Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mr. B's Again

On Thursday night, I went back to Mr. B's and ordered the steak sandwich that another customer had so highly recommended. The waitress taking my order said, archly, "Ah! The infamous steak sandwich!" Then she offered me a choice of having it on plain French bread or on garlic cheese bread. I decided to go with the plain version this time.

What was served was, in fact, simply a steak on plain bread. But the bread was wonderfully fresh, and the steak was juicy, tender, and full of good flavors. I added a bit of A-1 to the second half of it just to see what would happen, but that was an error.

Mr. B's steak sandwich comes with a dinner salad covered in shredded cheese and your choice of dressing (I had their orangey-sweet French), plus a side of tender-crisp fries; to say nothing of the basket of fresh and toasted bread that appears on the table regardless of what one orders. All that together costs $9.99 plus tax and tip; with a Peroni lager added, my bill came to under $15. What do you think of that?

What I think is, I'm going to have to try that sandwich with the garlic cheese bread next time. And if I can ever catch a slice of that chocolate mint cake before it sells out...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mr. B's Bar & Grill

In St. Louis' south city there is a cramped triangle of streets where Watson Road (heading northeast) merges into northbound Hampton Avenue, while just short of that junction Southwest Ave. (counterintuitively running southeast) plunges right through both of them. On the next block, Southwest comes within a thin sliver of a block of Arsenal Street, but jinks eastward and runs parallel to Arsenal for the length of two blocks before curving northeastward. Right in the middle of that Arsenal-Southwest bottleneck, at the corner of Dalton and Southwest in the famed Hill district of the city, is a bar and Italian restaurant called Mr. B's.

It has been there long enough for the original signage to fall into disrepair. A new sign has been erected next to it. For the past three years, I have lived five blocks from Mr. B's as the crow flies. It is also five blocks, straight down Southwest, from the school where I have voted in every election since 2006. Evidently I don't often visit the stretch of Southwest east of Hampton Ave., because I had no idea where Mr. B's was.

I found it by reading the address (5800 Southwest Ave.) off a Restaurant-Dot-Com coupon I had purchased, and following the descending street numbers all the way from Manchester Road (where I turned onto Southwest on my way home from work). If you ever want an interesting driving experience, try following Southwest Ave. It jukes and jumps in all directions, shares a really weird interchange with I-44, and disappears for two whole blocks during which you have to turn twice (including a 5-way intersection) to get back on it. But at least the numbers descend in an orderly manner from the 7200s near Manchester (where the street begins) and the 4900s at Kingshighway - where it suddenly turns into the 2300 block of Vandeventer Avenue.

So the people who planned the streets of this town were sick in the head. There is evidence of spiritual wellness, at least, inside the doors of Mr. B's Bar & Grill. Once you negotiate the steep driveway to the parking lot, you're going to be OK. They have a nice selection of beer in the bottle, including Peroni: a decent Italian lager I have enjoyed before. I had two of them last night. Beware, however, of dark ale that also comes under the Peroni label; I stumbled on that a few years ago at a restaurant that only carried it when their lager order got screwed up. The darker Peroni is has a sickeningly sweet flavor.

Beginners included a basket of bread, stuffed with both toasted and fresh slices of baguette. On the table was a choice of bread dressings, including both olive oil and margarine, plus grated parmesan, salt, pepper, and I forget what else. The waiter even hinted that he could produce real butter if I wanted it; margarine was OK with me.

I also ordered an appetizer I hadn't tried before: toasted artichoke hearts. What came out of the kitchen was a generous serving of two-bite-sized piece of artichoke, breaded and deep-fried, with a lemon wedge and two dipping sauces on the size. Sauce #1 was forced butter with garlic; Sauce #2 was a warm, chunky marinara sauce. Both went well with the artichoke, though I thought a squeeze of lemon made the most improvement.

While I munched on these starters, I had plenty of time to look around at my surroundings. It's a fairly small joint, dimly lit in the evening. The side facing the parking lot has a stained glass window with the letter B on it in Gothic script. The walls are painted in swirls of paint in an orangey-tan color and hung with old photos that look like somebody's Italian great-grandparents (I should know; I saw pictures quite like them at my Grandpa's funeral last August). There were also decorative ceramic wall-hangings depicting merry gentlemen with captions such as "GOOD FOOD FINE WINE." In short, it looked like it had been decorated with family heirlooms and relics of an old family restaurant, rather than the Pier One shopping-spree look many of their competitors have.

The entree came with a salad. I went with the house dressing, since it was my first time at Mr. B's and I had nothing against it. It turned out to be a creamy, sweetish ranch dressing with a healthy tang of garlic. It wasn't bad at all, but it won't be to everyone's taste. Under the dressing was the usual iceberg lettuce, rings of raw red onion, and generous handful of shredded cheese that so many Italian-American eateries have in common. It's as if we wops (in my case, hemi-demi-wop) must be bribed to eat our salad, bribed with an excess of fat, salt, and sugar. I suspect the cheese was Provel, a locally popular substitute for mozzarella that I don't hold with, but I didn't mind it so much with the salad and dressing.

For my main course, I couldn't decide between manicotti and cannelloni. The difference, for those of you tuning in late, is that the former is stuffed with cheese and the latter with sausage. Other than that, they are the same big, hollow pasta cylinder, stuffed and baked in sauce. I've had many restaurants' versions of each, and I've made my own as well, so I have opinions on what makes them work. So as I mulled over which dish to order, I started stretching my food-critic muscles. The waiter helped me by pointing out that I could order one of each, a dish called Roman Twins. So that's what I did!

The element of surprise was, understandably, the last ingredient I expected. The two pieces of stuffed pasta were presented in a V shape, one of them (the manicotti) covered in marinara sauce, the other (cannelloni) in alfredo sauce. I was amazed to see the latter on my plate. Looking back on other Italian dining experiences, I think I can remember having the option of white or red sauce offered to me, but I never thought of substituting alfredo for marinara on a dish like this.

I asked the waiter about this. He confirmed that both the cannelloni and the manicotti are served with both sauces. I think it's rather daring of the chef to force his customers to try these pastas both ways, and to think about them in a new way. While I would still choose marinara over alfredo when asked to decide, I did enjoy the cannelloni alfredo in its own way.

I still had time to blow, and my discounted gift certificate was burning a hole in my pocket, so I asked about dessert. The waiter gave me two choices, both of which made my mouth water. The first, which I requested on his recommendation, was the chocolate-mint cake. But it seems the cake had sold out earlier, so I was forced to change my final answer. Instead, I had an amaretto cheesecake topped with slivered almonds, with a caramel drizzle on the plate. Wow!

I went into Mr. B's Bar & Grill blind. My eyes have been opened. I will be back, coupon or no. I plan to try their steak sandwich next, since it was highly recommended by a customer at a nearby table. Maybe I'll luck out and catch a slice of that chocolate-mint cake. My only regret is having to walk through the bar side of the joint (complete with a cloud of smoke that clung to my clothes the rest of the evening) to get to the non-smoking dining room. I believe there is a door in that room that leads out into the street. It was locked from the outside last night. Maybe next time I'll call and ask if I can be let in that door.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Two Book Reviews

The Hidden Land
by Pamela Dean
Recommended Ages: 12+

This sequel to The Secret Country started life as the last third of that book. Like other second books of three, its splitting-off proved fortunate for the series and for us readers. It's also a good thing that it's only the middle of the trilogy, or else its ending would cause actual pain. The middle part of a trilogy should move the story forward and leave you longing for more; this book does both of these things in grand style.

When we last saw siblings Ted and Laura and their cousins Ruth, Patrick, and Ellen, they had discovered the real world behind the fantasy-land they had created together over a series of summers. No longer mere make-believe, it had real people, real places, and some unbelievably real things: castles, unicorns, wizards, and kings.

Caught up in the roles of royal princes and princesses, the children could scarcely keep up with the demands of pretending to be what they were not. They stumbled from crisis to crisis, arguing about whether it was real, fretting about why certain things were different from what they had imagined, and wondering how to change the story so that the king might not have to be poisoned, and so Ted might not have to die in battle and return from the dead, only to face his best friend in a mortal duel.

All of those dreaded events still lay ahead at the end of The Secret Country, but they rush upon the cousins now - complete with inexplicable variations from the story they had planned. Mysteries multiply. Who is Claudia and whence comes her awful power? Why is Laura having visions, and what do they mean? What will happen when Laura plays the flute of Cedric and finds the unicorn in winter? What happened to the real princes and princesses, and how can they be restored to where they belong?

As it grows in danger and urgency, what began as a game feels less and less like fun to the Carroll children - and ever more enjoyable for us. Pamela Dean claims that, in writing this book, she found herself caught up in her characters' dilemma regarding "the responsibility of the imagination." Intriguing as that sounds, it is their increasing desperation that will envelop you. And when this book comes to its stunning conclusion, you will be caught up in a web of unresolved plot threads leading irresistably to Book 3, The Whim of the Dragon.

The Little Grey Men
by BB
Recommended Ages: 10+

BB was the pen name of Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905-1990), who wrote and illustrated this book, as well as many books for adults and children celebrating the natural world of England. Currently available in an attractive HarperCollins edition as part of the Julie Andrews Collection, and with a warm note of endorsement from Julie Andrews Edwards herself, this book relates the adventures of the last gnomes in Britain.

Pint-sized brothers Dodder, Baldmoney, and Sneezewort have lived on the banks of the Oak Pool longer than anything. They are fairly content with their slow-paced life, fishing from the stream and foraging for nuts, honey, mushrooms, and berries. The only burr under their saddle is the fate of their brother Cloudberry, last seen setting out on a quest to find the source of the stream.

The younger two gnomes decide to go in search of Cloudberry, in spite of Dodder's resistance to the idea. They build a clever boat and lay in stores for a trip upstream. Nothing goes as planned, however. The three brothers find themselves hunted by stoat, fox, pike, and man. They battle starvation on a desert island. They risk being seen in broad daylight. They make friends with rabbits, birds, an otter, and a squirrel. They bear witness to death. They fight for life. They experience changes of seasons and a wide range of natural wonders. And in spite of a long habit of being quiet homebodies, their adventurous spirit comes out to shine.

Taking its cue from a theory that the real little people are the wild birds and beasts of the countryside, this is not just a book about little men; it is also a vivid account of the rich variety of plant and animal life along one English stream. It also has a bit of business concerning Pan, the god of small creatures (occult-sensitive readers take note). If you fancied The Wind in the Willows but wished there was more of it, or if your only complaint about The Wonderful Adventures of Nils stemmed from your unfamiliarity with Swedish geography, you'll find just what you like in this book. Plus, it has a sequel: Down the Bright Stream.

This book won the 1942 Carnegie Medal for Literature. It includes a loving portrait of a seven-year-old boy named Robin, probably inspired by Watkins-Pitchford's son Robin who passed away at that age. And it inspired a group of the author's fans to form the BB Society. So it is a very special book in many ways. You can earn more about this author and his works here or here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Funny Street Names

Let's have some fun with the names one might spot on street signs around St. Louis. I've been thinking about pulling this gag ever since I spotted Tholozan Ave. (named after one John Tholozan), a street in my neighborhood. The name instantly struck me as a great trade name for an antidepressant. I've noticed many other cool street names around town, commemorating such immortals as Goethe and Beethoven - but mostly people who are only remembered today because someone bothered to record whom the streets were named after.

The time has finally come to air my pride in a city that really knows how to turn out a memorable street sign. And so, with thanks to the St. Louis Public Library, may I recommend for your amusement...
  • Acme Ave. - Site of Wile E. Coyote's favorite mail-order company
  • Aero Dr. - The very name gives one a lift, doesn't it?
  • Alamo Ave. - Where no one lasts long, but we'll remember them
  • Aldine Ave. - Known, until 1929, as Lucky St.
  • Aloe Plaza - Not as soothing as it sounds; named after one Louis Aloe
  • Bacon St. - Not as yummy as it sounds; named after one Henry Bacon
  • Bisque St. - All right, I'm getting hungry now.
  • Blow St. - Don't laugh; it's named after Henry Blow
  • Cadet Ave. - Actually named after Pierre "Cadet" Chouteau
  • Cardinal St. - Amazingly, this street in the City of the Cardinals is named after one Jean Marie Cardinal!
  • Checkerboard Square - Named for the Ralston Purina headquarters
  • Chevrolet Ave. - Named after the General Motors plant
  • Cologne Ave. - By any other name, the German city of Köln smelleth, er...
  • Euclid Ave. - Named not after the great Greek mathematician, but for a street in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • Eureka Ave. - Named not for an expression of joyous discovery by the ancient scholar Archimedes, but for the state motto of California. Nevertheless, if you find this one-block-long, unmarked street, you'll probably say "Eureka!" in the original sense of the word.
  • Frisco Lane - "Frisco," also the name of a favorite Ted Drewes flavor, evokes no less scenic a vista than the freight yards of the St. Louis & San Fransisco Railway.
  • Gas Light Square - You'll think I'm trying to drive you mad when I tell you this street was named for a theater district that no longer exists.
  • Gay St. - Would you want to live there, even if it is named after a certain John Gay?
  • Grape Ave. - A very refreshing place to live!
  • Gravois Ave. - How would you feel if you knew that one of the south city's busiest streets is named for the French word for gravel?
  • Half St. - Just because it was really narrow
  • Hydraulic Ave. - Because of the nearby Hydraulic Press Brick Co.
  • Itaska St. - Misspelled from Itasca, the lake at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, this name sounds for all the world like it means something in a Native American dialect. Actually, it was coined from the Latin words veritas caput, meaning "true source." How do you like that?
  • Iron St. - After the industry
  • Ivory Ave. - After one John Ivory
  • James Cool Papa Bell Ave. - Don't you want to live there? It's named after a baseball hero of the old Negro Leagues.
  • January Ave. - Another street in my neighborhood, surprisingly named after one Derrick January!
  • Limit Ave. - Because it was located at the city limits
  • Natural Bridge Ave. - Because (duh) the road crossed a natural-arch bridge
  • Pacific St. - Not beachfront property at all, it's named for the Pacific Railroad.
  • Palm St. - It sounds so warm and tropical, but really it's named after one William Palm.
  • Quiet St. - Mum's the word!
  • Race Course Ave. - After a track that no longer exists
  • Produce Row - Near Commerce Row and Market St. I'm not kidding!
  • Saloma Ave. - Bad taste and bad spelling come together in this street named in honor of a biblical villainess.
  • Sublette Ave. - A landlord's worst nightmare? Or named in honor of William and Solomon Sublette?
  • Teachers Dr. - If you want to avoid catching dirty looks, avoid this street in the neighborhood of Harris-Stowe College.
  • Unter den Linden - Huh? Oh,'s also the name of a street in Berlin, Germany.
  • Valentine St. - I don't know if it's a great place to go as a couple, but it's named after a Capuchin monk who served as St. Louis's first Catholic priest.
  • Vest Ave. - I hear cummerbunds are out and vests are in, but this Vest is named after one George Vest, whose memory is decidedly out.
  • Violaview Dr. - I'm really curious about what this is supposed to mean. Was this street the home of a nude string quartet that played with the drapes open?
  • Vulcan St. - Though named in honor of the nearby iron works, it still sounds like a nice place to live long and prosper.
  • Zepp St. - Notable only because it sounds funny, and it's at the end of the alphabet.
If you've spotted any doozies that I've missed, let me know! Or, if you know of another city that outdoes St. Louis in the funny-street-names dept., feel free to drop some examples in the Comments!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Interview with N. D. Wilson

Recently, when my rave review of N. D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards was published on MuggleNet, a publicist from Random House emailed me in appreciation. She then offered to send me an Advance Review Copy of the sequel, Dandelion Fire, to be released February 24. As you know by now, I enjoyed the book and said so in a review.

The result was yet another offer: an opportunity to give away free copies of both books (which we are doing via a writing contest on MuggleNet). Since the author and his publicist were in such a good mood, I decided to ask for a chance to interview Mr. Wilson. I submitted my questions, and now the answers have arrived. With deep gratitude to both Nate and Meg, here is our interview. My questions and comments are in bold type; Mr. Wilson's responses are in plain type.

It's not hard to pick up on a spiritual dimension in the 100 Cupboards trilogy. I can't help but be curious about the religious background you are writing from, especially knowing that you edit a journal titled Credenda/Agenda. Could you unpack the description of Credenda/Agenda as a "trinitarian" journal? What can you say about its/your general doctrinal position, denominational affiliation, etc.?

I don’t usually get asked “religious questions” in reaction to my fantasy, so this will be fun. Here’s the best nutshell description I can give of my religious background: I was raised by a couple Jesus people hippies who gradually (throughout the course of my life) became Presbyterians. My father was the pastor, and I grew up attending his church in all of its hilarious permutations (meeting in parks, auto-body shops, etc.). I attend it still with my own young tribe. The hippiness has matured into something more liturgical and formal—historic creeds, confessions, weekly sacrament, and so on. To some, it might appear Anglican (there are similarities), but it belongs to a small Presbyterian denomination. It is still nomadic--currently meeting in a gym.

My parents soaked me in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis from a very young age, and my father was involved in starting a classical school in our small, rural town so that my sisters and I would get Latin and wrangle with big stacks of classics, ancient and modern. I studied some Philosophy of Religion after my undergrad but ended up with a broader MA in liberal arts from St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD).

That’s my background, but you asked about “trinitarian.” I believe in a triune Artist/Creator God, which means that I believe that at the very root of reality there is paradox and mystery, there is eternal love and tension and balance. I think that has to be part of why I love fantasy. Looking out of my eyes, we are all living in one. Which is to say that fantasy is just another take on realism.

How have your religious beliefs influenced the overall shape of the 100 Cupboards?

My religious beliefs are part of who I am, so they influence everything I do. But I wasn’t setting out to write a religious story. I wanted to write a good one. Of course, what I think is good is informed by my beliefs. I see patterns—triumph through sacrifice, death and resurrection, small foolish things overthrowing powerful things—everywhere in the world, in history, in literature, in mythology. And I find those patterns beautiful and work to imitate them. I also see the world crawling with mystery, every corner crammed with life and the secrets that sustain it. That is certainly something I try to communicate.

Would you say that the series has an overarching spiritual message?

Not in the way that most people would think of a “spiritual message.” But also yes. Sure it does—in the same way that life has an overarching spiritual message. Only my stories are distilled and stylized. There are a lot of themes that run through the books, but one of the most important things I’ve tried to communicate is a sense of wonder. I want kids to close the book and step back into their own world with wide eyes, marveling at the grass and the wind and the sun and the trees. In some ways, this is anti-escapism. Don’t grow bored with this world and lose yourself in books. Lose yourself in books to wake up in this world. Nothing I can paint with words could ever surpass the artistry in any child’s backyard—the earth beneath, the sky above, the many narratives between.

How has your spiritual worldview influenced the development of Henry York as a character?

Henry begins in a place where many modern kids can relate to him, and then he becomes the vehicle for the wonder I described above. Henry discovers the true overwhelming madness of the world and then his place within it. He discovers strength and an ability to affect and change the world. He begins as a weak and lowly character but rises up to shake the foundations of evil. It’s one of the great patterns in literature (and history), one that not only applied to Christ (born in a barn), but also to the various Hebrew prophets, judges, and even kings in the Old Testament—Moses, David, Elijah, Deborah, etc.

Where in your thinking did the christening scene in Dandelion Fire come from?

I actually partially stole it from an old Scottish legend about a pastor (and seventh son) abducted by faeries. He could only briefly return at the christening of his son. That legend was one of the important inspirations for the whole 100 Cupboards series. But it also got me thinking about the power of naming, and I loved how it trumped faerie magic. From my earliest imaginings of the story, the christening scene was always going to be a lynchpin.

As for the flavor of the scene, Henry is stepping into a city with both Hebraic and Byzantine echoes. I wanted the christening to smell and feel like something descended from those two cultures.

What idea, when it came to you, made you sure 100 Cupboards was a story you had to write?

There are so many places in history and literature and legend that I would give anything to see. So, when I first had this image in my head of an attic wall cluttered with small, mismatched doors, and I began to think of the possibilities, well, then I was completely hooked. I couldn’t turn my head off, and I can’t tell you how many dreams I’ve had about it.

Is there a character in this trilogy you find especially difficult, or especially easy, to write about?

Henry is an old and familiar friend. (And it isn’t hard to relate to fear and surprise.) Henrietta is also a quick fit for me. But the characters that are really hard to write (and not just in these books), are the wise and noble folks. Flaws and immaturity are easy. We can all relate to them. But how do you write someone with profound insight (when you, the author, don’t have any)? Given that, I’ll leave you to figure out which characters I struggled over.

I felt a sense of closure at the end of Dandelion Fire. Was there a time when you considered ending the series at two books? How much has the overall shape of the trilogy changed in your mind during the writing process?\

When I first set out to write this story, I wanted it to be a single volume. And I actually wrote that single volume. It was bloated, enormous, and it didn’t breathe, but it was a single volume nonetheless. I still loved the story (and my characters), but I abhorred the execution. So I began to think about how to break it into two. The only problem was that it was built (roughly), on a three act structure. Through some funny circumstances (and miscommunication), that bloated manuscript was sent out to editors, and I started getting some very nice rejection letters. Could you break it into a pair? Could you cut it in half? Too long for us. That sort of thing. But it was an editor at Random House who asked to see a proposal for how I would break it into thirds—which was certainly the most natural fit. I put together that proposal, loved it, and then, rather than digging right back into the story, I got to work on a different one. I wanted to write something tight, perfect, simple, and disciplined before sweating through the more intricate story around the 100 Cupboards. That smaller book was an adventure story called Leepike Ridge, and it was sent back to RH along with my trilogy proposal. The end result was a four book deal, and we all lived happily ever after.

Actually, by the time I’d gone through the editing process on Leepike and had come back to 100 Cupboards, the ideas and characters had matured a great deal in my mind. So I rewrote the books virtually from scratch (recycling the best bits, of course). So now, when readers pick up 100 Cupboards or Dandelion Fire in stores, they are getting the final incarnation of something that began in 2002—the butterfly as opposed to the fat, greasy caterpillar.

In your autobiographical blurb, you discuss how you wanted to combine fantasy stories like Narnia and Middle Earth with a direct appeal to the imagination of American kids. Could you explain in more detail what you feel needs to be added to the world of fantasy?

It’s not that I see a problem or a profound lack in the current world of fantasy. But I think you could call it a growth opportunity. American kids have plenty of fantasy that appeals to them. The question is only how they feel about their own lives and environments when they’ve finished reading. On my last book tour, I ran a little experiment. I would ask groups of kids which country they needed to live in if they wanted to have magical adventures. Of course, fantasy and magic are global. They can wander anywhere. But that’s not what I was told. The answer (always shouted back), was England.

I love English fantasy, and that nation (in my own humble o.) has produced the best fantasy to date (a few times over). But I wanted magical imaginations to broaden, to more thoroughly include the taste of Americana mythic. I want kids to look at lonely red barns in the same way that I would have looked at a wardrobe discovered in an empty room. I want the whole world to be seen as magical, including our part of it. And so I use baseball and wheat fields and a tiny rural town in Kansas. Thanks to Oz, we know anything can happen in Kansas.

In your efforts to place magic in the middle of America, you are in good company. How would you rate L. Frank Baum, Carl Sandburg, Edward Eager, or other American authors as influences on your work?

Well, I just referenced Baum’s Oz. I play around with a few of his types as a sort of acknowledgement. But (if we are looking for honesty here), I am far more a product of the British writers. I first heard Tolkien and Narnia in the comfort of my high chair (literally). They remain the standard for me, the benchmark of creativity. But I owe debts to others outside the fantasy genre as well. Of the Americans, Twain left the most residue on me. John Buchan influenced me in ways that would be hard to describe. G. K. Chesterton’s nonfiction (though I didn’t read him until adulthood), has flavored my perspective on magic more than almost anyone. I also love Borges and his magic realism. Oh, and Tintin.

In 100 Cupboards, the titular cupboards seemed to lead to as many different worlds scattered through time and space. In Dandelion Fire, however, we learn that several of them lead to different places within the same world. Is there an overall name for this world? Is it a version of Earth? Can you spare a little description of the overall layout of this world?

At first, I thought that the world would have a name. But do we have a name for ours? It is simply the world. We call the planet Earth, but the world is nameless. And so it is for those inhabitants in that other world. To them, it is not the other world. It is the world. I’m tempted to really dig into this, but I probably shouldn’t. I’ll be the good author and refuse to give away too many of my secrets. But I will say this (a description that occurs within the books as well): it is not a version of Earth. It is branch on the same tree, a twig on the same tumbleweed. Move down to the trunk, and it is all only one single world. Move up, and history forks and splinters into different branches of reality. Does that help?

According to Dandelion Fire, that world also contains magical doors that enable people to travel huge distances within the same world. How is the magic connecting different parts of this world similar or different to the magic connecting the world of Hylfing, Byzanthamum, and Fitz-Faeren to Kansas?

Maybe I should keep mum, but I’ll give you a little something here. There are a couple types of magic in the trilogy. The most basic breakdown is between natural and unnatural. An example of natural would be the magic of the faeren. They are able to do what they are able to do in the same way that a bird is able to fly. The wizards (for the most part) are using unnatural magic. They are like men in helicopters—they have to manipulate and force the world to give them its strength. (Not that I have anything against helicopters.) The seventh sons are men with natural magic like the faeren—the world gifts them with different strengths and allows them a measure of control. Darius and Nimiane are blends, but I’ll say no more about them.

The doors... now we must apply this to the doors. The faeren have their own “natural” fluctuating connections between distant places which they can control. The forgotten wizards set themselves “unnatural” gashes in reality, and fixed them in place with stone. The cupboard doors are primarily natural connections—but they have been collected and arranged and manipulated in an “unnatural” and dangerous way.

The world that opens to us in Dandelion Fire seems very complex and fascinating. One senses there is still much to discover in it, such as the Empire that was mentioned a few times. Can we expect to see more of it in The Chestnut King? And/or will we explore other worlds connected to those Kansas cupboards?

Expect the story to focus in on the tensions left at the end of Dandelion Fire. I want to say more, but I shouldn’t. You’ve already got me spilling beans.

In her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones claims that a map is practically a sine qua non of a fantasy novel. Interestingly, the 100 Cupboards books begin not with a map of the world surrounding Hylfing, but with a fascinating illustration of the wall in Henry's bedroom, along with a page of notes on them from Grandpa's journal. Can you remark on the connection between fantasy fiction and a fascination with maps and complex charts? Did you make and use a map of the Hylfing world as you wrote these books? If so, can you explain the decision not to include it in the book?

I have the world pretty well mapped out. And it was helpful to me as I wrote. But I didn’t generate a map that would have been publishable, and my editor didn’t feel that one was needed, especially given the door chart that was included, and the story’s focus on the cupboards.

All right, readers have to be curious about Henry's brothers. He is supposed to be the seventh son of a seventh son, but we haven't met any of his older brothers. What information about Mordecai's first six sons can you share right now?

Ha. Look at me. Finally, a picture of self-restraint. I say nothing.

Do your kids inspire you as an author of juvenile fiction? In what ways?

Absolutely. They keep my imagination rooted. They’re young (seven and under), but they regularly gather around at night and become story beggars. As I work to construct tales for them, I’ll frequently come across ideas, characters, settings, and creatures that I fully intend to use in the future. And all the ideas have been field-tested in advance. Perhaps more importantly, having young children has enabled me to see the world through their uncalloused eyes. Turns out, it’s an amazing place.

Are any characters in the 100 Cupboards trilogy based on yourself or people you know?

Some are similar to an acquaintance or two, but the similarities were discovered after the fact (and mostly unintentional).

Assuming that you read around the genre in which you write, what handful of books would you recommend to readers who love 100 Cupboards?

I try not to read in my genre too much (especially when I’m writing). I’m too easily influenced. And when I have read, it can be unwise to comment on the work of my peers. But I can plug the Attolia books by Megan Whalen Turner. They are some of the most original fantasy that I’ve encountered in a while, and I enjoyed them immensely. {I wholeheartedly agree!}

Can we expect more juvenile fiction from you when this trilogy is done? In general terms, what do you plan to do next?

Yes you can. Expect away. I’m actually working on the structure of a rather ambitious series right now (also with Random House). Can’t say more yet, I’m afraid. But I’m quite excited. I also have a standalone to finish (more in the vein of my first book—Leepike Ridge), and an adult novel I hope to sweat over sometime in the next couple years.

Do you think (or hope) your work will make the world better? In what ways?

Of course, I would be thrilled if the world were to improve thanks to my labors. But I think of myself as a cook (a chef on my fancier days). I want to feed as many young imaginations as I can. I want to feed them well. I want them healthy. I can hope that my readers will be improved and go on to improve the world around them. But more immediately, I can hope that I have given them friends and siblings and cousins in my characters. I can hope that I am brightening days and weeks and dreams.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Verdi Week

I haven't been posting much lately, and a lot of the reason is Verdi Week at the St. Louis Symphony. We performed Verdi's awesome Requiem before two sold-out audiences on Friday the 13th (which was lucky) and Valentine's Day (which was lovely). David Robertson conducted his orchestra and us of Amy Kaiser's chorus, and the solo quartet consisted of local hero Christine Brewer (soprano), Elizabeth Bishop (mezzo), Marcus Haddock (tenor), and as a last-minute replacement Kyle Ketelsen (bass). (IMAGES from top to bottom: Verdi, Robertson, Ketelsen, Brewer, Bishop, Haddock.)

This is my fourth year with the Symphony Chorus. We've done at least one Requiem a year while I've been with the group: Mozart's in the fall of 2005, Brahms' in the spring of 2006, Faure's sometime in the 2006-07 season, and Britten's in the spring of 2008. And now Verdi's! They all have their strengths (though I still think our group was WAY too big for the Faure). They were all beautiful experiences in their own way. I won't presume to play favorites. I have heard and enjoyed settings of the Requiem by still other composers - I've heard that someone reckoned over 400 of them have been written. Each of the ones I have named represents an altogether different musical world, from classical leanness through romantic intensity to modern ambivalence, from German heaviness through French lightness to the last two nights' testament of an Italian patriot and dramatic genius.

Verdi wrote his Requiem not out of Catholic piety (for he was not at all religious), but to express his reverence for two other artistic geniuses who did much to unite Italy into a spiritual and cultural whole. The first version of his Libera me (the seventh and last movement of the piece) was written in memory of Rossini, when Verdi hoped different squabbling musical factions could unite to honor that great man. Eventually he had to write the whole Requiem himself, this time in memory of 19th century Italy's greatest literary treasure, Alessandro Manzoni.

David Robertson's pre-concert lectures, which I heard both nights, were highly enlightening. He argued that Verdi's Requiem has been unjustly criticized as being "theatrical," whereas a better word to describe it would be "dramatic." He also pointed out that this Requiem exemplifies the best use of some of Verdi's less celebrated gifts:
  • using music to bring psychological insight (a feature in his best operas that is often overlooked in the flutter his gorgeous tunes inspire);
  • crafting marvels of engineering (such as the shattering, g-minor chords of the Dies irae that hold up the piece at three structural points, like pillars of sound evenly spaced in time);
  • using sound to create the experience of space (like the vast distances evoked by the Tuba mirum's dialog between on- and offstage trumpets, gradually building to a tremendous roar of brass as if rushing at us from the ends of the earth);
  • stage-managing extremes of emotion and loudness (from the almost inaudibly soft, numb string-and-chorus statement of Requiem aeternam that opens the piece to the colossal all-in of Rex tremendae);
  • and, least expected of all, being a master of counterpoint whose daily exercise of writing a fugue prepared him to toss off a complex, 8-voice fugue and make it sound like a choir of joyful angels in the Sanctus.
Verdi leaves no hope or expectation unfulfilled. He gives us great tunes, powerful emotions, huge contrasts, exquisite textures, and a kaleidoscope of tone-colors. He gives us a bass aria (Oro supplex) that sounds like a soul watching and weeping through the night, a mezzo piece (Liber scriptus) that makes short work of a long, high A-flat, an Agnus Dei melody introduced by the two female soloists singing unaccompanied in bare octaves (which makes one feel rather protective of that Lamb), stretches of ensemble writing for practically every combination of the soloists, unforgettable riffs such as the passage scored for a quartet of solo bassoons, and string writing that, at one point, vividly tone-paints the shaking of the earth on Judgment Day. Plus, he gives us a good hour's worth of highly rewarding choral music! He gives us a perfectly proportioned dramatic shape on a huge scale, more than one impressive fugue, lots of time to sing and yet plenty of time to relax and listen.

It was a wonderful experience. I wouldn't give up my experience of the Mozart or Brahms Requiems in favor of it, nor the touching beauty of Rossini's Stabat Mater and other great pieces this group has done in my time; but I don't have to. Stick around and you get to experience them all! And next year we're doing the Mozart again!

On the "bummer" side, some idiot let his or her cell phone ring right at the beginning of the piece last night, during the extremely soft bit that Robertson had, moments earlier, talked up as proof that the SLSO has the best pianissimo in the country, if not the world. We actually stopped and started over... only to have another electronic device play its tune through the same passage. How many reminders do people need? It was written in lights above the stage, it was announced over the hall's sound system, it was reinforced by the humiliating laughter of thousands of people when David Robertson turned around to crack a joke the first time it happened, yet the owner of Ringer No. 2 still didn't get the message in time. How sad.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Blog Milestone

It's time to celebrate two milestones for this blog! First, as of today, A Fort Made of Books will be two years old. Second, as of this post, it has reached the magic number of 1,000 posts for the first time.

I put it this way because there have been occasions when I deleted posts, and there may be more such occasions in the future. Plus, the day may come when I have to split this blog into two or three more topic-specific ones. But for now, let me bask in the feeling of accomplishment!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Last night I weakened. I was trying to discipline myself not to run out and see every movie that caught my fancy, because times are tight. I reckoned if I made it through Monday night, I would be all right at least for a week. Since this is Verdi Week for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, I won't have another open evening until next Monday. I almost made it - and then, with time enough to get to Ronnie's Wehrenberg Theatres before the last showing of Coraline, I weakened. I think it was the munchies that did me in. I also enjoyed a chocolate shake at the concession stand.

Coraline is an animated film based on the book by Neil Gaiman that I once declared to be the best book I had read all year. Several years have passed since then; several other books have had that honor; many, many other books have intervened; so I don't remember a lot of detail about Gaiman's book. But what I do remember seems to have been covered very nicely by Henry Selick's film adaptation.

Up front, I must say that it is a profoundly weird movie. It is also spookier than all get-out. After all, it comes from the same people who made The Nightmare Before Christmas. It has the same type of animation, the same flare for macabre humor, and the same rich palette of striking and unusual imagery. It isn't Disney. It doesn't flow like a predictable Disney story; its characters are not touched by Disney sweetness; and it takes creative risks for a kid's movie - risks that may cause some parents to squirm.

For example, take Mr. Bobinski who lives upstairs from Coraline Jones and her parents. He's eccentric, possibly crazy, and probably drunk. Then take the two elderly actresses who live downstairs; they have colossal boobs, a thing about winged dogs, a thing about sticky candy, and an icky tendency to flaunt their sexuality. And finally, take the Jones family, which isn't unusually happy. Coraline is lonely after moving away from her friends. She's a bit prickly toward her parents and the hangdog neighbor boy, Wybie. Maybe her parents deserve a bit of prickliness, because they are too busy writing about gardening to do any actual gardening - let alone pay attention to their daughter.

But Coraline goes above and beyond the call of prickliness when she decides to join her "other mother and father" in the magical world next door, entered via the small door under the living room wallpaper. Coraline makes a calculated, and frankly snotty, decision to let the button-eyed doubles of her parents lavish love and attention on her, rather than put up with reality. But when she realizes that the cost of her decision is having her own eyes replaced with buttons, Coraline starts looking for a way out. And that way turns out to be an increasingly suspenseful game of wits against the Beldam, a.k.a. Other Mother, who controls everything in her deceptive world. Everything in her world decays from fake, Disneylike splendor to chilling squalor as Coraline fights for her way back home.

My rough analysis of the structure of this movie holds that it's all about three spectacular settings, each of which you see in three different forms. You see Mr. Bobinsky's flat with its flying mouse circus, the Misses Spink and Forcible's haven of thespian vanity, and the house's elaborate garden with the paved paths. First you see each one as they exist in the real world. Then you see them in the Beldam's world, all spruced up to impress Coraline. And finally, you see what they have become as the illusions begin to fall apart - ghastly things. When you see this movie, your imagination will be rewarded with many brand-new dreams and nightmares.

Parental Guidance Advisory: There is some mild swearing in this movie. Coraline says "God!" a couple of times. Coraline's father cracks a butt joke. There are ghosts and things even scarier than ghosts in this film. You may find, however, that kids appreciate this movie for not going to any heroic lengths to be kid-friendly. It does what it does, which, as I have said before, is really weird. But it does it with stop-motion animation of the highest quality ever achieved todate. It does it with characters that have expressive faces, voiced with spirit and charm by the likes of Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, Keith David and Ian McShane.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Three Book Reviews

Dandelion Fire
by N. D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book 2 of the 100 Cupboards unleashes another storm of breathtaking energy. In Book 1, a Kansas farm became the doorway to one of the most fascinating new fantasy worlds grown on American soil since Oz, a complex and threatening world that seems to exist to test the courage of a lonely, self-doubting misfit named Henry York. In the sequel, Henry and his Kansas cousins, aunt, uncle, best friend, and even the local sheriff get pulled right into this world during the build-up to a battle that may end it all.

They face terrifying enemies, confront mortal danger, and stumble bewildered from one strange encounter to another while they learn the lay of the land and the ways of its magic. And Henry continues his amazing transformation from the boy who was afraid of everything to the one who smiles when his cousin tells him, "Now you're scary." So it's more than just a heady fantasy filled with clever invention. It is a powerful, spiritually moving story about a young man finding his identity, his powers, his family, and his home - just in time to defend them from that which he fears the most.

It begins when Henry learns that his adoptive parents have been rescued from a South American hostage situation. Now they're splitting up and wrangling over who gets custody of him. He doesn't feel much closeness to the Yorks; he would rather stay in Henry, Kansas, with his Uncle Frank, Aunt Dotty, and three girl cousins, play baseball with Zeke Johnson, explore the 100 cupboards in his bedroom and the magical worlds they lead to, and perhaps find the place and people he originally came from. But Henry's plans take a backseat to the demands of the magic growing within him.

In one moment of awe and glory, Henry is blinded by a shaft of lightning and has the shape of a dandelion burnt into the palm of his hand. This is the beginning of a transformation that could kill him or drive him mad, or that could gift him with a powerful and healing magic. Before Henry's crisis awakens, an evil wizard named Darius snatches him from his Kansas bedroom, planning to enslave the boy and absorb his power. Darius, in turn, serves the witch Nimiane, who has just been freed from her imprisonment, and who could drain all the life out of the land Henry comes from - a land that may be destroyed before he gets to know it.

Stopping Nimiane and Darius will mean fleeing, hunted, from one end of the world to the other; joining forces with faeries whose governing council has sworn to betray Henry and his missing father; risking his own life and the lives of others to reach a besieged city before it falls beneath a storm of evil magic; and finally being named with his own name so that he can stand against the enemy with full command of the power hidden within him.

I gasped at the emotional impact of Frank Fat-Faerie's final instructions to Henry, from "You get into the city" to "Write my name on a bit of stone." Knowing that Nate Wilson also writes for something cryptically described as a "trinitarian journal," I was also bowled over by his description of the christening ritual, which includes the words "The true Gods shall be the God before him" - a statement that begs for theological analysis that, alas, I cannot give it in this space. I took great pleasure in seeing the shape of Henry's homeworld come gradually into focus, for him as well as myself, and in recognizing the deep roots of classic story beneath the green and gold profusion of this tale.

It is old and new at the same time. It is a thrilling adventure with a spiritual journey at its heart. It is touched with a gift for vivid and original words, words that richly paint scenes never seen before. And though the ending is as satisfying as anyone could desire, it leaves you wishing for more. So you'll be encouraged to know that the series isn't finished yet. A third book, The Chestnut King, is still to come.

Touching Darkness
by Scott Westerfeld
Recommended Ages: 14+

Book 2 of Midnighters picks up about a week after the ending of The Secret Hour. The five young "midnighters" of Bixby, Oklahoma, face a new danger now, a danger that stalks in daylight, rather than the frozen blue hour that opens up at midnight. They share that hour only with the ancient slithers and darklings of the empty plains, who cannot come out during normal time. So whoever is plotting to destroy Jessica Day and her superpowered friends, they have to be human. Humans working for the darklings, communicating with them who-knows-how.

Jessica, Rex, Melissa, Dess, and Jonathan have enough going on between them to stay busy. Romance, jealousy, suspicion, dreadful secrets, and family tensions are constantly pulling them apart. Now someone is manipulating them from outside, someone other than the bad guys. When Dess meets that certain someone, she ends up with a bizarre mental block protecting a fifty-year-old pocket of guilt, fear, and loneliness. Meanwhile, the darklings and their allies have ghastly plans for one of the young midnighters. And just when they need to pull together to save one of their own before it's too late, the conflict simmering between them boils over.

Is this a great fantasy for young readers? Definitely. Will it have long-lasting significance? Yes and no. For along with a spectacularly spooky and original fantasy world, this trilogy traps a moment - this moment, right now - in clear crystal. Today's technology, the social jungle of a small-town American high school, the way teens talk to each other and their families, are all captured in a way that a future generation may be interested in studying... but that, more likely, will start to seem outdated pretty soon. So enjoy it while you can.

Blue Noon
by Scott Westerfeld
Recommended Ages: 14+

The final book of the Midnighters trilogy confronts five teenage heroes with a danger their kind has never faced before. By "their kind," I mean those special people, born at the stroke of midnight, who experience the twenty-fifth hour of every day: the hour hidden within a moment at midnight. While everyone else stands frozen, unaware that time is passing, five high school kids in Bixby, Oklahoma move through a world filled with an eerie blue glow, shared only by the ancient, hungry darklings that dwell beyond the town limits. The darklings are trouble enough one hour a day; but when rips of blue time start opening up during daylight hours, Jessica and her friends must consider the possibility that the World Is Coming to an End.

Rex, the group's seer, can find nothing about this in the lore of past generations of midnighters. But he has other troubles - such as controlling the predatory instincts of the darkling that has become a part of him. Melissa, gifted as a mindcaster, plumbs the mind of the reclusive old shrew who alone survived when the town's last midnighters were wiped out in the 1950s; but she has nothing to say about this either. To find out what's happening, the midnighters must turn to the hated Grayfoot family, who collaborated with the darklings in that awful massacre, and who believe the midnighters to be the true monsters.

What they find out is worse than confirming their worst fears. They learn that at midnight on the upcoming Halloween, the blue time will rip wide open and everyone in Bixby - if not the whole world - will be fair game for the darklings. Which is to say, prey. If there is a way to keep mankind from moving down the food chain, it's up to five scared teenagers who, at times, can barely stand each other. It will depend on Dess, the math genius and expert in designing anti-darkling weapons; on Jonathan, the high-flying acrobat; and finally on Jessica, the nightmares' worst nightmare, who will be torn between saving her kid sister and making the ultimate leap-in-the-dark to save the world.

I found this whole trilogy to be a swift, compelling read. I am greatly impressed by this author's inventiveness in crafting such a strange, threatening world, and by his skill in making it believable and even somehow inviting. It is a world that combines a sense of ancient power with an easy familiarity with the way young people talk, and the things they talk about, right at this moment. I would like to hope such a cleverly made book might stretch this moment out forever, but I suspect that the time to appreciate it is right now. So what are you waiting for?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Joy Luck

Today, I decided to use up the last of my first set of discounted gift certificates from Restaurant-Dot-Com, which I had purchased last June. I had gotten mostly good deals from them, but the last eatery on my dance card was a bit out of the way for me. Only I had business in the neighborhood today, so I planned ahead and brought my gift certificate with me. Unfortunately, the restaurant in question - Cafe Brasil in Rock Hill, Missouri (at the corner of Manchester Road where Rock Hill Road turns into McKnight Road) had closed its doors for good.

I decided to cope with my disgust by stopping to eat at the first promising place I noticed on the way home. And the winning restaurant turned out to be the Joy Luck Buffet on Manchester, just west of Hanley Road. Now, I have frequently felt let down after eating at affordable Chinese buffets. And when I haven't felt let down, I have tended to feel overcharged. Joy Luck was the rare Chinese buffet that left me feeling more than satisfied and less than ripped off.

So here I am to tell you that I just discovered your favorite Chinese restaurant today. Only you probably don't know it yet. Wait till you visit Joy Luck for lunch! Its huge buffet has a huge variety of dishes. The food is better-than-average-quality Chinese-American cuisine, some of it spicy, all of it (as far as I could tell) quite palatable. The dining area is pleasant and clean, and the price tag for one all-you-can-eat meal was $7 plus change. No, that isn't a typo. In my neighborhood there is a Chinese buffet of comparable quality where you can pay $13 for the same meal, and the only things it has over Joy Luck are fruit cobbler and a Mongolian grill.

OK, the lack of fruit cobbler is a blow, but I can live without the optional Mongolian grill. On the other hand, all the other usual suspects are present and accounted for. Eggrolls (seafood and plain). Crab Rangoon. Yummy pot-stickers. Plain and combination fried rice. Soup (egg drop and hot & sour, at least). Chicken dishes galore: with mushrooms, with cashews, with lemon sauce, Szechuan, General Tso, Kung Pao, sweet & sour, egg foo young - the list goes on. Crispy roast pork. Spicy beef. Honestly, I didn't have room in my hungry belly to try half of what they had on offer, and nothing that I tasted was below-average. None of it was a culinary revelation, either; but we're talking about a lunch buffet here. A $7 lunch buffet that ran tastebud circles around some pricier places I've tried.

I probably won't be in the Joy Luck neighborhood very often; I can't comfortably eat enough to make all-you-can-eat seem worth $13; so I doubt that Chinese buffet will be a major food group for me. I'm more than content with the short-order Chinese places close to home. But if you're passing through the Brentwood or Maplewood area, make an effort to stop at Joy Luck and fill up both legs for the price of one. Tell them a satisfied customer sent you.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Everlasting Tackiness

Spotted today on the lighted sign of the ELCA church down the street:


Wow. I am overwhelmed by the possibilities... of snappy come-backs, that is.




Tackiness: the gift that keeps on giving! Share your ideas of how to complete this thought in the Comments!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Another Invention Whose Time Has Come

I'm sure that I have mentioned before, somewhere in this thread, that our telephone system is stupid. Say you live in a small metropolitan area that has four area codes in it. You dial a 10-digit phone number in one of those area codes, not knowing whether or not it's a local call. If it is local, you're not supposed to dial 1 first; if it isn't, you are. So either way, you have a 50:50 chance of having your eardrums blasted by a series of surgically pure musical tones, followed by a recorded voice telling you to hang up and dial again, with or without the 1 prefix as the case may be. Given a series of unfamiliar phone numbers to call during a single morning, you run the risk of suffering significant hearing loss.

It's a stupid system, because it's so gosh-darned smart... but only up to a certain point. It's smart enough to know whether the number requires a 1 prefix from where you're dialing. But it's not smart enough to understand what you mean and simply connect you, whether you're calling long-distance or not. The programming and circuitry can tell the difference between a local number and a trunk call, even within the same area code; but it still needs you to start over and press 1 (or not) to understand your intentions.

I can't believe nobody has written software, or designed circuitry, to do this after all this time. I think the time has come. There is no excuse for this stupidity. I don't care if your local phone service provider is different from your long-distance provider. If the long distance folks can tell the call belongs in the local system, or vice versa, they should simply route it where it belongs & not require us to know in advance which numbers are & aren't covered by the metro plan. It's common sense. Maybe, if this ever happens, I could get paid for the idea!

Well, all that is just to say what I've said before. I've come up with another one like it. Rechargeable batteries are another piece of modern technology that are so brilliant they're stupid. I have a rechargeable cell phone and a rechargeable shaver. Both of them have the type of battery that should only be plugged in when it really needs to be recharged. In both cases, if you don't unplug them promptly when the battery is full, you risk shortening the life of the battery.

The problem: Who has time to sit and watch a small appliance recharge? Realistically, you plug it in and leave the room to do something else. You go to bed. You go to work. You stretch out in a comfortable chair to read or watch TV. You forget to hop up every five minutes to look at the display on the phone, or the colored lights on the shaver, to see whether "battery full" is indicated. It might even be plugged in for hours longer than necessary. And that's bad for business. But so is the idea of having to hover over the recharger for 30 to 90 minutes.

What can be done to solve this? It's so blindingly obvious that only a fat stupid jerk can spot it. And so I'll expect royalties when someone starts selling it. I mean, if your gizmo has the programming or circuitry to tell you to unplug it or else, you shouldn't have to unplug it at all. How hard would it be to add a few lines of programming, or a couple of microscopic switches, so the poor thing will stop recharging by itself?

I see a potential "second problem" here. Suppose you program your shaver to stop recharging as soon as the battery is full, whether it remains plugged in or not. Now the danger is that you'll leave it on the charger all the time. After each use, which only drains the battery a tiny bit, it will start charging again - to the detriment of the battery's lifespan. Or your phone, always plugged in and turned on, will intermittently start charging again - even if you never use it - simply because the energy it expends staying on drains the battery (to say nothing of its LCD clock display). Even if you only leave it plugged in a few hours past the "battery full" mark, it might have to start charging again.

So, here's the second part of my brilliant solution: Fix the program so that it stops charging at "battery full," and does not start recharging again unless you unplug it and plug it back in. How do you like that! I may not be any thinner (or any less of a jerk), but I must be getting smarter!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Puzzling Tackiness

Alas, the Destroying Angel of Taste has struck my own LCMS church in the city of St. Louis. Here's what our lighted sign now says:


Speaking of puzzles... It took me a few beats to figure out what this slogan was supposed to mean. The relevant meaning of the word "cross" wasn't the first or even the second meaning that came to mind; I mean, consider the context - outside a church! When you parse the sentence on a literal level, it doesn't quite make sense anyway. Crosswords aren't in puzzles; they are puzzles. Oh, well. To err is human, to be tacky is Lutheran!