Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Recommended Ages: 12+

Sherlock Holmes had already appeared in two novels, but his popularity did not really take off until the brief "adventures" collected in this book began to appear in monthly issues of The Strand Magazine, from 1891 to -92. And though there are two novels and three volumes of short stories still to come, these twelve mysteries include some of Holmes' most memorable and celebrated cases. Few of them are concerned with actual murder or even actionable crimes, and Holmes doesn't always get his man (or woman). But they are Holmes all over, the Sherlock you sure love, fascinating us (even when his cases don't) by his keen observation, quick deduction, and encyclopedic recall of the history of crime—so that he can often solve in moments a case that keeps Scotland Yard guessing for days.

In "A Scandal in Bohemia," the King of Bohemia (which Conan Doyle seems to confuse with Scandinavia) hires Holmes to help him neutralize a threat to his marriage plans. It seems His Majesty has been foolish enough to allow another woman to possess a photograph of the two of them. In the Holmes canon, this is actually the only appearance of "the woman," as Holmes describes her: Irene Adler, celebrated as the only woman who ever outwitted him.

"The Red-Headed League" is a comic tale about a stingy pawnbroker who suspects he has been had. It turns out that the harmless scam of which he is the victim is only part of a plot to play much dirtier trick. In "A Case of Identity," Holmes is hired by a near-sighted spinster to solve the disappearance of her fiancé. In "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," Holmes helps Inspector Lestrade prove the innocence of a young man who has been arrested for the murder of his father. "The Five Orange Pips" is the rare case in which Holmes fails to save the life of his client, who comes to him with a creepy story about three successive members of his family receiving a cryptic message before they died. Among the spooky secrets Holmes uncovers in this dark installment is a connection to that American institution, the Ku Klux Klan.

"The Man with the Twisted Lip" is a missing persons case in which a well-off businessman vanishes, almost before his wife's eyes, from a room in which a lame beggar is found, along with some blood and the victim's clothes. Is it murder? Or could there be something even stranger going on? "The Blue Carbuncle" is a case of a stolen jewel, which comes Sherlock's way in the gizzard of a Christmas goose found lying in the street. His powers of detection are never shown more vividly than in "The Speckled Band," in which a villain hatches a diabolical plot to murder his twin stepdaughters.

In "The Engineer's Thumb," Holmes helps a confused young man track down the gang of forgers who tried to use him as an unwitting accomplice, and then tried to kill him. "The Noble Bachelor" concerns a bride who, ten minutes after the start of her wedding breakfast, steps out of the room for a moment and is never seen again. In "The Beryl Coronet," a banker fears his son has plundered a national treasure, and hires Holmes in the hope of recovering the lost gems. And finally, "The Copper Beeches" has to do with a governess who suspects that her employers are involving her in something sinister and dangerous.

These mysteries are very straightforward, simple, easy to enjoy. They follow a clear formula that has worked for millions of readers these 120-odd years. Sometimes Holmes solves them by spotting a clue that no one else noticed. Sometimes it is his knowledge of human nature, and of similar cases in the past, that does the trick. Again and again, the truth is revealed when Holmes asks someone the right question, or puts the right advertisement in the newspapers, or sets a trap into which his quarry cannot resist falling. Of course, Holmes isn't always right. His deduction, for example, that the whole world would someday become one nation under the combined flag of the US and the UK, now rings somewhere between "spooky" and "unintentionally funny."

But hey, Conan Doyle was a spooky customer. He believed in Spiritualism, which is why this book was briefly banned in the USSR. Spookiness works sometimes. It doesn't hurt when you are an author of detective thrillers and science fiction novels. Eerieness and suspense were his friends. His best work, both generally and in the Holmes canon, was yet to come in the haunted pages of The Hound of the Baskervilles. But in this book, he already makes an excellent start. This is classic Sherlock. It's attention-grabbing fun. And it is followed immediately by a second year's worth of monthly Holmes tales, collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Idiot

The Idiot
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Recommended Ages: 14+

Published in a series of magazine issues in 1868-69, this is one of the masterpieces by the author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. It made me laugh a great deal, but it is not a comedy. Its climax is mysterious and chilling, but it is not a thriller. Dickensian in its large cast of vividly colorful characters and in its satire on the society of its time, it is not quite a picaresque. Tragic to a truly disturbing degree, it is too subtle and complex to make grand opera, too often given to immensely long talky scenes, featuring too many characters, to translate well into film—though the attempt has often been made to adapt it for stage or screen. It's a great novel in which a sensitive reader can feel himself totally immersed, only to be shocked out of "willing suspension of disbelief" when its author breaks the fourth wall and begins commenting on his characters as fictional creations. Though it may come as a surprise to those of us who grew up watching a copy of the novel collecting dust in a reverential spot on our parents' bookshelf, looking so serious and sophisticated that we could hardly imagine trying to read it, it happens to be a vastly entertaining novel. Once you read it, you will not forget it.

Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin is the "idiot" named in the title. We first meet this simple-hearted young man on a train to St. Petersburg, returning to Russia after several years under a doctor's care in Switzerland. In boyhood he had been disabled to the point of idiocy by epilepsy, but the support of a wealthy patron and (later) the generosity of his doctor have at least partially cured him, and provided for his education. Now he has decided to return from abroad, but he really knows nothing about how to get along in Russian society. Even before he sets foot on the motherland's soil, his ignorance of the confusing forces in play around him begin to create trouble for the Prince. By the end (mild spoiler, here), his fragile nerves will prove unequal to the strain that arises from the instantaneous love and hate that he excites in the men and women he meets.

I've been pondering how to boil Prince Myshkin's story down into a neat, pithy statement. I am loath to say that Myshkin is a Christ figure; that's probably been said before, and the weaknesses in that thesis have just as likely been pointed out. More tempting is a broader description of Myshkin as the one whole, wholesome, healing person in the world, surrounded by a crowd of sick, sickening people who spread their sickness to one another. But just when I feel ready to go with that thesis, Dosto(y)evsky explodes it by showering his messy, flawed characters with gentle, non-judgmental understanding. In this book, bad people come to some bad ends. But some good people come, arguably, to even worse ends. And you're not sure whether to laugh or cry; or, should you settle on doing both, in which order to do them.

Poor Lev Nikolayevich finds himself torn between the love of two women, two diametrically opposite women whom he loves for diametrically opposite reasons, and who alternately seem to love and hate him in perversely unpredictable alternation, yet in completely different ways. And so we see a good man—perhaps the good man—forced into a situation where he can only do one evil thing or another. And when, at last, the choice has been made, the evil that results is all that could be expected, and more.

Among the other cast members in this novel's hypnotically long and complicated scenes—any one of which could be staged by itself as a piece of experimental theater—are:
  • General Yepanchin, a pompous, philandering, yet henpecked husband and gentleman
  • Lizaveta Prokofyevna, his bossy, hot-tempered, but basically tender-hearted wife
  • Their three unmarried daughters Alexandra, Adelaida, and the beautiful but flighty Aglaya
  • Rogozhin, the dangerously unstable heir to a fortune, who is obsessed with a beautiful but troubled woman named Nastasya Filipovna
  • Ganya Ivolgin, a young civil servant who is also torn between Aglaya and Nastasya Filipovna
  • Ganya's socially climbing sister Varya, his old-for-his-years little brother Kolya, and his father General Ivolgin, who is both a drunk and a compulsive liar
  • Lebedev, a sponging and scheming character whose many lines of work include government clerk, pawnbroker, landlord,  and interpreter of biblical prophecy
  • Hippolyte, a consumptive scandal-monger and nihilist who (in one of the book's most fascinating scenes) publicly reads a manifesto concerning his planned suicide
  • Yevgeny Pavlovich, another suitor for Aglaya's hand, who plays an ambiguously sympathetic role in the Prince's fate
These are only the foremost few of a much larger cast that includes an informer, a slanderer, a stammerer, a money-lender, an aspiring murderer (not to be confused with the actual murderer in the story, who has already been named), a child molester, and various representatives of every level of Russian society in all their glories and foibles. But at the center of it all is a fallen woman who fascinates many men, and who is drawn to destroy herself and those around her; a sheltered and virtuous girl whose happiness is threatened by her own willfulness; and our own dear Prince who, every time you think he's an idiot, says or does something that makes him seem amazingly wise and clear-headed; only to provoke someone to call him an idiot again in the next paragraph.

All this talk of Myshkin being an idiot will affect you as being cruelly unfair. Whatever he is—naive, pure, honest, lacking a sense of proportion, etc.—he is not, you will be sure, an idiot. Up to a certain point, you may think this book is about the injustice of such a man, of whom the world is not worthy, being called an idiot for his pains. At the end, however, it seems to be more about how the world can actually make an idiot of a good man. It is a novel of disgust with a world where the sanity of the upper, lower, and middle classes alike—of the very religious as well as those fired by political and rationalistic zeal—can destroy the sanity of people like Nastasya Filipovna, Rogozhin, and Myshkin, among others.

It is a novel of messed-up people in collision, and of one supremely messed-up individual who almost, for a little while, seems to have a chance to heal them all. It's a well-known enough book that it's not really a spoiler when I say things don't work out that way. I give you fair warning. Why they don't work out, and how they don't, will be on your mind for a while.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Morbid Doggerel

This truly horrible specimen will be filed under "The Jaundiced Eye" in my collected poems...

Death, devourer of all flesh,
Chooses oft the choice and fresh;
Those preserved till elder years
Brine themselves with salty tears.

Christ, who died to pay our debt,
Now death's stomach has upset.
Holy draft of ipecac,
He will cause all graves to yak.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Froi of the Exiles

Froi of the Exiles
by Melina Marchetta
Recommended Ages: 14+

An "Adult Content Advisory" remains in effect for the second book of the Lumatere Chronicles, in which the fate of kingdoms depend on the actions of highly sexed Young Adults. Even more so than in Finnikin of the Rock, in which the figurative and literal rape of a kingdom is involved in the tale of a nation divided 50/50 between captives and refugees. But now the people of Lumatere have been reunited; the curse has been broken that separated those within the boundaries from those without; their queen has returned to her people; and a new set of problems has arisen.

I was going to tell you about all these problems, but after four paragraphs of explanation I still hadn't mentioned the name of the title character. So maybe you're better off finding out about it honestly. Let's just say there is more trouble with curses, sacrileges and mysterious prophecies, more danger involving would-be assassins of a royal family, more intrigue between neighboring kingdoms that (naturally) have their own interests at heart, more more issues relating to plagues and famines and refugees, more victims of sexual abuse, more lovers who wonder if their broken relationships will ever heal, more nightmarish images of people being cruel to people, and as always, beautiful young things right in the thick of it all.

One of the beautiful young things is Froi, the urchin found by Lumatere's Queen Isaboe when she and half her kingdom were still in exile. Now bound in allegiance to her, Froi has learned the arts of war and done a bit of farming, but he still hasn't found out where he really belongs. When Isaboe sends him to the neighboring land of Charyn to assassinate its King—partly as revenge for the role he played in Lumatere's tragedy, and partly as justice for his brutality against his own people—she inadvertently helps him find out where he really came from. Now Froi finds himself torn between his orders to kill an insane princess and his growing realization that he is the one destined to break the curse that hangs over Charyn—a country where no child has been born, not one, in almost eighteen years. The princess may be the last-born; she may be the one prophesied to break the curse; she may also be a complete wacko. But she doesn't deserve the horror and just plain nastiness that has been her life until now. And nor, Froi senses, does she deserve the death that menaces her if she doesn't get pregnant by her eighteenth birthday. We will draw a veil over the steps that have been taken to fulfill this prophecy. Let's just leave it at "nasty."

Froi comes to Charyn on a mission to kill, and stays on a desperate quest to save life. Meanwhile, back in Lumatere, some of the Charynites have moved into a valley that technically belongs to the Monts, led by Isaboe's cousin Lucian. His wife Phaedra, the other half of an arranged and estranged marriage with a Charynite provincaro's daughter, becomes the lever that will move Lucian to become the man, and the leader, that he wasn't ready to be when his father died. But as the pages of this book run out and the tension and danger of the situation do the opposite, it becomes clear that this story will remain unfinished until the third book, Quintana of Charyn.

It isn't all teen and tween romance. This book also includes a more mature love story, as well as some very unlovely goings on. Potentially tragic misunderstandings, selfishness, pride, betrayal, lust for power, the terror of anarchy, violence (sexual and otherwise), and a swarm of other vices and atrocities teem in a tale that will definitely leave you a little less complacent about human nature. At its heart are a husband and wife who do not realize that they love each other until it is perhaps too late, a family whose feelings for each other have been twisted out of recognition by the perils and intrigues at the center of a nation's politics, and a unique culture whose only hope of survival depends on the fate of a mysterious, mad princess and her unborn child. It's a hard book to take, at times. But there is something very moving about it, too.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Sign of (the) Four

The Sign of the Four
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Recommended Ages: 12+

The second book of the Sherlock Holmes canon was first published in 1890 under the five-word title The Sign of the Four. Since then, it has often been republished under the four-word title The Sign of Four. The confusion actually originates in the book itself, in which both phrases are used interchangeably. Although Holmes did not really become a hit until Conan Doyle followed up with a series of short stories (later collected in such books as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), this book is an important step in the development of a great cultural icon. This is the one in which Dr. Watson meets his beloved wife Mary. It marks the first time Holmes enunciates his famous dictum, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." In this novel, the sleuth's craving for a seven-percent solution of cocaine is first mentioned, as is the name of the Baker Street Irregulars, those dirty-faced junior detectives of his. Viewers of TV's Elementary will thrill to find Holmes here saying, for the first time: "You can... never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to." And fans of the late Holmes film featuring a bare-knuckled boxing Holmes may be delighted to spot the first mention of his pugilistic talents, already in his second recorded case.

Holmes is indeed a wonderful creation, either as a literary figure to visualize as you read, or as a role for an actor to bring to life. Too many heroes of modern folklore are upstaged by the villains they strive against. Name, for example, a single actor playing Batman who has not paled alongside the flamboyant Joker. Name one incarnation of Superman who was more interesting than his Lex Luthor. (I do not mean more pretty to look at. I mean more fun to watch.) Dracula is always more magnetic than Van Helsing. But for all his edginess and troubling traits, Holmes is one of the rare heroes who holds more fascination than the monsters he hunts. Dark, complex, and ambiguous as his character may be, he is an essentially good guy who triumphs over evil through keen observation, deductive reasoning, and discipline of mind, and yet our attention is riveted to him, and eagerly comes back to him even after the intriguing facts of the case are laid bare. Alongside this charismatic hero, the banality of evil is powerfully seen and felt. Holmes himself quotes a French proverb that makes this very point: "Le mauvais goût mène au crime." Bad taste leads to crime.

While that quote is fresh in mind, I should suggest that when you read this, you keep a computer handy for looking up quotations in Latin, French, and German that Holmes is wont to toss off by way of urbane conversation. Not only does he go in for references to great authors, but for recommendations of books one should read if one wants to become, like Watson, a sidekick worthy of a great Victorian detective. Be sure to start your bibliography of books recommended by Sherlock Holmes, if not in A Study in Scarlet, at least in this book. Conan Doyle allows Holmes to develop a believable life of the intellect, including references to actual philosophers such as Jean Paul and Winwood Reade.

In the first case Holmes and Watson worked together, the tale of detection was enlivened by a subplot involving a nightmare version of Brigham Young's Mormon utopia. The historical melodrama playing out in the background of this mystery is the 1875 Sepoy Mutiny, in which British forces in India were attacked by their native allies. Mixed up with this tale are a prison break, a stolen treasure, the disappearance of a retired army officer, and an early masterpiece of the Locked Room Murder Mystery. Brilliant deductions based on easy-to-miss clues only bring Holmes so far in his hunt for the killers. Where deductive genius gives out, exhaustive footwork begins. Here we see Holmes and Watson trailing behind a hound, and street urchins combing the riverbanks for a missing steam launch, and a high-speed chase down the Thames, and even a shootout between two Englishmen armed with revolvers and an islander armed with a poisoned-dart blowpipe. You don't see that every day.

Nearly five quarters of a century later, we now have the luxury of taking Sherlock Holmes for granted. It gets easier to do every year, what with two different Holmes-based TV series available on demand, and a list of films so extensive that you would need a big, round magnifying glass to study it. My advice: don't. Don't take Holmes for granted. Follow my example and discover him anew, starting at the beginning and appreciating, maybe for the first time in your life, how deeply your world has been impacted by the main character in four pulp novels and 56 short stories. There's a reason Holmes made the big time, and has stayed there ever since. These stories are well-written, compelling, smart, high-quality pieces of entertainment. They not only titillate with images of fiendishness and horror; they also stimulate the intellect, the heart, and one's sense of justice. They not only depict the curious state of the cutting-edge criminology of a century ago; they also bring out themes of modern life in surprisingly sharp relief. They are not only historical costume dramas, but human dramas that still ring true in urban life today. And though the adventures of Holmes have scarcely begun in this book, the man we all know—even though he never existed—already, fully, convincingly lives.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Reminiscere Hymn

Text: based on Matthew 15:21-28, the traditional Gospel for the second Sunday in Lent.
Tune: DER MANGE SKAL KOMME (Stockholm, 1695).
Remember Your goodness and mercy, O Lord,
For they are from ages of ages.
Let us not succumb to the enemy horde;
Save us from the trouble that rages.
Remember your mercies, O Jesus!

The saints of all ages pray on our behalf,
And likewise the just in all places:
We lift up our souls! Lest our enemies laugh,
Deliver us, Hope of all races.
Remember your mercies, O Jesus!

The Canaanite woman commended her care
To You who could free her bound daughter;
Unworthy yet trusting, we too lift our prayer,
Entreating the blessing You brought her:
Remember Your mercies, O Jesus!

When to our petition no answer we hear,
Grant us to obey her example,
Persistent in plying Your all-knowing ear,
Believing Your stores to be ample.
Remember Your mercies, O Jesus!

For we, too, are beggars and heathens indeed,
Deserving no seat at Your table.
The crumbs You let fall are enough for our need;
To save even us You are able.
Remember Your mercies, O Jesus!

Release us from bondage of body and soul,
O Shepherd of Israel, most holy!
By Your gift of faith, make us righteous and whole;
For we are but poor, weak, and lowly.
Remember Your mercies, O Jesus!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire
by Rick Riordan
Recommended Ages: 12+

In Book 2 of the "Kane Chronicles," the Texas-based author of the "Tres Navarre" mysteries cleverly uses hilarious, romantic, magical, and thrill-packed entertainment to educate young adults about ancient Egyptian mythology. He's very sneaky that way. But we're not surprised, since he did the same thing with Greek mythology in the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series. Ditto Roman mythology in the "Heroes of Olympus" series. Face it, you're going to need a roadmap to keep track of all the different ways Rick Riordan has brought the legends of ancient gods and heroes into the present day. But in spite of the globe-trotting complexity of the action in this book, and the relative unfamiliarity of the gods, monsters, and mythological concepts it introduces, this is a deceptively easy book to enjoy.

The charm of the brother and sister narrators, taking turns dictating their story into a voice recorder, is one reason for this. Another is Riordan's knack for skewering bits of weird, ancient Egyptian trivia with brightly colored, memory-grabbing gimmicks, such as dubbing one antlered god "Bullwinkle," or describing a psychedelic griffin as a seven-thousand-pound hummingbird. You may giggle, perhaps blasphemously, at a hairy dwarf god who puts on his "ugly suit" (i.e., a speedo), pulls a demon-scaring face, and yells "BOO!" But you won't forget him soon.

Teenage magicians Sadie and Carter Kane extend the same genius as far as dubbing a villain "the ice cream man," speculating about Ptah being the god of spit, and describing the god of the underworld as having skin the color of a blueberry. But all their wise-cracking and sibling raillery is needed to lighten what would otherwise be a very dark adventure. For, don't you know, the world is going to end in four days unless they do something about it. Something big. Something "awaken-Ra-the-pharaoh-of-the-gods-from-a-three-thousand-year-slumber" big. Only Ra was ever strong enough to balance the powers of chaos, represented by the serpent-god Apophis, with ma'at, or good order. But even if they find him, and the three pieces of the scroll that contains the spell to wake him up, it may not be enough. Ra, after all, is old—old even by the standards of the gods—and for all anyone knows, completely senile. So it's not enough that the Kanes face an all but impossible task; they must do it while also resisting the temptation to seize power for themselves, to become at one with the lesser gods Horus and Isis, and to try their own divinely amplified strength against Apophis.

Of course, that would be spectacularly bad. But their task doesn't become any easier when winning puts people they care about in danger, when many of their fellow magicians are out to kill them, when their home base in Brooklyn is under attack by demons, and when their journey through the twelve houses of the underworld is plagued with misfortune, sabotage, and a deadly game with one of Egypt's least attractive gods. (And I don't mean the one who says "Boo!") A tomb full of mummies and ghosts, a wrestling match with river demons, a train-station-wrecking battle with a vulture goddess and an over-shampooed baboon, and several out-of-body experiences are only a few of the side trips that make their quest more interesting. From chilly St. Petersburg to sweltering Cairo, with stops in New York, London, and a nursing home for retired gods, the Kanes get the full tour of the classic quest myth while time runs out for life as we know it.

Whatever happens, the world will be different when Carter and Sadie are through with it. But their adventures are far from over. The "Kane Chronicles" continue with a third book, 2012's The Serpent's Shadow. Plus, both this book and its predecessor The Red Pyramid have been published as graphic novels; and a crossover series combining the Kanes with Percy Jackson is now up to two books: The Son of Sobek and The Staff of Serapis. There is even a Kane Chronicles Survival Guide, for what it's worth. As for me, I would stick to the stories. This one is lots of fun. By now, I would expect no less of any novel by Rick Riordan.

Passover Hymn

Thanks to the amazing Matthew Carver, a talented and prolific translator of hymns, for giving me the idea for this in his translation of a Latin Easter sequence.
Lord God, who once brought Israel out
From Pharaoh's yoke and chain,
Now save us too from sin and doubt,
From tyranny of pain.
By faith we are Israel indeed,
As You all ages planned.
In Christ You shouldered all our need;
By right of Him we stand.

The hardened heart, O God, is proof
Against both plague and sign;
Come bane or boon, it stands aloof,
Will not toward You incline.
Soften whom You will soften, Lord,
As when You conquered Saul;
But should some harden all the more,
Redeem us from their thrall.

Make sport of them who mock You, Lord;
Make peace with those who fear.
Make short the hours to heave and hoard;
Make space to meet us here.
Make time within our busy life
To gather in Your praise;
Make haste amid our toil and strife
To rest us on Your grace.

Lord, who made water into blood
And scourged the land with thirst,
Remember too the cleansing flood
That washed away our curse.
That which as blood You consecrate,
We taste as sweetest wine;
Through Him whose death we venerate,
Make us Your spotless shrine.

As Egypt's beds and ovens burst
With hopping, croaking toads,
Our conscience wriggles, even worse,
With guilt whose ooze corrodes.
Though dust be lice, though flies may swarm,
Though flesh erupt in sores,
Though man and beast alike take harm,
Our sin afflicts us more.

Though hail destroy, though locusts chew,
Though smothering darkness fall,
We nonetheless rely on You
To spare us through it all.
We are Your people, Lord, by faith,
Daubed with the pure Lamb's blood;
So, even in the night of death,
We know Your will is good.

Again forgive, for we repent
Our fickle, stubborn ways.
Help us to bear, and soon relent,
These bitter chastening days.
The sprinkled blood of spotless Lamb
On us your angels see;
Therefore consider us, I AM,
Your righteous flock to be.

And now, by water claimed and known,
We leave behind our foes,
Drowned in the sea and overthrown,
And go where Your light goes.
So long as we still journey here,
Lord, hold us in Your hand;
Bring us at last, beyond all fear,
Into the promised land.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tacky Hymns 53

More from The Service Hymnal: A Lutheran Homecoming (Boulder: Voice of the Rockies, 2001)...

67 "Thine is the glory" (risen, conquering Son) commences the Easter section of the hymnal with a Baptist hymn text set to the tune JUDAS MACCABAEUS by Handel, from his oratorio of the same name. Let's just add this to my list of examples of classical themes converted into hymn tunes that, in my opinion, do a disservice both to classical music and to hymnody.

70 "Behold a host, arrayed in white" is a favorite Danish funeral hymn which Sucha strangely sites in the Easter section, though it is more relevant to the "end times."

72 "Now the green blade rises" has been discussed before. I mention it in passing, rather than simply passing over it, to give you a more accurate idea of how frequent are this book's questionable hymn selections.

73 "Lift up your heads, ye gates of brass" is an 1821 Ascension hymn by James Montgomery, set to the well-known tune ELLACOMBE1. It is also, in sharp contrast to most Ascension hymns I know, an anthem of militant Christian imperialism. Stanza 1 depicts the cross of Christ as the banner of His army in the field, shining like a star on their march and leading them in the fight. Stanza 2 begins, "A holy war those servants wage," and continues with a crowd of martial images: a battle for "more than death or life" taking place between "the powers of heaven and hell," and "warriors of Christ's host" taking up their post "where hallowed footstep nevere trod," etc. Could this be interpreted as spiritual warfare against unseen enemies, such as temptation within, or the corrupting forces of society around us? The answering "Maybe" grows weaker as the hymn continues, in stanza 3, to discuss "the conquest of all lands," for "All must be his at length." Assuming that Montgomery is representative of his period and the Empire to which he belonged, this sounds awfully like using motives of Christian missions as justification for the military conquest and economic exploitation of foreign countries.

74 "Golden harps are sounding" is a precious little Ascension hymn by Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-79), full of childlike simplicity and warm sentiment. It also has somewhat of the ring of stifling schoolmarmishness that may have contributed to the frustration of many boys, some three or four generations ago, feeling strangled by their starchy collars and longing to be free from having to go to church and put up with such mortifying, emasculating sugar-water. It perpetuates poetical cliches like the phrase "pearly gates." And the words of its refrain, "All his work is ended," don't take into account the work of intercession Christ continues to do on our behalf, let alone His intimate involvement with the faithful on earth.

78 "There's a fountain flowing" is a 19th century Swedish hymn out of the Covenant Church that, according to editor James Sucha's explanatory blurb, splintered off the Lutheran Church in the 1800s. Its five stanzas, sung to a shmaltzy facsimile of a folk tune, dwell at length on the benefits of the liquid that flowed from Jesus' side on the cross. Yet the hymn never commits itself as to whether it is talking about baptism, the Lord's Supper, or anything else in particular. This vagueness seems calculated to let the reader, hearer, or singer imagine his own route of access to the benefits of Jesus' cross.

79 "Savior, thy dying love" is another hymn that I have previously abused (under the title "Something for Thee"), and it's an easy target, what with the breathless melodrama of its poetic meter and the warbly sentimentality of the tune to which I know it best: WINTERTON by J. Barnby. TSH however, like the hymnal referenced in my previous remark on this hymn, concentrates the shmaltz even more with R. Lowry's tune SOMETHING FOR JESUS, which sounds like the tear-jerking alma mater of an all-boys' Ivy League prep school.

80 "Victim divine, thy grace we claim" actually does unite a tune by Joseph Barnby (1838-96)—ST. CHRYSOSTOM, on which I have also commented before—with a "Communion" text by Charles Wesley, one of the fathers of Methodism. Though it does a remarkably good job of expressing the mystery of the atonement, and almost (but not quite) gives a clear confession of how Christ applies the atonement to us in His Supper, it is not without its awkwardnesses. At least one of them seems to be the fault of Wesley himself, who (for example) in his fifth and last stanza dithers over whether to apply Jacobean verb-endings such as "-est" and "-eth"; sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't. Other blemishes seem to be the mistake of the editor, who (for another example) mistakes the word "savor" for "savior." For me, though, this is mainly a tacky hymn because it's in the "Communion" section, but does not assert anything clearly and directly about the Sacrament.

81 "Let us break bread together" has been discussed before. With Communion distribution taking up less and less time in many Lutheran Churches—perhaps in consequence of their imbibing the ideas about the Sacrament expressed by hymns like this—it hardly seems necessary for Sucha to add two additional stanzas of his own composition to this historic African-American slave spiritual. The slightness of their content is ridiculously out of proportion to the amount of time they add to the length of this piece.

About equally helpful.
82 "Come, let us eat" is another hymn we have previously dealt with. What does Sucha add in this instance? He adds, for one thing, a patronizing but uninformative image of the map of Africa, on which the hymn's country of origin (Liberia) is almost too tiny to make out. For another, he offers a partial list of American hymnals the song has appeared in, including those of the Methodist and Covenant churches, as if we care. And thirdly, he suggests singing this hymn as a round, quote, "to give it zest." Thank you, I would rather have a twist, preferably in gin and tonic.

83 and 84 "A mighty fortress is our God" are two settings of Luther's paraphrase of Psalm 46, which Sucha triumphalistically styles "the greatest hymn of the greatest man of the greatest period of German history" and the "Battle Hymn of the Reformation." And though admitting that the isometric version of the hymn, originating in the cantatas of J. S. Bach, requires a translation in a different meter from Luther's original text, he somehow contrives that both settings are of the isometric version—whereas most hymnals offering two settings of this hymn would make sure that one was the rhythmic version, in Luther's original meter. Why include two settings of the same isometric version? In the first place, so that one can be in the key of C and the other in D. And in the second place, so that Sucha can include his own setting of the melody, "based on Johann Sebastian Bach." Let's not go there again, all right? If you're not going to leave Bach's harmonization unaltered (except perhaps by transposing it to a lower key), leave his name out of it!

85 "Eternal Father, strong to save" is "The Navy Hymn," as the subtitle at the top of the page admits. I have already called this offender on the carpet not once, but twice before, albeit for the gentlest of criticism. The biggest problem with having it in the pew hymnal is that the space is wasted on a piece that has very limited application in the real world; it seems better suited for an armed forces supplement or a thin book of devotional hymnody. But its appearance in TSH points up some of the more obnoxious aspects of Sucha's layout practices, including the arbitrary selection of fonts, which change from one stanza to the next, and the garbled syntax of the editorial blurb, whose want of a copy-editor's red pencil resulted in such unreadable sentences as, "Named after Melita, where the island the Apostle Paul reached after his ship went down (Acts 28:1); today we know it as the isle of Malta."

Why not Private Sonatas?
By now we have reached the section titled "General Hymns," which runs from hymn 83 to 193, with a few topical interruptions and refinements along the way. It is evident from this that less care has been taken in this book, than in any other I know of, to sort the hymns into intelligible categories. Within this region, Sucha is inconsistent as to whether or he includes the topical heading at the top of each hymn. He sometimes adds a subtopic, such as "General Hymns/Contemporary" and "General Hymns/Comfort." He occasionally takes time out for a group of hymns under another topic, such as "Confirmation of Youth," "World Missions," and even "Martin Luther King Jr. Day"(!!). One gets the impression, looking ahead (for we go no further today), that this project was still in an unfinished state when it went to press. I can well understand how the process of editing and correction can seem to go on for eternity. Perhaps, in this case, a never-ending purgatory of proofreading would be preferable to having gone off half-baked.


1Think: "Hosanna, loud hosanna."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Recommended Ages: 12+

When detective fiction was still in its infancy, in the year 1887, this novel first appeared in an issue of Beeton's Christmas Annual. Just imagine: it was the first anyone had ever heard of Sherlock Holmes! Then a young physician, just starting to stretch his literary muscles, Arthur Conan Doyle here created a character who has become one of the most enduring figures in the popular imagination. The Holmes Canon now includes four novels and 56 short stories, written over a period of 40 years, but it all began here.

I didn't read this book when I owned an omnibus volume called The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I had that book for several years, and read many of the shorter Holmes tales before I sold it in a garage sale circa 1988. I saw piles of the same edition marked down for clearance at the late and lamented Borders as recently as 2006. One almost had to give the book away; it seemed more a doorstop or a paperweight than something actually to be read. This is partly due to the repulsive, eye-straining layout of the book, and partly due to its uncomfortable heft. This, together with a few other experiences, has taught me to avoid omnibus editions. They are the bane of reading and the germ of procrastination.

I also didn't read this book when I got my first Kindle. I meant to use the device only to read books that I could download for free. This included parts of the Holmes Canon, but among the exceptions was this book. I grudged the $0.99 Amazon wanted me to pay for the e-book edition of a novel first published 101 years before I sold my hard copy of it. And because I wanted to read the series in canon order, that meant waiting before reading anything Holmes.

And then, Hollywood happened. Holmes has been everywhere lately! Robert Downey has played him in a recent brace of blockbuster movies. Benedict Cumberbatch has ridden BBC's Holmes-in-the-21st-century series Sherlock to overnight superstardom. And Jonny Lee Miller has turned in a very different, but still marvelous, present-day account of Holmes in CBS's Elementary. I know very well that none of these entertainments is especially faithful to the original Holmes. But I have enjoyed all of them too much to be able to wait a minute longer to reacquaint myself with Holmes as Conan Doyle created him. In canon order. And that meant, alas, blowing four or five bucks at the Kindle Store.

More surprises were in store for me. Did you know that A Study in Scarlet included the first depiction of a magnifying glass being used as a crime-detecting tool? Did you realize that the pilot episode of Sherlock is, up to a certain degree, a faithful adaptation of this first Holmes novel? This is the one where Holmes and Watson meet and become roommates at 221B Baker Street. This is where Holmes first lays out the science of deduction and his "attic theory" of the brain, first displays his talent as a violinist, first exhibits mood swings ranging from morbid depression to fierce energy, and most importantly, first has Watson along as an observer and chronicler. Here we first meet the street urchins Holmes employs as his junior detectives, and the Scotland Yard chumps Gregson and Lestrade, who are keen to take credit for his sleuthing.

Perhaps equally surprising is what isn't in this first novel. No deerstalker cap. No Meerschaum pipe. No mention, or even hint, of Moriarty. No qualm against doing in the landlady's dog with poison (partly to end its suffering, and partly to test a theory about the crime). Sure, there is an old lady who turns out to be an actor in disguise, and one clever enough to elude Holmes' pursuit; but the person under the disguise isn't Irene Adler. And sure, the killer has the same occupation, the same diabolical means of persuading his victims to take the poison, and the same life-threatening health condition that enables him to disregard his own safety, as the perpetrator in Sherlock's "A Study in Pink"—but he's not a psychopath. He's an avenging angel. And the motive for his crimes is as stunning as it is moving.

The mystery develops along the expected lines, though Holmes only reveals some of the clues he discovered at the end, while explaining how he solved it; so, don't expect to be able to solve it yourself. At the point when Holmes lays his hands on the guilty party, it comes as a terrific surprise. But the biggest surprise is yet to come: several chapters of a tale of horror, survival, and revenge in the early Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City. If it weren't for the mention of a couple of character names that you'll recognize from before, you might suspect a glitch in your Kindle had stitched the first half of a Holmes mystery to the second half of a western thriller.

Also, you may be shocked at the very dark depiction of the Latter Day Saints in this segment. Brigham Young himself makes a frightening appearance, and the atmosphere is like a tale of attempted escape from an evil cult or a religious inquisition. It is uncertain whether or not the author regretted writing this perhaps libelous account. Even bearing in mind that Conan Doyle wrote this when Utah Valley Mormonism was still tiny and new, and when sensationalized accounts of certain dark episodes in LDS history were fresh in the popular mind, this book's depiction of Mormonism is harsh enough to have been removed from school reading lists in some districts. I mention it so that you can apply your own judgment, and be prepared for the surprise. Don't blame your Kindle!

Conan Doyle's Holmes canon continues with the following books, which I intend to read soon:
  • The Sign of the Four (1890 novel)
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (12 stories from 1891-92)
  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (11 or 12 stories from 1892-93)
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles (novel, serialized in 1901-02)
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes (13 stories from 1903-04)
  • The Valley of Fear (novel, seralized in 1914-15)
  • His Last Bow (7 or 8 stories, collected in 1917)
  • The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (12 stories from 1921-27)
Other works by Arthur Conan Doyle include the five "Professor Challenger" sci-fi/fantasy novels, beginning with The Lost World; and some thirteen other books in genres ranging from historical fiction and Bildungsroman to Gothic mysteries, political potboilers, and satirical vignettes. I have loads of them in my Kindle already. Expect to hear more about them!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs
Recommended Ages: 13+

What happens when a filmmaker, vintage photograph collector, and author of a reference work on Sherlock Holmes decides to write a YA novel? What happens is this creepy, funny, weird fantasy involving monsters, time travel, and children with super powers, all accompanied by an atmospheric selection of black-and-white photos.

Our narrator on this journey is sixteen-year-old Jacob Portman, a smart-mouthed rich kid from Florida, USA. As his tale begins, Jacob's biggest problems are trying to get fired by the drugstore chain owned by his uncles, who have stifling plans for the rest of his life, and watching his beloved Polish-American grandfather slipping into dementia. Grandpa has always told tall stories about the monsters he escaped from as a child (probably the Nazis who murdered his family), and the magical Welsh orphanage where he hid out until he was old enough to go back and fight the monsters himself (which, in reality, may have meant fighting in World War II). The old photos he always claimed as evidence are obviously fake. Now, in his confusion, Abraham Portman claims that the monsters have found him and calls his grandson, pleading for help. Jacob ditches work and rushes to Abraham's house, only to find his grandfather bleeding to death in the woods. The old man's dying words suggest that he will find answers on the Welsh island where he grew up. And then Jacob sees it—a monster lurking in the trees, just like the ones his grandfather described.

Of course, the tragedy is put down to feral dogs, and Jacob's monster sighting is interpreted as if his mind has cracked under the strain. Months of therapy later, Jacob himself believes that what he saw was a wild dog. But after finding another secret stash of his grandfather's old photos—as well as a letter from someone on that Welsh island—he makes up his mind. Jacob decides he needs to visit this island sanctuary where his grandfather once stayed as a war refugee. Encouraged by his shrink and accompanied by his father (who happens to be a bird-watching enthusiast), he travels by plane, train, and ferry to the tiny island of Cairnholm, where there is exactly one boarding-house, one place to eat, and one land-line telephone (and no cellular reception). Once in these rustic surroundings, Jacob discovers that the orphanage where his grandfather once lived was destroyed by a German aerial bomb in 1940. The only thing it seems likely he will find in the overgrown wreckage is a lot of mildew, wood-rot, and still more weird photographs.

But then, one cold rainy day, one of the children his grandfather played with as a child appears to him. Jacob follows this girl through a secret tunnel, until they come out on a warm summer day in 1940—the very day the bomb struck the house. There Jacob discovers that Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is not just an orphanage, or a haven for war refugees, but a time loop in which several magically gifted children have lived, unchanged, for some seventy years. They include a girl who can start fires with her mind, an invisible boy, a levitating girl, and a boy with bees living inside his body. The 24-hour loop of time in which they live has protected them not only from a fiery death, but also from aging... and especially, from a race of soulless creatures that crave the blood of "peculiar" children. All this is thanks to a headmistress who, besides being able to turn into a bird, can also manipulate time.

Jacob turns out to have a peculiarity of his own, which may be the key to the children's survival as one of those "hollowgasts" stalks them, aided and abetted by a "wight" (an evil minion with more of a human shape and intellect). On the other hand, Jacob may be the very one who has led these monsters to Miss Peregrine's doorstep. Whatever happens next, it becomes increasingly clear that Jacob can never go back to his old life. In a sense this is OK, because he likes his new friends—one girl in particular—more than anyone in the world he leaves behind. But in a bigger sense, it means terrible danger as the children face a murderer at large, an armed kidnapper, a terrifying monster, and an uncertain future in the war-torn past. By the end of this book, the children face a mysterious new threat that could destroy not only their safe haven, but the whole world.

This is only the first book in a new series, which continues with the sequel Hollow City, published in January 2014. It's not only a compelling thriller, with a bit of romance, a lot of laughs, and a hero who grows more attractive as the story goes along. It's also an album of disturbing and haunting images that appear to have been taken as novelties in the heyday of our grandparents and great-grandparents. These images are so important that, for once, I would advise against taking in this book via the audio-book narrated by Jesse Bernstein. These peculiar children are to be seen, and not heard.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Tacky Hymns 53

Our look at the hymn selection in The Service Hymnal: A Lutheran Homecoming (TSH) continues. For those just now tuning in, here's a general recap of the notes we have struck so far: (1) As one man's "dream hymnal," compiled and published on his own initiative, it reveals the importance of subjecting a hymnal project to the consent and consensus of a wider church body. (2) As the work of a Lutheran who converted to Methodism and back again, it invites suspicion of a fundamental bias against historical Lutheran criteria for hymn selection. (3) As a representative of a "conservative" school of thought, it reveals the importance of identifying precisely what period of "Lutheranism" one means to conserve. (4) With respect to the hymns in its Advent and Christmas sections, it also points up the importance of understanding the difference between a religious-themed folksong, carol, or popular ditty, and a hymn for public worship. Now let's see whether the next clutch of hymns corrects the impression that this book is, at bottom, a document of vanity, ignorance, so-so theology, and (let's face it) bad taste.

49 "We three kings of Orient are" opens the Epiphany section with five stanzas of the popular carol by J. H. Hopkins (1820-91). The same part of me that suffers when I see "its" confused with "it's" and "their" with "there," etc., squirms at the biblical misconception perpetuated by the first line of this hymn. It's not the "Orient" part that bugs me; the word, politically correct or no, means "East" and, as such, is correct whether you're talking about Persia or Japan. The trouble is "three kings," two words which contain two fallacies. Scripture does not say how many there were, and magi does not mean kings. If you could change the first line without doing violence to a widely loved carol, you might have something good here. But it would be better used in the home or in social gatherings outside the worship hour, because it is, after all, not a hymn. If you do not understand this, you probably shouldn't be editing a hymnal.

50 "Brightest and best of the stars of the morning" is by Reginald Heber (1783-1826), an Anglican bishop who died in India and who also wrote the popular hymn "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty." The latter is one of those hymns that a Lutheran pastor, be he ever so fastidious, can safely pick out of whatever hymnal or sight-saving songbook happens to be lying around an ecumenical chapel (such as in hospitals, nursing homes, and military bases); it becomes such an all-purpose mainstay that after a while you can sing it without noticing. "Brightest and best," meanwhile, is one of those as-heard-on-the-electronic-carillon pieces that, for all its cozy familiarity, also has a syrupy sentimentality about it that ought to make a Lutheran feel as if he had strayed into the wrong church. Much of this effect is due to James Harding's tune MORNING STAR; a more Lutheran-sounding alternate tune appears later in the book.

Although the Epiphany Season can sometimes run as long as nine Sundays (depending on which lectionary one uses and the date of Easter that year), these are the only two hymns listed under "Epiphany."

53 "What wondrous love is this" is a "USA folk hymn" from the American south, circa 1840. I have mentioned before that, for all its dark grandeur, it can be a trial of patience, what with each stanza repeating a few phrases of text several times in a slow tempo. Sucha adds to the tedium by inserting a stanza of his own composition.

55 "Thy heart, O God is mourned, and known" (sic) is a bad translation of a Slovak hymn that LSB and ELW1 render as "Your heart, O God, is grieved, we know." The translator's initials? J. G. S. Coincidence? I think not. In addition to an almost incomprehensible translation, made still uglier by incorrect use of punctuation, Sucha supplies his own harmonization of the tune, which he actually claims, right in the "setting" credit line, to be "influenced by J. S. Bach." Now that I have played through Sucha's arrangement, I gather that Bach's influence on it is rather like the influence of vermouth on Noël Coward's recipe for a martini (illustrated here). There is exactly half a phrase of interesting harmony where I scent a resemblance to Bach's chorale harmonizations. In proportion to three and a half phrases of boring harmony and clumsy voice-leading—including gaffes that would have gotten red marks from the prof in Music Theory 201—this thinly diluted droplet of influence tastes weak compared to the aroma of berries—as in the berries the translator/arranger/editor displays by inviting the comparison. Must I add that it is highly irregular for a hymn's credit lines to mention supposed influences on the piece's style? This is tackiness above and beyond the call of duty! Sucha then repeats the claim that "The harmony here has had some influence from Bach" in his explanatory blurb at the foot of the page. "Some influence," he says, perhaps realizing that qualified language is indicated.

57 and 58 "All glory, laud, and honor" are two translations, side by side, of the 9th century hymn by Theodulph of Orleans. Hymn 57 is the "restored text and harmony," meaning J. M. Neale's (1818-66) translation and the arrangement from SBH.2 Hymn 58 is the "modern text version," with an only slightly different harmony by W. H. Monk (1823-89). It is interesting to compare the two versions, but really! What is an editor for but to make decisions? If he had chosen one version over the other, he could have spared room for another hymn. Or maybe that isn't such a good idea... Also interesting is the historical blurb's claim that St. Theodulph sang this hymn to the tune here named after him. This conflicts with the credit line, which ascribes the tune to Melchior Teschner, 1615. Sucha's informative chin-wag seems to be getting ahead of his data.

60 and 61 "There is a green hill far away" again represents the same hymn set to two different tunes. Connoisseurs of Lutheran hymnals will, at this point, develop a sickening feeling of "Oh no, it's SBH all over again, with two or three tunes devoted to way too many fair-to-middling hymns!" Though the historical blurb references the tune HORSLEY on both pages, that familiar tune is actually only used in hymn 61—a mistake that evidently slipped past the one-man editorial staff. The blurb also informs us that Ms. Cecil Alexander wrote the hymn by the sickbed of one of her Sunday school students, who afterward unexpectedly recovered and gave the hymn credit for her cure. The description falls just short of sounding like a miracle attributed to a holy relic. The hymn itself, meanwhile, comes just short of giving the afflicted child (then believed to be dying) a send-off full of pure gospel comfort. After describing the atoning death and love of Jesus in sweet, child-friendly terms, in its final stanza it adds works to faith in the means by which one takes hold of Christ's love. We "must" love him, it says in response to Jesus' love; and after urging us to "trust in His redeeming blood," it ends with, "and try his works to do." This almost sounds like taking pure gospel away with one hand and giving moralism and synergism with the other.

62 "Were you there?"—still tacky, for reasons I have already mentioned in this thread. Sucha's blurb at the end of the piece hints that its purpose is to enable worshipers to "express their feelings about Christ's passion." Imagine how much meaning relating to the same could be expressed in the time it takes to sing this slow, trembly spiritual.

63 "Jesus, keep me near the cross" has also come up before. The blurb explains that Fanny Crosby, "probably the most prolific hymnist in history," wrote over 8,000 hymns; and composer Doane, perpetrator of the tune that accompanies her text, wrote 2,200 hymn tunes. Both authors demonstrate in this hymn that quantity is no substitute for quality. That their work is widely distributed among American hymnals also goes to show that there is no accounting for taste.

Sucha devotes two of the next three hymn numbers to blocks of text without music: 64 "Christ's Passion" (compressed into Matthew 27:27-31) and 66 "He Is Risen!" (quoting Matthew 28:1-10). Still more evidence that the book's editor does not understand what hymn numbers are for. In between, meanwhile, is 65 "Calvary! Calvary!" by none other than James Gerhardt Sucha, set to the tune GOING HOME, which was ripped off from Dvorak's "New World Symphony." Sucha's claim that the tune was originally an African American spiritual is factually inaccurate; the borrowing goes in the other direction. Sucha explains in his blurb that he envisions this hymn being sung during a solemn Good Friday procession. I think the tone of his mediocre, simplistic lyrics misses that mark. As for what I think of this use of a theme from a great symphony as a hymn tune... guess.

This brings us to the cusp of the Easter section of the hymnal, which I reckon is enough tackiness for today. Besides, I'm depressed. Professor "Let's dial Lutheranism back to the golden age of SBH," sometimes also known as Captain "I've returned from Methodism with a strategy to save the Lutheran church," is really getting me down. Have you noticed that practically every song so far has been an eligible target for my snobbery? That there have been hardly any truly Lutheran hymns up to this point? To be sure, there will be a thick appendix later on that majors in that sort of thing. So it really isn't quite as bad as it looks. But it's just one more tribute to the tackiness of Sucha's editing job that he lets the casual peruser gather the impression that the future of Lutheranism, as he sees it, has been stripped of meaningfully Lutheran content. It's the tackiness of a hymnal compiler who can't get out of his own way.


1The Lutheran Service Book and Evangelical Lutheran Worship, both published in 2006.
2Service Book and Hymnal, 1958.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan
by Gerald Morris
Recommended Ages: 12+

The fifth book of the "Squire's Tales" series continues this Wisconsin-based author's retelling of Arthurian legends for younger readers with a combination of two knightly love stories with the point of view of a minstrel knight who has fallen out of love with romantic love. Forced into knighthood, though he would rather be a rebec-playing troubadour, Sir Dinadan rides out into the English countryside in search of inspiration for heroic ballads. Instead, he finds disillusionment. First it comes in the form of a beautiful lady who toys with his heart and tries to trick him into doing something vile. Then he observes the series of tasks that a would-be knight named Culloch must do to win the hand of a Welsh princess—ridiculous tasks that have nothing to do with the "helping the helpless" sort of thing King Arthur values in his knights. And thirdly, he gets mixed up in the affair of Tristram and Iseult, the most tragic lovers in all of song and legend, though in reality (as Dinadan sees it) theirs is the stupidest and sordidest story of all.

Of course, Dinadan also meets King Arthur himself. He goes questing with Sir Kai and Sir Bedivere. He befriends Sir Gaheris, younger brother of Gawain. He plays a role in the Moorish knight Sir Palomides' quest to understand the true nature of knighthood. He helps a prince reclaim his throne from a pair of vile usurpers, and he puts a lady-in-waiting who knows too much in the medieval world's witness protection program. He solves a missing-persons mystery, helps an abused wife and her children escape from their abuser, and even meets some magical beings. But for all the charm, humor, and romance of his adventures, his is still a journey of disillusionment. It turns out that knights aren't always (or even often) paragons of virtue, honor, and public-spiritedness. Nor is the happy ending necessarily when the boy and the girl get married.

As usual, Morris skillfully draws together material from a variety of traditions, including authentic minstrel songs, the Welsh Mabinogion, Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and even a bit of Shakespeare. Though the hero in this installment is a tiny figure in Arthurian literature, his sarcastic wit combined with his willingness to decline an offer of combat make him a remarkable point-of-view character in a series of quests and chivalric encounters. Frankly, someone was bound to point out that stupidity is the active ingredient in the tragedy of Tristram and Iseult, as well as Culloch's winning of the fair Olwen. Not all legends are founded on good sense, or even good taste; it's about time that someone let the air out of them. How better to do it than by making them detours in an easygoing knight's quest for nothing in particular, except maybe for the inspiration for his next tune? How better to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of these tales than from the eyewitness perspective of a young man who has the deep insight, for instance, to call Sir Tristram a "fatuous clodpole"?

I continue to enjoy these novelizations of the deeds of the Round Table, each blending ancient tales with original material. Next in the series is The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung Cart Knight, a title I have anticipated with pleasure. After that are at least four more titles in this series. Plus, Morris has also written some four illustrated children's books about the knights of the Round Table, grouped under the title "The Knights' Tales." The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great looks like a fun way to start Junior on his quest to discover the secrets of knightliness.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Rotters

Rotters
by Daniel Kraus
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book is a thriller and chiller of the sort that probably would have turned stomachs a generation ago. But if you've been watching CSI and its spinoffs, you may already have an idea what decaying corpses look like—though, mercifuly, not so much how they smell and feel. So this may be the perfect time to read a book featuring ripening bodies, graveyard dirt, and the last days of a secret subculture of grave-robbers. All the same, the content and language in this book demand an Adult Content Advisory. This may be a young-adult novel, but before parents and teachers recommend it to young adults, they should be advised that the young adults in it speak and behave like the real-life young adults in today's high school scene. This means sexual content, strong language, and vicious bullying by both adults and fellow teens. But the darkness of the world that envelops its main character, eleventh-grader Joey Crouch, is more disturbing still. Mature readers wanted!

Until the summer before eleventh grade, Joey has lived in Chicago with his divorced mother. He knows nothing about his father, except that he is to blame for the disfigurement of his Mom's bad ear. Her partial deafness contributes tragically to her death under the wheels of a city bus, and before Joey has fully recovered from his grief, he finds himself uprooted from his Chicago life and transplanted to a small town in Iowa, where his deadbeat father is known as "the garbage man," even though no one has ever seen him collect garbage. Ken Harnett has no idea how to be a dad, as he immediately proves by leaving Joey alone to start his first week of school without any books, money, or food. Singled out for persecution by the school's top jock and a sadistic biology teacher, Joey finds out what it is like to be a walking target. Things get so bad that, when his father starts grooming him to carry on the family trade of robbing graves, Joey's outlook actually brightens.

But let there be no mistake: the diggers, also known as "resurrection men," are a doomed tribe. Each of them is only one mistake away from being lynched by an angry mob, or worse. And while most of the diggers stick to their own territories, and abide by the rules that protect them all, there is one whose growing madness threatens them all. Harnett warns Joey to beware of Antiochus "Baby" Boggs, and gives him lessons on how to survive being buried alive. These lessons come in helpful when Boggs lures Joey along on his journey of self-destruction, fueled by drugs and psychosis. At the very bottom of the pit of darkness into which Baby leads the boy is a climax of deadly struggle, evil, and danger.

Joey's adventures in the underworld of diggers makes this book both a thriller and an informative study of a strange and grim way of life. It opens a perversely interesting window on the science and culture of burial and decay. Meanwhile, his troubles at school explore the savagery that can lurk in the social structure of high schools, even in a small town. How Joey copes with this problem is ultimately both horrifying and satisfying. And what becomes of him and the other diggers is both touching and chilling.

An audio-book edition of this novel is available, performed by Kirby Heyborne—an actor best known for roles in the Mormon film industry, whose voice has an amazing ability to become completely different people. If your idea of a great voice actor is one who can create the illusion of being an entire cast of actors, you have to hear this guy. And this multiple-award-winning novel is a good place to start. Its author, meanwhile, is an independent filmmaker whose writing career specializes in young-adult novels that combine boys' coming-of-age stories with horror, mystery, and the macabre. His other two novels to-date are The Monster Variations and Scowler.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
by Victor Hugo
Recommended Ages: 13+

Published in 1831 in French, under the title Notre-Dame de Paris, this book has been made into an opera, a ballet, several stage plays, two musicals, and at least fifteen films, including TV and animated versions. One conclusion I could draw from this is that it's a very popular tale, and so there is a good chance that you already have some idea of what it's about. Another conclusion that I came to while listening to David Case's expert audio-book narration, is that it was written in a way that lends itself to dramatic interpretation. It's not hard to see why so many theater and film producers have found it hard to resist the urge to adapt this book to their medium. It comes ready-made with dramatic set pieces, entertaining dialogue, moving soliloquies, skillfully blocked stage business, characters making dramatic entrances and exits, vividly described scenery, and impressive spectacles that leave one thinking, "I wonder how this could be engineered for the stage." Sometimes its melodrama is downright operatic: "With a few cuts," one thinks, "this could easily be made into a libretto." As the villain struggles to hang on while dangling 200 feet above certain death, one thinks, "I know just how I would edit this scene, intercut with shots of the gargoyles and sculptures on the church's facade." You see where the idea comes from.

Perhaps, now that this has been done so many times, the time has come for film and theater people to give it a rest. It's not only that they've already outdone each other every which way (though they have never outdone the novel). It's that they have, some way or other, changed the story out of all semblance to its original shape and purpose. Try this experiment: Read this book yourself, and then check whether its ending resembles that of any of the competing film versions, all of which differ from each other. Who lives? Who dies? Is it happy or tragic? Which characters are left in, or combined with other characters to simplify the plot? What is it really about?

The first thing that may surprise you is that it isn't narrowly focused on the hunchback, Quasimodo, who rings the bells at the church of Notre-Dame in Paris in the year of our Lord 1482. He is only one of several characters who treads the stage in this drama; though, because his particular tragedy is the master-stroke that powers the book to its terrible conclusion, he deserves to be the character singled out in the title of the English translation. Not all adaptations of this book single out Quasimodo, though; some of the films, for example, are named after (La) Esmeralda, the gypsy girl whose fate is intertwined with his. It is worth remembering, though, that Hugo's original title suggests that the church of Notre-Dame and the city of Paris are really the main characters in this novel. I give fair warning to those who come to this book in search of cheap thrills and easy gratification: the story takes a while to pick up speed. In the meantime, Hugo spends several early chapters developing a high-resolution picture of what he believed Paris to be like in 1482: a place whose architectural marvels had all but disappeared, or been disfigured by later stylings, by the time of his writing; a place that can hardly be seen at all now, except in the images his words paint on the mind's canvas.

Though it takes them almost the whole length of the book to figure it out—and I don't think they ever work out all the details—Quasimodo and La Esmeralda were swapped in their infancy. The pretty girl was taken from her unmarried mother, a floozy whose career was fading with her looks when she poured all of her love into the child. The mother all but lost her mind when her dear baby Agnes was stolen by gypsies and replaced with a deformed child of their own. She rejected the little monster, and so he was brought up as a foundling by a priest at Notre-Dame: a grim, scholarly fellow named Claude Frollo. Claude has a tender side towards not only the hunchback but also a much younger brother of his own, who grows up to be a wastrel named Jehan. But it is, alas for both of them, not Jehan but Quasimodo who responds to the priest's kindness with respect and devotion.

All this is prologue to the events of the story, in which a motherless gypsy girl named La Esmeralda is loved by three men but, tragically, she only loves a fourth who does not love her. Claude Frollo's obsession with La Esmeralda is a psycho-study in diseased sexuality, religious torment, extortion, abuse of power, and life-destroying evil that in today's world would spell "rapist." Pierre Gringoire, who technically happens to be La Esmeralda's husband (though she has never let him touch her), finds her attractive enough, but really thinks more of his own interests and of the trained goat that follows the girl around. Phoebus, the Captain of the King's Archers whom La Esmeralda loves with single-minded devotion, has no interest in her except as a casual dalliance, while he remains betrothed to another young lady. Finally, it is Quasimodo, whose ugliness repels and frightens La Esmeralda, who loves her with a purity and tenderness that is never reciprocated. Get the thought out of your head that this is going to end happily. As light and flippant as Hugo's writerly tone may be, THIS IS A TRAGEDY.

Only a few other pieces need to be put in place. One is a hermit woman whose cell overlooks the gibbet where Esmeralda is sentenced to hang. The hermit is the mother of poor baby Agnes, who has spent the past fifteen years mourning the child she believes to have been eaten by gypsies. She jeers with bitter glee at the news that the pretty dancing gypsy girl, about the same age as Agnes (for reasons I'm sure you can guess) will be led to the gallows. But before Esmeralda gets there, the hunchback snatches her from the hands of her captors and claims refuge for her in the church of Notre-Dame. Why, you ask, has Esmeralda been condemned to death? Partly for witchcraft—because superstitious folk are alarmed by the tricks she has trained her pet goat to perform, and because a boy stole a coin from a silly woman and left a leaf in its place, which was put down to witchcraft—and partly for murdering Phoebus, although in the first place it was Frollo who stabs him, and in the second place, Phoebus survives the attack. Expect to feel torn by helplessness and pity as the girl's doom draws nearer, indifferent to the fact that her supposed victim is not only alive, but actually taking part in the hunt for her.

Though it is painfully obvious that Phoebus does not love her, La Esmeralda's misplaced love for him finally seals her doom. Well—that and the spiteful malice of Claude Frollo, who hates and loves her with equal intensity. Between a disorderly mob attempting to rescue her from the King's justice, and a devoted hunchback (who, unfortunately, is as deaf as he is deformed) mistaking them for a disorderly mob trying to lynch her, the square in front of the cathedral becomes a bloodbath of gruesome violence and death—and this hastens, rather than prevents, the girl's death. And while most of the principal characters die in the climactic pages of the book, or shortly thereafter, the few who survive leave a bitter flavor in the reader's mouth. Only the final twist, in the chapter titled "The Hunchback's Marriage," shades the aftertaste of sadness back towards the sweet end of bittersweetness. But in case I haven't emphasized it enough, let me remind you once more that THIS IS A TRAGEDY. Accept no Disney substitutes, which leave room for a cheerful song-and-dance number and a straight-to-video sequel. If you haven't felt yourself sighing at the memory of this story and its ending, even days after finishing it, you haven't really experienced The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Read the book; or, if that's to slow for you, listen to the audio-book.

Notre-Dame de Paris was the fourth of Victor Hugo's eight novels. The only other one that is now widely read in the English-speaking world was his next novel, Les Misérables (1862), written over thirty years later. Though his criticism of royalty and corrupt leadership is indeed much milder in this earlier novel, that is another element you can expect in this book, which (besides a wicked priest) also features a merciless king, a deaf judge, a torture-happy inquisitor, and a doctor who extorts money out of his patients. Hugo's social conscience will hardly be a surprise to anyone familiar with his other great novel. Hugo (1802-85) is also admired for his poetry, for plays such as Ruy Blas, and for several novels inspired by his off-and-on exile to the Isle of Guernsey. Now that I have tasted the pleasures of Hugo's storytelling style, I hope and expect to report more of my discoveries among his works.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Tacky Hymns 52

And now to the hymns in The Service Book: A Lutheran Homecoming (Voice of the Rockies, 2001), hereafter TSH (as in "Tsh! That is so tacky!")...

3 "We walked out of the world" is a sweet little love poem from the point of view of the Virgin Mary, addressed to Joseph as they prepared for the birth of Jesus. Set to a nice little tune by Regina Fryxell (1899-1993), with rolling piano figuration befitting a sentimental birthday gift to the poem's author Dr. Ann Boaden, it seems to bear no relevance to corporate worship in the Lutheran church.

9 "Silent night, holy night" is headed with a blurb indicating that its placement in this hymnal was "sponsored by Bernice M. Sucha in loving memory of her brother Roland Gerhardt Eklund." If this is indicative of things to come,1 the already tedious clutter of this book's layout will soon become all but unbearable. Meanwhile, somebody eventually has to say it, and since I'm already burning bridges behind me, ahead of me, and on all sides, it might as well be me: This hymn isn't really all that great. The layout in TSH actually perpetuates the legend of how the hymn was written, in a pinch, by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr and his organist Franz Gruber, when they needed a hymn that could be sung to the strumming of a guitar when their organ froze up on Christmas Eve. Or something like that. Frankly, they could have sung many historic Lutheran hymns, and even some by Luther himself, to the accompaniment of a guitar. The story does not really explain why this precious little ditty was at all needed, nor how it became such a hit that it must, underline must, be sung every Christmas Eve at every church, in preference to many other beautiful hymns that delve more deeply into the miracle of Christ's birth. If we're honest, I think most of us will admit that the music is a bit dull, in spite of its almost painfully wide melodic range; and the lyrics do not flow very deep, though the argument that they are simple enough for children falls down before the fact that even adults sometimes have a trouble understanding them. Also fun to note is the fact that there are two different German versions of this hymn; and the one that seems to correspond most literally to the English version, and which is therefore more likely to be a backward translation from English to German, is the one that German-Americans prefer to sing when they feel nostalgic enough to affect the language of the old country. All around there is an odor of urban myth about this hymn that does not sit comfortably with me. Sometimes, when I sing or play it at the tearfully heartfelt climax of the Christmas Candlelight Vigil, I can't help but wonder whether we haven't all been had.

10 "I heard the bells on Christmas day" is a poem by Henry W. Longfellow (1807-82) that I never thought I would see in a Lutheran hymnal; at least, not much sooner than "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas." Even tackier is the fact that the poem has been altered so that the sexist language at the end of each stanza, "Of peace on earth, good will to men," now culminates in the gender-inclusive word "all." Perhaps tackiest of all is Jean Baptiste Calkin's (1827-1905) tune WALTHAM, which combines music-hall smarminess with bush-league voice-leading to arrive at a total that causes musically cultured readers to wince. The historical blurb at the foot of the page states that Longfellow wrote this poem when he heard that his son had been killed in the U.S. Civil War. Whatever its message may hold for people going through "trying times during the holidays," it isn't the comfort of the Gospel. And editor(s), please note: "Good will to all" does not mean the same thing as "Good will to men," whatever your position on gender-neutral language may be.

15 "All praise to thee, eternal Lord" takes a Christmas hymn by Luther (translated in turn from 11th century Latin) and, instead of transmitting the tune Luther paired with it as many other hymnals do, pairs it with the tune CANONBURY by Clara and Robert Schumann. I'm not sure the blurb is correct when it states that the tune was used in one of Schumann's symphonies; actually, unless my recollection is in error, he published it as a piece for piano solo.

16 "The First Noel" is an English carol by a hallowed tradition that, by the historical blurb's admission, dates back to such an ancient date as 1833. It's such a Christologically rich Christmas hymn that, in six painfully hesitating stanzas, it manages only one brief, laconic reference to the birth of our Lord ("Right over the place where Jesus lay"). The rest of it is about external details like the star, featured in no fewer than three stanzas, including Stanza 2's erroneous mention of the shepherds seeing it. The "three" wise men (that numerical canard again) offer their gifts and worship, and the hymn concludes with a summons to worship the Lord who "with his blood mankind hath bought," which is the gospel, at least. Whether it's worth six stanzas of waffle about wise men and shepherds (?) following a star is a question for another pay-grade.

17 "Our day of joy is here again" has words and music by one Andrew Skoog (1856-1934), a sometime Minneapolis alderman who also served on the board of the Swedish Mission Covenant Church, "a distant cousin of the Swedish Lutheran Church." In other words, it's a piece of sectarian hymnody that can only be of interest to people of Swedish-American descent. Its third stanza invites us to go "to the manger...to worship and adore the tender babe upon the straw"—a transaction that evidently takes place in one's pious imagination. Its fourth stanza rejoices that God's Son "should so himself abase," then borrows Mary's Magnificat imagery to say, "He thrusts the mighty from their throne." This strange juxtaposition suggests that Jesus' state of humiliation = casting down the mighty from their thrones. Skoog's music, meanwhile, is wasted on the church organ; it would sound so much better with the accompaniment of an accordion band.

18 "I think of that star of long ago" is another Skoog hymn, dedicated to the memory of another Eklund family member who happened to be a Swedish Covenant Pastor. Another long paragraph of explanation at the bottom of the hymn furnishes space to explain that the present-day Evangelical Covenant Church of America (descended from the Swedish Mission etc. etc.) "resembles a church much like United Methodist and Lutheran combined in doctrine and worship styles." Such a church seems likely to produce exactly the sort of hymnody one would expect to be promoted by a hymnal editor who converted from Lutheranism to Methodism, then re-apostasized2 to Lutheranism, bringing with him strong convictions on how Lutherans should worship. Thus a faux-folk tune, wedded to a scrap of mediocre poetry barely a hundred years old, bids fair to become a piece of unassailable tradition in a church that can no longer tell the difference between Lutheranism and Methodism, between truth and sentiment, or between a hymn of earthshaking cosmic significance (like "From heaven above to earth I come") and a spray-starched ditty that attempts to personalize the significance of the Christmas Star. "In faith I look up," Skoog writes, "and o'er me I see that star in its beauty still shining for me"—which suggests that faith is more or less the capacity to imagine yourself into the book, like Bastian Balthasar Bux in The Neverending Story. Stanza 2's response to the tidings that "to sin-blighted earth comes high heaven's envoy" is an effusion about "that dear memory" about that star still shining for me—i.e. not present, but past (in history) and future (in a potential eternity that I cling to with all my faith). Stanza 3 is more of the "to Bethlehem's babe I hasten" rubbish that locates Christ, ever the babe in the manger, in a spiritual fantasy world to which I can penetrate by some psychological trick that I call "faith." It is religious literature like this that gives the ring of truth to the view that Christianity is a mental illness.

19 "What child is this?" has been, according to the editorial blurb, a favorite carol "for many generations throughout the centuries." It particularly mentions the fact that the tune "came from an English folk song, and has been set to many different texts over the last 500 years." What this description tries to obscure is the fact, made plain only a few lines previously, that this beloved carol was written in the mid-1800s by William C. Dix. The text, that is; the tune was originally set to a somewhat bawdy secular ballad. Now that most people can't think of one without the other, it is easy to forget that this piece of hallowed tradition is really a 19th century poem set to an Elizabethan lute-song. It's all quite nice and says some good things, but that business about "many generations throughout the centuries" is rather like an art authenticator saying of an impressively forged painting, "Now that's the thing!"

21 "Lully, thou little tiny child," a.k.a. the Coventry Carol, is a smoothed-out arrangement of the 15th century folk-lullaby to the baby Jesus that one often finds in albums of choral and instrumental music for Christmas; but, again, it's strange to see it actually used in a hymnal. Stanza 1 coos and makes baby-talk at the holy infant, by way of worship and praise: "Lully lullay" here, "Bye Bye" there. Stanza 2 calls upon "sisters" to "preserve this day." Stanza 3 finally reveals that these "sisters" represent the mothers of the innocents in Bethlehem whose deaths Herod ordered. Stanza 4 takes the part of one of these babish victims: "Woe to me, poor child for thee." But much of it is practically unintelligible, such as "For thy parting do say nor wing"(???). Verily, one gets more out of the single line of explanation at the foot of the page than from the text itself. It's a piece of pious tradition that has, over time, become almost opaque to interpretation; and yet we're supposed to sing it instead of some other, more meaningful hymn.

22 "Carol of the Bells" (first line: "Ring Christmas bells, merrily ring") is that "ding, dong" song that, after the last few selections, you were probably expecting to see by now. Its tune originates in 19th century Ukraine (though the author of the credit line seems confused as to which country and which century; the composer, in fact, was Mykola Leontovych, 1877-1921), the text arises from no more venerable antiquity than the pen of Minna Louise Hohman, 1947; an additional stanza by editor James Sucha makes it possible to prolong the rapid-fire tongue-twister even more. Give the congregation a break; only a well-rehearsed choir is going to make it through this machine-gun barrage of syllables without misfire; and Sucha's stanza only increases the difficulty with such syllabification as "wi-ld-ly ringing," and such rhythmic tricks as singing "the birthday of" (set off by grammatically incorrect commas) to a fast long-short-short-long pattern. Then the editorial blurb "stresses the importance of the tolling of the bells" in a culture where the Christian symbolism of bells is rapidly disappearing.

24 "Still, still, still" is an Austrian carol that, again, has more to do with sentimental cultural traditions than with the church's message at Christmas. Stanza 1 paints a word-picture of the world slumbering under the Holy Star and falling snow. Stanza 2 murmurs a lullaby, urging someone (presumably a wakeful child) to "sleep, sleep, sleep" on Christmas Eve. Stanza 3 concludes with an exhortation to "dream, dream, dream of the joyous day to come," while angels watch over you in your sleep. It's a nice, heartwarming, pious way of saying, "Shut up, kids! Santa knows if you are sleeping!"

26 "Love came down at Christmas" is the hymn by Christina Rossetti (1830-94) that gives the wrong answer to the question, "Wherewith for sacred sign?" At midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, one would hope to have one's attention drawn to the "sign" of Jesus' body and blood, confirming to us the promise implied by His birth and fulfilled by His death and resurrection. But Rossetti blathers on: "Love shall be our token." Lady, I've seen so much among Christians that is neither loving nor lovely; if you can't point me to a better sign than that, I'm going to ask elsewhere.

28 "Hark! the herald angels sing" isn't a tacky hymn, as such; I'm even pleased that TSH restores some good lines that TLH and many subsequent hymnals cut. I'm also not prejudiced against this hymn just because Charles Wesley, one of the fathers of Methodism, wrote it; of his "over 6,000 hymns," some are rather good, this one included. Even on my particularly uncharitable days, I have to admit that a broken clock is right twice a day. But giving credit where due, I am inclined to think that Wesley was often an excellent hymn-writer, though perhaps uneven (as one so prolific is almost bound to be) and weakened by certain doctrinal peccadilloes. Felix Mendelssohn's tune, however, has often struck me as being ill-suited for this hymn. The editor's blurb, by admitting that it originated in "a cantata honoring printer Johann Gutenberg," only strengthens that opinion. But is transferring the hymn to a melody that actually fits the meter of the text worth getting lynched by the guardians of all sacred tradition in the church? Though, to be sure, this tradition is somewhat less ancient than 1840, the date of the aforementioned cantata. This is far from being the only example of a hymn being mangled out of semblance to its author's intent by editorial alterations, only to become hardened in that form in the popular mind.

29 "Go tell it on the mountain" is a "been there, done that" moment, as is 30 "'Twas in the moon of wintertime" (misprinted in the lyrics as "T'was").

31 "O come, little children" is translated from an 18th-century German hymn by Christian Schmid (1768-1854), set to its own childishly naive tune by J. A. P. Schulz (1747-1800), and well known to veterans of many a Sunday School Christmas Program. Its precious depiction of the manger scene culminates in an invitation to "lift up little hands" and "kneel down and adore him with shepherds today"—more of that "faith as pious imagination" stuff that has sustained my nausea throughout this section of the book.

35 "I wonder as I wander" is the marriage of a "USA folk hymn" (text) with a "traditional American carol" (tune). Since there is no such thing as a preliterate culture in the USA (unless you count the pre-colonial natives), this lack of specificity smacks of evasion, a disinclination to assign responsibility for this piece of artful insipidity. Stanza 1 requires us to pretend that we're wandering under the sky, even if we happen to be sheltered under the church's roof. Stanza 2 offers the biblically dubious information that Jesus was born "in a cow's stall" with loads of people present who, according to Scripture, only arrived later. Stanza 3 then pointlessly speculates about how Jesus could have had anything he wished for, "cause he was the King!" I gag as I goggle.

36 "See, amid the winter's snow" is a piece of touchy-feely poetry by Edward Caswall (1814-78), misspelled in the credit line as "Caswell," set to the famous prayer theme from Engelbert Humperdinck's (1854-1921; also misspelled) operetta Hansel and Gretel. And you thought, when I mentioned Engelbert Humperdinck, that I was going to say "Feliz Navidad"—different guy. The musical arrangement, nigh unto impracticable by the average congregation, exponentially increases the sentimentality of the hymn.

37 "It came upon the midnight clear" is, technically, not a Christian hymn, in the sense that its author confessed the Triune God. Written by a Unitarian minister, it "emphasiz[es] the social implications of the Gospel," as the editor's blurb admits, before adding that TSH has restored all five stanzas of Edmund Sears' (1810-76) text. So, if you're looking for a reflection on the birth of God the Son, from a perspective that bears any relevance to the Gospel, this is not the hymn to choose.

38 "O holy night!" is a French carol by wine merchant and politician Placide Clappeau (words, 1847) and ballet composer Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), which spreads out over four pages, partly because of the length of its through-composed melody (which makes its three stanzas seem almost interminable), but mainly because of the rolling triplet figuration of the left-hand part. As tricky as this will be for Grandma Smurf to play on the Wurlitzer parlor organ at the back of your church—especially because the pedal part is obbligato, though the score marking to that effect is cut off by the edge of the page and the Wurlitzer only has six pedals—trust me when I say, from experience, that performing this without that triplet pulse in the background is a recipe for a train-wreck. I've been there when the organist, unable to obtain an arrangement that could be played on the instrument available, had to make do with a chordal accompaniment that did not lay down a clear pulse for the long-held notes that run throughout this tune. Together with the extra-loud singing of one particularly deaf parishioner, the result was a hymn that ran right out of the organist's control and could not be rounded up again. I, dear reader, was that organist, and it was one of the three most distressing failures in my career as a church musician. Since then I have developed an aversion to the merest suggestion of letting the congregation try to sing this hymn. Take my word for it, it's a solo number, or perhaps an ensemble piece. It must be well rehearsed, and it's probably best to leave it at one stanza.

39 "Sing we now of Christmas" (Noel Nouvelet) is a French carol that one is accustomed to hearing sung by a choir. Editor Sucha's alterations do violence to the charm of the tune, presumably in order to make it more singable by the congregation. I would rather hear it done by the choir as it originally was. And by the way, the text is another one of those carols that perpetuates the biblical misconception that the magi were "kings." Why it's important to know that this carol was sung at Paris' Notre Dame cathedral can be known only to the author of the explanatory blurb. And whether "sheep and camels" necessarily belong in the picture is apparently a question for suppliers of ecclesiastical art.

40 "Come, all ye shepherds" is a Bohemian (i.e., Czech) carol from the 17th century, whose tune will, and I stress will, take the congregation by surprise. Again, only a well-rehearsed choir is going to get through this without stumbling; and that's without asking whether the hymn's spirituality of "come all ye people and children of the earth, come to the manger" is something to stumble over in itself. Aside from that, and sung at the tempo at which my mind's ear hears it, it would make a good musical obstacle course to try the agility of young singers. I'm not so convinced that it's a great choice for public worship in the Lutheran church.

41 "O gathering clouds and wintry earth" is allegedly a one-stanza American carol from the 1800s, to which editor Sucha added four new stanzas of his own. I have never heard it, or of it, before now. I do not judge it to be remarkable enough to preserve for the ages. I'm not even quite sure the lyrics make sense, unless read carelessly and with an ear for sentimental suggestions rather than clearly expressed meaning. The tune is uninspired and rhythmically awkward. The lyrics seem to be addressing created things, such as clouds, earth, and snows, only later to say things to them like, "creation ponders thee and sings," etc. If you know this hymn (which would be remarkable), you'll remember it by the climactic cry of "Bring joy! Bring joy!"—which becomes, in the added stanzas, "Bring peace! Bring light! Bring rest! Bring love!—O Lord to all this Christmastide!"

43 "I am so glad on Christmas Eve" is more of a folk-song for the pious home (especially where children are involved) than a hymn for the worshiping congregation. It includes two stanzas about the mother trimming the Christmas tree and explaining the symbolism of the lights and the star on it. It's a very quaint little bit of Norwegian home piety (even including a stanza in the original Norsk), but I don't see it edifying the congregation very much.

44 "When Christmas morn is breaking" does a similar service to Swedish culture, albeit with a tune of German origin. I believe the credit line attributing the text to "10th century Swedish" must be a misprint, as there was no Swedish language as such until the 13th century. I'm guessing a 9 got turned into a 0 there, and this is a piece of 19th century romanticism, desiring to seek the manger and view the Christ child (again, in pious imagination, or what have you).

45 "God rest ye merry gentlemen" is missing a comma from its first line, I think. This traditional English text, explains the blurb, originated in the 17th century and became wedded to the tune of a 15th-century folk song. That's all right, and in fact it's less tacky than many other examples I have seen. But again, its inclusion in the congregation's pew book suggests that the editor had trouble distinguishing between hymns for public worship and religious songs for private use, or for performance outside of regular worship.

46 "O little town of Bethlehem" is by Philip Brooks (1835-93). It is set here, as in the vast majority of hymnals since the early 20th century, to Lewis Redner's 1867 tune ST. LOUIS, with all its melodramatic smarm. The editor's blurb offers the interesting insight that FOREST GREEN—the tune that, when re-introduced in the 1970s, was received by many as an offensive innovation—was actually the tune originally set to this text. That public sentiment favored ST. LOUIS, the vastly inferior of the two pieces of music, just goes to show something or other. I guess it's not worth fretting over, as this isn't exactly the most excellent of hymn texts, either. Maybe its tendency to veer toward emotional effect, rather than objective clarity, fits it for a tune like ST. LOUIS after all.

47 "Away in a manger" is another hymn to which several different tunes have been set. Here it is set to the one that everyone (including the hymnal editor) mentally classifies as "Luther's Cradle Hymn," though the explanatory blurb explains that its attribution to Martin Luther is spurious. In fact, there is no evidence that this hymn wasn't written by an American named James Murray, while editing a Lutheran school hymnal in the 1800s.

The Christmas section of the hymnal, and this installment of Tacky Hymns, closes with a full-page layout of the Christmas story from Luke 2, omitting only the verse mentioning Quirinius of Syria, etc. This is a strange way to use a whole page of a hymnal, to say nothing of a hymn number (48), but it makes a nice break before the Epiphany section and, as we shall see, tons of tackiness to come.


1And it is. It is.
2Ha, ha.