to sing "Amini!" or "Believe!" in a way that overlaps with the phrases sung by the congregation. Verdict: impractical, if not impracticable.

798 "Will you come and follow me" (a.k.a. "The Summons") comes from John Bell (b. 1949) and the Iona Community (see also ELW 721 and 741). It is set to the Scottish folk tune KELVINGROVE, which sounds like it would play well on the bagpipes. The first four of the five stanzas are enclosed in quotation marks, indicating that we are singing something that God is supposedly saying to us. Evidently, all He has to say is, "Will you do this?" or "Will you do that for Me?" The stanzas all end in some variant of "Will you let me ____ in you and you in me?"—which is sometimes biblically sound, such as when the bit in the blank is more or less "live." But when, for example, verse 2 puts "answer prayer" in the blank, the result is a bit weird. Lyrics that require as much thought as that line does, to properly appreciate what it's saying, should not be sung to an up-tempo, skirling tune, in my opinion. The endings of stanzas 3 and 4 are even weirder. This isn't the only part of the lyrics that fall into a repeated pattern. The first long phrase of each stanza ends with "if I but call your name" (or something close to it), the second with "and never be the same," etc. But other than the sometimes awkward theological mad-libs that result from this pattern, my main quibble with this hymn is the hectoring tone that it puts in God's mouth (or rather, in ours, as we pretend to be God speaking to ourselves), and the dubious specifics of what God seems to be demanding of us. "Will you kiss the leper clean...?" (stanza 3). "Will you love the you you hide...? Will you quell the fear inside...?" (stanza 4). "Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around...?" Excuse me? Will the real God please stand up? Because I'm not sure where or from whom all these demands are coming from. And stanza 5 is our response, in which we pledge to respond to His summons and follow him, etc. Which suggests that all that has gone before has been an expanded paraphrase of Jesus saying, "Whoever would come after Me must take up his cross and follow Me." Whether the above verses are really a faithful paraphrase of His summons is at least open to question. And I am seriously questioning, at the very least, the bit about "loving the you you hide."

800 "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart" is set to Frederick Atkinson's (1841-97) tune MORECAMBE, than which a more flaccid, limp, and powerless specimen of hymnal melody can scarcely be imagined. The text is by George Croly (1780-1860), an Irish Protestant clergyman, novelist, playwright, critic, and commentator on Scripture, whose best-known hymn this is. I like the quote that Wiki ascribes to him: "Christianity is a manly religion, addressed to manly understandings, and which ought to be preached in a manly language." How a text by the author of that sentiment could get mixed up with MORECAMBE is a truly astounding mystery. After once having heard this hymn paired with that tune, it is difficult to shake from it the impression of syrupiness. But in all fairness to the text as such, it's a pretty strong representative of the "Commitment, Discipleship" topic, introduced as far back as Hymn 796. Croly says some remarkably good things in this hymn, though if it could be improved at all, it might be by focusing more on what Christ has done and will do, for us and in us, rather than on what (albeit with His help) we want to do for Him.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night
by Deborah Harkness
Recommended Ages: 14+

What do a wearh, a manjasang, a nachzehrer, and an alukah have in common? In this sequel to A Discovery of Witches, we find out that they are all words for "vampire" used across 16th century Europe, from Oxfordshire to the Auvergne to the Jewish Quarter of Prague. Present-day American witch Diana Bishop has the opportunity to learn about them, not only as a post-doctoral scholar of the history of alchemy, but also as the time-traveling wife of a vampire prince known by just as many names: Mattieu de Clermont, Matthew Roydon, Sebastian St. Clair, Gabriel ben Ariel... One accumulates aliases when one has lived a thousand years or two. And when the unlikely lovers travel back to 1590 England in search of a manuscript that holds the secret to what ails the 21st century's vampires, witches, and demons—collectively known as "creatures" as distinct from regular human beings—Diana learns a lot about her mate, while Matthew gets to try on many of his old identities again.

Going to ground in Elizabethan England seemed like a good idea when the Congregation (the council that polices creatures) was after the couple, partly because their interspecies romance is supposed to be an abomination, but mostly because the Congregation wants to get hold of the alchemical text known variously as Ashmole 782, the Book of Creation, and the Book of Life, before Diana and Matthew find it. Get used to things having multiple names. It's not as hard as what Diana must adjust to, suddenly immersed in a period of history she had only read about. She has to learn French, Latin, Greek, and a whole new (to her) way of speaking English. She has to adjust to 16th century fashions in dress and behavior, and must constantly explain her unorthodox relationship with Matthew, both to mortals and to other creatures. And most dangerously, she must find someone who will teach her how to use witchcraft and the strange magic that lives inside her (two different things, by the way; that's an important distinction in this series). For unless she makes up for lost time and fast, she and Matthew will remain lost in time forever.

Diana's multi-layered quest (to learn witchcraft, to find Ashmole 782, and to penetrate the barriers to her complete intimacy with Matthew) becomes still more complicated as she appears suddenly in his life, from the point of view of Matthew's 16th century friends. And his life is already complicated enough, what with witch trials in Scotland, and intrigues in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and a demon poet named Christopher Marlowe harboring a jealous love for the vampire. Matthew's circle of friends comprises the "School of Night" mentioned by Shakespeare in Love's Labours Lost. Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, polymath Thomas Harriot, poet George Chapman, and "Wizard Earl" Henry Percy are frequent visitors and associates of the vampire prince; the Countess of Pembroke does her alchemical experiments practically next door; and Matthew is not only a secret agent for the Queen, but perhaps an even more secret member of the Congregation during that turbulent time. As if that doesn't make things complicated enough, King James of Scotland expects Matthew to help him crack down on Diana's kind, while Queen Elizabeth wants him to fetch alchemist Edward Kelley back to England, and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II doesn't want to let him go, and early scientist John Dee is pining for a certain manuscript that Kelley stole from him, and all of Europe seems to be full of witches, vampires, and demons who want either to harm Diana or to control her.

Fleeing the threat of being implicated in the witch trials, they run straight into the arms—the not immediately very welcoming arms—of Matthew's vampire father, whose death after World War II is one of those walls around Matthew's heart. Diana soon learns more than she ever expected about what it means to be part of a vampire family, even without being a vampire herself. These lessons come in handy later when she is menaced by the vampire king of London, stalked by jealous creatures, and forced to play deadly games of protocol in the courts of Rudolf and Elizabeth. Meanwhile, she takes lessons of another kind from a coven of kindly witches, including one who understands the strange reason Diana's witchcraft is all messed up. Goody Alsop helps unlock Diana's powers, not only as a magician with power over the four elements, but also as a special kind of witch: one who does not learn spells, but creates them. As a time-spinner, Diana is in trouble enough. As a weaver, she is in even more danger. But it is a third surprising aspect of her talent—something to do with power over life and death—that brings Diana and her husband their greatest surprise, heartbreak, and (perhaps, yet) a bundle of joy...

Have you ever wondered what the Twilight Saga would be like, if it were actually a mature, smart, and powerful love story with genuine (and not cheap imitation) excitement, mystery, spookiness, sensual beauty, a well-shaped plot, and a touch of cultural enrichment? That's what the All Souls Trilogy is. Yes, it has bedroom scenes (so, Adult Content Advisory!). And yes, it has some arcane hocus-pocus (so, Occult ditto). But it also has a fine figure of a vampire as its male romantic lead: one who doesn't sparkle in sunlight, who has reached educational goals far beyond repeating high school over and over, and whose complexities of character are far darker and richer than those of the eternally angsty teen. And instead of a catatonically sullen heroine who quivers helplessly while the hot vampires and werewolves fight around her, it has a brilliant and powerful woman in Diana: vulnerable in all the right ways, but still able to take care of herself to a surprising degree, whether with a knife (before she learns how to control her magic) or with the aid of her beautiful familiar (after). I won't spoil who or what her familiar is. It turns out that most witches don't have a familiar, but Diana is that special type that does; and her familiar is especially special. You're in for a treat. But first, don't forget to read A Discovery of Witches. And then you'll be ready to pre-order Book 3, The Book of Life, expected in July 2014.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Today's Adventures in a Winter Wonderland

I got up early yesterday morning to see whether the predicted foot or so of snow had indeed blanketed the world, or at least my little corner of it. I saw a dusting on the ground and little to no snow actually falling. I checked the forecast and it persisted in predicting a winter disaster. After continuing to get ready to drive 50+ miles to my home church, I looked out again and the snow was pelting down, at least an inch having accumulated in under half an hour. I conferred with my pastor, and by the time he decided to cancel services for that morning, several inches lay outside and more was still falling.

It fell until sometime in the late afternoon or early evening. Then the temperatures did likewise. I woke up this morning to an email from my supervisor at work, advising me to shuffle my work plans for the week and stay home for today. A special Epiphany service planned for this evening also went under the snow plow. Suddenly I had nothing to do with my day except post a piece of business-related mail, wait for mail delivery, and try to make sure my car was free of snow and ready to roll for tomorrow.

FIT THE FIRST. 6:00 a.m.
For my first adventure, I went out to ask the guys running snowblowers around the apartment complex whether they might kindly blow my car free of the huge pile of snow blocking it in from behind. They said no, but mentioned that a truck was expected at any time to plow everyone clear.

FIT THE SECOND. 6:30 a.m.
I went out again to ask the guys shoveling the front stoops whether they would either shovel behind my car or let me borrow a shovel. No on both counts. They also predicted the arrival of a truck to clear the lot. At this writing, no such truck has materialized.

FIT THE THIRD. 9-ish a.m.
After hours of listening to the sound of snowblowers blowing and shovels shoveling, I went out and found everything looking about the same as at 6:30, only with more daylight on it and no maintenance guys in sight. I meant to walk the four blocks to the post office to buy postage for an outgoiing piece of mail, but I was also thinking about stopping by the apartment complex's management office to request help getting my car dug out. Instead, I got side-tracked by a neighbor whose car was stuck in the middle of the street. I tried to help him and a security officer push it free. We gave up when the officer decided to call maintenance, and I went home without passing the post office, because my cold-weather gear was soaked in ice-cold water.

FIT THE FOURTH, 10-ish a.m.
Wearing a different coat (one whose collar flipped up to cover most of my face), a different pair of shoes, a different pair of gloves, and two (2) winter hats, I went out again to visit the post office. Along the way I stopped at the management office and asked them to put in a maintenance request to plow my car clear. Request submitted, I went home again without going to the post office, because the wind was blowing straight through my hats, coat & gloves as though they weren't there. I didn't think I would survive the walk to the post office and back!

FIT THE FIFTH, sometime around noon
I finally made it to the post office, wearing two pairs of gloves, a scarf, both hats, and my best coat. I had to carry my glasses in my pocket because they frosted over.

FIT THE SIXTH, between noon and 1 p.m.
After getting unbundled at home, I bundled up again (only with a different scarf) and went by maintenance in person to ask for a the loan of a shovel. One of the guys let me borrow an orange plastic hand-plow for a while. I worked up a good sweat before maintenance guy came along and demanded his shovel back. In a few minutes I had almost finished clearing out the 2 cubic meters (+/-) of snow behind my car that, in some 19 hours since it stopped falling, still hadn't been touched by snow removal equipment, other than one pass with a plow a good car's length from the rear bumper. I still couldn't get at my car from either side without getting wet up to my knees, and the pile of snow in front of it (thanks to this morning's snow blowers) is as high as I can step over. But there was progress, at least.

Before going back inside, I went back to maintenance and asked them nicely to please finish up around my car (and the lot in general) so that I can go to work tomorrow. They looked like they had the manpower and equipment to have cleared every walkway and street in the complex several times over by now, but they mostly seemed to be taking an inventory of their shovels or a head-count of their personnel while the snow-blowers idled loudly, exactly where they had been idling when I borrowed the shovel.

I now have two hats, two scarves, and four gloves laid out to dry in front of a heating vent; two pairs of soaking wet socks on the laundry pile; and 2 pairs of shoes that will probably smell like salt-cured, washed-rind, stinky feet cheese for the rest of their service life. AND... if I pull my car out of its space, I will never again find a place to park in this neighborhood until the snow melts of itself. So I'm in no rush to give it a spin before tomorrow morning. I just hope it doesn't get plowed in again.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Finnikin of the Rock

Finnikin of the Rock
by Melina Marchetta
Recommended Ages: 14+

The Australian author of Jellicoe Road has dealt with many issues facing today's young adults: loneliness, depression, grief, single pregnancy, suicide, racism, family and school problems galore. Then she turned toward writing YA fantasy, and the "Lumatere Chronicles" is the result. In this first book of the trilogy, we are introduced to a gripping, romantic fantasy about sexy young people riding horses, sailing ships, and fighting with bows and arrows and swords, all to restore a lost kingdom. What sets it apart from every other tween melodrama about prophecies being fulfilled, curses being broken, secret identities being revealed, and prisoners being delivered from durance vile? Why, real-world problems, of course! For under the story of a young man who set out to find his country's long-lost king, ten years after the people of Lumatere were divided and scattered by the "five days of the unspeakable," there is a bedrock of ripped-from-the-headlines, real-world issues. Issues like racial prejudice, religious intolerance, slavery, civil war, genocide, and tyranny. Street children, sexual assault, poverty, disease, and refugees longing for either a new homeland or a way back to their old one—all these themes and more accompany the obligatory tale of action, intrigue, and heart-throbbing romance. The combination proves to be richer and deeper than you might expect.

It began with an event always described as "five days of the unspeakable." Finnikin, then nine years old, witnessed it all. His best friend, Prince Balthazar, disappeared, leaving only a smear of bloody handprints on the kingdom walls. The rest of the royal family was slaughtered by assassins. Finnikin's father, the captain of the guard, had failed in his duty—and now, for refusing to bow to an impostor king who was the puppet of a neighboring power, he was sent to an inhumanly awful foreign prison. The boy's stepmother, sentenced to burn at the stake, instead died in childbirth along with her baby. The new king carried out a literal witch-hunt, persecuting an ethnic and religious minority to the point of extinction. And while some Lumaterans fled the walled kingdom to live in exile, those left behind turned a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors. Thus a horrible curse was unleashed on the land. A once harmonious kingdom was now divided between those trapped within the walls and those trapped outside—the victims of a sadistic tyrant, and a diaspora of struggling refugees, slowly losing their identity as a people along with their hope of ever finding a place of their own.

As apprentice to the late king's First Man, Finnikin's mission for the next ten years is to learn the arts of diplomacy and leadership. He studies foreign languages. He visits foreign courts. He practices foreign martial arts. Together with his master Sir Topher, he checks in on the refugee camps, and begins to write a book naming every known Lumateran in exile, alive or dead. At the end of ten years, Topher has developed the skills and charisma to lead his people to their new homeland—if only he can convince one of the neighboring kingdoms to give them one. Never does he dare even dream about getting back into Lumatere, and healing his broken people. To do that he would need to break a blood curse. And find a lost prince. And raise an army. And do many other things that seem equally, and increasingly, impossible. It isn't realistic. He passionately believes in his plan to settle the exiles in an unpopulated corner of some other kingdom—even though his conscience bugs him about it.

It bugs him because of a boyish blood-oath that he shared with the missing prince and his cousin Lucian. It bugs him in unsettling dreams, in memories of a frightening prophecy, and at last in the flesh-and-blood form of a girl named Evanjalin, a cloistered novice who claims to share the dreams of people trapped inside the walls of Lumatere. Evanjalin also claims that Balthazar is alive, and that the time has come for him to lead his people home. Finnikin suspects from the beginning that Evanjalin is going to lead him and Sir Topher into trouble, but he has no idea how much trouble. Strong-willed, cunning, deceitful, and shrouded in layer upon layer of mystery, Evanjalin drags a reluctant but heroically capable Finnikin along on an insanely dangerous quest to do all those seemingly impossible things, and more. By the time Finnikin realizes that his heart belongs to Evanjalin, he has broken out of a hellish prison, reunited with long-lost friends and loved ones, faced off against everything from a petty thief to an enemy army, and learned that the girl's destiny—as well as his own—is greater than he could ever have imagined.

There needs to be somewhat of an Adult Content Advisory on this book, because of its characters' frankly physical romantic (and sometimes un-romantic) activities. While I'm at it, I might also slap on an Occult Content Advisory, out of respect for parents who might be concerned about exposing their kids to a book in which two distinct goddess religions are discussed and eventually blended. But above all, be alert for the possibility of Thought-Provoking Content, as the uniquely situated continent of Skuldenore serves as a proving-ground for ideas about issues in human rights and international affairs. Emotionally powerful and satisfying as it is, bear in mind too that this is not a standalone book. To read it is to become personally involved in its characters' lives. And then, for better or worse, you'll be committed to reading the rest of the trilogy: Froi of the Exiles and Quintana of Charyn.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tacky Hymns 46

The hymn selection of ELW (silent L) marches on... For those joining us late in the thread, that's Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), making the best of its target church bodies' case that "Lutheran" vs. any other flavor Protestant is just a matter of brand identity, like Chrysler vs. Dodge, Ford vs. Mercury, or Chevrolet vs. Buick: basically the same platform as the other brands, only with subtle cosmetic distinctions between them. So weep the spirits of Lutheran confessors over the centuries who resisted, even to the point of shedding blood, being forced to compromise between heavenly and human doctrine for the sake of peace and unity...

751 "O Lord, hear my prayer" is another minuscule ditty by Jacques Berthier and the Taizé Community, based on Psalm 102:1-2. As a standalone hymn it is very thin, with four repetitions of its opening line punctuated by either "When I call, answer me" or "Come and listen to me"—a prayer that asks nothing except that God would hear our prayer. In all fairness, it might have some usefulness as a refrain between petitions of a long prayer, its iterations serving to keep the people attentive while the minister drones on and on. But again, I suspect it of being the type of transcendental meditation hymn I have picked up on before, where the meaning of the words blurs into an ecstatic experience or a suggestible state of mind. And then there's the second stanza, italicized and modified by the rubric "OR," which makes it look like an attempt by the hymnal editors to take hymn-writing into their own hands: "The Lord is my song, the Lord is my praise," etc. There's nothing wrong with the words as such. It's just that you would have to repeat them a hypnotic number of times in order to obtain the effect that you have sung a hymn.

752 "Lord, listen to your children praying" is by Ken Medema (b. 1943), a blind songwriter who daylights as a music therapist for seriously hurting kids. As such, criticizing his work feels like kicking a puppy. But I don't think it is mean-spirited to point out that this four-line, one-stanza hymn, which including the harmony takes up only half a page in ELW, suffers from the same basic affliction as your average Taizé ditty: It's too short to be much use as a hymn, unless you repeat it ad nauseam. Like Berthier's music, it is harmonically static (with one or maybe two chord changes per bar, mostly to IV, V, or I chords), though there is one rather nice diminished chord in there at a dramatic moment. So, not to be unfairly critical, it's pretty bland stuff.

753 "Dona nobis pacem" is that arrangement of the final line of the Agnus Dei which, rendered in English, is: "Grant us peace." Like many fine musical settings of this liturgical text, it fills out its length (such as it is) by repeating its Latin text, repetitions that will multiply when the choir, children, or maybe (shudder) congregation try to sing it in a 3-part canon. None of this really offends me, except the idea of trying to get many of the congregations I have known to sing a 3-part canon, and the fact that space in a pew hymnal has been wasted on a Sunday School ditty that Mrs. Hasenpfeffer has probably already taught to the third-graders without using sheet music.

755 "Jesus, Savior, pilot me" is one that I have poked at before. I mention it again just to give an impression of how thickly the tackiness is strewn on this stretch of the ELW hit parade. Also, at this point, we've left the section titled "Prayer" and entered "Trust, Guidance." Just so you know.

756 "Eternal Father, strong to save" is William Whiting's (1825-78) four-stanza, Trinitarian hymn "for those in peril on the sea," wedded to the tune MELITA by John B. Dykes. It is a very successful combination of one of Dykes' more attractive pieces with a hymn that has created a niche for itself. In fact, the concept behind this hymn is so compelling that the other armed forces (besides the Navy) have added stanzas of their own, with the result that I (for example) once sang a verse for each branch of the U.S. military at a veterans'/reservists' "dining out" at my seminary. I remember it as a strenuous occasion, because I had to scream the hymn over the accompaniment of a phalanx of industrial-grade electric fans. But I digress. Attractive as it is, I still feel like making that "cat shaking its paws" gesture of ickiness after prolonged contact with its lush romanticism, and outside of Naval "dining outs" and chapel services on board ships, I don't see much use for such a niche-specific hymn.

I have only one complaint about the text of 760 "O Christ the same," by Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926): Its stanzas are twice as long as they should be. Metrically, they could be broken into twice as many stanzas of half the length; textually, this would do violence to a text whose structure (establishing an aspect of Christ's character before making an appeal based on the same) does not allow such a division. Because of the length of the stanzas, however, composer Carl Schalk (b. 1929) found room for a long melody (eight lines of 10 or 11 syllables each) that will be twice as difficult for the congregation to learn as the four-line alternative might have been. And the organist had better be watching his/her key signatures, because a couple of lines in the middle of the hymn switch to the parallel minor key and then back again. Other than that, and the sense that the hymn is taking its sweet time getting to the point, it's a reasonably good stab at a hymn riffing on the verse "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). It's just too bad that one has to work so hard to locate this unchanging Christ in the rapidly changing culture of doctrine and worship in ELW's target church bodies.

762 "Holy, holy, holy, holy" (Santo, santo, santo, santo)—I kid you not—is a long one-stanza hymn by Salvadoran composer Guillermo Cuéllar (b. 1955) and includes the Spanish version of its lyrics. As far as paraphrases of the Sanctus goes, it is pretty loose. Musically, it is strongly ethnic. Theologically, it smells vaguely of liberation theology, with its line about how God "accompanies our people" and "lives within our struggles" (not specifically mentioned in the Latin liturgical text) and in the final line's emphasis that the Good News is "that our liberation comes." In the context of an anglophone pew hymnal, its significance is probably triumphalistic, as I have suspected of many other sops to cultural diversity in this book. And in the context of a Lutheran church service in, say, Iowa City or Peoria, it's reads like a recipe for midwestern white people making themselves ridiculous.

763 "My life flows on in an endless song" is a classic piece of shmaltz by Robert Lowry (1826-99), better known to most of us by the last line of it concluding refrain: "How can I keep from singing?" Actually, I never heard this song until the St. Louis Symphony Chorus sang it at the funeral of one of its members, where the running metaphor of music and singing was especially poignant. It so effectively grabs one with a feeling of warm, gushy tenderness that, again, it feels mean-spirited to say anything against it. But there is so much to be said against it—not as a cultural artifact, but as a representative of Lutheran worship! Like several other hymns that I have been too chicken to pick on (like 759 "My faith looks up to Thee," whose popularity with the blue-haired set armors it against my minor quibbles), it hints at the attitude that says, "I am floating indifferently above the troubles of this world because I belong in heaven"—but which is not very true to the experience of most earthbound Christians. Nor is it encouraging to those who are faithfully engaged in a very earthy struggle to fulfill their vocation, to endure temptation, and to redeem the time. Finally, it conjures an idea of the "new creation," or the presence of Christ, that is infinitely far from the earthly means He has instituted (e.g., the Sacrament), located in the believer's ability to imagine that he hears a far-off echo of heavenly music ringing in his soul. How can I keep from singing, indeed? But now and then it behooves us to shut up and hear Jesus speaking.

768 "Lead me, guide me" is a contemporary gospel song by Doris Akers (1922-95), whose piano part (not printed in the pew edition) I can hear in my mind's ear, filling the duration of the tune's longer notes with classic R&B moves. Its melody is full of rhythmic pitfalls that will isolate the successful singer from the main body of the congregation, thereby guaranteeing that whatever you intend, it will inevitably become a piece for a soloist backed up by a select choir. And if that soloist doesn't have a soulful vibrato, she's being paid too much. As for the lyrics, what are they really but an excuse to keep singing this torch song to Jesus as long as it takes for the collection plate to go around a couple of times?

770 "Give me Jesus" (first line: "In the morning when I rise") is an African American spiritual with five repetitive stanzas and one repetitive refrain ("Give me Jesus, give me Jesus. You may have all the rest, give me Jesus"). It's a splendid choral arrangement, but not particularly well suited to congregational singing. It's a gorgeous cultural artifact, but not a particularly edifying instrument of teaching or witnessing. And while it models a laudable devotion to Jesus, its insistent harping on "Give me Jesus" misses a huge opportunity to confess how one is given Jesus. It's not even addressed to Him, which suggests that at bottom it's not a prayer or act of worship so much as a boast.

Boasting also plays a note in 771 "God, who stretched the spangled heavens" by Catherine Cameron (b. 1927), set to the early American tune HOLY MANNA. Stanza 1 moves on from recognizing God's creative brilliance to claiming kinship with him as creative beings. Stanza 2 moves forward into recounting some of mankind's achievements as a member of this fellowship of creators: space travel and splitting the atom. Stanza 3 closes the hymn with a prayer that God would guide us in our creativity to serve others, honor Him, and work toward the same goal as He. It's a surprising and interesting direction for a hymn to go from acknowledging God's creative might. But what is most surprising about it is how quickly it puts awe of the Creator behind it, as if we were on a basis of equality with Him. To my ear it sounds one small step away from determining that mankind's advances in science and technology have killed God altogether.

773 "Precious Lord, take my hand" is by Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1899-1993), "the father of black gospel music." According to Wiki, he wrote this song in 1932 while mourning the death of his wife and newborn son. If you wonder what I mean by snide references to a school of hymnody of the "recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford" persuasion, take this as your example. Besides T.E.F., it was also recorded by Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Jim Reeves, and Roy Rogers. One can argue that, with its origin story, the song's traditionally emotion-choked delivery is well earned. But one can also argue that it's a solo number, not for congregational singing; that it expresses personal feelings, rather than confessing what the church believes and teaches; and that most Christians can distinguish between the type of music they like to hear at home (or in the car, or on a jukebox) and what is most appropriate for worship. Viewed in that light, there is something downright ridiculous about devoting space in a pew hymnal for a Tennessee Ernie Ford hymn.

774 "What a fellowship" (Leaning on the everlasting arms) is another hymn that I have already weighed and found tacky. And so ends another discouraging group of 25 hymn numbers in ELW. But take heart! There are less than 5 such groups to go, and then we can move on to another collection of risible hymnody. Hang in there, Lutherans!