Monday, July 27, 2015

The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker
Recommended Ages: 14+

On a ship crossing the Atlantic from Poland to New York, a dying man awakens a golem - a clay woman animated by the darkest secrets of Jewish mysticism - who has been designed to pass as the perfect wife. In a tinsmith's shop in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood of Little Syria, a soldering iron releases a jinni - a fire spirit from the deserts of Arabia - from an old copper oil flask. In the year 1899, these nearly simultaneous events bring two wildly different beings of old-world magic to the new world and send them searching for the meaning of their existence, just like millions of other lonely, homesick immigrants on the shores of the 20th century.

Chava the golem and Ahmad the jinni both face the danger of being terrifyingly different in a world that crushes individuality. They endure the hardship of being creatures of ancient magic in a modern, industrialized world that has sucked the magic out of traditional beliefs. Meanwhile Ahmad chafes against the iron bracelet that keeps him bound in human form, the blank in his memory where the events that bound him ought to be, and the crowded city that could not be farther from the empty desert where he belongs. And Chava struggles against the temptation to serve the desires of every person who goes by, since she can read their feelings and has no single master to guide her will.

Ahmad becomes the tinsmith's apprentice, then his partner as he demonstrates a gift for shaping things by fire. But restlessness tugs at him, driving him out on long walks at night and putting him in danger from cold and wet weather. Chava shelters for a while under the care of a kindly rabbi, but when he too dies she is left to cope as best she can with a day job at a bakery, taking in needlework to keep herself busy at night. When the two creatures meet, an unlikely but powerful friendship develops that could save both of them. They only have to survive the tragedy that inevitably plays out when an evil magician, a heartsick social worker, a mentally touched peddler, a silent child, an unconventional heiress and a pregnant but unwed shopgirl get involved.

This debut novel excels in conjuring a period-perfect atmosphere, filling it with communities full of hopeful and hopeless immigrants, speech tinged with distinct accents and the regretful flavor of old beliefs fading in the harsh light of modernity. It is an electric novel that growls with danger, hums with suspense and finally explodes with violence. But it is also a candlelit, gaslit novel furnished with glimpses of old New York in the midst of its transformation into the New York of today. It is a sandwich novel in which multiple layers of story develop in alternation, but also a full-course meal of a book with romance, mystery, fantasy and horror elements blended together and spiced with historical authenticity. It is a literary novel that entertains, moving heart and mind at the same time. And it is also an outwardly attractive book. I think I should mention this fact, since I would never have read it had not my eye been drawn to it on the stacks of the local library. You can't always judge a book by its cover, though. So now you have it from me. I wholeheartedly vouch for this book.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Everything Wrong with My Car

I really liked my car when I bought it, but I'm starting to get pretty annoyed with all the little glitches that have built up over the last few years when I haven't had enough cash on hand to get it tuned up.

My previous car was a Hyundai that I bought new and drove to death in eight years flat. This car is the same age now, but I've only had it for five years - and I'm still paying it off! It's a Volkswagen Rabbit with 135,000 miles on it and a few cosmetic wrinkles. I hit a deer with it several years ago and never had the damage to the hood smoothed out. I had trouble getting it onto a U-haul tow dolly a year ago and some low-hanging pieces of the plastic grille assembly are either hanging even lower than they should or they had to be removed altogether. The rear wiper stopped wiping the rear window and started flopping uselessly over the tail of the vehicle, until I pulled it off completely. Some jerkweed keyed the paint job on the right side from front to back. And some body paint started flaking off the last time I tried to power-wash it, which is one of the reasons my car is always filthy: I'm afraid to give it a good scrub.

But that's more or less cosmetic stuff. At times a warning light on the dash board tells me the hood is unlatched, but that's related to the wrinkle from hitting the deer; a secondary latch is often all that's holding it shut, which isn't ideal. Also at times the engine light comes on, but when I brought it to some local mechanics for an explanation they spent four days trying to find an adapter to plug it into their diagnostic computer before I just took my car back and said never-mind. Apparently they don't service foreign cars in the sticks. I miss living in St. Louis sometimes, and this was one of those times.

I think the belts and filters need to be replaced. My poor car is overdue for that kind of service. It's also about due for a tire rotation and oil change, but there's nothing unusual about that. What is unusual, however, is the fact that my windshield wipers won't wipe unless the car is in motion. If I stop while they're running, they will freeze in mid-wipe. The washer fluid won't squirt on the windshield, ever.

At some point, I think about the time when these last-named problems surfaced, the car mysteriously stopped beeping when I hit the door-lock button on the smart key. I can make the panic alarm go off, though, which helps find it in a crowded parking lot. On the other hand, the panic alarm sometimes goes off on its own initiative, whether my keys are on me or not. There have been instances when it went off repeatedly, or all but continuously, for an extended period of time and would only stop if I remotely unlocked the doors. And then sometimes the panic alarm would go off again a minute or two later. It's embarrassed me many times. It's happened twice as I write this.

About a year ago, I started having trouble while driving on long trips and/or in hot weather. At a certain point in the trip, the engine goes into a cycle of seeming to lose power, then suddenly jerking forward and running full-power again, wash rinse repeat. These episodes often coincide with the engine light coming on. During stretches of open highway it will just go slower and slower, regardless of what I'm doing with the gas pedal, then leap forward with a sickening jerk and begin accelerating again, only to start losing power again just as I'm approaching the speed I want to go or, sometimes, easing off the gas pedal to avoid going too fast. At stop signs or red lights, I have to rev the engine to get started again without stalling, and sometimes as I'm shifting up from gear to gear it will do the old "losing power (almost to the point of stalling) then jerking ahead" trick again - in one gear after another. It's not only exasperating and embarrassing, it's sometimes terrifying as trucks close in behind me, or approach on roads that I'm crossing, and I'm struggling to get the machine moving. Picture me stomping on the gas, swearing, waving my hands in apology to other motorists, sometimes having to crank the ignition again and start over. And it keeps happening all the way to the end of my trip from there. Driving pleasure becomes driving misery.

What little work I've had done to correct this problem has not solved it, but nobody who's looked at it seems to have any idea what's causing it. The first time the problem surfaced, I actually replaced my battery because the parts shop said the old one tested dead, but the car continued running exactly the same way.

The latest new problem with my car is such a non-essential thing that I'm almost ashamed to mention it, but my CD player has become the one thing standing between me and insanity during many hours of monthly commuting and business travel. I listen to audio books more than I read printed ones. Take them away from me and you'll not only be forcing me to listen to broadcast radio, which I loathe, or road noise, which tends to lull me to sleep. But also, you'll be curtailing my intake of good books, which would be more devastating than you can possibly imagine.

So imagine my disgust when, a few weeks ago, the CD player started refusing to play any disk I put into it. It often relaxes that refusal first thing in the morning while I'm driving to work, and sometimes it will relent and let me listen to a disk or two after it's been running for a while and the air conditioning has gotten the interior nice and cool. But later in the day when the car has been warmed by the sun, or after a stop when the AC starts up again at the temperature of the air outside (which it can do, amazingly, even after I turn off the ignition and immediately restart the engine), or even after starting to work again and then realizing the car is hotter than it thought, the CD player forgets how to do its job. It tries and tries to read the disk, eventually decides it's unreadable and spits it out. Encouraged to try again, it does the same until you give up. An hour or so later maybe it will reward another try by starting to play a CD, only to cut out again at about the point where it stopped playing before. Now and then I can coax it into playing for a moment or two by tapping the front of the radio, but it will repeatedly get stuck and repeat the same second or so of the recording until tapped again, or it will simply stop playing.

I'm pretty sure the CD player has somehow become sensitive to temperature, but there is probably more to it than that. And it sickens me to think of my alternatives. Even having to listen to audio-books on a walkman CD player plugged into the car's AC adapter isn't an option that thrills me. I used to do that in the Hyundai, using a cassette adapter to plug the CD player into my car stereo so I could listen to audiobooks over the car's speaker system, but it was a lousy deal. Every time I changed disks I had to crank the volume on the walkman all the way up, and changing disks or controlling the playback was very distracting while I was trying to drive. Walkman devices are for people who don't mind listening to the same disk over and over, not for audiobook addicts trying to commute. I need this CD player to work. And odd as it may seem, this little "extra" is the thing that has tripped the countdown clock to when I can afford to buy a new(er) car.

In the meantime, I have a vacation coming up - my first vacation time in several years. It looks like auto repair will take up some of it. All I have to do now is find a mechanic who isn't going to deprive me of a car for a whole week and then tell me he wasn't able to figure out how to run a diagnostic on it. Alas for St. Louis!

Oh - also, I think the brakes need work. AGAIN.

Friday, July 24, 2015

123. Labor Hymn

I thought of doing this hymn partly as a counterpoint to the preceding "Agriculture Hymn," and partly as a nice addition to a daily morning prayer service before going to work. The tune I had in mind was Johann Crüger's O WIE SELIG.
God, whose labor set the planets spinning,
Bless our work today at its beginning,
Our burden easing
That our labor's fruit may be found pleasing!

Christ, who earned our pardon by Your labor,
Help us share the burden of our neighbor,
Our work perfecting
And our heart to others' need directing!

Spirit, manifest in flame and blowing,
Work in us that faith beyond mere knowing,
Our hearts transforming,
And in us the works of God performing!

Triune Lord, at work in glory splendid,
Strengthen us until our work is ended;
Then reunite us
And with gifts of perfect grace delight us!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Paper Magician

The Paper Magician
by Charlie N. Holmberg
Recommended Ages: 14+

Just imagine, I discovered this book because my car wasn't working properly. In the middle of a long trip my beater Volkswagen started acting up. I pulled into a truck stop to let it rest and while browsing the audiobook rack, I noticed this title and was intrigued. Now, after listening to Amy McFadden's performance of this book, I want to read more like it.

The story is set in the early years of the 20th century, in a version of England that has magicians. They train at a special school and are regulated by a governing cabinet. And each magician specializes in using one, and only one, man-made material. Some are into rubber, glass, plastic or metal. There are some evil magicians, known as excisioners, who have figured out a way to use human blood. But when it comes time for ambitious young Ceony Twill to apprentice under a master magician, binding her power to paper is the farthest thing from her dreams. Folders, as magicians specializing in paper are known, are necessary for the balance of things, but who really wants to be one? Not Ceony.

So maybe you will understand why Ceony starts off as a slightly unsympathetic character. She is, to put it nicely, disappointed at first to be apprenticed to a folder named Emery Thane and bound forever to the power of paper. She is a little snotty about it, to tell the truth. But then she learns Thane was the anonymous donor who made it possible for her to study magic when the scholarship first promised to her fell through. She starts to appreciate his kind gestures and his eccentric but catchy method of instruction. She starts to learn how magic can breathe life into origami creatures, how folded paper can be used to tell fortunes, and how a story read with enough charisma can conjure up life-like illusions.

It's just starting to look like things might work out when an excisioner blasts her way into Thane's house, reaches into his chest by magic and pulls out his still-beating heart. Ceony's quick thinking provides the paper magician with a temporary paper heart, but his life hangs by a thread while she chases the dark magician who happens to be Thane's ex-wife. I don't have room to explain how it happens, but Ceony ends up inside Thane's heart, racing to find a way out in time to save him while encountering his happiest, most hopeful, darkest and most discouraging memories, all while trying to find a way to defeat an enemy whose very touch is deadly.

To succeed, Ceony needs to find a way to communicate with the man whose heart she is trapped in. She thinks this is so he can teach her the magic she needs to save him. But maybe it's so both their hearts can heal.

This is the first book in the Paper Magician trilogy by an up-and-coming young author from Idaho, USA who, you may be surprised to learn, is a woman. I stopped being surprised at things like this when I saw a photo of China Miéville. Though at times Holmberg fumbles her syntax, with a good editor I think she will go far. This series continues to follow Ceony Twill's apprenticeship with titles The Glass Magician and The Master Magician.

Monday, July 20, 2015

122. Agriculture Hymn

As usual, I came up with Too Many Stanzas. Oh, well! It was just such a, ahem, fertile field of inspiration! On the other hand, I'm sure somebody will object that I missed an important branch of agriculture - but how long does this hymn really need to be?

O God, whose word like living seed
First broke creation's virgin soil,
It is a little thing indeed
That You should bless the farmer's toil.

You who move mountains by Your hand
And crush the stony heart to dust,
Give unto those who break the land
Both fruitful toil and restful trust!

Give unto those who till and sow
The strength of hope and patience sure!
Come flood or famine, hail or snow,
You yet will bless all who endure.

As You, Lord, sometimes blend with pain
The lessons leading us to light,
Those who the growth must prune and train
Make wise to judge its limits right!

When You, Lord, cleanse the hearts of men,
Their darkest stains show bright and clean;
How will You then forgo to send
The rain that keeps the croplands green?

Encourage us when weed takes root,
When field is rank with rot and pest;
For though we yielded bitter fruit,
You, Lord, forgave and promised rest.

You sent a Bread made without hands,
Life-giving, living, from above;
So let the bread raised from our lands
Reflect Your sacrificial Love!

You sent, O Lord, a living Vine
In whom as branches we are spliced;
So in our grafting and our wine
Remind us that we are in Christ!

From things that captivate and damn,
O Lord, You saved Your straying sheep;
Let us recall this with each lamb
We lead to pasture, watch and keep!

We find in Your pure word, O Lord,
A milk to nourish heart and soul;
So may there also here be poured
The milk that keeps our bodies whole!

Our flax and wool, our fowl and egg,
Choice meat, plump grain and sweetest comb
Come all from You, and so we beg,
Uphold us till our harvest-home!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Tears of the Giraffe

Tears of the Giraffe
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the second casebook of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe once again wrestles with the case of a missing son whose trail has gone cold. This time it's a 20-year-old American boy whose parents left him behind when they returned home from diplomatic duty in Botswana because he had such a heart for Africa that he didn't want to leave.

For a couple years they heard regularly from him as he worked on an experimental farm. Then, suddenly, he vanished and for ten years, not a trace of him could be found. Neither the police nor an expert tracker nor the American embassy could help. Only now does the boy's mother learn try what a native Botswana woman can do with a high school education, a strong intuition and a few months' experience as a self-taught investigator.

While Mma Ramotswe sniffs the cold trail of the no doubt long dead youth, there are plenty of other things to occupy her mind. She is engaged to marry Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, owner of an auto repair shop. Her family is about to grow in an unexpected way, thanks to her fiance's soft heart toward orphans. Her secretary, newly promoted to assistant private detective, has solved her first case but in so doing, found herself in an ethical dilemma. And a jealous housemaid is hatching an evil plot against Mma Ramotswe.

These storylines unspool with lyrical grace, gentle humor and a touch of spooky suspense. And it's not hard to sense where the heart of the story is located, when the moment Mma Ramotswe realizes she's about to become the mother of two orphaned children proves more suspenseful than her interview with the sociopath responsible for the American boy's death.

If like me you enjoy the charming world this series of mysteries opens up, you'll be glad to know there are fourteen more books to follow this, starting with Morality for Beautiful Girls. Other series penned by the same author include the "Harriet Bean," "Max and Maddy" and "Akimbo" children's books, each set ranging from three to eight books; a quartet of "Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld" books starting with Portuguese Irregular Verbs, ten "Isabel Dalhousie" books starting with The Sunday Philosophy Club; another 10-book series named after its initial book 44 Scotland Street; the Corduroy Mansions trilogy; a quartet of Precious Ramotswe children's books; and more than 20 other novels, including some for kids, with such titles as The Ice Cream Bicycle and La's Orchestra Saves the World.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

121. Journey Hymn

Here is a hymn that prays, on one level, for those who travel, and perhaps on another level for those who stray from the faith. Because this possible double usefulness is hard enough to build into a hymn text, I am sparing myself the trouble of inventing a new tune for it by repurposing one I previously wrote for a hymn by my friend Alan. It's called ASPICE PROTECTOR.

Lord, who led Jacob's seed,
From Egypt's bondage freed,
By signs of cloud and burning:
When now Your children roam
Guide them in safety home,
In peace and joy returning.

As wise men from afar
You beckoned by a star
To view Your Son and Mary's,
So also walk beside
Those who go forth, and guide
Them where Your presence tarries.

Such signs they may not see
As You lent formerly
To journeys great and solemn;
Be, Lord, Yourself their light
Showing them wrong from right,
Your Word their fiery column.

No star now marks the place
Where they may find Your grace,
Still less the seeking stranger;
Yet Your blest Sacrament
Shows sinners who repent
A rest from toil and danger.

Now over floods of grief
No dove-flown olive leaf
Bespeaks an end to frowning;
Yet when we here baptize,
You hold before our eyes
The death of death, sin's drowning.

No cross need mark the place
Where You redeemed our race,
Once for all people dying;
Where we proclaim Your death
You dwell, bestowing faith
And sinners justifying.

So on this latter day
Draw us along Your way,
To life and glory pressing;
Help us to run our race,
Your all-availing grace
With lips and lives confessing.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the first book in a series by the same name, featuring Botswana's first female private detective, Mma Precious Ramotswe. At this writing there are approximately 16 books in this series, including such interesting titles as Morality for Beautiful Girls, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built and The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon.

Botswana is a dry, sparsely populated country in southern Africa surrounded by Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Formerly a British protectorate, it became independent in 1966 when Mma Ramotswe was eight years old. In the decades between then and the mid-1990s when this story is set, it has evolved into one of the most successful countries in Africa, with a vibrant economy and lots of modern improvements. Mma Ramotswe (the Mma means approximately "Mrs.") is proud of her country, and she is proud to be its first female private detective.

Though this inaugural book of her adventures collects several of her early cases together, including some work for rich and powerful clients that help to establish her in business, her first big case involves the disappearance of a village schoolmaster's son.

The boy has been missing two years before Mma Ramotswe gets the case, and she has little doubt the boy is dead and she doesn't expect to be able to solve it. But it niggles at her. She senses that traditional witchcraft may be behind it, something that is both terrifyingly dangerous to go against and a shameful stain on all the modern progress her country has made. And then she gets a lead that may connect the death of this child to one of the most powerful men in the country - the type of man who can make life very difficult for those who cross him.

Along the way she solves the case of a missing husband, finds proof of a cheating ditto, clears up a hospital administrator's suspicions about one of his doctors, solves a case of insurance fraud, and uses her woman's intuition and native resourcefulness to supplement her lessons from a manual of private detection. She gets mixed up with an anxious father and his over-protected daughter. She tracks down a missing dog. She more or less perfects her technique of tailing a suspect, learns to tell a well-turned lie to get information or avoid trouble, and develops a reputation as a woman who can get things done.

In between charming vignettes from the early days of a detective agency are passages describing African life in such sensuous and heartfelt terms that you feel the warmth of the author's love for the land. You can almost smell the smoke of wood fires in the remote cattle stations, taste the dry air of the Kalahari, see the vivid color of the sunsets, and feel a trickle of sweat in the October heat. Though the book's author is now a Scotsman, this book is a potent reminder that he grew up in Zimbabwe, right next door to the Botswana depicted here, and like a character in this book's sequel Tears of the Giraffe, he seems to have a heart for Africa.

As for what this book is, it moves along in bite-sized episodes, like a series of short fictions, and sometimes takes a break from mystery to deliver personal memoirs of Mma Ramotswe, her late father, and their country that have the ring almost of lyrical nonfiction - that fact-and-fiction-blending type of popular journalism that some authors call "faction." A romance with Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, a master auto mechanic, and the underlying mystery of the missing boy help tie it all together as a novel. And an audiobook narrated by Lisette Lecat, herself an African expatriate with a quiverful of ethnic dialects, puts the last perfection on an altogether pleasurable reading experience. I will be visiting Mma Ramotswe's agency again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

When her widowed father and spinster aunt send her away to a boarding school in Canada, twelve-year-old English heiress, chemist and sleuth Flavia de Luce feels as if she is being exiled. But on her first night at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Toronto, a desiccated corpse wrapped in a Union Jack, with the wrong head attached, drops out of the chimney into her dorm room and makes her feel right at home again.

Flavia's dogged pursuit of whodunit strains even the level of tolerance for rule-breaking afforded a girl whose family fortune is really what keeps the school doors open. It threatens to upset the delicate cover of a school that is partly, secretly, a training facility for secret agents, of whom Flavia is expected to be one. It leads her to pry into the affairs of the faculty, the regents, even the laundresses who work in the shed behind the school's main building.

Tied somehow into the murder of the body in the chimney are the disappearances of three schoolgirls two years earlier, and a mysterious sighting of one of them just recently; the fishy (sorry) drowning of the chairman's first wife, whose body was never found; suspicious circumstances surrounding another student's drugging and hospitalization; and the fact that Flavia's favorite teacher, acquitted of murder in the poisoning death of her husband, has been arrested even though she seems the least likely suspect in this case.

Flavia and murder go together like bangers and mash, but without Buckshaw and its eccentric inhabitants, something is definitely missing. Flavia herself misses it desperately. And though it seems a tragedy to deprive this brilliant, precocious girl of a good education, washing out of school seems to be the best thing for her. At least, it will be good for us, as things will evidently go back to normal - with a certain difference - in time for the eighth book in the series, The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

120. Elijah Hymn

Today's Old Testament lesson at church, together with my happy experience writing a "Daniel Hymn" a few years ago, prompted me to try this experiment in condensing a biblical character's story into a handful (or two) of hymn stanzas. I don't have a tune in mind as yet, so stand by for updates!
Living God, whose straying fold
Warning by Elijah heard
That the heavens would withhold
Rain and dew but by Your word:
Shield us from such dreadful wrath!
Hold our footsteps on Your path!
So refresh our fainting spirit
As Elijah by brook Cherith!

Lord, who bent Elijah's path
To no house in Israel,
But gave her of Zarephath
Life-preserving flour and oil:
So take pity on our need,
Caring not for name or deed!
Let us also now be given
Never-failing Bread from heaven!

God, who raised the widow's son
Through Elijah's threefold prayer:
Let the same for us be done
In the hour of grief and care!
Having laid us on our bed,
Raise us also from the dead!
Never of Your word deprive us
Till in glory You revive us!

Lord, whose prophet showed good faith
When he, Ahab summoning,
Spared a righteous man from death
And his tryst kept with the king:
Let Your presence, too, be bound
Where You've sworn it will be found,
Where Your living name is spoken
And life-giving Bread is broken.

God, whose prophet answered well
When King Ahab dared to ask,
"Do you trouble Israel?" -
Nerve us too for such a task!
Show by lives refashioned where
Your flame dwells, and kindle prayer,
That their wiles and woes may double
Back on them who cause us trouble!

Lord, whose prophet's feet outstripped
Chariot wheels down Carmel's slope;
Who when fear Elijah gripped
Gave him shelter, rest and hope:
Let Your messenger now come
Feed us for our journey home!
Speed our steps until we meet You,
Running joyfully to greet You!

God, whose prophet chid the king
Till from sin he turned aside:
Spare us not Law's bitter sting
Lest we perish in our pride!
Christ, Your blood-bought word of grace
Give like pow'r, that we may face
Life and death with faith unfailing,
Over ev'ry foe prevailing!

Let us run and not give o'er
Till our race is fully run;
Help us trust Your gospel's pow'r
Through Your dearly given Son!
Not in earthquake, storm or fire
Do You dwell with terror dire,
But in words of consolation
You preserve a remnant nation.

Even when we seem to stand
On the razor-edge of doom,
Yet, Elijah's Lord, Your hand
Guides the faithful through the gloom.
Neither chariot's flaming team
Nor the whirlwind's direful scream
Sweeps aside this comfort ample
From Elijah's blest example.

With Elijah we rejoice
In the Father and the Son
And the Spirit's gentle voice
Ever, altogether One.
Be with us as in the days
When Elijah led Your praise,
Living Lord, that none may sever
Us from Your elect forever!

UPDATE: Here's an original tune for this monster. Its title is ELIJAH.