Monday, June 30, 2008

Anchovy Tea?!

When I purchased the orecchiette I recently used in an improvised chili, I had other plans in mind for it. Some of those plans had to do with creating my own Italian sauce using anchovies for flavor. My first attempt, however, ended miserably. Orecchiette's strong suit is sticking to whatever you put on it. When that means having to pick tiny shreds of too-strong-tasting-to-eat-straight anchovy off of practically every noodle, the words "fun to eat" vanish from your vocabulary. I realized that I needed a way to get the flavor of the anchovies into the sauce, while also being able to remove the anchovies themselves.

Then I saw a stainless-steel tea ball at my friendly neighborhood Schnuck's. A lightbulb went on above my head with such an audible "ding" that shoppers five aisles away turned their heads. Or maybe that was my voice yelling "Eureka!"

Today, I gave the tea-ball a spin. First, I gave the orecchiette a head start in a pan of boiling water (since it takes, you know, 11 minutes to cook). Then I opened a can of Red Gold crushed tomato (clearance priced at 75 cents!), added a teaspoon or so of olive oil, a cautious sprinkle each of basil and oregano, and a devil-may-care sprinkle of garlic powder. I filled the tea-ball with drained anchovy fillets and plopped it into the tomato mush, taking care to keep the loose end of the chain outside the pan.

When the noodles were about halfway cooked, I put the tomato pan over really low heat, and covered it so red juice wouldn't splatter all over a six-foot radius from the stovetop. This was a good thing, because the underside of the lid was soon coated with tomato gunk. I stirred occasionally, doing all that I could to encourage the anchovies to "steep" in the sauce, and turned the flame off when I thought it was hot enough. The noodles still had several minutes of cooking to do, but that's all right. The sauce was still palatably warm when I poured half of it over the noodles, topping the bowl with some grated parmesan.

I was surprised at how nummy it was. I had expected the taste of tomato to overpower everything, but in the event it only added a pleasing tanginess. The seasonings did their job, and I even dare to think the tea-ball experiment was a success. No nasty, overpowering bits of anchovy stole into the sauce; while, on the other hand, the fish definitely added their note to the flavor. I wasn't sure, though; so I cooked another pot of orecchiette (using up the rest of my supply) and gave myself a second opinion. Twice bitten, I won't be shy of trying "anchovy tea" another time.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Religion or Ideology?

In a clip from a comic monologue shown in Ben Stein's film Expelled, Bill Maher [EDIT: Thanks, Kevin] quips that religion needs to be controlled just as badly as guns do. It is a sentiment gaining currency today: guns don't kill people, religion does. Religion, say more and more of its detractors, may or may not be all right when it's used in moderation, and kept compartmentalized on Sunday mornings or what have you, but once people start taking it too seriously it becomes dangerous!

What they mean by religion is belief in God, and/or adherence to one of the major world religions. What they are really suggesting is that the next necessary and inevitable step in human progress is to shed belief in God and move forward into an enlightened, atheistic future which will, naturally, bring peace, harmony, and happiness to all.

I think this is an interesting example of the shallow deception practiced, more and more brazenly, by our society's secular pundits. Now, if they said "ideology" instead of "religion" they might hit closer to the truth. And if they spoke out of anything like a historical perspective, they might also observe that no theistic religion has ever caused as much human misery, violence, horror, and death as one or two secular ideologies of the 20th century alone.

It stands to reason. Atheism lacks any source of moral accountability to check the atrocities that the pursuit of a controlling ideology may demand of its fanatical followers. And theistic religions do not have a monopoly on fanatics. Without a "controlling authority" curbing their behavior, a consistent, ideological atheist must embrace the view that "the end justifies the means." And without any acknowledged authority decreeing that human life is privileged and precious, secular ideology can unleash a reign of terror that would make every holy war ever planned or prosecuted look like a playground scuffle. This theory is borne out by history.

Ben Stein makes this case compellingly. Somehow, Yoko Ono was unable to muffle him. Wonders never cease.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Thank You, Mass Entertainment

Thank you, Almighty Entertainment Industry of the USA (hereafter AEIOU).

Thank you, television and its friendly sponsors, for providing the advertising that informs us of what we want. Whatever would we spend our money on without your advice?

Thank you, AEIOU, for preventing us from wasting countless hours on useless activities such as taking walks, visiting with the neighbors (and actually knowing who they are), listening to good music (or making our own), reading good books, pursuing hobbies, engaging in conversation with family and friends, playing games or sports, cooking a special meal, or teaching the kids their family history. Thank you for showing us that any time not spent productively is a complete waste, and to waste it but good.

Thank you, AEIOU, for making sure that we will have pearly white teeth as our civilization crumbles around us. Thank you for giving us fresh breath while taking all the beauty out of our lives. Thank you for vouchsafing to us clean, nice-smelling, attractively colored hair, free of dandruff and split ends. It is a fair exchange for the joy, freedom, and human sentiments you take away.

Thank you, AEIOU, for sparing us the trouble of thinking through complex issues and finding out the truth; being force-fed your shrill ideology is so much more convenient. Thank you for helping us save the environment by not reading newspapers any more. Thank you for surgically reducing our attention span, scrambling our wits, and filling our minds with useless information and disinformation; ignorance is bliss. Thank you for exercising our retinas with images of test-tube-bred, surgically altered, genetic freaks; their physical beauty is a wonderful consolation as, deprived of all other exercise, we turn into disgusting, helpless blobs of fat.

How good it is to know that we can enjoy the good life - albeit one lived by other people - without making any effort or risking failure and disappointment. Without you, we would not be on the cusp of realizing all that mankind can aspire to become with the assistance of the AEIOU: bloated parasites that wallow in their own filth. Thank you ever, ever so much.
...You are slaves of the one whom you obey...(Romans 6:16)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reading Beethoven's 8th

Beethoven wrote his Eighth Symphony in F Major within a few months in 1812. Again, like his Fourth Symphony, it is often perceived as small and lightweight between the "sound" of the Seventh and the "fury" of the Ninth. Beethoven seemed to have an affection for it, however. He is said to have considered it better than the Seventh Symphony, an opinion in which I would concur. (I have always suspected the Seventh of being tastelessly noisy.) Beethoven himself waved his hands around at the Eighth's premiere in 1814, though being nearly deaf, he did not realize that the concertmaster was actually conducting.

Movement I, marked "Allegro vivace e con brio" (fast, lively, and with spirit) is a vigorous number with lots of strong accents and loud-soft contrasts. It begins with a three-phrase theme that exemplifies these characteristics, immediately followed by a mostly loud transition passage that seems to overflow with high spirits. A happy-go-lucky second theme follows in a more relaxed atmosphere, though it begins in the "wrong" key of D before "correcting" its way to the dominant key of C. (Believe it or not, listeners in 1814 noticed this and reacted, in some cases, with shock.) Then comes a relatively long codetta that builds up tension and volume, then introduces its own thematic idea before ending in a loud oscillation between two C's an octave apart. This signals, first, a repeat of the entire movement so far; then, the beginning of the development.

Beethoven begins the development by toying with fragments of the opening theme, combined with the oscillating octaves from the end of the codetta. The music steadily builds in intensity until it reaches a huge climax - surprisingly, not in the development section, but at the beginning of the recap, where the opening theme appears in a truncated and super-loud form. This theme gets more play time before the transition steers us toward the second theme and the codetta. When we hear the oscillating octaves again they are F's, the tonic note. Everything after them is coda - a coda that supplies us with a little more development of the opening theme before transforming it into powerful strains of nobility and triumph. Nevertheless the ending is not the series of loud, tonic chords you would expect; after a couple of surprising hesitations, the final bars are poignantly soft, with a riff from the opening theme actually playing across the final chords.

Movement II, "Allegretto scherzando" (roughly "not very fast, playful") is as close as this symphony gets to a slow movement, and it isn't slow at all. If it wasn't in sonata form, I would be tempted to call it a scherzo - making Beethoven's Eighth, like Tchaikovksy's Sixth, a symphony with two light inner movements (perhaps the only resemblance between the two symphonies). Beethoven's friend Mälzel had recently invented the metronome, so the clockwork-like accompaniment to this movement's first theme is said to be a musical joke on Mälzel. Some have even suggested that the second theme's distinctive burst of rapid, repeated notes is like a badly-made metronome coming unsprung. Motives from the first theme come back in the codetta at the end of the exposition section. The development section is extremely brief, serving mainly as a transition back from the exposition's dominant ending (in F) to the movement's overall tonic (B-flat) for the recap, which in good sonata form stays in the tonic to the end. Nevertheless, Beethoven adds a coda in which the orchestra seems to laugh at its own joke.

Movement III is a rustic-sounding, heavily accented Minuet - or rather, Tempo di Menuetto. In truth it does not breathe the spirit of the minuet of Haydn's day, though in 1814 such a minuet would have sounded tediously old-fashioned anyway. The Trio is almost literally a trio, dominated by a pair of horns (one of them alternating with a clarinet) crooning over a running string bass. The tune they offer up is so sweet and touching that the strings can't help but burst in.

Movement IV, "Allegro vivace," is arguably the most serious movement of the four, which only underlines the novelty of this symphony. Its first theme, built on a series of triplet repeated notes, opens the movement in a tone of subdued exultation, which soon breaks out into full-bodied strains of celebration. A loud C-sharp comes out of nowhere to interrupt this theme - an unsettling moment, after which the music goes on as if nothing has happened. As in the first movement, the second theme enters the scene in the wrong key (in this case, A-flat), then abruptly modulates to the expected dominant (C) before letting loose with a brief, triumphant codetta. The first theme hesitantly kicks off the development (without a repeat of the exposition). Beethoven creates something of a fugato out of various thematic fragments, building up to a huge statement of the first theme before ending the development with an abrupt transition back to F - notably using an octave oscillation reminiscent of the first movement.

The recap proceeds as expected, including all the unexpected touches from the expo, such as the loud, out-of-the-blue, unison C# and the wrong-key entrance of the second theme - though, since the "right" key this time is F, this passage has been transposed to D-flat. This might have been Beethoven's way of pulling the nose of armchair musicos who were apt to consider a such an unexpected key-relationship tantamount to heresy. Beethoven concludes the movement with an exceptionally long and complex coda. Taking its departure from the first theme, the coda swells and swaggers through a chain of modulations all the way to the distant key of A, where the opening theme is loudly repeated. Then those oscillating octaves come back, suddenly move down to F, and bring back the theme in its original key.

Did you think it was over? Ha! Beethoven is just softening you up! Now he starts what sounds like another recap of the beginning of the movement. Only, when he gets to that glaringly out-of-place C#, he lets it completely take over, forming the pivot of a key change to the incredibly remote key of F-sharp minor, where he repeats the principal theme in a heretofore unheard form. As this new argument goes into full swing, he abruptly slams that F-sharp down to an F-natural again and emphatically reestablishes the tonic key. Then, when you really think you're listening to the final, solidly tonic chords, he upsets the equilibrium one more time with a very loud and unusual harmonic progression (which, however, gets us back to the dominant in five chords). The horns and flutes muse over the triplet theme in a moment of uncharacteristic calmness; then the full orchestra joins in a final statement of the theme, followed by an almost ridiculously long conclusion whose purpose, aside from giving one or two fragmentary reminders of what has gone before, is to assert the tonic beyond a shadow of doubt.

IMAGES: A Dover miniature score of this symphony; its composer; and a page from Beethoven's autograph sketches for this symphony, which he initially planned as a piano concerto.

EDIT: Herbert von Karajan conducts the 8th Symphony with, I believe, the Berlin Philharmonic in the video below.

Yukky Tackiness

This week's message on the often-tacky ELCA church sign down the street is:


Clowns. Ministry. Hmm. I've heard about this kind of thing going on, but I have tried very hard not to believe it. I suppose if Patch Adams was a Christian he might be inclined to define his shtick as "ministry" (on the reasoning that he serves people by cheering them up while they are fighting cancer, etc.). But that would just go with the widespread broadening of the word "ministry" to where it can mean practically any service you provide. The historic, Christian, biblical meaning of "ministry," however, is limited to the work of publicly proclaiming Christ's gospel.

But consider again: "Clown Ministry." Is it possible these clowns are actually permitted to lead a worship service? That would be a very irregular service, to say the least. And why would you want clowns leading the Divine Service? Isn't that a bit silly? If mockery of holy things is now in vogue, some may still remember when it was called "blasphemy." And if we are merely discussing a different way of communicating the gospel, surely there are more effective ways? An intelligent and sensitive person, one would hope, would be considerate of people who find clowns annoying or even frightening before planning or endorsing such a service. Which, I suppose, says something about the board or committee that voted to "welcome the clown ministry."

One last time, consider: Clown ministry! A Divine Service officiated by clowns! To be sure, they are the "Faith-In-One" clowns, so presumably they are Christian. Is that what it takes to get to officiate in worship? If we invite a Christian accountant to address the congregation about Roth IRAs, is that worship? If we invite a Christian nurse to check everyone's blood pressure and give them dietary advice, is that worship? Would a Christian lawyer showing everyone how to write their will be a Divine Service? Suppose one of the chefs on the cooking channel professed to know Jesus: would watching their show be as spiritually edifying as going to the Lord's Supper? Or suppose Click and Clack were born-again Christians: would you bring them to your church and have them disassemble a 1980 Toyota Camry on the altar? Would their patter be the Gospel?

I have previously mentioned the soul-imperiling evil of Gospel Reductionism. But this concept of "Clown Ministry" indicates that something more profound has happened to the gospel: a reduction to the absurd.

Reading Beethoven's 4th

Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 4 in B-flat in 1806, after he had already begun work on his Fifth Symphony. Some say he wrote it on a paid commission from a Silesian count who had heard Beethoven's Second and thought it was great. (In this regard the count and I have something in common overagainst the general run of Beethoven admirers.) And so he created one of the great misunderstood and underappreciated masterpieces of his age, a work well in keeping with the heroic pretensions of his Third and Fifth symphonies, yet widely regarded as paling between them. Its neighbors certainly cast towering shadows. But I believe Beethoven's Fourth is a work of equal daring and assertiveness, a technically challenging musical milestone that ought to be appreciated for its combination of subtlety and directness, complexity and profundity, as well as enjoyed for its sheer masculine joyfulness.

Movement I begins with an at first ominous Adagio introduction, setting a mood of agonizing anticipation while foreshadowing themes heard throughout the symphony. This concludes with a very loud lead-in to the Allegro vivace (fast and lively) sonata. Launched by explosive, "scooping" gestures, the first theme skips and hops all over the place. This perky theme, introduced in the violins, moves first to the bassoons during a quiet passage with a violin countermelody, then moves again to the lower strings in a triumphant passage that gave the bass players of Beethoven's day a rare run for their money. A brief syncopated passage introduces a transitional theme, a lithe shepherd's-pipe sort of thing that flits from one instrument and register to another before the very emphatic dominant cadence. The F major second theme, introduced by the clarinets, partakes of the same noble simplicity as the themes of his Eroica symphony. The sonata's exposition wraps up with a thrilling codetta harking back to the opening "scoopy" explosions and the syncopated transition material.

Seamlessly flowing out of the repeat of the exposition, the perky first theme leads off the development. Things quiet down suddenly. Beethoven toys with the scooping figure, then brings back the perky theme with a lyrical new countermelody. Then he juxtaposes old perky with some louder scoops in a rare (for this work) passage of tragic melodrama. Finally, he pulls the scooping theme to pieces and plays with the pieces, before building up to a triumphant recap. Note how strikingly different the transition passage sounds this time, especially the part leading up to the shepherd's pipe tune. The clarinet theme and codetta follow, reminding you of how much material Beethoven laid out in the exposition and how little he actually used in the development. Finally, the scoops return, signaling a coda that consists entirely of one elaborate, extended, final cadence based on the perky theme from the first group.

Movement II, marked Adagio, is a slow sonata in E-flat. The exposition, which is not repeated, begins with a quiet moment of dominant-tonic "ta-da"-ing, which sounds at first like a bit of accompaniment sneaking in ahead of a broad, lyrical violin melody. The "ta-da" figure turns out to be far more significant, however - as its repetition by the full orchestra in unison, including tympani, soon attests. The violin melody is then repeated by the wind instruments over the same accompaniment, which now really seems more like a countertheme. This time, instead of the tutti "ta-da," this dual theme is answered by a transitional passage that goes back and forth between two contrasting moods, including one that has always reminded me of a boat pitching and rolling on choppy seas. After this a second long, lyrical theme is introduced by the clarinet, followed by a codetta with a nostalgic tune announced by the bassoon. This builds up to a forceful conclusion before yielding to the development section.

The development begins by restating the original duet between the "ta-da"-ing lower strings and the lyrical, expansive violins. When this apparent returning to the beginning reaches the tutti ta-da, however, it turns a new corner into a stormy, minor-key realm. The texture tantalizingly thins to two lines of violins alone, then Beethoven pulls apart the ta-da theme and its lyrical counterpart and puts these fragments through a few instrumental and tonal transformations. The recap begins with the violin melody in the flutes, moving directly to the transition with its alternating, contrasting ideas, then the clarinet theme, and then the codetta with the horns leading off on the nostalgic bit this time. Just when it seems the movement could end without any further ado, Beethoven adds a coda that begins with the flute again singing the first theme. I gather this is a sort of musical joke, because as soon as you glance at your watch and mutter something not-so-nice about pieces going on endlessly, the lyrical theme is interrupted by arpeggios rising and falling through different sections of the orchestra. This sounds decidedly like "wrapping up" music, building to set of solid closing chords that nevertheless pause for one last quiet "ta-da" moment, as if Beethoven (always one to insist on the last word) heard your muttering and muttered back.

Movement III, "Allegro vivace" (fast and lively), is definitely a scherzo - a quick, brilliant piece without a hint of minuet or any other dance - which is one of the ways the symphonies of Beethoven's age broke with the age of Haydn. Filled with rhythmic surprises and harmonic quirks, this scherzo is a strong flavor, and no mistake! The vestigial trio - for the form of the movement remains the same as one of Haydn's symphonic minuets - flows in a slower channel, building from playful triviality to majestic grandeur, before the main scherzo returns in all the dazzle of its rebellion against your rhythmic and harmonic expectations. But the trio also returns, as in Beethoven's 7th, but not something that was frequently done at the time. After the third time through the scherzo, Beethoven ends the movement with a most economical coda: two horn notes, followed by a single chord!

Movement IV, "Allegro ma non troppo" (roughly translated, "quickly, but not so as to lose control") begins quietly with a gossipy theme. This quickly gives way to a transition containing ideas easier to reconcile with the Beethoven we know from the Fifth Symphony, as well as a theme cleverly borrowed from the first movement. But almost immediately, he unveils a guilelessly cheerful second theme. Just as swiftly (owing to the incredible economy Beethoven displays throughout this symphony) we find ourselves in codettaland, bombarded by emphatic chords and a few contrastingly chirpy phrases. All this is repeated before the development begins. Beethoven plays around with the gossipy first theme and then its noble, transitional partner; then he alternates between fragments of each while passing through a variety of keys.

At the end of the development, the movement comes to a harsh, minor-key climax before relaxing into a varied recap of the opening part. In this recap, Beethoven expands the transition passage, making his clever borrowing of the first movement's "perky theme" really jump out at you. You might also notice that this movement, like the first, poses some challenges to the lower string players. It is definitely a symphony that demands a "virtuoso orchestra." It ends with a coda that begins, once again, with a seeming return to the beginning of the movement. We're not fooled, because Beethoven has played that joke on us before; so we need not mutter even when he stops at the height of what are obviously closing chords to review the movement's themes one last time. But he may yet fake you out when still another set of obvious closing chords stop cold, and Beethoven lingers sentimentally over a slowed-down version of the gossipy theme, before a truly final rush.

Beethoven's Fourth is a symphony that engages the audience in a duel of wit, challenging you to trace its themes back to its all-revealing slow intro, dazzling you with its vitality and wealth of ideas, occasionally puzzling you with its unusual shapes and colors, and more than once allowing you to run alongside, only to stop cold to snicker behind your back as you rush ahead. It shows that being a great, romantic artist wasn't always about fist-shaking tirades and elegiac swoons; for sometimes, romantic greatness can be recognized by the size of its belly-laugh.

EDIT: In the video below, Herbert von Karajan conducts (I think) the Berlin Philharmonic in the 4th Symphony:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bachelor Chili 2

Today I made another variation of my "nasal decongestant chili" recipe. The twist was that I didn't plan to make chili, so I was only able to use ingredients that I had purchased with other dishes in mind (with one exception). I have never had such a daring improvisation come to such a successful result.

The 1 lb. of ground beef was earmarked for a meatloaf - as the eggs, seasoned breadcrumbs, and chili sauce stored in my kitchen bear witness. But the dishes I needed to mix and bake the meatloaf were dirty and I didn't feel like washing up, so I plopped my handy saucepan on the stovetop and started browning the hamburger. I even remembered to drain it this time. Then I returned the crumbled, browned meat to the pan and scrounged for other ingredients.

Next, I added a moderate amount of garlic powder and cumin. I decided against chili powder this time, since I also added a can of Ro-Tel "original" diced green chilis & tomatoes (the one ingredient I had bought in case the thought of making chili struck me), and I figured that would suffice for the pepper department. Since I hadn't planned well enough to have a fresh onion on hand, I soaked a little dried, chopped onion, drained it, and added it to the meat mixture.

It all looked pretty dry, so I popped open a can of beef broth and poured it in. Now it looked too wet, so I shook in about a cup of uncooked orecchiette, a type of pasta that looks like little flak helmets. I brought the broth to a boil over high heat and stirred frequently for about 11 minutes, which is how long it takes the orecchiette to cook. I didn't time it precisely, but I taste-tested the noodles and, when it looked like it would be done in about a minute, I added more garlic and cumin, plus a modest sprinkle of basil and cilantro. A minute letter it was really starting to look done, with the noodles and meat starting to break the surface of the broth. Considering how skimpy the noodles looked at the start, I was pleased to see that everything looked like it was mixed in good proportion.

I took the pan off the burner and covered it while I rummaged in the fridge. I wanted to start eating right away, but I didn't want to burn my mouth, so I was determined to find something to cool off the chili. Lo and behold, I discovered an unopened container of French onion vegetable dip, which is mostly sour cream. I had meant to dip broccoli in it, but the broccoli had gotten lost at the back of the fridge and, alas, will probably not make it to the table. I plopped a spoonful of this veggie dip onto the center of my first bowl of chili and stirred it in. Then I tasted it.

Wow! I like this even better than my last batch of chili. The orecchiette gives it the character of "Hamburger Helper" chili, only without the box of premixed ingredients. The seasonings were closer to my chili ideal too - not so overpoweringly peppery, and though my sweat glands did let loose this was partly a result of eating it so hot off the stove. The flavors blended nicely, the texture was good, and having snacked on corn chips and bean dip while cooking it I didn't miss the bean component one bit. Thanks to Ro-Tel, there were even those wonderful little strings of tomato skin that are as essential to the chili experience as the stretchy strings of mozzarella are to pizza.

I gobbled my first bowl and went back for a second, trying it "as is" to begin. I decided after two bites that the French onion dip really made an improvement, so I stirred in another dollop and enjoyed. There is at least another helping left over, similar to the two big bowlfuls I ate. I toyed with the idea of putting it in a plastic bowl and taking it to a friend as a treat, but greed prevailed and I decided to keep it for later.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Love Your Enemies

On June 15, I preached the following sermon based on Luke 6:35-42 at the same little St. Louis church where I preached my "church growth" sermon this past Sunday. Actually my whole sermon is pretty much based on the first four verses of the lesson:
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. And do not judge and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says. And oh, is that hard! Our flesh tells us that the thing to do with enemies is hate them. Our culture teaches us to stand up for our rights. Our world teaches us that if someone is an enemy to you, you had better be an enemy to them, or they will triumph over you. But Jesus asks something that runs contrary to the wisdom of our flesh, our culture, and our world. He asks us to be a neighbor, like the good Samaritan, even to the point of helping someone who would cross the street to spit on us any day of the week. Jesus asks us to yield our rights, turning the other cheek when someone slaps us–that is, offering them a chance to strike us again–and giving up our shirt when someone demands our jacket. And Jesus asks us not to be a better enemy than our enemies, but to be a friend to them. That is so hard!

Jesus says, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”. This is a lot to ask of proud, penny-pinching Germans. We consider it a virtue to keep careful track of everything we earn and spend, everything we owe and are owed. But Jesus puts a high premium on self-sacrificing love (I wonder why). He expects his disciples to “do good,” which means to give alms to the poor, and to “lend, expecting nothing in return.” And that’s just what he says about money.

“Be merciful,” Jesus says. “Judge not,” He says. “Condemn not,” He says. “Forgive,” He says. “Give.” In other words, let people walk all over you. Let them offend you by their crass behavior. Let them take what belongs to you until they have bled you dry. These are hard commands to accept. And, at first, Jesus’ reasons for obeying these commands seem harsh. Be merciful, so that God may be merciful to you. Do not judge, or you will be judged. Do not condemn, or you will be condemned. Forgive, so that God may forgive you. Give, so that God may give to you. It might seem like Jesus was saying, “Do all this, or it will go worse for you.” And that wouldn’t be completely wrong.

Perhaps you have heard the parable of the unforgiving servant. He owed his master a large amount of money. When his master demanded to be paid, the servant begged for more time. Taking pity on him, the master forgave his debt. While he was walking away from that meeting, the forgiven slave met another slave who owed him a few bucks. Even though the other slave asked him to be patient with him, the one who had been forgiven grabbed him by the throat and started strangling him. “Pay back what you owe!” he screamed.

This behavior was so scandalous that the witnesses reported it to their master. The master called the first slave back and un-forgave him. “You wicked slave,” the master said, “I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?” And his master angrily handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that he owed. Jesus ends the story by saying: “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” So make no mistake, we will pay an awful price if we do not obey Jesus’ commands to love our enemies, be good, lend, be merciful, judge not, condemn not, forgive, and give.

How often have we failed to live up to these commands? How many of us, at this very moment, live with a hatred in our heart that will not die? How many of us cherish resentment against our parents, a rival at work or at school, a boss, a teacher, a crummy neighbor? How many of us feel bitterness whenever we reflect on how we have been wronged? When we see someone with their hand out, begging for money, how often do we quicken our pace, or turn our head away, and justify ourselves with thoughts about how that guy was probably looking for money to buy drugs? How often is a good friendship ruined because a loan of money wasn’t repaid?

How often do we pass by someone in need of help, thinking someone after us will surely stop and help? How often have we judged and condemned someone in our hearts, or in our gossip with one another, because of what we only suspect but cannot prove? How often have we stiffed the church collection plate, the local charities, and other worthy causes because we didn’t have enough money to support them–and yet how often haven’t we somehow found enough extra money to enjoy a special treat for ourselves?

Do these questions make you feel like you’re under a bright spotlight? Do they make your insides shrivel with shame? They do for me. I see my sin in many of those examples, and I trust you can see yours as well. Each of us deserves to lose the blessings that Jesus promises to those who keep His commands; each of us deserves to be treated by God the way we have treated our fellow man. And that would be a terrible thing.

But Jesus isn’t done talking yet. Jesus does say that if you do not forgive, God will take His forgiveness away from you. In Matthew 6 He says: “If you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” He also teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The negative side of this is that we lose God’s forgiveness by being unforgiving. The positive side is that God promises His forgiveness to those who forgive.

Do you earn forgiveness by forgiving? No. God’s forgiveness is gracious, unconditional. He remits our debt without expecting to be paid–exactly what Jesus asks of us in Luke 6. But we love God as He has loved and forgiven us. And we forgive our neighbor as He has forgiven us–because He has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is the basis for our forgiveness. Indeed, the debt God forgives us is so much greater than what anyone owes us that it would be absurd for us to hold a grudge when God does not. It would be inconsistent with the life we now have in Christ, a life founded on God’s forgiveness. It would be so scandalously inconsistent that our inability to forgive would offend people, inside the church and outside, in heaven and on earth. And our unwillingness to forgive would betray God’s forgiveness to us.

But how can Jesus say that if we forgive, God will forgive us? And if God forgives us first, so that our forgiveness is based on His forgiveness, why does He have us pray, “Forgive us as we have forgiven them”? This isn’t as contradictory as it might seem. God wants to give you every incentive to live according to His mercy, love, and forgiveness. He wants to do everything possible, and even the seemingly impossible, to strengthen you in your weakness. He does not only stand behind you with a stick, threatening to hit you if you do not move forward and do as you were told. He also stands in front of you with a carrot, leading you, enticing you forward with sweet promises. And because of this promise that your forgiveness will turn into God’s forgiveness–because Jesus promises that if you give, God will give to you in abundant, overflowing measure–then your very act of forgiving, giving, and being merciful to your neighbor becomes a sign of Christ’s promise to you. Suddenly, your forgiveness is a sign that God has yoked to His gracious Word. When you give the forgiveness He asks you to give–the forgiveness you can give on the basis of His forgiving love toward you–that act of forgiveness should remind you of Jesus’ promise. Like a string tied around your finger as a reminder, like a picture that illustrates words, and even more than that, like a sacrament, your forgiving your enemies is not just a sign that represents God’s forgiveness, but a sign that brings His forgiveness to you.

I have focused on forgiveness because this is the most important blessing God has in store for us. Everything else–spiritual growth, strength, eternal life–are bonus that come with the package. But without God’s forgiveness, we cannot hope for the rest. Jesus lived such a life of goodness, mercy, forgiveness, and generosity. He lived it for us, even while suffering and dying at the hands of people who knew nothing of these virtues. He suffered and died for us, because we lack these things too; He suffered and died to pay for our sin and to bring us God’s forgiveness. And now, having forgiven us, God institutes these promises so that, as we live in the forgiveness He has brought to light, as we share with others the overflowing abundance of His love, we can receive more demonstrations of His forgiveness, more reassurance of His mercy, more relief from His judgment and condemnation, until we are completely filled with the certainty of salvation.

All these good things will grow in us as we continue in His Word and Sacrament, as we cling by faith to Christ’s gracious promises and to the words and signs that deliver His blessings. God will give you good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, pouring into your lap. As He has been merciful to you in Christ, you will grow more and more merciful toward your neighbor the longer you live in His grace. And though the idea of heaping burning coals on his head may be a nice incentive for showing kindness to your enemy, it pales next to the reflection that Christ died for you while you were still God’s enemy–not to burn you, but to save you. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10). God grant that His Son may live in us, so that He may work in us all things that please Him.

Harry Potter and Christianity

I just ran across the following response that I wrote, over a year ago, to a question from a MuggleNet reader, who wrote:
If I remember correctly you are a minister or was? Correct me if I am wrong please. I am asking this because I am writing a research essay for school on The influence of Harry Potter in the church and whether or not the church should endorse it. By endorse I mean, openly condoning the books, or endorsing by not speaking against them.

I would not mind getting your opinion of how you see the church influenced by Harry Potter, why or why not Harry Potter is not a threat to the church, why specifically you do not see it as a threat to a Christians faith, what other books series do you think would be more influential to a childs interest in the occult or denial of God, and why do you believe that J.K.'s books are innocent in nature and therefor not potentially harmful to readers.

Those are just questions off the top of my head, but I really would like to understand what you think and believe about the books. If you want to answer these questions then I would VERY much appreciate it.
I am, in fact, an ordained minister, though I haven't been "in the parish" for a few years. I work for a Christian magazine now. I share my enjoyment of Harry Potter with several other pastors, including my father, who borrows each new book from one of his parishioners when they are done reading it.

I'm not sure I would use terms like "the church should endorse Harry Potter" because I don't think Harry Potter is really relevant to the church. However, I don't think the series is spiritually harmful, and the church should not condemn it or give anyone a guilt-trip for reading it. I believe that secular entertainment is a healthy and necessary part of earthly life, even a God-given right, for Christians to use responsibly in their freedom in Christ.

Of course it is appropriate for Christians to be concerned and careful about taking part in entertainments that are demoralizing or that insinuate unchristian beliefs into one's mind. Part of this responsibility can be carried out by recognizing and discussing these aspects of the entertainment with family members, ministers, or other Christians. Even if a book, or film, etc., is morally or spiritually rotten, it can be morally & spiritually instructive to examine it and judge it from personal experience. This also helps Christians learn to apply critical thinking in a faithful way. Hastily and ignorantly condemning things and forbidding oneself or others from experiencing them does not do these things.

I do not, however, think the Harry Potter books are a morally or spiritually negative influence. The long history of bedtime stories, mother-goose tales, and fairy tales, all the way down to the popular writings of such authors as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, shows that stories featuring magic are part of the normal development of children. Stories about worlds that can only exist in the imagination are essential to forming an inner life, belief in the unseen, and a sense of moral responsibility to principles such as honor, courage, compassion, and faithfulness that can nerve someone to do the right thing even when it is to their disadvantage. To paraphrase a better writer who put it better than I can, such stories teach children to imagine certain virtues, and to be able to imagine them is the first step toward having them oneself. A person raised on nothing but cold fact will never become anything but a cold pragmatist.

The magic of the Harry Potter world is a magic of the fairy-tale type. It is whimsical, built on a a platform of childlike logic and revitalized cliches. It is the magic of a child's world of fun and pretend and make-believe, but with a very serious "for all ages" story dropped into it. And the story is basically like all the epics of old: a little-regarded hero quests through a strange, other world, passes through danger and suffering, and comes back to the real world fit to be king, but no longer really belonging there. Odysseus, Frodo Baggins, and Eustace Scrubb did the same basic thing that Harry does every year. And while bravely facing great evils, he remains good (though in a real, down-to-earth, imperfect way we can identify with). While struggling inwardly and outwardly, he gives children an example of how to struggle bravely with the problems they will surely face.

I'm the son of a pastor on one side and the son of a (former) witch on the other, so I have what may be a unique insight into what kinds of books do and don't lead people to the occult. It's possible that Harry Potter simply wasn't on the map at the time my mother was a practicing witch. But judging by the books in her witch's library, of which I made a complete list on 2 different occasions (when she wasn't looking), Harry Potter just wasn't the sort of thing that would turn her crank. The very solid, grounded, morally clear worldview (evil is evil and good is good) in Harry Potter is a world away from the wishy-washy, relativistic, new-age mumbo-jumbo a serious pagan goes for. The rather "unmagical" (in the occult sense) depiction of magic in Harry Potter would fall flat among people who are inspired by ley lines and concentrations of energy and earth goddess stuff. There is nothing spiritual, mystical, animistic, or mentalistic about Harry Potter's magic. It has nothing in it to appeal to people who summon spirits, channel forces of nature, use sex in their workings, or do any number of self-serving things that, in my experience, characterize pagan/wiccan behavior.

Harry Potter magic uses potions, magical objects, and "magic words," but not in a ritualistic way; he sometimes has revealing dreams but he doesn't try to manipulate them; he never invokes any power other than the "magic" that is part of himself, not as a human being but as a fictional type of person designated as a wizard. If we see any hint of sacrifices, offerings, or good-luck totems, it is depicted either as superstitious foolishness or as the very evil that Harry and all good "wizards" are against.

Harry's world is secular and even rather materialistic; religion is not depicted in either a positive or negative light - it just isn't there. This why, ultimately, I think the Harry Potter books are irrelevant to the church. I wouldn't use them for a Bible school program. But I would gladly share them with other families in my church who want something to share with their kids, at home.

There are books and films I would consider to have a creepy agenda, teaching ideas and morals that lead in a pagan direction. Some of them I have refused to review, even when offered free copies of the books by their publisher, because I am not interested in promoting that stuff. Those that I have reviewed, or that are listed on the Book Trolley's reader-recommended pages, come with appropriate warnings. It isn't hard to tell the difference between such books and the Harry Potter books, if you read both kinds. It is clear which books are innocent and which are, indeed, traps for those who approach them unawares. There is perhaps a "continuum" of books, sloping gradually from "totally harmless" to "really nasty." I would put Harry way out at the "totally harmless" end, with the "Young Wizards" series a bit farther up the slope, the "Camp Ravenwyng" series quite a ways farther up, the "Abhorsen" trilogy still farther uphill, "His Dark Materials" better than halfway to the other end with the "Sword of Truth" and "Alvin Maker" series in the same general neighborhood, and some of the seriously pagan fiction I have deliberately ignored in my column even farther out toward "nasty." One author I refuse to have anything to do with, by the way, is Clive Barker.

I would add that there are some "Christian" and "non-fiction" books that I think are more dangerous to Christians than even the more extreme books I have named above. Books like "The Lost Gospel of Judas," "The Jesus Family Tomb" and "The Da Vinci Code" mix a sprinkling of fact (totally out of both context & proportion) with buckets of fiction and could potentially fool thousands into rejecting the Christian faith. Books like the "Left Behind" series even more insidiously use exciting fictional stories to implant the teachings of a weird little sect into the minds of many Christians who are simply hooked by the fact that it's presented as "biblical." They don't even realize that they are being proselytized by a group whose claim to be teaching biblical truth is a complete and transparent sham.

Honestly, I worry more about the "Christian" books members of my church are reading than about books like Harry Potter that are offering nothing but entertainment. In fact, I would rather have a young member of my church read "His Dark Materials" (which I loathe) and come back with a long list of troubling questions, than have him read "Left Behind" and, lured by the sense of it being "Christian," get silently tricked into believing a bunch of bizarre and untrue things. When I recommend books to people (fiction), I don't recommend them because of their religious content, but because of their entertainment value. Harry Potter has that in spades, and in my opinion, if you show me a Christian who has a faith crisis triggered by Harry Potter, I will show you someone who has never even read the series but just wants something to blame.

Is that way more answer than you bargained for? Hope it helps.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Happening

M. Night Shyamalan's career as a film auteur has had its ups and downs. Sixth Sense became an instant classic, and its trademark "twist ending" made Shyamalan a filmmaking powerhouse. Unbreakable was very good, but less successful than it deserved. His career seems to have peaked with Signs, so people eagerly flocked to see The Village and went away puzzled. It had its points, but it wasn't quite up to snuff; it revealed many of its writer-producer-director's mannerisms to a fatal degree. Lady in the Water was such an unqualified disaster that it seemed likely to end Shyamalan's career. But now he has come back with The Happening, a film that builds on the same techniques and themes as his earlier films and, though imperfect, perhaps redeems his recent missteps.

Let's review his past work for a moment and point out those themes. First, obviously, The Happening ends with a twist, like most of his movies so far. It really shouldn't be a surprise; Shyamalan sets it up so well that you expect it, and frankly, it would be hard to bring this story to any sort of close without a "surprise twist." Besides, Shyamalan didn't invent this gimmick. It has been a stock-in-trade of creepy movies since way back.

Second, his script zooms in on a handful of ordinary people trying to deal with an extraordinary event that effects the world, or at least a major part of it. In this respect it is most reminiscent of Signs, in which a massive invasion by extraterrestrial aliens is viewed from the point of view of one family on an isolated, Pennsylvania farm. These people aren't rich, or powerful, or superior in any way from the average family, the people who live down the street from you. Instead of a soapy depiction of people whose lives you envy and wish to live vicariously - people who live in huge, palatial homes and have endless leisure time - we see ourselves, our own lives, reflected in these characters. And consequently, the dialogue they speak is very ordinary, like words any one of us might come up with off the top of his head. This brings the strangeness and terror of the situation - e.g. an alien invasion - right into our own living room, forces us to put ourselves in the place of the characters on the screen.

Shyamalan's other movies share this tendency, to some degree. The mother and her little boy who sees dead people in Sixth Sense, the family of the man who learns that he is Unbreakable, and many of the residents of the apartment building featured in Lady in the Water, have this "could be somebody you know"-ness about them.

Third, the greater part of the unnerving effect of these movies is played by what you don't see, or what you only vaguely and briefly glimpse. The aliens in Signs are most terrifying when you can only hear them, or see the motion of objects they have touched in passing. Perhaps the fear "spikes" when you catch a glimpse of an alien's leg as it turns to walk away, or when its claw reaches under a pantry door, or when you see something indescribable caught on a blurry, grainy home video. But between those spikes, Shyamalan maintains an atmosphere of nearly unbearable tension merely by suggesting the presence of creatures we see only briefly, near the end of the film. He undertakes a similar campaign of terror-by-suggestion with the wolves in Lady in the Water, "those we do not speak of" in The Village, and to some degree even the ghosts in Signs.

Fourth, Shyamalan thrills and chills us by bringing concepts from fantasy, folklore, and comic books into that realistic world inhabited by Joe Everybody. First it was ghosts, then a superhero and his evil nemesis, then invaders from outer space; then even weirder concepts, as his efforts became less successful. We couldn't quite sympathize with the villagers, who created their own mythical monster to enforce the isolation of their village; and as for the baroque mythology he dreamed up for Lady in the Water, it lost us at hello. We were more inclined to be frightened by the villagers themselves in The Village. When the subsequent movie was entirely based on a scenario so daft as to suggest a kind of mental derangement, all bets were off; we could trust no one, sympathize with no one.

So in his sixth Hollywood venture, Shyamalan has taken a huge risk in carrying this last element of his art another step further. The scenario has to do with plants, throughout a region of the United States, conspiring to neutralize the threat of mankind by giving off an airborne neurotoxin that causes people to commit suicide. It is almost insufferably silly. But it is the kind of goofiness that our culture is prepared to accept, after swallowing the gospel of "global warming" and worldwide environmental disaster peddled by folks like Al Gore. It is, to put it more briefly, a fantasy that appeals to the present mood. It's a simple enough concept, explained with a sufficient lack of detail, to raise goosebumps on anyone who doesn't care to think too deeply about it; which is to say, right on target for movie audiences.

And it has powerhouse potential to generate chest-tightening horror, because the people in the movie are thereby forced to run from a monster they cannot see, smell, hear, feel, or fight. Once it catches them, they're dead. It's completely invisible, but it's caused by the grass and trees that surround them on all sides, and there's no escaping once it comes for you. The best you can do is look out for groups of people standing still (a prelude to suicidal behavior) or lying dead on the ground; and then move off in a different direction, as long as there is still somewhere for you to go. The film follows one group of survivors out in the unpopulated hinterland of Pennsylvania, who walk off the road (because all roads lead to affected areas) and then split up into smaller and smaller groups as the "event" becomes more sensitive and attacks groups of fewer people at a time. You finally come down, not unexpectedly, to three characters - a not-quite-happily married couple and the daughter of the husband's best friend - who realize that they're completely screwed...and then the movie ends, first with anticlimactic relief, then with a quick "twist."

The couple are played with appropriate anguish by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Young Ashlyn Sanchez, who boasts quite a few credits for such a little girl, plays the girl whose father (John Leguizamo) leaves her in their care. Other actors involved in "The Happening" include Spencer Breslin (best known for roles in the Santa Clause films), Alan Ruck (who still can't live down his career high-point as Ferris Bueller's sidekick), Betty Buckley (whom you may not recognize as the mother from "Eight Is Enough," she is so scary in this film). The actors who play the greenhouse owner and his wife may seem familiar to you; their names are Frank Collison and Victoria Clark. And of course, the director makes his usual cameo, though in this outing he only appears as a voice on Deschanel's cell phone. It is a decent cast that, for all its lack of star power, delivers more than you would expect in a story about a high school science teacher, his nearly estranged wife, and his buddy's orphaned daughter running around in the wilds of central Pennsylvania, "in over their heads" and yet determined to survive a bizarre and deadly "happening" of some 24 hours' duration. If you think it sounds silly, try it out for a laugh. Then tell me whether or not you found yourself holding your breath at the climax when the last survivors walk toward each other across a windblown field, expecting the worst from the grass and trees all around them.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Gregor and the Code of Claw
by Suzanne Collins
Recommended Age: 12+

The fifth and last book in the "Underland Chronicles" brings twelve-year-old Gregor to the end of his adventures in the strange world deep below New York City. This time he must truly come into his destiny as the great warrior with "rager" powers, whose deeds will decide the fate of a world where humans aren't the only people.

Faced by a war with the rats led by the fanatical Bane, the giant, talking mice, bats, cockroaches, spiders, and others look to Gregor to save them - together with his delicate, anxiety-prone sister, who may be the key to breaking the rats' code. But who will save Gregor from a prophecy that decrees his death? Who will save his family from being held hostage to ensure his loyalty?

This book puts Gregor through a wringer. Besides his own, terrible powers, Gregor must deal with the fragile health of his mother, concern for his sisters, and his growing love for Regalia's young queen. Meanwhile, military command has been restored to the icily pragmatic Solovet, who engages Gregor in a brutal battle of wills. Yes, this is the same Solovet who was condemned to death for war crimes; her sentence has been suspended now that the city needs her strategic, leadership skills. As Gregor chafes against Solovet's authority, he finds himself in nearly as much danger from his allies as from the enemy - who, by the way, have dreadful plans in store for the Regalians and their allies.

This is an intensely violent book with an "anti-war" message. It is the concluding chapter in a saga that, like some of the best stories, leaves an aftertaste of regret and uncertainty instead of tying up all the loose ends in a blazing triumph. The ending may even make your heart ache, if the rapid unraveling of many tangled threads doesn't leave your head spinning. Filled with the pain of injustice, young love, wartime wounds and losses, and the sense that the world one fights for can never again be home, it combines a strong emotional impact with a lesson about the cost of violence and warfare. See if you don't find the conclusion as engrossing as the first book promised; see if you don't come to the end wishing for more.

EDIT: For more information, see Ms. Collins' website.

The Three Musketeers
by Alexandre Dumas père
Recommended Age: 14+

The père after the author's name means, roughly, "Sr." and is meant to distinguish him from his son, Alexandre Dumas fils (Jr.). These French words literally mean "father" and "son," which tells you two things about this book. First, it is the product of a literary dynasty, for both the father and the son were celebrated writers. Second, it was written in French, and if you don't speak French, you will have to find a translation.

You may not find the same translation I read, so the words may not be the same in your copy, but here's a quote from the second paragraph of this novel, a paragraph that gave me an accurate clue to how much I would enjoy the rest of the book:
In those times...there were nobles, who made war against each other; there was the king, who made war against the cardinal; there was Spain, which made war against the king. Then, in addition to these concealed or public, secret or open wars, there were robbers, mendicants, Huguenots, wolves, and scoundrels, who made war upon everybody. The citizens always took up arms readily against thieves, wolves, or scoundrels, often against nobles or Huguenots, sometimes against the king, but never against the cardinal or Spain.
As soon as I had read this, I perceived that Dumas had a sparkling wit, and that this "historical romance" (set in France and England between 1626 and 1628) was going to come over light on the history and strong on the romance. It was a promise that Dumas fufilled throughout the book's nearly 600 pages (in my edition).

The Three Musketeers isn't "classic literature" in the sense of being longwinded, mannered, and boring. It is, rather, a marvelous entertainment, crammed with vendettas, love affairs, duels, intrigues, daring exploits, drily funny dialogue, scintillating melodrama, and side-splitting farce. It has an imperfect but captivating young hero - an ambitious youngster named D'Artagnan, who comes up from Gascony to make his fortune in Paris. It has a group of heroically devoted friends - Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, each intriguing in his own way. It has two unforgettable villains, from the intriguingly ambivalent Cardinal Richelieu to the truly monstrous Milady de Winter. It mixes fictional and semi-fictional characters with well-known historical figures, such as the cardinal, King Louis XIII, Queen Anne of Austria, and the Duke of Buckingham - though Dumas adapts historical events with a great deal of freedom, proving once again that his history is handmaiden to the romance. It has memorable lines, of which "All for one, one for all" is only the best-known example. It has horrors and intrigues that will fill you with dread while you turn page after page, as well as merry adventures that will thrill you with joy.

It may have been harder for an earlier generation of young readers to tune into this book, for one big reason: we don't understand the period it is talking about. But for today's internet-savvy kid this won't be a problem. Whenever something comes up in the book that you don't know about, Wiki it. That's how I found out that "Monsieur" was the title of the King of France's oldest living brother (in this instance Gaston, duc d'Orleans). I learned more about the astonishing character of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who really proves that truth is stranger than fiction. I figured out what on earth a "procurator" was (apparently, some kind of lawyer). I also read up on the other historical characters, including Gaston's successor as Monsieur, Louis XIV's brother Philippe who, in history, did not wear an iron mask.

The "iron mask" bit doesn't come into this book, though; that belongs to one of the sequels. Dumas (1802-1870) wrote two further "D'Artagnan Romances," titled Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne: Ten Years Later. The latter is typically published in three or more volumes, with titles such as Louise de la Vallière and The Man in the Iron Mask, each of which is about as thick as The Three Musketeers. Dumas père specialized in stage plays, but also wrote numerous novels that were serialized in French newspapers with great success. Their titles include The Count of Monte Cristo, The Two Dianas, The Knight of Maison-Rouge, The Black Tulip, and The Knight of Sainte-Hermine, a nearly-finished novel that was only discovered in 1988. Dumas, whose grandmother was black, also wrote an early novel on racial themes, titled Georges.

Princess Academy
by Shannon Hale
Recommended Age: 13+

From the author of The Goose Girl and Enna Burning (both of which have been recommended to me) comes this Newbery Honor Book set in the fictional country of Danland, in a world similar to medieval Europe. Too small and remote to be a province of Danland, the territory of Mount Eskel consists of one village and makes its living from one natural resource: the mountain itself. Apart from what they can get from raising goats and rabbits, the villagers rely on a mineral called linder - similar, perhaps, to marble - which they quarry out of the mountainside and trade for other goods. From time to time their vein of linder gives out, and the whole village has to move to another digging site.

Though this may provide only a meagre subsistence, it satisfies the people of Mount Eskel...until a delegate from the government arrives one trading-day and announces that the next Queen of Danland will come from their village. Every girl between the age of 12 and 17 must attend a Princess Academy, which has been set up in the mountain pass below the village, and learn letters, history, geography, commerce, diplomacy, poise, and whatever else a lady of the court should know. Their stern tutor Olanna cracks the whip of discipline, warning the girls that whoever scores highest will be the first to dance with the Prince at his upcoming ball, where he will choose his future bride from among them - and whoever fails will be sent home without attending the ball at all.

One of these girls is Miri, a pretty 14-year-old who lives in shame because her father refuses to let her set foot in the quarry. She only wants to prove herself useful enough that her father will change his mind. Fiercely loyal to her sister Marda, beginning to yearn for a village boy named Peder, Miri isn't sure she wants to marry a prince. And more than the other girls, she chafes against Olanna's authority. But Miri is also driven to succeed, to learn, and to use her knowledge to help the community. She discovers qualities in herself, such as friendship and leadership, that no one expected; and she learns some amazing things about the linder that is so central to life on Mount Eskel. Plus, the chance of giving her family a better life fills her with confusion as to what she really wants.

The ball comes and goes. Guess who gets the first dance with the Prince? But he leaves suddenly without making a decision; a storm closes the pass for the winter; and while the girls and their tutor are still taking stock of the situation, the academy is threatened by a danger no one has foreseen. Guess who saves the day?

By the time the prince comes back, a year later, to make his final choice, you may think there are no surprises left. But I'll bet you won't guess how it all turns out! Like a sophisticated fairy tale where "happily ever after" doesn't mean what you expect, this uplifting story focuses on a girl whose wit and character improve the lives of everyone around her. If you would like to know such a girl, meet Miri in Princess Academy.

The Book of Story Beginnings
by Kristin Kladstrup
Recommended Age: 12+

Lucy Martin has just moved into a century-old farmhouse in Iowa, overlooking the Missouri River bluffs, which her father inherited from his Aunt Lavonne. It seems like a nice place for her parents to work out problems in their marriage. But what will Lucy do? Why, Lucy will have an adventure.

The adventure begins when Lucy finds journals belonging to her long-lost Uncle Oscar, who disappeared in 1914. This is the reason Aunt Lavonne took such an interest in magic; she believed her brother's disappearance had to do with magic. But no one ever believed Lavonne's story that she woke up one night, found the house surrounded by an ocean, and watched her 14-year-old brother row away in a small boat, never to return.

After reading Oscar's journals, Lucy still has no clue as to what became of him. But then she finds a rowboat in the shed - the boat that had turned up empty some time after Oscar disappeared - and hidden nearby, an old "book of story beginnings." Some of the story beginnings are written in Oscar's hand, including one where a boy realizes that the farmland around his house has turned into the sea. Lucy adds her own story beginning to the book - something about a girl whose father was a magician - but before she can write further, she finds herself living in the middle of the story she has begun.

The book, you see, is magical. Whatever story you begin to write in it must be finished, not by writing it, but by living it. The book also judges what you write, so that if you try to bring your story to a too-neat conclusion, the book may erase what you have written. So you're stuck in the story until you find out how it ends.

Next thing Lucy knows, her father has turned himself into a bird and flown away. Oscar, who should be elderly or dead, turns up exactly as he was when he disappeared. The two children realize that they have to see all the stories they have started through to the end if they want things to return to normal. And they have to do it before Lucy's mother gets too concerned about her father's disappearance. It may be too late to save Oscar's family from a lifetime of grief and uncertainty, but Lucy is determined not to let that happen to her family.

If the fantasy concepts of The Great Good Thing, Thursday Next, Inkheart, and The Neverending Story intrigued you, you will especially enjoy this book. The story that Lucy and Oscar fall into is full of quirks, dangers, and surprises. The characters, both in their real lives and in the story-within-the-story, are treated with an affectionate warmth that you, too, will feel toward them. And the idea of a story taking over your life may challenge you to think strange thoughts about the boundary between reality and fiction.

Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Age: 12+

Book Two in the "Fablehaven" series brings Kendra and Seth back to their grandparents' magical-creature preserve, but not for a laid-back summer vacation. The Society of the Evening Star, which wants to destroy the preserves and unleash the evil powers they hold in check, is closing in on Fablehaven. Already a hideous kobold has infiltrated Kendra's homeroom class (disguised as a good-looking new student), and because of the ability to see magic which the fairies gave her last summer, Kendra is the only one who can see what he truly is. Then an agent of the Society tricks Kendra and Seth into helping him steal an artifact that will cause even more trouble than a halitosis-challenged kobold. It is with relief that the two children accept a high-speed ride to Fablehaven.

The news Grandpa and Grandma Sorenson give them is not good. The "artifact" Seth turned loose is actually an unstoppable demon that will eat, grow, and stalk Seth until it devours him. The Society has brought about the fall of a secret preserve in Brazil. Each of the secret preserves, like Fablehaven, conceals a powerful magical object that must not be allowed to fall into the Society's hands. Fablehaven's artifact must be found and removed to a place of safety. But one of the three magical specialists helping to find it is a traitor. Soon the security of Fablehaven is breached, the enemy is inside - to say nothing of the giant, froglike demon that wants to eat Seth - and everything depends on Kendra, who has just learned that she is "fairykind," learning to use her powers to stop the Society from destroying Fablehaven and stealing its artifact.

Before you open this book, brace yourself. It is a scary, thrilling, complex adventure that moves so fast you may have to run to catch up. It is hard to believe a young readers' book could pack so much danger, humor, and emotional power; so many puzzles, tricks, surprises, and thrills; and such an intriguing theory of magic between its two covers. If you thought The Candy Shop War cast magic in an interesting light (in which children are the only ones who can really do magic), try this book's riff which suggests that children up to a certain age are immune to magic! They won't, I'll warrant, be immune to the magic of this book, or the anticipation of Book Three: The Grip of the Shadow Plague.

The Wine-Dark Sea
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

This sixteenth book of the "Aubreyiad," featuring the exploits of Royal Navy Capt. Jack Aubrey and his physician-musician-naturalist-secret agent friend Stephen Maturin, opens with the British privateer frigate Surprise chasing an American ditto through the South Pacific. Nature brings the chase to a terrifying conclusion, thanks to the explosion of a volcano. This stunning act of God sets the stage for the remarkable tragedy that unfolds in the pages that follow.

Let's put the pieces together. (1) A French visionary named du Tourd becomes Aubrey's prisoner: a man with dangerous, egalitarian ideas that agree with those of a certain religious sect on board. (2) At the same time, a member of that sect becomes one of Jack's lieutenants, filling a vacancy caused by a well-aimed volcanic missile. (3) Du Tourd recognizes Stephen and is prepared to compromise his cover as a British naval intelligence agent. (4) Stephen's top-top-secret assignment in Peru is to ignite the fuse of the independence movement, though Spain is still at the time an ally of England. So, (5) when one of Jack's officers helps Du Tourd escape, Stephen's plans are exposed, forcing the doctor to flee for his life through the high Andes while Jack and a hand-picked crew suffer thirst and hunger in an open boat. Reunited after two harsh tests of survival, the friends then undergo one of the most desperate chases ever - talk about being caught between an iceberg and a hard place!

There, I have made the plot seem very direct and simple. But the pleasure of reading this book is its subtlety and variety, its depiction of exotic scenes, complicated situations, many-layered characters, and an adventure whose hero, at the end, may call it a failure while you, the reader, revel in its success. Don't let the ending fool you; the adventure is not nearly over, as the next book (The Commodore) picks up nearly where this one leaves off.