Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Good Snack Deal

During my last browse at World Market, I found a great deal on an interesting snack food. The label contains the brand name "Asian Passage," the appellation "Spicy Kyoto Mix," the descriptive terms "Rice Crackers" and "Spicy." It is further described as "A spicy blend of rice crackers, chili Japanese peanuts, Cajun sesame sticks, hot & spicy peanuts, dried green peas and almonds."

It's got a variety of shapes, colors, and flavors in it, ranging from sweet-and-soy-saucy to zingy-with-a-touch-of-wasabi. What makes it a particularly good deal is that the package contains 12 individually wrapped 1.5-ounce bags - twelve generous-sized snacks for about the price of a standard bag of chips.

All right, it isn't health food. Each serving has a certain amount of fat, carbs, and sodium. But none of the fat is "trans fat." The carbs include some dietary fiber. Plus, there is a little protein, calcium, and iron in there. On the "con" side, there are several ingredients in it that may raise food-allergy flags, including nuts, wheat, and soy. And the list of ingredients is about as long as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But if you're going to eat junk anyway, you could do worse than this - and pay more too. And this has some interesting tastes and textures in it. Worth a try!

The same company sells party-size packages of snack food, including several different varieties, such as (pictured above) their "Tokyo Mix." I think I have also seen a "Banzai Mix" and, unless my memory betrays me, an "Osaka Mix." I can't explain the differences between them, but I suppose it has something to do with the ratio of peas and nuts to rice crackers, the level of spiciness, etc. I am sure these westernized appellations are an insult to Japanese natives, where similar snacks are known as arare. I don't know why they don't just call it that here in the U.S. It sounds cool.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Distempered Clavier

Either my piano tuner is losing it or I am. The jury is still out.

Six months ago (?) the guy came and tuned my piano. At that time, as soon as I sat down and started playing it after he had left, I spotted a problem. All the major and minor chords sounded in tune to me, except the B-flat major triad. Every time I played it - surprisingly often - I was irritated by the not-quite-rightness of it. I had the tuner come back and touch it up, but that chord continued to drive me crazy ...until the time came around to tune it again.

Now it's the interval from G to D, or D to G, that's giving me fits. All the way up and down the keyboard, those two notes strike my ear as not being the proper distance apart. Yet, like my previous trouble with B-flat major, everything else sounds like it's in tune, including chords and intervals containing one of the fishy notes.

It shouldn't be musically possible. I can think of only two ways to explain it. Either my tuner is using an idiosyncratic, not-too-well-thought-out system of temperament that pleases most people but not my incredibly discerning ear(?!); or I have a screw loose in the area of my brain that picks up musical signals from my ears.

So far the joy of music hasn't deserted me; but Possibility #2 represents a distressing sign that my hearing may be starting to slip. On the other hand, happily, these chords and triads don't bother me on other instruments, but only on my piano at home ...so I may not have to worry about my hearing at all!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Today's Dream

I dreamed again this morning. Two days in a row is unusual for me. This time, thank God, the most humiliating thing that happened in my dream was losing a card game. The rest of it was OK.

I continue to sample imported snacks found on the shelves at World Market. I would like to recommend the Violet Crumble, an Australian chocolate bar manufactured by Nestlé. The filling is a crunchy, foamy toffee that is meant to resemble honeycomb somehow. It's got a really interesting texture and a slightly burnt flavor that I like. Plus, you have to take relatively small bites and spend some time munching on them, so it prolongs the pleasure.

Also aerated, but not quite as spectacular, is Nestlé's Aero bar, in which a soft filling (caramel, mint, or just plain chocolate, to name but a few of the flavors) is filled with fizzy air bubbles. Actually it's mostly air, giving the candy a pillow-soft, meltaway texture that isn't bad (nor is the flavor), but it does strike one as being a clever way to sell about a Hershey's Kiss worth of candy at a full-size candy-bar price. Think of it as offering "all the guilt of a regular chocolate bar, but only half of the chocolate!"

That's all I'm going to own up to at this moment. More another day!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Humiliating Dream

This morning I had a dream that left a strange taste in my mouth: humiliation.

I seldom remember anything that I have dreamed. When I do, it is often a "pressure" dream: the kind where I am struggling to perform some task under an impending deadline, but I can't seem to get past the first step. Or, even more frustratingly, I keep having to step backward and fix problems that prevent me from even starting. Next to these, my most frequent brand of dream is the "whatever book I'm reading, redacted by my subconscious" type.

Occasionally, I have a heroic dream (like the one where I was Jack Aubrey, captain of His Majesty's Frigate Surprise). Still less often come the odd scary dream (like when I'm being hunted by a meathook-wielding killer), the erotic dream (lips sealed), and the "so completely daft that I have to wake up and write a note about it" dream. I have even had musical dreams (including a semi-pressure one where I was in a conducting workshop, first directing an orchestra and choir and then listening to their criticisms such as "You should breathe with us when you give us our cue"). But this morning's humiliation dream was a new twist.

I recognized a couple of characters in it. One of them is a friend of mine from my seminary years. The other was a guy I very slightly knew in college, when we were both RA's in the same dorm. I hadn't thought about him in so long that it took me all day to remember his name. Yet I knew him, and I knew whence I knew him, when I saw these two characters from different phases of my life standing side by side. The most humiliating thing about the dream was that they didn't like me, or even respect me.

It was a dream in which, everywhere I turned, I saw people gazing at me in disgust, and I couldn't help feeling sympathy with their disgust. Without knowing any specific grounds for it, I knew they had good reason to think me a loser. I was conscious of being flabby, sweaty, hairy, and no doubt smelly; of having an unlikeable character; and of having done something that gave widespread embarrassment to the community that now barely tolerated my presence.

When I approached the two guys I knew from school days, they were working on the ground crew of some institution - I couldn't say whether it was a school, office, or residential complex - and I believe I was coming to them for help. Something like, I was locked out of my room and needed someone with a master key to let me in. The first guy, my seminary friend, stepped forward first to let me down gently: "Well, you see..." But the second guy, the college RA type with whom I was never very close, pushed him aside, murmuring, "Let me handle this." Then he proceeded to tell me off, putting me in mind of how little help they owed me after all the trouble and expense I had caused, etc. I was just starting to wish that the ground would swallow me up when my alarm beeped.

Yowch. Whatever corner my mind turned at 4:55 this morning, I hope I go straight by it another time!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Even More Reviews

The Warrior Heir
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Age: 14+

I love to read aloud. Some books positively demand to be read aloud. My parents know this, and their response to my need to read aloud to them most often ranges between resigned sufferance and grasping at any excuse to escape. But when, during a holiday weekend at their house, I started reading The Warrior Heir to them, I was astonished at their response. They hardly interrupted me at all. When I paused to check how they were holding up, they seemed focused on the story. And when I reached the end of each chapter, they urged me to read on. I might have asked what had become of my real parents, but there was no need. It was obvious that some wizard had put a spell on them; and that wizard's name was Cinda Williams Chima.

I didn't have time to read this whole book to my folks, and I sensed their disappointment about this. So I was happy to send them my copies of the first two books in this trilogy, as soon as I was done reading them. That didn't take long. They are hard to put down.

This book introduces you to Jack Swift, an 11th grader from the small college town of Trinity, Ohio. At first there doesn't seem to be much special about him. He isn't an orphan; his parents, though divorced, are both living. The only scar he has comes from a heart operation that saved his life when he was a baby; he still takes medicine for his heart every day. Other than that, he's an ordinary American teenager who plays soccer, chases girls, hangs out with his friends Will and Fitch, and deals with bullies at school. At least, he remains ordinary until the day he forgets to take his medicine. The day something funny happens at soccer tryouts. The day strange forces begin hunting for Jack, hunting with a purpose he could never have imagined.

Jack's easy-come, easy-go Aunt Linda has something to do with all this. So do the heart surgeon who has checked in on him all his life, the white-bearded handyman who lives above the garage, and a surprising number of neighbors on Jack's Street. It turns out a lot of people in Jack's life are in on his secret and sworn to protect it. But it is the new vice-principal of Jack's high school, the dangerous-looking Mr. Hastings, whose after-school training regimen becomes the key to Jack's survival.

For there are things in the world unknown to Jack and his friends. There are enchanters, seers, and sorcerers, whose special abilities grow out of a stone inside their bodies, stones they have been born with since their ancestors made a pact to rob a sleeping dragon. There are wizards, with a broader range of terrifying powers and the will to force all the other "weirlind" to serve them. And finally there is Jack, one of the last of his kind: a warrior. The wizards will use him to fight a ritualized battle in an arena: a battle to shift the balance of power between the rival wizard houses of the White Rose and the Red Rose; a battle, need I add, to the death.

Jack's swift journey takes him and his friends to a terrifying encounter in a graveyard, a nearly fatal visit to London, and a climactic battle in the mountainous north of England. He learns some of what it means to be both a wizard and a warrior. He picks up a sword of power and a custom-fit book of magic. He wrestles with a century-old murder mystery. He sees his friends used against him as hostages. He faces betrayal, heartbreak, and a trial for his life. And in order to help Hastings change the unjust ways the wizards have forced on the other weir, Jack must also face a high probability of death in battle against the last person in the world he would ever hurt.

The Warrior Heir is the first young-adult novel by a sometime nutrition columnist for the Cleveland, Ohio, Plain Dealer. And yes, it is also the beginning of Chima's first fantasy trilogy, which is now complete. The companion books are The Wizard Heir and The Dragon Heir. If you find them as captivating as my family and I do, you may enjoy knowing that a second trilogy is in the works. You can visit the author's website (http://www.cindachima.com/) for more information.

The Wizard Heir
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Age: 14+

If you have read the first book in this trilogy, The Warrior Heir - which I highly recommend - you will already know a few things as you begin this second book. You will know, for example, that the Weir are folks who are born with a magical stone inside them, a stone that gives them certain powers, depending on whether they are sorcerers, seers, enchanters, or warriors. The Anaweir, like the Muggles of Harry Potterdom, are everybody else - and they don't even know that such people exist.

The most powerful of the weirlind are the wizards, who for hundreds of years have ruled over the Anawizard Weir (enchanters, warriors, etc.) as masters over slaves. The wizards are strong, but their strength is divided by mutual enmity. Two main parties, the White Rose and the Red Rose, have been in conflict for many generations. The result has been a perpetual wrangling for power over all the magic in the world, and innocent people are often caught in the crossfire.

Joseph McCauley - Seph to his friends - seems innocent enough. He doesn't know who his real parents were. Raised by a foster-mother with a sorcerer's knack for material-magic, he has only the sketchiest possible notions of the world of weir or his place in it. He has the power of a wizard, but after spending his childhood trying to suppress it, he finds it blazing out of his control. Little accidents - and not-so-little ones - keep him moving from one private school to another. Finally, it seems that only one place will take him. It isn't exactly St. Brutus's Secure School for Incurably Criminal Boys, but it's close to it.

Actually, the Havens is much worse. It takes in students that other schools can't control, and straightens them out double-quick. But the way it does this isn't very nice. The headmaster, Dr. Gregory Leicester - pronounced like "Lester," for all you non-Brits out there - applies appalling methods to break the hard cases. Methods like sending them terrifying nightmares until they bend to his will. And occasionally, methods like murder.

A few of Leicester's students and alumni are special. Endowed with wizard powers, they receive special training and privileges. They live in their own building, follow their own course of study, and serve as Leicester's small, private army of muscle and magic. Some of them aren't so willing, however. It seems Leicester has a power over them that goes beyond nightmares. Such a power, indeed, that once they join him, they can only escape by death. He drinks their powers as a vampire drains blood from his victims; and if he dies, they die.

Now wizards don't bat an eye over enslaving other folk, but enslaving other wizards is beyond bounds even for them. If Seph could get word out on what Leicester is doing, the big meanie would be in deep trouble. But Seph can't get word out. He can't escape. And it is only a matter of time before Leicester wears down his resistance and forces Seph to join him.

A major part of this book is a grim account of the pressure Leicester puts on Seph, and his gradual but inevitable loss of hope. Then, suddenly, in one of the most suspenseful scenes young-adult fantasy has ever known, the tables are turned and Seph begins a new and even more exciting adventure.

The threat of Leicester and his Alumni is not yet entirely behind Seph. They are coming for him, and the safe refuge of Trinity, Ohio, can't shield him from them forever. Even with new friends and a taste of romantic love, Seph's danger is not yet over. For no sooner does he learn who his parents are than he must risk everything to save them, together with all his new friends - save them from Leicester's final plan. For an upcoming Council could change the balance of power among the weir forever, either to make things better for everyone, or to make them unimaginably worse. Guess which way Leicester plans to steer things.

Though this trilogy is her first foray into YA novels, and though second novels (in or out of a trilogy) can often be a let-down after a promising start, Chima continues to weave a tight, strong fantasy, and she doesn't drop a thread. She has crafted a fresh, compelling fantasy world and stocked it with fascinating characters, powerful conflicts, bizarre dangers, creepy forebodings, loves and hates and pities and surprises galore. Once you start reading The Warrior Heir, it's almost certain that you will read this book as well. And once you read The Wizard Heir, the concluding book of the trilogy, titled The Dragon Heir, will surely be on your to-do list.

Finn MacCool and the Small Men of Deeds
by Pat O'Shea
Recommended Age: 9+

Even after reading this book, I am somewhat surprised to find it packaged as a reader for small children. Slender, richly illustrated (by Stephen Lavis, in the edition I have), and laid out in big, square pages, it looks like a bedtime story, or a book for Read-Aloud Time in a first-grade classroom. In a lot of ways this makes perfect sense, since it is a light-spirited fairy tale. What's surprising is the level of sophistication the author trusts children to have, even at that age level. For this is a book that trusts children to appreciate wit and irony, and that throws vocabulary-building terms at them as carelessly as its hero throws himself into an adventure.

Finn MacCool is a hero out of Irish folklore. The Irish spelling of his name, according to the author's note, is Fionn MacCumaill, which serves to make the non-Irish-speaking reader (like me) feel humble, if not downright helpless, when it comes to pronouncing Irish names like "Fianna" and "Oisín," "Caelte" and so on. Fortunately there aren't many of these in the book. And the sheer delight of the story and its telling are such that you soon forget to worry about them.

Here is the tale of a warrior chieftain who dismisses his troop one day while lying down with a headache. Nevertheless he accepts a giant's plea to help a giant King and Queen prevent their third child from being stolen on his birth night, like the first two. Accompanied only by eight strange dwarves who offer their services to him along the way, Finn MacCool travels to an island where everything is bigger than life. Aided by the small men's various powers, he outwits a terrible witch and reunites a royal family. And back in our world, little eyes - Irish and otherwise - are dancing with pleasure at the magic, the humor, and the warmth of the tale. This could, in fact, be a favorite book for many children, if they but heard it while sitting cross-legged on a classroom floor, or nestling in Grandma's warm lap, or leaning against a sunlit window and listening to their own voice read aloud.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Few More Reviews

The Goose Girl
by Shannon Hale
Recommended Age: 12+

The first novel by the Newbery Honor-winning author of The Princess Academy is similarly set in a fairy-tale world. This is sensible, since the story itself is a classic fairy tale, embellished with richer detail and deeper characters. It is the story of the lovely princess who is supposed to marry the sterling prince, but whose plans are upset by a ruthless usurper. Before the heroine can get the boy who is rightfully hers, she must bide her time as a lowly goose girl, escape from deadly perils, develop fantastic powers, and above all, become the take-charge kind of person her queenly mother never managed to make of her.

The princess Ani grows up believing she is fated to be the next queen of Kildenree. Instead, on the day of her royal father's funeral, she finds out that her mother has other plans for her: marriage to the heir of the kingdom across the mountains, marriage to ensure peace with their stronger and more aggressive neighbors. Regretting only that she cannot be the leader her mother meant her to be, Ani begins her journey to the kingdom of Bayern, accompanied by a lady's maid and a band of guards. But the lady's maid proves to be as ambitious as her guards are disloyal, and Ani finds herself hunted, lost in the forest, helpless to stop her ex-lady-in-waiting from taking her place and marrying her prince.

Helpless, that is, except for the other young beast tenders who become Ani's army. Helpless except for her gift of communicating with animals and even, more and more, with the very wind. Will that be enough to save her when Ani crashes what was supposed to be her own wedding, and when she must face an angry king over against a wily imposter with the gift of persuasion? Will that be enough when she is trapped alone with the people who have been trying to murder her? The outcome is so uncertain, after all, that you may well feel as if an ice cube had been dropped down the back of your shirt.

This is a delightful fantasy romance, told by a voice abounding in delicious imagery and mysterious poetry. Hale really knows how to turn a phrase, and how to grab a reader's feelings. And she also creates a world worth visiting again; which makes the sequel, Enna Burning, welcome indeed.

The Princess and the Hound
by Mette Ivie Harrison
Recommended Age: 12+

It was not so much Orson Scott Card's endorsement as the cover art on this Harper Teen paperback that persuaded me to read it. But in the end I was reminded of the impression Card's books have left on me: the sense of a tale that started with great promise, but never quite lived up to it.

It is the story of a prince named George. On his father's side, George is heir to the throne of Kendal. From his ill-fated mother, however, he has inherited a forbidden magic: the power to speak to animals in their own language. Anyone caught with this secret can be publicly burned; but as his mother's death proves, if you try not to use the power, it burns you up from within. For this and other reasons, George holds himself aloof and lives only for his princely duty. And that duty, it now seems, will include marriage to the princess of nearby Sarrey, marriage to ensure peace between the two countries.

George is ready to marry Princess Beatrice, sight unseen, whether he likes her or not. He has become quite good at keeping his feelings to himself. But the princess is nothing like what he expects. Constantly accompanied by her great hound Marit, with whom she shares a unique and mysterious communion, Beatrice seems to be even better at hiding her true self than George is. Does this mean he can trust her with his secret? Or is she so well hidden that she has lost herself?

The true answer to this question is the crux of the whole story, what makes it a truly unusual and memorable fantasy. How the prince and princess find love together is more than just a romantic story; it is a collision of myth, magic, danger and promise, treachery and courage. It is a matter of seeing who is truly who, and unleashing thrilling powers to transform and renew. But it is also, finally, and I must add sadly, increasingly fuzzy and unsatisfying. Just when the author seems to hold lightning in her hands, the narrative goes limp and the fantasy passes from fascinating to preposterous. I lost the sense of the characters being real people, right around the scene in which Marit is revealed in her true form. Maybe some of it came back towards the end; but such a fumble at the most crucial moment of a story can ruin the whole thing.

I can't say it was a total waste of time. I don't begrudge a moment that I spent reading this book, and I still like the cover art. But I appeal to Mette Ivie Harrison: reconsider your pacing and character-handling toward the end of the book. I would stand in line to buy its Second and Revised Edition; and if it is what it could be, I would cherish it. But as the book stands now, my copy will probably end up in the Christmas stocking of someone I don't have time to shop for. What a difference a few scenes could make!

by Charlie Fletcher
Recommended Age: 12+

The first chapter of this book really grabbed me. The rest of it held me in its ruthless grip. And now I eagerly look forward to the rest of the "Stoneheart Trilogy," of which this is the first book.

It begins with a school trip to a London museum, and a lonely, frustrated boy named George. George is having trouble fitting in. He misses his Dad (who is dead). He doesn't see much of his mother either (she's an actress). An encounter with a bullying classmate and a heavy-handed teacher pushes George into a rebellious mood, and he takes it out on a stone dragon's head carved on the front of the museum. The next thing he knows, George is running for his life, chased by gargoyles, dragons, salamanders, and other images graven in the form of beasts and monsters.

All this could be confusing, but if he wants to survive George mustn't dwell on his confusion. For he has fallen into another London, a world below or beside the world most of us see. In this under-London, statues can walk, talk, and even kill. The good ones, shaped like people, are called spits, and they have something akin to a human soul. The bad ones, called taints, have nothing inside but a ravenous hunger. The taints of London are after George's blood, and he has only a night and a day to atone for the crime that started it all.

George is joined by a heroic statue of an army gunner, and a girl named Edie who has her own powers and problems. No one else can see the statues moving, stalking, and fighting over George. As he searches for answers to what he must do to end his danger, George deals with creatures that straddle the line between spit and taint, between good and evil - and an enemy of flesh and blood who would willingly sacrifice George's chances of survival in order to free himself from a curse.

Besides being a thrilling adventure full of magic, menace, mystery, and non-stop, high-speed action, this novel abounds in something too many others lack: novelty. If sheer excitement doesn't excite you, perhaps originality does. This book brings it, in a way that instantly seized and constantly held my attention. I read many books every year, but only a few of them take me to places I have never seen before - and make me eager to visit them again. If you want to visit that London, this book is your ticket. If you want a return trip, you'll have to wait for Book Two of the trilogy, titled Ironhand.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Few Book Reviews

The Squire, His Knight, & His Lady
by Gerald Morris
Recommended Age: 12+

Book 2 in "The Squire's Tales" continues the adventures of Sir Gawain, knight of King Arthur's Round Table, and his faithful, half-faery squire Terence. Mainly based on the medieval legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which in turn was based on even more ancient legends from pre-Christian Ireland and far-off Persia, this book pretty faithfully retells one of the most moving quest stories in world literature. Meanwhile, it lines the aisles and packs the scenery with clever embellishments, old conventions turned upside-down, newly-invented characters, old ones with reconsidered motives, and fresh detail.

The tale takes place at a time of transition. Gawain's fame as the world's greatest knight has begun to be eclipsed by the rising star of Lancelot. But the coming of Lancelot has brought pain to King Arthur as well: the pain of disillusionment with his and Guinevere's fairy-tale love affair. But all this only lends an undertone of melancholy to the main adventure, in which Gawain spends most of a year seeking his own death - death in fulfillment of a vow; death for love of his king.

This is the story of the giant green knight who appears at Camelot and offers to let anyone cut his head off who will, in exactly one year, let him behead them back. Gawain comes forward and does the grisly deed; then the green knight picks up his head and walks away, warning the hero to remember his vow. But a year of searching for the green knight and his green chapel only leads Gawain and his faithful squire to one strange adventure after another; adventures in which they are joined by the spirited Lady Eileen, who proves to be the love of Terence's life.

Their journey takes them deep into the Other World, the world of faery, where people and things are not what they seem. As they go alone, Gawain and his friends experience terror, love, despair, and shame. They display cleverness, courage, goodness, and honor. They perform feats that become the stuff of legend - and, at times, show us what earthy and even embarrassing reality might lie at the bottom of many long-revered legends. And when they return, they even manage to straighten out the problem of Lancelot.

Morris's continued retelling of the deeds of Gawain adds a whole new dimension of fantasy surrounding Terence and other denizens of the Seelie Court. It shades in larger-than-life figures of revered legend in down-to-earth colors you can enjoy. And in its clear, direct, single-serving proportions it can prepare you to read, with greater enjoyment, still more detailed and mature retellings of the Arthurian legends, of which there seems to be no end. If you like tales of knights and chivalry, here is a side of them worth visiting.

The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf
by Gerald Morris
Recommended Age: 12+

In Book 3 of "The Squire's Tales," a strong-willed girl makes her way to Camelot to demand a champion from King Arthur's Round Table. She needs a strong knight to deliver her beautiful sister from a recreant knight who refuses to leave their castle in peace until Lady Lyonesse marries him. So Lady Lynet flees in search of help. What she finds is not what she expected.

First, she finds a faery sprite named Robin Goodfellow. Then she becomes the traveling companion of a sardonic dwarf named Roger. Then, after encounters with the "uncanny" squire Terence and his Lady Eileen, and a disastrous debut at King Arthur's court, Lynet finds a rather unsatisfactory champion on her hands: a kitchen boy named Beaumains, belligerent, proud, and altogether ridiculous. Nevertheless, as Beaumains proves to have the good looks and battle prowess of a true hero, Lynet starts to have feelings for him.

All three of our heroes are put to the test in this story. Beaumains faces a whole succession of recreant knights - or rather, picks fights with them. Lynet discovers things about herself, talents that only the tutelage of the sorceress Morgan le Fay can bring out. The secret of Roger's identity and background continue to tease and tickle. Surprises of love and jealousy, pride and humility, goodness and evil, honor and unworthiness abound. And finally, this tale reveals the fate of more than one brother of Sir Gawain in ways that may surprise fans of Arthur's Round Table.

Gerald Morris's love of these tales is as evident as the zest of his creative freedom. If you love both original fantasy and timeless stories faithfully retold, you have that in common with this author, whose tight and informative "Author's Notes" are always worth reading.

The Tale of Troy
by Roger Lancelyn Green
Recommended Age: 11+

The obvious sequel to The Tales of the Greek Heroes is this book about the twilight of the heroic age, which climaxed and ended in the Trojan War. Like that other book by Lancelyn Green, this one sets in order the bits and scraps, rags and tags that one finds all out of order in the epics of Homer, the dramas of Euripedes, and other Greek poets. It smooths out the contradictions, connects all the causes and effects, and shows the links between numerous people and events as clearly as can be; and it does nearly all of this on the firm authority of ancient Greek authors.

That is a tremendous feat of scholarship. But what's even greater is the simplicity, strength, and immediate appeal of Lancelyn Green's writing. You hardly feel you are studying the fruit of a lifetime of research. You hardly seem to have to work at all, as a great story teller brings a world of great stories vividly to life. The remote dawn of human history seems to hover within reach, earthy and human, yet aglow with otherworldly beauty, aflame with a savagery we wish, in vain, we could regard as alien to our world.

Here is the straight dope on Paris - not the city, but the Trojan youth whose choice between three rival goddesses set a colossal, world-changing tragedy in train; he doesn't seem quite as nice at the end as at first. Here is the skinny on Helen, whose beauty launched a thousand ships and ignited a war that lasted over a decade and led to the destruction of Troy. Here are the admirable, doomed Hector; the bitter, volatile Achilles; the oily Agamemnon; the whiny Menelaus; the wily Odysseus; the self-destroying Ajax.

Here are Cassandra, doomed to prophesy in vain; vengeful Clytemnestra, whose gave her husband a welcome-home shirt with a surprise sewn into it; dutiful Orestes, who risked an unimaginable fate to restore his father's honor; faithful Penelope, who put up with more than your average war widow; and a teenage psychopath named Neoptolemus, who makes you wonder what the ancient world would have been like on Ritalin.

Can all of that fit into one book, and still be fun to read? If you doubt it, you need only pick up this light volume by a master of way-more-than-twice-told tales.

Dangling Tackiness

This week's ELCA lighted-sign tackiness:


There are so many possibly ways to make a joke out of this, I hardly know where to begin. Maybe I shouldn't. Sensible of the risk of being accused of blasphemy, I had better not ask what two tugs means, or why I couldn't have the yo-yo I wanted, or whether this is the good kind of rope to take with you to a communal shower, etc. But is it right to leave God tied up like this? I think knot!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Orc Week

Thank God that's over.

I thought Handel's Messiah was gruelling because of the sheer amount of choral music in it and the number of vocally challenging bits even towards the end. I thought the Brahms German Requiem was exhausting after I sang it at Carnegie Hall on a stage so crowded that I could scarcely move. I thought the Faure Requiem was disagreeable because it called for an ensemble so much smaller than ours that, in order not to overbalance the orchestra, we had to sing as it were with one lung tied behind our backs. But doing Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings Symphony now holds the kewpie as the piece of music of all the world that I feel most relieved to be done with.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed it this past Friday and Saturday at Powell Hall, the first in a new "SLSO Presents" series that will also include, later this season, a screening of The Wizard of Oz with the live orchestra performing the soundtrack. Both performances were sold out, and even our "dress rehearsal" on Wednesday was reasonably well attended. One might regard this as a great boon to musical culture in this city, since many in the audience had never darkened the door of Powell Hall before.

Leave it to me to make the curmudgeonly remark: "We'll see what a boon it is when the receipts for Beethoven's Ninth and Verdi's Requiem are counted." And if the results at that time are what I expect - after last season's mediocre box office for Haydn's divine Creation and Rossini's sublime Stabat Mater, followed by a sold-out weekend of Orff's ribald Carmina Burana - I may revise my curmudgeonly remark to: "There is no accounting for taste."

Anyway, back to the LOTR Symphony. Why did I find this piece exhausting? It started with lousy chorus parts. Though the piece requires the chorus to sing four-part, six-, eight-, eleven-, and maybe even thirteen-part chords, the chorus parts were doggedly crammed into a two-staff format, like a piano part - betraying, perhaps, that the composer wrote it at the keyboard. The early stages of preparation were largely given to figuring out which singers would sing which notes. We had to deal with every imaginable divisi, from a two-part men/women split to SATB to "high-middle-low" divisions of each sex to two-, three-, and four-part divisis within each section of the chorus - and there were many passages in which the "road map" changed continually from one chord to the next. For a piece that has been performed hundreds of times around the world, to sold-out auditoriums, it is frankly astonishing that a truly choral score has never been published.

Between the passages in which each choir member struggled to remember which note he/she was supposed to sing, were long stretches of rests during which the orchestra played without vocal accompaniment. Again, the chorus parts left much to be desired. We had very sketchy orchestral cues at best; more often, we had nothing to clue us into our next entrance (or sit/stand cue) except the number of measures, in varying tempos and meters, which we must count. Instrumentalists have no trouble with this sort of thing, but choir singers are seldom expected to count hundreds of bars of rest without an orchestral cue to prepare them for when they are supposed to come in next. At times, our score gave us cues for orchestral lines many measures away from anything we had to sing, followed by bars and bars of rest that we had to count before coming in. This kind of thing seems worse than inconsiderate; it seems mean-spirited. Especially when our entrance is in the middle of a dissonant crunch and the conductor is beating a rapid 7/4 or some similarly daft gesture, and we are hard put to pull our next note out of the air, let alone spot the precise beat we are supposed to come in on.

Besides, we also had to sing text in languages that have never been spoken by real populations. The lyrics under the notes alternated between the proper spelling of the words in their fictitious languages and a bizarre sort of phonetic spelling that caused even more confusion. The guide that came with the music, and that was supposed to help us understand what we were singing, did not actually match what was in the score. And the published recording of the work deviated from the score in many ways.

In spite of all that, I think we did rather well. But on my own part, I can say that our success was not entirely unmixed, and that success was bought at the price of a great deal of nerve-wracking anxiety. We got a lot of help from an expert in Elven languages, who by the way sat right next to me on the stage. It must have been a trial for him, too, though. For he had to bear with the Howard Shore Recension of the Linguistic Inventions of Tolkien. Shore, we learned as my stage neighbor drilled us in our Sindarin, Dwarvish, Rohirric, and so forth, had taken considerable liberties with the text, tweaking it as he saw fit to achieve the musical effects he wanted, and thereby garbling the winged words somewhat. Nevertheless, a fan of the book and/or film could recognize some of the words and names that we sang, such as Durin, Shadowfax, Osgiliath, A Elbereth Gilthoniel, and Anduril. I believe we also sang the "One ring to rule them all" ditty in the Black Speech, for which no doubt our eternal souls are now forfeit.

All this effort was eventually overshadowed by the production values of the performance. The chorus sang under a screen on which still photos (mainly of design sketches from the movie) were projected, and awash in colored mood-lighting that sometimes made it hard for some singers to read their scores. Together with the St. Louis Children's Choirs and several instrumental and vocal soloists, we were miked and amplified, with a pair of experts at the controls, ensuring that everything was perfectly balanced. The foyer was decorated with wax figures of orcs and ring-wraiths, so that members of the audience could have themselves photographed by them; and some audience members came in costume. For example, one lady was spotted in the garb of an Ent.

When I left the hall after Friday night's performance I overheard concertgoers having animated discussions, not of the rich musical performance, but of the finer points of Tolkien's plot and how it was similar to or different from the film and the symphony. I actually heard someone in the parking lot pronouncing "Cirith Ungol" correctly, and was shocked to realize that I - even after having sung in the piece - didn't know what musical passage related to it. After Saturday's performance I chatted with one of the violinists who confessed that she had never seen the movie, and had no idea whether or not the music reflected its character. I seriously wonder how satisfying the concert could have been for people who did not know the film. For when you take away all the thrilling, frightening, and melancholy associations of the story, what is really left except a vaguely silly game with pretend languages and no less than two hours of overblown and basically formless music?

I tell you the truth. I volunteered to be in the group that sang this, but I came to regret it. I wore myself down to my last nerve trying to keep count of the rests, searching for my next note, and trying not to forget which nonsense syllable came next. I was nearly exhausted before the final performance began, and as each movement ended the realization that I had sung it for the last time came to me as a real pleasure. I might have enjoyed it more if I had been in the audience, under no pressure, watching the pictures on the screen. But as it was, I couldn't help feeling that I was in the middle of something that required far more effort than it deserved.

The soloists were heroic. The guest conductor, Ludwig Wicki, milked amazing sounds out of the orchestra - albeit one that contained many unusual instruments, among them a truckload of percussion objects of which I couldn't name half. There was an Irish whistle, a pan flute, a musette, a cimbalom, harps, "distressed" piano, celesta, hammered dulcimers, and a Hardanger fiddle. There were tamtams, tom-toms, tubular bells, snare drums, bass drums, cymbals, funky rattle things, and this scary-looking wooden thing that made the weirdest noise. There were two boy soprano soloists, a pair of soloists from the chorus, and a 19-year-old beauty named Kaitlyn Lusk who got to channel Annie Lennox into a microphone. And there were spots, pictures, high-end sound mixers, and colored lights to help everything along. From the sound of the ovation it couldn't be called a failure. But from the sound of the music, I'm not sure it should be called a Symphony either.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Austro-Hungarian Lunch

This noon I decided to revisit a Bosnian restaurant where I dined a few times several years ago. It's called Grbic Restaurant, and it's located at 4871 Keokuk Street in St. Louis city. That's a block north of Gravois on Meramec Street, at a corner where Keokuk meets Meramec at a weird angle, in what I believe used to be a dairy. The front is practically all glass, letting lots of light into the street side of the restaurant, but inside is a cool, attractive dimness full of stone floors, brick arches, hardwood ceilings, and mural paintings. The bar is pleasantly appointed; a huge and ambitious still-life of food stretches across the back wall of the dining room; and somewhere in the old dairy complex there is a banquet hall as well.

It's the class of restaurant that has linen tablecloths and that serves glasses of ice-water and baskets of bread without being asked. They have one menu for dinner and another, somewhat abridged, for lunch. If you like good, old-fashioned, Austro-Hungarian food - authentic goulash (with emphasis on the paprika), paprikas, wiener schnitzel (not a hot dog), spicy sausage, apple strudel, etc. - you must visit this place. Even if you're not sure, give it a try. You might find it strangely addictive, somewhat like the way curry can be addictive.

Today I ordered the "special of the day." It came with a choice of a salad or the "soup of the day." I chose soup. It turned out to be something called Trhana. Note that, as in the name Grbic, the "r" is rolled and holds the place of a vowel in the first syllable. Trhana is a zesty golden broth filled with really tiny pieces of ground sausage, noodles, and vegetables. The bowl - served on top of a plate with a napkin in between, since you're interested in local color - had crushed herbs sprinkled around its broad rim. I liked this soup so well that I used a couple slices of bread to soak up what my spoon couldn't get at. I must confess, however, that it made me sweat. It had that indescribable combination of subtle, interesting flavor and searing, spicy heat that one associates with either Balkan or Indochinese food - not at all like curry, but as fascinatingly unlike any other taste as curry is.

My soup was joined by a beer imported from Bosnia and Herzegovina. In its homeland it is labeled Sarajevsko Pivo, but in America the label bears the English translation Sarajevo Beer. It was a hoppy, light-colored brew, like a lager but with more bite than our local swill. After the soup came a plate of Chicken Jägerschnitzel: a pounded chicken breast, rubbed with spices and grilled to perfection, and served overlapping a puddle of dark mushroom sauce, with a huge side of buttery Spätzle. The latter are short, knobbly egg noodles; in Grbic's version they come with little specks of spice on them, and I believe I could detect the influence of garlic as well.

I am glad I was dining alone, because I would have made a very dull conversationalist while I greedily inhaled this fare. It was irresistably, indescribably good. The chicken was good with or without the sauce. The noodles were also good by themselves, but I had enough sauce left over after the chicken disappeared that I mixed the spätzle in - and still had enough sauce left to sop up with some bread afterward. We're not talking about "cream of mushroom soup" sauce with tiny flakes of mushroom in it, but a rich, dark, creamy sauce, strong in mushroom flavor, and filled with thick mushroom slices.

All this put me in such good spirits that I decided to spring for dessert. I asked what they had with chocolate in it, and the waiter recommended Palacinke (here the c is pronounced like the "ch" in "chin," and the "e" is a shwa). This proved to be a couple of cool, tender crepes, elaborately folded around a filling of fluffy whipped cream, chocolate syrup, and bits of chopped walnut. It took up a surprising amount of real estate, dominating a large plate that came dusted with fine white sugar and drizzled with a bit of extra chocolate, with a similarly-drizzled mound of whipped cream in the center of the plate. I devoured it all, and chased it with an eminently sippable shot of Slivovitz.

Though it wasn't the cheapest lunch I have had all summer, it did put me in a very complacent frame of mind - as I am sure you can tell from my manner of writing. I believe I won't wait two years until my next visit.

Moist Tackiness

The reliably tacky ELCA lighted sign near my home in St. Louis said something like this in the last week or two, time-appropriate for Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike...


How can one quibble with the words of Isaiah 43:2? Watch me!

Who is this sign really addressing? How is the Gulf Coast supposed to read this sign? Or does this sign rather serve a smug sense of our own care, compassion, and similar merits? How, really, does this sentiment help people on the Gulf Coast? Even if we could send this message to them, how would platitudes plucked from the pages of Scripture comfort people who have already "passed through the waters," whether or not they realized God was with them at the time? Do greeting card messages rebuild homes, replace lost possessions, and get the lights turned back on?

This, in my opinion, is the kind of cold comfort that church people find too easy to give: cold, because it has nothing to do with the Gospel. It is in the same vein as squeezing the hand of someone whose loved one has just died and murmuring, "It was God's will." In an encounter like that, a flesh-and-blood mourner would be tempted to say, "Bully for God! Next time He comes around I'll tell Him where He can stick His will!"

Could the ELCA sign have addressed the Gulf Coast situation better? I think so. It could have urged passersby to pray for the victims of hurricane damage. It could have sobered them with biblical reminders that these disturbances in nature are a reminder that our world is in its death-throes, awaiting the Day of Resurrection. It could have encouraged them with reminders of God's promise not to destroy mankind with a flood. It could have invited passersby to contribute their pocket change toward a relief campaign. Or it could have simply preached the Gospel (maybe even quoting Isaiah 43:2) without pointlessly addressing it to the absent, powerless people of the Gulf Coast: "...and through the rivers, they will not overflow you."

Test that sentiment against the current floods that have lately turned my commute to work into an insane maze of back roads. This is stuff the people right here in St. Louis need to hear now. When God's creation shows us how powerless we are, we need to be comforted by word that God loves and protects us, that He brought His saving power to bear in the weakness of the man Jesus, that when we were powerless slaves of sin (Romans 5:6) He rescued us and evacuated us to the safe refuge of His kingdom (Colossians 1:12), and that the very flood that once wiped out nearly all of mankind was also the flood by which God saved a chosen remnant, so that every flood is now a reminder of how God saves us through the water of Baptism (1 Peter 3:21). So how about: "I CALLED OUT OF MY DISTRESS TO THE LORD, AND HE ANSWERED ME" (Jonah 2:2)?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fun Ad?

PAIN-FREE DENTISTRY: You pay for the dentistry. We throw in the pain for free!

All right, it's not much of a blog post. But what with Orc Week and all, my creative thoughts have been pretty short and disconnected. Tonight we have a rehearsal that may be attended by some 600 people! So I'd better start warming up now...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

I didn't exactly throw myself a party. But I did have a quick meal at Smokin' Al's barbecue. For the record: a pulled pork sandwich with spicy sauce on the side, a tub of their delicious homemade applesauce, and a snort of orange pop.

It was also the first night of Orc Week, as the Symphony Chorus met with a substitute-guest-conductor (due to the scheduled guest-conductor's flight being delayed) and ran through most of the Lord of the Rings Symphony. The children's choir is great. It's going to be an interesting experience - and the performances are sold out!

Sunday, September 14, 2008


My mother telephoned yesterday. She sounded happier than I have heard her in years. The reason for her joy? Chocolate!

Twenty-three years ago, my mother suffered a severe allergic reaction after over-indulging in chocolate-covered strawberries. From that day on, she conceived a strong aversion to both chocolate and strawberries. Incredible though it may sound, she hasn't touched either treat in all those years. At yet she never had herself tested for allergies, to find out which of the two triggered the allergy attack.

My mother is, under everything else, an hysteric. Throwing fits is her forte. Keening, fretting hissy fits, driven either by passion or by anxiety, are her spiritual gift. She has asthma attacks when people contradict her (even though she doesn't have asthma). She has chest pains when she is under pressure (even though her cardiologist swears she has the cleanest arterial walls in Nebraska). She breaks out in hives, feels as if her throat is swelling shut, and suddenly needs to sit or lie down during periods of crisis.

It has always been so, from the time my then-three-year-old brother fell down in an epileptic seizure and she needed to be pushed around the emergency room in a wheelchair, to the time she filed a missing-persons report on me when I, as a freshly-minted pastor just shy of 30, happened to go to a minister's conference out of town without notifying her in advance. Imagine my embarrassment when I found out the police had been looking for me because I didn't clear my movements with my mother - though I haven't lived in the same state with her since 1987.

So, obviously, I have always reckoned that Mom's supposed allergy to strawberries and/or chocolate was nothing but hysteria. She never made any effort to get a doctor's opinion on the matter, which only strengthened me in this conviction. Mom's joy, therefore, was no greater than my surprise when she told me that she had been tested, and found to be extremely allergic to strawberries. Not that being in mortal danger from the Number 3 Ice Cream Flavor in America is anything to be happy about. She was simply ecstatic over being able to go on her first chocolate binge in 23 years.

I hope she doesn't overdo it too much. That stuff can go to your head! But you know, I think this may give Mom a new lease on life. Or at least a relief-valve when the stress gets to be too much.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Righteous Spoilers

After asking the girl behind the ticket counter to describe the films, I said to her: "Based on all that you know about me, would I more enjoy Burn After Reading or Righteous Kill?" Somehow, without giggling, she gave me the impression that I would probably like the latter, since a lot of people were buying tickets to it, while the former was more of a comedy. So I followed her advice and saw Righteous Kill. And now let's roll some pictures so that, if you don't want to see spoilers, you can pull out without risk.
This film was directed by Jon Avnet, who also directed Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Up Close and Personal (1997), and last year's 88 Minutes, among not very many other things. It was written by Russell Gewirtz, who also wrote Spike Lee's bank-robbery-with-a-twist film Inside Man (2006). It stars Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as buddy cops - homicide detectives, actually. You may remember seeing them both in The Godfather, Part II (1974), though they never appeared together in the same scene. Or you may remember them from Heat (1995) - which, judging by a conversation I overheard as I walked out of the theater, at least some in the audience do. SPOILER: Last time it was Pacino who killed De Niro. Now it ends up the other way around.

Also starring as partner detectives are Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo, who led the cast of the 2007 Spike TV series Kill Point (in the last episode of which Wahlberg kills Leguizamo). SPOILER: They both live through this one. Their lieutenant is played by Brian Dennehy, and Carla Gugino rounds out the principal cast as a crime-scene analyst who has romantic ties to both Leguizamo's character and De Niro's.

All the characters are pretty well into antihero territory, except you are immediately forced to suspect that one of them is actually a villain. The obvious villain, from the first shot of the film, is De Niro - which makes it a sure thing it isn't really him, since only a very lousy mystery would begin by telling you who done it. Gradually the cop characters begin to suspect that the serial killer they are looking for is also a cop; and their first suspect is also De Niro. He looks guilty as hell. But the Gugino character also looks pretty fishy. Who knew that (SPOILER!!!) it was Pacino all along? Pacino who, hypothetically speaking, says "I'm the killer" at one point; Pacino who is the first to point out the possibility that the killer is a cop; Pacino who seems to be trying to deflect suspicion from his partner while the real killer seems to be doing everything in his power to frame De Niro?

Well, I knew, from almost the very start. I spent most of the movie asking myself, not "Did De Niro really do it?" or "Who did it?", but "How does Pacino get De Niro to confess on video to 14 murders that Pacino committed?" That was the puzzler that kept me on the hook until the end of the movie. And in retrospect, the fact that the two lead characters are always addressed by their nicknames Turk and Rooster turns out to be the conceit that makes it all work. For although De Niro begins the film with the words "My name is David Fisk," you don't realize until the point in the story where he actually makes this statement that David Fisk is the name of Pacino's character.

So, essentially, the whole messy, convoluted plot boils down to a single trick: you assume Turk=Fisk all along because the person who first says "I am Fisk" is always called Turk, and never by his own name. The film is, at bottom, all about finding out the names of its main characters, establishing identity, learning who is who. And once you realize who they really are, you see them in a different way. Instead of a homicidally angry cop who could explode at any moment, you finally perceive De Niro's "Turk" as the kind of guy who lets his serial-killer partner fire several rounds over his head without shooting back - who tries to talk him out of committing suicide by cop - and who, in firing the "kill shot" that ends their standoff, can be seen painfully surrendering to the inevitable.

It's a brilliant deception. Whether or not the motivations of Pacino's character are at all plausible, I cannot say. The police psychologist character in the film seems to consider the idea of a serial-killer cop ludicrous. Some of Pacino's actions as the villain seem arbitrary and even contradictory, self-defeating. Some of De Niro's behavior makes him look guilty. But the film's attempt to conceal the identity of the real killer (and rapist, by the way) seemed a bit silly by the end. You should know De Niro couldn't be the guy who raped his girlfriend. By the very fact that they don't show you who did it - or the guy who visits the wounded witness's hospital bed with dastardly plans - or the picture Gugino shows the witness when she asks: "Is this the man who shot you?" - you ought to know enough to surmise that it isn't De Niro's face you aren't seeing. And because of the way movies work (as opposed to reality), it can only be one other person.

A final word about the cast. Trilby Glover plays the lawyer-turned dope defendant-turned informant against Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson. As Victim #14, Jackson creates the kind of screen presence that makes you hope that his character gets a bullet in the head; so his spectacular death gives a good deal of satisfaction. Glover, on the other hand, has a certain Alicia Silverstonesque cuteness. She seems too smart to play "clueless," but because of her charm and beauty you might feel protective of her - which heightens the suspense of the scene in which she risks her life in a sting operation.

It seems a pity that her character has so little screen time. She's the nicest thing to look at in the whole movie, and even with a cocaine habit her character comes across as a nicer person than the cops and crooks who populate the movie. De Niro's voice-over (actually reading Pacino's written confession) explains why this may be the case. Cops and crooks share a darker slice of life than everybody else - a side of existence the rest of us barely notice as we go around shopping, eating out, and watching movies. This isolates cops from regular folk and gives them a more negative outlook on the world, since they spend so much time with the worst sliver of the social pie graph, and since they are trained to look out for things most of us ignore. This does as much as anything to explain what makes Pacino's character, as a killer cop, tick - and why De Niro and the other detectives in the film have such tough, unpretty lives outside of work. Yet the movie ends on a note of hope: a gift that, after Godfather II and Heat, you may not expect.