Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My Second Blog

Apologies go out to anyone who has been counting on this blog for daily entertainment. Things have been slow lately. Partly it has to do with the hours I've been working, and partly the second blog I just started in order to reprint and continue my Harry Potter interactive fan-fiction column, "The Magic Quill."

Why leave a high-profile site like MuggleNet and strike off on my own? If it was easy to do, the answer would be simple. Actually, this move is anything but sudden. It's the result of accumulated stresses. Since The Magic Quill started in 2004, I have had three sets of editors go AWOL, and each time there was an "interregnum" that lasted weeks or even months before someone else came along to publish my writings. During each of these frustrating periods, I lost swaths of regular readers and found it harder to get the momentum back again; while the staff at MuggleNet, preoccupied with their other affairs, took ages to respond to my inquiries.

Unlike the two previous editors, the latest one didn't simply fall off the face of the earth. Rather, she gradually faded away, taking increasingly long periods of time to publish each number that I wrote until, just now, a chapter has gone unpublished for two whole months. Things finally came to an embarrassing impasse in which no one at MuggleNet was answering my emails, while my last handful of devoted readers were talking about abandoning ship. I faced the choice between ending a story I have worked on for 4 years - with tons of loose ends sticking out - and starting over by myself. I decided to start over before every last faithful reader gave up on TMQ.

Reposting 144 back-chapters of TMQ was a big job. All that copying and pasting took enough time; but there was also a bit of quality-control involved; plus, I had to add tags and work out other details. The first post-MuggleNet chapter has finally come to light, the comments are working, and responses from my readers/cowriters are starting to come in. Success! A big thank-you goes out to my Dad, who just today sent me a new banner image for the new blog. Great work, Cuda!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Four Movies

When I came home after church on Christmas morning, I was so exhausted that I expected to do nothing the rest of the day except nap, read, and eat junk food. But after an hour or so of sitting around, I decided on a more festive way of blowing time (and money), to cheer myself up while spending the holiday alone. I decided to go to the movies.

It so happened that Wehrenberg's Ronnie's 20 cinema was open on Christmas day. I asked one of the employees whether they got paid extra for working on a holiday. Alas, they did not; movie theatres are apparently exempt from that requirement. Nevertheless I was glad they were open. I enjoyed several snacks at their snack bar (designed to simulate the concession stand at a drive-in movie, complete with tables shaped like cars from the 1950s). And I watched four movies, one after another.

There were several movies I could have seen, but didn't. I didn't feel up to the manic energy of Yes Man (a Jim Carrey comedy). I wasn't inclined to make a charitable donation to the Church of Scientology, so that ruled out Bolt (an animated film featuring the voice talent of John Travolta) and Valkyrie (a World War II flick starring Tom Cruise). My personal circumstances (confirmed bachelor, spending Christmas Day alone) made a romantic comedy like Marley & Me seem too cruel, a gushy melodrama like Australia (starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman) too self-indulgent. My resolution to avoid sequels put Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa out of the picture. Nevertheless I wasn't in a bad enough mood to enjoy an angry, ultra-violent, expressionistic flick like The Spirit.

Taking away movies I had already seen, that left six choices that I was prepared to consider. The fact that I didn't choose to see Doubt or Slumdog Millionaire was entirely a result of schedule conflicts. Once I had decided to see four of the six movies in one afternoon, my choices fell quickly into place. I bought all four tickets during one trip to the box office. This was partly because the line was so long that I had a horror of going through it three more times. But another reason was so that I would now be committed to staying out in public, experiencing the light and the noise and the crowd, and watching all four films before I went home to be alone again. And now I think my choices turned out quite well.

My 1:15 show this Christmas was Bedtime Stories, a family comedy featuring Adam Sandler as a hotel handyman who changes lightbulbs in the very hotel his father started. The movie begins by introducing Sandler's character as a child, helping his Dad run their little motel by day and avidly listening to the old man's bedtime stories by night. Unfortunately, their business wasn't successful. When the father sold the hotel to a bigshot developer, he made sure his son would have a future in it. Happily, he didn't live to be disappointed by his son's fate: driving a crummy pickup and wearing overalls and taking orders from snotty co-workers, resenting the way life has passed him over, and barely involved in the lives of his sister and her two children.

But things change when Sandler babysits the children for several nights. Each night he tells them a bedtime story, to which the kids contribute their own ideas. Each subsequent morning, the bits the kids thought up come true in weird and wonderful ways, from a rain of gumballs to Sandler getting a chance to run the hotel, get the girl, and save the day.

It will be obvious to anyone familiar with Sandler's films that this is not a polished, sparkly Hollywood fantasy. It has its rough edges. Some of its goofball humor falls flat. The better actors in the cast (some of whom are very good) are stuck playing the most cartoonish, over-the-top parts. Sandler's character is more earthy and flawed (all right, stupid) than the golden hero one might expect in a cinematic bedtime story. And though the naughtiness is kept to a minimum, the adult characters are motivated, most definitely, by adult motivations. But it's fun nevertheless. We're not talking about big-budget special effects or thrilling action. It's just a nice little movie with a healthy share of warmth, laughs, and adventure. If I was one of those critics who marks films like grade-school essays, I would give Bedtime Stories a good, solid B.

Second, at 4:00, I saw Frost/Nixon. This is an account of British talk-show host David Frost's 1977 interview with former president Richard Nixon. Played respectively by rising star Michael Sheen and one of my longtime favorites Frank Langella, the two men engage in an intellectual battle spanning four 2-hour filmed conversations. The goal of Frost's team was to goad Nixon into confessing to criminal wrongdoing and abuse of power during the Watergate coverup. Nixon, for his part, was trying to make a political comeback. Their duel of wits and wills makes for a very intense experience in which words, instead of weapons, thrill the audience. Joined in the cast by Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, and Toby Jones, the lead actors of this film deserve at least one nomination come Oscar time. For the scene alone in which Nixon phones Frost late at night, this may be an unforgettable film.

Was the ideology driving the characters a bit over the top? Perhaps. Was its timing (coinciding with the evening of Bush 2's presidency) accidental? Perhaps not. Does the film betoken an unfair tendency to dismiss all but the failures and crimes of a Republican leader, because he is a Republican? If so, that would be the only point on which this movie dissatisfied me. I reckon it deserves an A-minus.

Third, at 7:00, I gave a solid A to The Tale of Despereaux, a lovely animated film based on a book that, contrary to my general creed, I had not read before seeing the movie. It's a touching fairy tale featuring a lovely princess full of longing, a kingdom imprisoned by its king's grief, a savage world of rats, and a nervous world of mice. Living among the palace rats is a sea-rat named Roscuro, who shrinks away from his people's savage way of life, while also carrying the guilt of causing everybody's problems. Meanwhile, a tiny, fearless young mouse named Despereaux adopts the code of chivalry and sets out to make things right.

I started crying quite early in this movie. The tears running down my face had little to do with any particular sadness in the movie. I was simply that moved by how beautiful it looked, how lovable and lifelike the characters were (particularly Despereaux and Roscuro), and in general by the perfection of the animation, the story, and everything else I saw and heard. It was all that a fairy-tale movie should be. It went right to my heart.

And it hardly hurt it to have an incredible corps of vocal talent involved: Matthew Broderick and Dustin Hoffman as the hero rodents, Sigourney Weaver as the narrator, Kevin Kline and Stanley Tucci as the magical chef and his familiar, Emma Watson (late of the Harry Potter films) as the princess, William H. Macy and Frances Conroy as Desperaux's parents, and in various other roles the familiar voices of Frank Langella, Tracey Ullman, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Jenkins, Robbie Coltrane, Ciaran Hinds...the list goes on and on. It's an amazing cast for a single, animated movie. But I think their acting talent has something to do with the sense of profound beauty that unstoppered my tear glands throughout this movie.

My last film of the evening, at 9:40, was another tear-jerker: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as a remarkable pair of lifelong lovers whose lives flow in opposite directions, meeting for a while in the middle. As Benjamin, Pitt plays a man born elderly, and who then grows younger while everyone else around him grows older. Blanchett plays Daisy, the love of his life, who reveals the whole story to their daughter as she lies on her deathbed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The story unfolds as the daughter reads Benjamin's journal, in which he describes his travels and the way fate continually brought him and Daisy together. It remains up to Daisy to describe how it finally (?) separated them.

Also contributing to this excellent film are the acting abilities of Julia Ormond (as the daughter), Tilda Swinton (as the other woman in Benjamin's life), Jason Flemyng (as Benjamin's father), Elias Koteas, Taraji P. Henson, and Jared Harris, among others. The make-up effects are incredible. But the movie could not have worked without a breathtaking story, an amazing and beautifully-crafted flow of imagery, and the career-best acting of both of its leads. It isn't just a tear-jerking love story; it is a moving, heartbreaking, healing life-story. It deserves an A+ grade if any movie I saw this year does.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Eeny, Meeny--Revisited

LAWYER: Timmy, do you consider yourself a kind, gentle person?

WITNESS: I suppose, sir.

LAWYER: Fair-minded?

WITNESS: Yes, sir.

LAWYER: Pretty smart?

WITNESS: I guess so.

LAWYER: Would you say you are honest most of the time?


LAWYER: It's just like you to say so, isn't it Timmy?


LAWYER: Isn't it true that you are, in fact, a lying, cheating, reckless meanie?

WITNESS: No, sir. I mean, I'm not perfect all the time, but...

LAWYER: And I would add, you are an expert at covering it up with a veneer of false modesty!

WITNESS: I don't even know what that means!

LAWYER: If it please the court, I would like to have the following statement read into evidence. "I, Mike Sneekwyler, did on the 19th of last April hear Timmy Cook make the following oral statement under oath: 'Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo; catch a tiger by the toe; if he hollers, let him go; my mother says the very best tiger is you or me, and you are not it.'" Do you deny making this declaration?

WITNESS: No, but I...

LAYWER: Did you, or didn't you, declare the same intending it to be taken as your word of honor?

WITNESS: Well, yes, but...

LAWYER: Then I submit that you, Timmy, have demonstrated a history inhuman cruelty, gross irresponsibility, perjury, and fraud!

WITNESS: Er...er...

LAWYER: Do you deny that you said, "Catch a tiger by the toe?"

WITNESS: No, of course not...

LAWYER: Then what kind of monster are you? Who would do such a thing to a helpless animal, one of God's creatures? Who would even consider it, much less flippantly discuss it?

WITNESS: But that's not the...

LAWYER: And when you added, "If he hollers, let him go," were you not referring to said tiger?

WITNESS: No. I mean yes.

LAWYER: Which is it, Timmy? Can't you even keep your story straight? Did you mean the tiger or not?


LAWYER: But wouldn't it be foolish to unleash a roaring tiger after performing acts of hideous cruelty on it? Have you no regard for public safety?

WITNESS: But...but...

LAWYER: And did your mother actually say you were the very best tiger?

WITNESS: [Blubbering incoherently]

LAWYER: Your honor, may I also introduce the following affadavit from Mrs. Cook, Timmy's mother? "I have not made, nor will I ever make a statement to the effect that my son Timmy is a predatory animal." Well, what do you have to say about that, Timmy? Weren't you advised a few minutes ago that perjury is a crime?

WITNESS: [Hiccuping and sniffling]

LAWYER: The witness is unresponsive, your honor.

JUDGE: Timmy, you will answer the gentleman's question, or I will hold you in contempt of court.

WITNESS: I don't understand any of this!

LAWYER: I'll rephrase the question. Timmy, were you aware when you attributed the words "My son is the very best tiger" to your mother, that you were making a false statement?

WITNESS: I want to go home!

LAWYER: And isn't it true, Timmy, that the phraseology "you or me, and you are not it" is merely a snotty, falsely modest way of rubbing your opponent's nose in your arrogant claim to be the very best tiger?

WITNESS: This isn't fair! Not fair! Not fair!

LAWYER: You talk of fairness, Timmy. Oh, that's rich! Where was the fairness when you left out the second "Eeny, meeny, miney, mo"?

WITNESS: I didn't! I didn't!

LAWYER: But you yourself stipulated the accuracy of Mr. Sneekwyler's deposition. And when you went directly from "If he hollers let him go" to "My mother says," you left out a crucial phrase, the repeat of the nonsense words that make all that ritualistic mumbo-jumbo legally binding. In other words, you attempted to defraud Mr. Sneekwyler...

WITNESS: No! No! You're twisting everything around!

LAWYER: Your honor, I move to have this witness's entire testimony struck from the record, on the basis of unreliability.

WITNESS: But I'm the only one who saw the robbers after they took their...

LAWYER: Not another word! How can we be sure what you saw, if in fact you saw anything? You have practically confessed to being a dishonest, brutish little hellion! Your honor?

JUDGE: Motion granted. The witness will step down...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rough Start

My day got off to a rough start. It almost made me wonder if anything was going to go right for me today.

First, my toiletry cabinet attacked me. It's this flimsy little cupboard hanging on the bathroom wall above the washbasin, with a divided mirror covering three hinged doors. Behind this door are a couple of shelves resting on plastic brackets that push into shallow holes in the sides of the cabinet. Now and then, one of these plastic brackets will spontaneously burst out of its hole and fly across the room, leaving the shelf unsupported so that deodorant, toothpaste, nail clippers, and the like rain down on the lower shelves, into the sink, and (if my luck holds) even into the nearby toilet bowl.

Today, I witnessed a perfectly-timed series of shelf-bracket explosions. First one bracket rattled into the sink; the moment I put it back where it belonged, the second bracket flew onto the floor next to the toilet. Somehow managing not to dump a shelfload of toiletries, I got the second bracket back into place just before the third one flew across the room, ricocheting off the bathtub. While I was coaxing it back into its proper hole, the fourth bracket jumped out and, in spite of the three that were still supporting it and my very active attempts to hold back disaster, the whole shelf took a header into the sink. I swore loudly.

I swore even more loudly a few minutes later, as I was getting ready to feed the cats. I knew that I needed to refill the sealed rubber container in which I keep each bag of cat food after I break it open. So I stood a fresh bag of cat food on top of the microwave, placed the half-empty cat-food dish next to it, turned around and bent over to pull the rubber container out of the cupboard next to the sink. At that precise moment, the bag of cat food decided to tip over, knocking the food dish off the front corner of the microwave and sending kitty kibble cascading all over the kitchen floor. Again, my feeble attempt to save it only made things worse.

My third and worst oath of the morning darkened the bright, cold air when I went outside to drive to work. In a parking lot filled with cars, mine was the only one whose windows were covered in frost. Surrounded by vehicles with spotless windows, I had to stand in the bitter cold and scrape my front and rear windshields.

In spite of early signs, my day did not turn out to be any unluckier than usual. A superstitous person would nod knowingly and observe that such things come in threes. Me? I just went to work secure in the knowledge that my day could only get better. And, by George, it did!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Seven Pounds

Tonight's cinematic coin-toss could have gone three ways. I really wanted to see The Tale of Desperaux, but I arrived at the theatre at an inconvenient time to see it. That left me with a choice of Yes Man or Seven Pounds. I had to decide whether I was better able to stand a Will Smith melodrama or a Jim Carrey comedy. Will edged Jim out.

So I went to see a film in which, in the first scene, the main character calls 911 to report his own suicide. Obviously, the story unfolds out of chronological order, with flashes back to the distant past and more recent events diced and tossed like a chef's salad. It's one of those movies that slowly and deliberately pays out the information you need to understand what's going on, concealing the key pieces until the very end. Unless, that is, you've guessed all...which I did, except for the emotional reaction of the characters (very moving).

Will Smith plays a guy who is either an aerospace engineer or an IRS auditor, either a self-destructive survivor of a deadly auto accident or a slightly creepy philanthropist who stalks the people he is thinking about helping in order to observe whether they are worthy. He lives in a crummy hotel with a pet about which he tells us only two things: (1) that he thinks it's beautiful, and (2) that it is the deadliest creature on earth. Guess which is the reason he keeps it around.

He romances a heart transplant candidate who has slim chances of finding a donor. He performs highly specialized service on an antique printing press. He makes a breathtakingly cruel crank call to a disabled telemarketer. And he makes vaguely threatening and intimidating remarks to several men over whom he holds some unknown power - remarks hinting at a plan whose shape you gradually come to guess, though the movie continues to reveal surprising details about the audacity of his plan. But as he gets closer to Heart Condition Girl, you wonder whether he's making a mistake, whether he'll have the strength to go through with it...

Well, that's enough spoiling. It's a soppy, sniffly, tear-jerking movie that also attempts to blow your mind with its convoluted plot. It makes good use of its cast, which includes Woody Harrelson, Rosario Dawson (pictured above with Smith), and Barry Pepper. In terms of romantic appeal, it comes just on time for women for whom Twilight came too late.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Parable of the Pizzeria

To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?

It is like a pizza joint that advertised itself as strictly using authentic, traditional Italian ingredients. A man decided to try the place for dinner one night. As he read the menu, he saw a list of pizza toppings such as prosciutto, capicola, bresaola, and mortadella.

"Here," he called to a passing waiter, "I thought this was supposed to be a traditional Italian pizza joint."

"That's what it is," the waiter assured him.

"Then," the man replied, "why don't you have Canadian bacon?"

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

KIaatu Barada Nikto

This past Sunday night, I visited the remake of the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. The present version features Jennifer Connelly as a scientist who befriends an alien visitor on the run from the government. His name is Klaatu and in his current form he is played by Keanu Reeves. Also appearing in the film are Kathy Bates (as the Secretary of Defense), John Cleese (as the professor whose chalkboard equation Reeves completes), and Kyle Chandler as the guy best qualified to gaze in horror at his oncoming doom.

The original 1951 film, starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, still comes off surprisingly well today, in spite of the thick layer of camp that has settled over it. The writing is still strong, the music is unique, and the actors manage to keep the hamminess typical of B-movies in that period to a deli-shaved thinness. At that time, when our world was in the throes of the Cold War, the message was that mankind must either learn to live peacefully or perish. Today's version features an updated message straight from the desk of Al Gore. To wit: "The only way to save the earth may be to exterminate mankind." Unless, that is, we change our ways quickly & seriously.

My overall feeling about this movie could be summed up in three words: "Oh, spare me!"

I found the characters difficult to sympathize with. Having Gort (the laser-eyed, giant robot who accompanies Klaatu to earth) turn into a swarm of metallic locusts was an interesting touch, but I really missed the storyline climaxing with Patricia Neal tearfully begging Gort to "barada nikto" just in the nick of time - and not before she herself questions whether mankind is worthy. Not content to remake a classic, this film rips off a wide selection of sci-fi masterpieces, including 1996's Independence Day (which is still recent enough that today's viewers might spot the similarities). And while Klaatu's new powers are very impressive, I rather preferred the well-meaning desperation Rennie's characterization gave him to the coldblooded scariness of the Reeves incarnation.

But ultimately, what murdered this movie for me was its ardent shrillness. Surely its makers must have noticed that the 1951 film's presentiment of worldwide doom turned out to be baseless. Yet they presented their own variation on the same theme with an equal lack of irony and of humility. When the third version of the movie comes out in 2065, the 2008 edition will look that much sillier for it, if it is remembered at all. I add that last quibble simply because both the 1951 and 2008 versions take aim, and I think not subtly, at the structure of western culture. For the ills they address, both films lay the blame at the wrong feet. But if they and the propaganda machine of which they are parts succeed in their mission, they may hasten the disintegration of that culture which has made so many wonderful things - including cinema - possible.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Adams Week

This past week was another biggie for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. With the SLSO and conductor David Robertson, we performed the 21st century answer to Handel's Messiah, a nativity oratorio titled El Niño. American composer John Adams, who is still living, wrote it in 2000.

El Niño is a huge piece, full of technical and artistic challenges for the players and singers, but we did quite well under Robertson's assured leadership. Enhancing the experience were the St. Louis Children's Choirs (singing only in the last number of the work), soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo Kelley O'Connor, New Zealand-born baritone Jonathan Lemalu, and countertenors Steven Rickards, Daniel Bubeck, and Brian Cummings.

For general info about the piece, see this Wiki page. That's where to look to find out who wrote the lyrics we sang, etc. In this space, I only want to record a few impressions that I received from the various movements.

First, in "I sing of a maiden" (No. 1), the chorus sings the text of a medieval Christmas carol meditating on the mystery of Mary being both maiden (virgin) and mother. It's a peculiar setting, in which the singers repeat fragments of the text in varying order, sometimes breaking it down to a single syllable repeated over and over. Robertson told the chorus he thought of it as dream music, in which you catch bits and pieces and only slowly seem to get the gist of what you're hearing. The music holds echoes of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, tinselly glimmers, and the quiet purr of a well-oiled motor.

The countertenor trio (a.k.a. "male ensemble") makes its first statement in "Hail Mary, gracious." It is also the first sign that, in his writing for three countertenors (basically, male altos), John Adams has hit on a very special thing. This moves on to a long, contemplative Mezzo aria titled "La Anunciación," whose opening evoked images in my mind of a woman gazing out at a landscape during a calm, starry night. The chorus explodes back into action in No. 4, "For with God nothing shall be impossible," a phrase from the angel's message to Mary that we repeat over a dozen times in six-part chords with the men lagging behind the women by half a beat. A quiet chiming interrupts this thrilling message in mid-sentence, signaling the moment of the miracle of conception.

One of my favorite numbers was No. 5, "The Babe leaped in her womb," the biblical account of Mary's visitation to Elizabeth, performed mostly by the male ensemble (again, with some of Adams' best vocal writing) and with only a bit of amplification by the chorus. I love the way Adams paints light, timelessness, and feelings, using three falsetto voices moving homophonically. He alternates between perfect intervals and vibrant dissonances, combining melody inspired by medieval modes with quirky rhythms and unusual instrumental colors, such as the almglocken (a set of pitched cowbells).

No. 6 is the Magnificat (Mary's song from Luke 1), sung by the Soprano with only a bit of support by the women of the chorus. In his very personal way, I think John Adams has written a very beautiful setting of this text; it is another favorite movement of mine. The libretto turns to apocryphal gospels for No. 7, "Now she was sixteen years old," in which the male ensemble, soprano, and baritone soloists dramatize Joseph's discovery that Mary is pregnant. Joseph continually asks questions like, "Who is he who has deceived me?" all the way to the end, seemingly ignoring Mary's insistence that "I do not know a man," so as to set up the next movement, "Joseph's Dream," where one of Luther's sermons is quoted.

Adams takes on Handel's Messiah in No. 9, "Shake the heavens," based on the same biblical text as Handel's number "Thus saith the Lord." The orchestra plays pounding chords; the baritone bellows, often in long strings of notes that imitate the shaking of earth and sea; and the chorus pops up for only two phrases, though among the loudest in the whole piece: "I will fill this house with glory, and in this place I will give peace." After this shattering climax, calm descends and the male ensemble, soprano, and mezzo finish the number with a haunting setting of an apocryphal story about Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem. This might actually be the most breathtaking moment in the entire oratorio.

Part I concludes with No. 11, "The Christmas Star," which is as close to a "Grand Finale" as any part of El Niño gets. This allegorical poem, translated from Spanish, casts Mary's ordeal of motherhood as the story of a little girl catching a falling star and being burned to dust by it, in the meantime igniting the whole world. It's a weird but thought-provoking poem, and a spectacular piece of music calling upon all the soloists and the chorus, and incorporating Hildegard von Bingen's Latin hymn O quam preciosa est virginitas virginis huius. If I were to point out the parts of this movement that I particularly loved, not many bars would be left unmentioned. But I seriously envy the sections of the choir who got to sing the chantlike beginning of Hildegard's song. By a clever musical illusion, Adams contrives to make this chant sound like it floats timelessly in the background, unconnected to what the other parts are singing, yet somehow fitting perfectly into the whole. It's a very moving ending for the first half of the piece.

Part II has fewer highlights for me, but was much more work for the chorus. No. 12, "Pues mi Dios ha nacido a penar," involved the mezzo and the chorus in a gentle yet rhythmically tricky lullaby to the infant Jesus. Then Adams retells the Epiphany story, beginning with "When Herod heard," a scene for the countertenor trio and the baritone soloist, in which Herod connives to murder the infant Christ. This is immediately followed by the chorus singing, "Woe unto them that call evil good," a devilishly tricky number that quotes some of Isaiah's most impressive words in the King James Version:
"Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil, that put darkness for light and light for darkness, that put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter; woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight; who seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark. I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them."
Then the male ensemble resumes the Epiphany story with "And the star went before them" and "The three kings," in the latter of which each of the countertenors impersonates one of the traditional wise men. Oddly, Caspar, Melchior, and Baltasar derive no deeper insight from their encounter with the Lord than, "God exists!" I find the text at this point underwhelming. But the embarrassment is quickly swept aside by the delicacy of the nearly unaccompanied chorus, "And when they were departed," in which Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and the baby Jesus and flee with them into Egypt. I see that the next number is titled "Dawn Air," which I'm sorry to say, triggers no recollections whatsoever. Whatever it was, it was soon drowned by the Herod's scream of fury, in the chorus "And he slew all the children."

Adams then contemporizes the biblical slaughter of the innocents by analogy to a 1968 massacre of students in the main square of Mexico City, in a soprano aria with chorus in Spanish titled "Memorial de Tlatelolco." Villainy like Herod's is certainly not the sole property of the ancient world; nor is pain like that of the parents of the children Herod put to the sword. Much of what the chorus sings consists of the words "I remember. We remember." Again in the person of the prophet Isaiah, the chorus retaliates with their final full number, "In the day of the great slaughter," in which God promises to "bind up the breach of His own people" and "heal the stroke of their wound." In spite of these words being encouraging, the music has a rhythmic intensity that bespeaks anger - the anger of a just God who will one day avenge all the injustice that now seems to run freely in the world.

My section of the chorus, at least, sat through the last three numbers of El Niño. In "Pues está tritando," the soloists and the top three sections of the chorus seem to argue amongst themselves about the role each of the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) played in the nativity of Jesus. Then apocryphal stories about Jesus' infancy occupy the soloists for the last two numbers, "Jesus and the Dragons" and "The Palm Tree," the latter of which involves the children's chorus and a speaking part for the baritone soloist. One could regard the entirety of the last three movements as a gradual dying away from the final climax of "In the day of the great slaughter." At the very end, having persevered through a stormy passage that completely drowned them out, the children are singing very softly to the accompaniment of a single guitar, which finally trails off in mid-phrase to conclude the piece. Such a low-key ending seems to be typical of Adams.

In all, I was impressed by the expressiveness, originality, and energy of Adams' music, particularly when the countertenors were singing. I must confess there were passages in which I almost had to pinch myself to stay awake. And there were a couple of movements whose rhythmic complexity came close to defeating us poor amateur choristers. I was never fully confident of my part in the final chorus, for example. It's a big hunk to chew, but it may be the hunk from the early 21st century that amateur and professional choruses are still cutting their teeth on in 20, 50, or even 100 years.

As a theologian I could wish for a more biblically orthodox text, but that's more than one can expect from a composer of a New England Unitarian background whose credits also include The Dharma at Big Sur and On the Transmigration of Souls (the latter of which, by the way, the SLSO & Chorus performed during my first year with the outfit). Bottom line, the piece makes a good mental imagery generator, it has some gorgeous passages, it could give any musical organization a worthwhile technical challenge, and I'm not surprised to hear that many in the audience were emotionally moved by it. I myself felt tears in my eyes during at least one passage.

IMAGES: Adams; O'Connor; Rivera; Lumalu; the three countertenors (from a different performance of the same piece, of which they constitute the "original and traveling cast").

Monday, December 15, 2008

Saved by Junk

This morning I found my car completely iced over. I had expected it to be covered with snow, but not ice. I couldn't open the driver's side door, so firmly frozen shut was it. What saved me from being late for work? A malfunctioning seatbelt.

For months - years, even - I've been cursing the piece-of-junk driver's-side seatbelt that doesn't fully retract when I unbuckle it. All too often, I have come back to my car to find a length of strap dangling out the bottom of the locked door.

Today, this irritating aspect of owning an aging vehicle came to my rescue. I managed to get the door open by lifting the handle and pulling firmly on the belt. So I guess even the crappy things in life can become occasions for gratitude.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Butterfly Award

Kaza Kingsley, author of the Erec Rec series as well as her own blog, has really made my day! She nominated me for this "blog coolness" award, an award bloggers are free to pass around. The rules of the Butterfly award are:
  1. Put the logo on your blog.
  2. Add a link to the person who awarded you.
  3. Nominate 10 other blogs (or fewer if you don't have time to do 10)
  4. Add links to those blogs on yours.
  5. Leave a message for your nominees on their blogs.
Well, Kaza, I'm totally honored. However, I'm going to have to fudge the rules a bit. I'm not following enough blogs to be able to come up with 10 nominees. But I would like to recognize a couple blogs/zines that have brought me abundant laughs and inspiration. I am sure I'm not the first blogger to drop the names of The Sneeze and Dooce. Thanks for the joy!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My Favorite Subject...

As I am a fat, stupid jerk, naturally, my favorite topic is... me. Here are two more little factoids on that fascinating subject.

1. I have a horror of being bored. It's remarkable, really, considering how little it takes to keep me amused. I try not to go anywhere without a book to read. Before I go out of town, visit a doctor, or have my car worked on, I grab a book to take with me. I usually bring one to Symphony Chorus rehearsals, to read during down-time. More than one person told me at tonight's rehearsal that they wouldn't recognize me without a book in my hand. Sometimes I even take a book with me to church, in case I have extra time to blow before the service starts, or what have you.

One story that goes with this trait of mine dates back to my grandfather's funeral in August. My Mom, brother, and I were heading to the funeral home for the wake. I guessed (correctly, it turned out) that it was going to be three hours of tedium, surrounded by people I don't know. People from the old neighborhood my grandparents moved out of before I was born. Relatives I haven't seen since my age was in single digits, if ever. Friends, co-workers, and neighbors of my aunts and uncles, who quickly lost interest in introducing me to everyone.

I have, as I believe my mother & brother understood, a profound horror of boredom; but they wouldn't let me bring a book to read during this three hour ordeal. I was highly peeved. It felt like they wanted to hurt me. What really got me was that my brother hooked up with one of his tarty girlfriends and spent the entire time tucked off in a corner with her, where they sat heads together, amusing themselves and not bothering to make conversation with anyone else. I came off with the better end of the deal. I renewed my acquaintance with some cousins who were actually fun to talk with, while my brother complained afterward that nobody paid any attention to him.

Poor baby. The schmuck nevertheless arranged to have his tart meet him at the graveside and at the dinner afterwards, with identical results. I guess my brother also has a horror of being bored, only his defensive weapon of choice is women; or perhaps it's a horror of not being paid attention to. Actually, the latter sounds more like him.

2. I look like some guy. I have been told many, many times that I remind people of someone else they know. I guess I just have one of those faces that could belong to anybody; there's nothing original about it. I'm often mistaken for my Dad - once, even by a parent of a childhood friend who hadn't seen me in years. Nevertheless I've also been told I take after my mother and my stepmother, in looks.

One couple told me I was the spitting image of the son of their pastor back in Colorado. Someone else swore that I was the twin of an ex-classmate. A waitress at a bar where I stopped just once to use the ATM mistook me for a regular she hadn't seen for a while. In the eeriest incident, a librarian at my alma mater - a lady, mind you, who had known me when I was a student there - almost passed out during an alumni reunion because of my resemblance to her former boss, who had passed away years earlier.

Some of these resemblances aren't very flattering, I must say. I knew the guy who had passed away, and if I resemble him at all it's in being a flabby, hairy, ungraceful slob. The more weight I gain, the more unremarkable I look. I'm practically invisible, except when my oafishness isn't forcing people to turn their faces and hide a pained expression. So it's just as well that I have books (and music, besides) as a shield against boredom. I'm not going to get the attention from women that my brother gets. Not if they were ever so tarty.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Five Book Reviews

The Arkadians
by Lloyd Alexander
Recommended Ages: 11+

This book is a retelling of some ancient Greek myths by a past master of folklore retold, from the Chronicles of Prydain to The Iron Ring. I know that many readers share my high estimate of those works, and so also my high expectations of this book. So I'll say up front that I was somewhat disappointed by it.

In the land of Arkadia - based, I believe, on the southern region of Greece - conflict stirs between the Bear People who rule the land and the conquered people they rule. The Bear People are led by a brutish king who, in turn, is ruled by a pair of crooked priests. When the new king seeks the traditional prophecy of his reign from an oracle known as Woman-Who-Talks-to-Snakes, he gets bad news. The evil counselors take this as an opportunity to increase their power. Their first step will be to purge the land of its wise women and their traditional lore.

Meanwhile, someone else finds himself crosswise to the priests: a palace bean-counter named Lucian, who has uncovered their treachery. Forced to flee the capital city in the company of a talking jackass - or, rather, a poet named Fronto who has been turned into one - Lucian befriends a pretty young prophetess, the hard-riding Horse People, a mischievous goat boy, a professional scapegoat, and a wily sailor. Their quest takes them to the temple of a powerful wise woman, an island where victims are constantly sacrificed to bulls, and other strange places. And finally the circle closes and they find themselves back in the capital, fighting for justice, friendship, and love.

These characters and their adventures will seem familiar to anyone who knows a bit about Greek myths and legends. But the way Alexander turns them topsy-turvy may appeal to some people more than others. Throughout the book, the old tales are retold in a way that alters the whole point of them, often in what I felt was a hostile and glib manner. Frequently, the gender roles are reversed and a story is reshaped to fit a feminist worldview. The result is a peculiar marriage of recycled tradition and original invention. It's an interesting new fantasy world, created by consciously rejecting the tenets of the classical one.

One often sees books spoofing fairy tales in a similar way, but unlike them this book doesn't wink at the reader or send any singals that it should be taken tongue-in-cheek. This is where my disappointment comes in. I was prepared to enjoy the romance of Lucian and Joy-in-the-Dance, their adventures, and their friends. But my enjoyment was lessened by a sense that, all the while, Alexander was passing judgment on all of western culture, a judgment based on moral principles I don't share.

I also thought everyone gave Lucian a rougher time than he deserved. This comes partly of being the hero of the tale, but also partly of a wide streak of male-bashing that runs through the entire book. If I were Lucian and I had to put up with that, I don't know why I would bother being the hero. It would be too discouraging. And, in my view, it canceled out the chemistry between Lucian and Joy-in-the-Dance.

I say all this in full knowledge that my criticisms will probably be selling points for many readers. Women's studies programs should take note of this book; if they're looking for a new mythology in line with their aims, this would be a good place to start. For anyone else, I recommend it merely as an average-quality tale of magic and myth from an author who has done far better.

The Time Thief
UK Title: The Tar Man
by Linda Buckley-Archer
Recommended Ages: 12+

This is the second book in the Gideon Trilogy, also known as the Time Quake Trilogy. In the first book, The Time Travelers (a.k.a. Gideon the Cutpurse), two 21st-century children were accidentally sent back to the England of 1763, where they were befriended and helped by a reformed cutpurse named Gideon Seymour. Their rescue was only partly successful. Kate Dyer returned to her own time, but at the last moment a villain known as the Tar Man traveled with her instead of her friend Peter Schock.

Now a NASA scientist thinks time travel is a really bad idea, and the antigravity machine that made it possible should be destroyed. Kate isn't so ready to give up on Peter. Refusing to leave him stranded in 1763, she helps Peter's father steal the machine and the two go back in time to rescue him. Unfortunately, the settings on the machine have been tampered with. So Kate and Mr. Schock land in 1792, a time when Peter has grown into manhood unrescued.

Peter recognizes them in time to conceal his identity, while trying to help Kate and Mr. Schock get back to their own time and continue searching for the boy he was. The trouble is, the machine was damaged during its latest trip, and the only person in 1792 who has a chance of fixing it is a scholarly nobleman barricaded on his estate in revolution-torn France. On the eve of war between France and Britain, and at the height of the Terror in which the guillotine played such a gruesome role, the three friends must risk great danger if their families are ever to be reunited. Meanwhile, Kate is starting to experience scary side effects of time travel - and she isn't the only one.

Back in the 21st century(!), the Tar Man tries to set up a new criminal empire, aided by a street-smart girl and another boy lost in time. When his plans go pear-shaped, the crooked-necked creep moves to Plan B, which involves more time travel. But even after cheating Peter and Kate out of their long-awaited reunion with their families, the Tar Man proves to be only the second-nastiest villain in the universe.

This middle book ends with a cliffhanger in which the very fabric of reality seems to be in dire jeopardy. But it takes more than a cliffhanger ending to make sure you'll want to read Book Three. What it takes, this book has: lovable characters, urgent suspense, creepiness, humor, a fish-out-of-water adventure in history, a hint of romance, and enough criss-crossing lines of plot and motivation to satisfy anyone craving another Harry Potter adventure.

Miracle on 49th Street
by Mike Lupica
Recommended Ages: 12+

The man who brought us Travel Team and Summer Ball now throws open the deepest, darkest secret of a professional basketball player - a secret so deep and dark that he doesn't know it himself. Yet.

Josh Cameron is the star player of the Boston Celtics, and he has a squeaky-clean image. Along comes a little English girl named Molly Parker, a girl with a natural gift for basketball, a girl whose mother (Josh's one-time girlfriend) recently died of cancer. Molly knows something Josh doesn't know: he's her father. They're both about to find out whether that's going to be a good thing or not.

Josh's first reaction is not to believe Molly's story. As they spend more time together, Molly sees more and more why her mother didn't want her to know her father. His life doesn't really have room for her, or really anyone but himself and the game. His squeaky-clean image may not survive the news that he suddenly has a twelve-year-old daughter. Can all that be changed by one little girl who is desperate to have a family again? That's what Molly wants to know.

Molly quickly grows on Josh Cameron's friends and teammates. She has a foster family and a best friend rooting for her too. But she's not taking any chances. She has an exit strategy in case the father-daughter thing doesn't work out. Josh doesn't know she is about to move to the West Coast with her foster parents, or that she is holding out a hope of staying in Boston with him. Whether he figures it out in time will be the stuff of a Christmas miracle in this parent-child romance with a twist of sports.

New Moon
by Stephenie Meyer
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Twilight, a small-town Washington police chief's daughter found true love with a teenage vampire, just in time for a bloodsucking fiend to chase her to a deadly confrontation in Phoenix. Now the Twilight Saga continues with a tale of post-breakup depression, extreme sports, and a pack of teen werewolves in the throes of lycanthro-puberty.

When the Cullens - including her beloved Edward - suddenly leave the town of Forks, Bella Swan is left with a gaping hole in her heart. If you read the first book or saw the movie, you might have gotten a vague idea that being separated from Edward might be tough on her. But for Bella, breaking up is really hard to do. She goes through half of her senior year at Forks High like a zombie, speaking only in answer to a direct question, and growing increasingly distant from her school friends and her worried father.

Her outlook begins to brighten when Bella renews her friendship with Jacob Black, a 16-year-old do-it-yourself auto mechanic at the Quileute Reservation outside of town. Jacob carries a torch for Bella, and as she takes more and more comfort from his friendship she is increasingly tempted to make his dreams come true. It wouldn't entirely remove the pain of missing Edward; but since it seems Edward doesn't want her anymore, why shouldn't Jacob have her instead? Just when Bella has almost decided to act on this reasoning, things change. And the first thing that changes, in a big, angry, hairy way, is Jacob.

In the Quileute tribe, werewolves are a defense against vampires. The latest outbreak of lycanthropy seems to have been triggered by the Cullens, though they don't hunt people and - let's face it - they're gone. But it couldn't have come at a better time, since a couple vampires with less scruple about drinking human blood have moved into the area. And especially since one of those werewolves is Victoria, mate of the late James, whose idea of revenge is to sink her teeth into Bella's throat.

The only thing stopping Bella from being next on the menu is the pack of which Jacob is the newest member. Unfortunately, the whole werewolf thing complicates their deepening relationship, leaving Bella with only one other solace from the torment of missing Edward. Yup. Those extreme sports. Stuff that anyone as clumsy as Bella would be crazy to try - and all but suicidal to try alone. Why would she do stuff like that to herself? Here's why: because whenever she is about to do something reckless and stupid, she hears Edward's voice in her head, begging her to stop. It's the next best thing to having him there in person.

Which explains, roughly, why she happens to throw herself off a sea cliff during a raging storm. This extraordinarily foolish act nearly kills her. Worse, by a chain of hard-to-explain accidents, it leads Edward to decide to kill himself. And this is why, quite suddenly, Bella finds herself moving again in the world of vampires, risking her budding relationship with Jacob, and defying all-but-certain death to save her true love, whether he loves her back or not.

What is clear to me after reading this book is that the Twilight Saga is basically a love triangle. Bella is caught between two monsters, both of whom she loves (though not equally), and neither of whom can stand the other. She is caught up in a world of weirdness and terror where anything that has ever been imagined might exist; and if it does exist, she seems bound to meet it. In her own dogged, passionate way, she unintentionally makes herself the pivotal figure in two remarkably detailed, well-developed fantasy worlds, while continuing to stir up her share of trouble in the everyday world.

Bella's observations of Jacob and Edward continually prompt readers to imagine two very different flavors of physically perfect, spiritually flawed romantic leading men. Meanwhile, salivating readers - especially teen girls - will scarcely notice that most of the suspense and action are concentrated in a few chapters, while the majority of the book takes place inside Bella's complex and tortured mind. This is perhaps the cleverest thing Stephenie Meyer has achieved in writing this long, inwardly focused, mostly slow-paced, yet compulsively page-turning book. Once you start it, you will finish it; and once you finish it, you will want to start the next book in the series, Eclipse.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard
by J. K. Rowling
Recommended Ages: 9+

We first heard about this book in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when the plot turned on the Tale of the Three Brothers. Then we might have heard that J. K. Rowling had auctioned off her handwritten and illustrated manuscript of this book for charity. Now, at last, it has come into the hands of Harry Potter fans. Slender and quickly devoured as it is, it is a welcome addition to the lore of Harry's magical world, joining his seven-book saga and the two whimsical Hogwarts School Books previously published.

I am loath to say much about the five fairy tales contained in this book, except that they are crafted to fit the magical setting of the Harry Potter books. This is to say, they are examples of the type of fairy tale that magical parents might tell to magical children - tales in which magic is as ordinary as umbrellas and tea; tales illustrating the principle that magic can sometimes cause more problems than it solves.

The book says that Hermione Granger translated the tales from the ancient runes. It also includes comments on each tale, left behind by the late Albus Dumbledore, pointing up significant literary themes illustrated by each fable. These themes are themselves important issues in the "canonical" Harry Potter books. What Dumbledore has to say about each tale (and his comments are often longer than the tale itself) adds to our understanding of what J. K. R.'s novels were about, and of why they turned out as they did.

I enjoyed the Dumbledore bits most of all. I suppose, though, this book could be read for the fairy tales alone. As fairy tales they are a little strange, but they work. Rowling seems to have a gift for this type of tale, even when writing it merely as background to a larger work. She gives us five pieces of fabricated folklore, covering all kinds of subject matter from the haunting wisdom of "The Tale of Two Brothers" to the grim horror of "The Warlock's Hairy Heart." There is a bit of romance, a bit of a morality tale, and a bit of silly mischief; and I'll bet you can guess which of these bits is represented by "Babbity Rabbity and Her Cackling Stump." But all of them have a serious side, as you will see as you read further.

My only complaint is that there isn't more. I enjoyed this book too much for it to be over so quickly. May J. K. Rowling's creative endeavors continue to grow! And may this appetizer stimulate hungry readers to sample more of the wide range of luscious books that await us!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Snow in St. Louis

Yesterday morning, when I left my apartment around 6:40 to go to church, I spotted snow on the ground. It was only a thin layer of the wet, sticky, next-thing-to-rain type of snow, but it was the first serious sign that winter is coming to St. Louis apart from a hard frost about a week earlier. By the time I got to church, however, the snow was already gone.

Today, as it approaches midday, last night's snow is still visible on the lawns, rooftops, and tops of parked cars. It's the same type of stuff as the day before, only more of it; and it's still snowing, or at least sleeting. Having acquired my taste in winter from Minnesota (albeit now with a touch of Arizona in me, too) I can't help but be pleased with this progress. We may have a white Christmas yet!