Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Four Book Reviews

The Innocence of Father Brown
by G. K. Chesterton
Recommended Ages: 12+

When I was a kid, some of my favorite books were mysteries. I read most of Agatha Christie's books between seventh and ninth grade - as many of them as I could find, at any rate. Some of her books were a little dull, but I loved all the macabre puzzles, sinister clues, and surprise revelations - to say nothing of the unconventional sleuths. Instead of police inspectors and professional snoops, ordinary people solved most of Christie's mysteries. Extraordinary, ordinary people, to be sure: the keenly observant Miss Marple, the dapper Belgian rationalist Poirot, a nosy housewife named Tuppence, and others of the sort. Through these characters, Agatha Christie was able to do more than pose mysteries and dramatically reveal their solution. She also used them to comment on politics, world events during her long writing career, scientific and technological progress, the social problems of the leisure class, marriage, and aging.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton's "Father Brown" mysteries may appeal to a similar taste. Written in the early decades of the 20th century, they celebrate the mystery-solving genius of a little, round-faced, mild-mannered Catholic priest. Chesterton writes with all of Christie's Englishness, plus a leaner style and a sharper wit. Meanwhile, his main character slides unobtrusively into each mystery, making little impression on anyone until he solves the crime - constantly underestimated, constantly surprising, constantly putting together pieces no one else would have spotted, and constantly making use of his brutally realistic view of human nature, learned by experience as a father confessor.

In the twelve mysteries in this book, Father Brown is nearly always accompanied by his friend Flambeau - a criminal genius turned private detective, whose different worldview often pricks an enlightening contrast to that of the little priest. He solves several crimes before they happen, and prevents them from happening. He saves the innocent from being framed. He discovers the guilt of a martyred hero. And he invariably finds time to make a theological observation - often, mind you, disparaging of Protestantism and other religions.

Each tale is a compelling little who-done-it, breezy and quick and fun to read, with a biting climax and a swift denouement. And each one is also, in its small way, an effort in Catholic apologetics. I sometimes agreed with this last point, sometimes not, but I was intrigued by the connection between a Christian minister's unvarnished insight into man's nature and the ability to penetrate the deepest, densest tangle of clues.

I found this book online, thanks to a comment by a reader which included the link. It's the first time I've ever reviewed a book without having held it in my hands. I actually read the whole thing online, using a click of the mouse to turn from one page to the next. It is probably an experiment I won't repeat very often, since there's still nothing better than stretching out in bed with a good book. But if I ever have trouble finding even a used copy of something special, I may look for it on Project Gutenberg.

Soul Stealer
by Martin Booth
Recommended Ages: 12+

Twins Pip and Tim Ledger have a big secret - as big a secret as two healthy, well-behaved kids are likely to keep from their parents. For their friend Sebastian is actually a 600-year-old alchemist, who has stayed their age through the years by means of a sleeping draught. And he lives in their house, which rightfully belongs to him, emerging from his underground laboratory only when he senses the need to fight evil.

Since they vanquished the nasty alchemist d'Aurellac last summer, the twins haven't seen much of Sebastian. But as the school year begins, he returns. Something wicked is at work in their new school. Their chemistry teacher is a soul stealer, master of the art of controlling other people's wills. Together with an ill-smelling, apelike student named Scrotton, who is really something like a 2,000-year-old reanimated corpse, Mr. Yoland seems to be planning something big. And bad.

Sebastian gives his friends new powers as punitors, or punishers of evil. He loads them with protective charms. He leads them on an investigation of the eerie and bizarre doings of Scrotton and Yoland. He even takes the extraordinary step of joining the twins at school, and trying to fit in with modern kids. So even as the Ledgers learn more than they ever wanted to know about the alchemical dark arts (occult-sensitive readers beware), it is Sebastian who looks like the fish out of water. Only Philippa's quick wits and her brother's technological savvy keep the whole charade from falling flat.

This is a fleet-footed, enjoyable fantasy. It packs two or three books' worth of creepiness, weird images, shudders and shocks between its covers. Plus, in Tim, it has a character who can single-handedly keep you engaged even if the rest of it isn't to your taste. Tim is one of the cheekiest and most relentlessly funny book-people I have met in a long time, keeping the atmosphere light and the fantasy down-to-earth. When one character becomes as real an individual as he does in this book, he's worth getting to know.

This sequel to Doctor Illuminatus, also described as Part II of "The Alchemist's Son," reads like the middle book of a trilogy, or at least part of an ongoing series. Unfortunately, it won't be either, since it is one of the last books Martin Booth completed before dying of cancer in 2004. It's a pity we won't hear more from him, since in addition to his fine career in poetry, nonfiction, and adult fiction, he had the makings of a good thing in young-adult fantasy.

House of Dark Shadows
by Robert Liparulo
Recommended Ages: 13+

In this first book of the Dreamhouse Kings series, the King family moves into their dream house and joins a nightmare already in progress. The oldest of three kids, Xander is bitter about leaving his friends, home, and budding film career to live in the remote, Northern California town of Pinedale. But his father is going to be the new school principal, and for the sake of his family Xander has no choice but to move.

On such short notice, all they can find to live in is a motel. But on their first day of house-hunting, Xander's parents follow an overgrown road into the woods and discover a big, Victorian house whose owners left everything behind. In fact, the last family to live there literally disappeared some 30 years before. Rumor has it that the father went crazy and killed the whole family, then himself.

If you're picking up a spooky vibe here, you're no quicker than Xander. He's seen all the horror movies and he knows what comes next. And it does. Weird noises. Huge footprints in the dust. Shadowy figures appearing from one direction when the rest of the family is in another. A clearing in the woods where the laws of spacetime are a little warped. A linen closet that transports people to a locker in Xander's new school. It just gets weirder and weirder until the night a hairy hulk appears in the bedroom of Xander's kid sister and says something to her in ancient Greek. Xander and his 12-year-old brother David find a secret door, leading to a secret stairway, leading to a secret attic containing an impossibly long hallway full of doors, and behind each door is...

All right, I can't tell you what's behind them. Even if I had enough space to explain it, by the time I did so you would have no further reason to read this book. But I can tell you this much: it's dangerous. So dangerous that, when each brother goes through one of the doors, they both come this close to dying. So dangerous that their father says that's enough, they're going to pack up and leave in the morning. And then, wouldn't you know it, something happens that night to make sure they stay and face the incredible dangers behind those doors.

A family secret, bound up in a house that defies the laws of nature, returns to hit the King family where it hurts. Now they are committed to an adventure into deadly realms of supernatural horror. To find out how - or if - they survive, you'll have to read the further books in this series, including Watcher in the Woods, Gatekeepers, and Timescape.

The Siren Song
by Anne Ursu
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book Two of The Cronus Chronicles pits one small, freckly, redheaded girl against the Greek gods. Again.

Stubborn, strong-willed Charlotte Mielswetski has already been to the Underworld and back. She saved Hades from having his kingdom snatched from him by an evil immortal named Philonecron. She rescued countless English and American kids from a lifetime as vegetables, or worse, caused by Philonecron's scheme to create an army by stealing children's shadows. She saved her cousin Zachary (better known as Zee) from a lifetime as Philonecron's eternal puppet-slave. And, last but not least, she saved the entire human race from eternal torment. Not bad for a girl who didn't even believe in Greek myths. Her thanks for all this heroic saving? Being grounded for life, treated like a juvenile delinquent, and forced to undergo therapy.

Life is unfair, but at least Charlotte has Zee. He's the one person she can share her secret with, other than their former English teacher Mr. Metos, who has gone away on other business. They lean on each other more and more as they struggle to make sense of a world (and underworld) whose rules they alone know. But then, suddenly, Zee changes. He becomes like another person, morphing from a shy, well-mannered boy who gets tongue-tied around girls into a devil-may-care chick magnet. He dates, then dumps, Charlotte's best friend, treats her like a jerk, and says he doesn't care about Mr. Metos or the rest of it any more.

Feeling more alone than ever before, Charlotte agrees to join her parents on a history-themed cruise up the American east coast. Little does she know that the whole cruise has been set up so that the second most powerful god in the universe can extract his revenge. Poseidon the Earth-Shaker, god of the sea, hates Charlotte because she stood up to the gods (a real no-no for a mortal), and because her heroism thwarted the evil plans of his maimed but still evil grandson Philonecron. Poseidon's plan is to keep Charlotte's parents and all the other adults on the ship mesmerized until a giant sea monster comes along to eat them.

Meanwhile, Philonecron is moving forward with his own plans to take over the entire universe - beginning with Zee. Some of what Charlotte has been going through is connected with Philonecron's plan to bring Zee back under his power before she can do anything about it. But neither of these nasty immortals reckons on Charlotte having plans of her own. Guided by a cute boy whose father is a minor sea god, she sneaks on board Poseidon's luxury yacht and spoils his villainously divine party as only a tough-spirited, ticked-off, red-headed girl can do.

Anne Ursu's second juvenile fantasy novel is even better than the first. Jammed with wry humor guaranteed to work on a teen level - or on the level of anyone who has ever worked with teens - it brews an intoxicating adventure out of such everyday high-school ingredients as zits, crushes, Greek myths, gym teacher proverbs, parent-child conflicts, and pets. Then it jazzes them up with some exotic spices, such as a giant squid, an all-powerful weapon, a hypnotic lounge singer, and a shape-changing god who needs to spend more quality time with his kids. There are laughs, thrills, mysteries, or moments of suspense on nearly every page. I have good reason to expect the final book in the trilogy, titled The Immortal Fire, to be at least as good.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Reading Mahler's 5th

I could do a full analysis of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. But since others have already done a very good job of it, I feel no need to repeat what has already been said. So, to carry on my too-long-neglected thread on "reading a symphony like a good book," I'm going to content myself with recording my impressions, the feelings and meanings the music conjured in me. But first, just a few high points.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) wrote the fifth of his nine completed, numbered symphonies in 1902-03. Numerically, it sits in the middle of his symphonic work. It is a typical work - if not the typical work - of the middle period of Mahler's composing career. In terms of popularity, it holds a high position among his purely instrumental symphonies (as opposed to the ones with singing parts). It straddles the line between old and new, looking backward on the form, language, and procedures of the classical-romantic symphony and forward on the broader, bolder forms, language, and procedures of modern art music.

It is sometimes referred to as the symphony "in C-sharp minor," but Mahler opposed mentioning a key designation in its title. It begins in C-sharp minor, but ends in D major and covers a wide range of tonality in between. Scored for a large orchestra, it uses its instrumental forces more to create a broad range of tone-color combinations than for massive effect. It can be analyzed as a symphony in five movements, each ranging from 9 to 15 minutes in length; or as a three-part work, with the first and fourth movements serving as extended, slow introductions to the faster movements that follow them.

The first movement is a firm, slow-paced funeral march. It begins with a sinister bugle call. After an opening fanfare, the mournfully expressive main theme is announced by the strings. Variants of the opening bugle call introduce repeats of this theme as well as two contrasting episodes. About five minutes in, the mood becomes more intense and troubled. The main theme returns in different instrumentation, combined with another melody. The second major episode, round about 10 minutes, is full of urgency. The final return of the fanfare is surrounded by a miasma of anxiety, but then the music quickly dies away like a funeral band marching out of earshot.

Movement II is an emotionally stormy sonata. Frantic from the beginning, it frets and seethes for about a minute, then suddenly subsides to an atmosphere of relative calm. Presently a cello theme is heard, mooching morosely along through a pleasant garden full of flowers and singing birds. This would be a good theme for a film sequence in which someone rides in the back of a luxurious car, looking through soundproofed windows at a scene of terror and chaos: it conveys a sense of numb detachment. Mahler then plays with these ideas as the development passes through a variety of moods, from lonely ennui to hysterical gaiety to leaden-limbed dread. A triumphal hymn arises from the recap, seeming out of place and proving to be just that as the earlier, disturbing moods return. The movement comes to a chilling, ghostly end.

Now the Scherzo cavorts heavily into view like an overweight wood sprite, or a folk-dance performed by full-figured peasants. The music has a quality of rustic magic in it, but a thread of menace runs through it as well. A horn call around the 5-minute mark calls a pause to the festivities, summoning the revelers to reflect seriously on what, to my mind's ear, sounds like a piece of unexpected bad news. The central trio continues with a passage for pizzicati strings that reminds me of the fidgety, earthy thoughts that can pass through even a fairly pious mind during a serious occasion - like when one can't stop wriggling one's toes to the beat of the village dance, even during a funeral oration. This subdued atmosphere continues for several minutes before gradually ramping back up to a reprise of the gay opening section. When, again at the height of the revelry, the horn call breaks in, it signals a coda in which somber introspection gives way to an access of joy.

Next comes the most celebrated movement of this work, a "very slow" Adagietto in F for strings and harp. This is music of the utmost tenderness - the kind of music that makes you want to hold your breath. Though its atmosphere drips with emotion, this movement is also, paradoxically, a model of musical unity, economy, and subtlety. It's like a musical expression of the feeling of waking up in the wee hours and looking on the person next to you, feeling your heart overflowing with love, then gently falling asleep again. And if I, the eternal single, can smoke that meaning from this movement, it must communicate powerfully indeed.

The finale of Mahler's Fifth is a rondo inspired by the finale of Beethoven's Second. It begins jovially, the music again evoking a rustic atmosphere full of good humor and pleasure. As light-hearted as the themes are, Mahler subjects them to a suprisingly rigorous contrapuntal treatment - an artifact of his study of J. S. Bach's music around the time he wrote this piece. Overall the movement is driven by a confidence not typical of the composer, but appealing to the listener. Late in the movement there is one vaguely disturbing moment, but the cheerful momentum recollects itself, culminating in an improbably brassy, glittering triumph.

Like Mahler's other symphonies, the Fifth quotes themes from his own songs, themes which may insinuate a thread of slightly morbid irony into one's interpretation of the piece, if one recognizes them. But Mahler was a great one for morbidity, as his fans know too well. Taken as a whole, however, this is as refreshingly un-morbid a symphony as Mahler ever wrote. Full of thought-provoking contrasts, ear-catching colors, and a huge range of moods and textures, it is unmistakably a great book to listen to!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Dinner & Movie

This week's Friday Afternoon Debauch was a movie at Ronnie's Wehrenberg Theatre and dinner at The King and I, a Thai restaurant on South Grand in the city.

Dinner can be quickly summed up. I had a nice appetizer of corn cakes (little fritter things with actual kernels of corn in them), accompanied by a dipping sauce full of onion and cucumber chunks in a very spicy, sweet brine. The main course was pork Panang curry, with green and red bell peppers, basil leaves, and red curry paste in coconut milk. I ordered it medium spicy and sweated out about two glassfuls of water. And I washed it all down with the interesting "Thai iced tea" that The King and I serves - full-flavored, reddish tea, mixed with condensed milk to make a peculiar orange-tinted drink.

The King & I won my custom at the expense of the Sekisui sushi bar on Grand & Arsenal, which refused to honor a coupon I had purchased with that location in mind. Turns out I hadn't read the fine print closely enough; the Sekisui restaurant to which the coupon directed me is in Clayton, and is no longer affiliated with the one on Grand, and I didn't feel like investing another road trip in tonight's dinner so I walked to the Thai place instead. A craving for unagi will only get me so far; when Thai iced tea is in the offing, I can change my plans in the blink of an eye.

This week's movie - actually my first movie in several weeks - was a spooky sci-fi flick titled Knowing, with Nicolas Cage. It's a nice little end-of-the-world movie that makes a bit more effort than the average blockbuster to provide a well-rounded, human story with deep emotions, good dialogue, and room for a variety of interpretations (including some that Christians might sympathize with). The special effects are nothing special, but the film is visually beautiful and does a good job stimulating feelings of suspense, dread, shock, horror, sadness, and hope. It also has a gorgeous soundtrack that makes ironic use of Holst's The Planets, moving references to Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, and really quite interesting sounds of its own, courtesy of composer Marco Beltrami. The director, who deserves credit for establishing a remarkable overall style, is Alex Proyas, late of I, Robot and The Crow.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Perversity vs. Perversion

Never mind why, but I've been thinking about easily confused words. Among them are the words "perversity" versus "perversion." And I think I've discovered a connection between them.

Something perverted is called a perversion. On the other hand, perversity is the quality of something being perverse. This is an interesting distinction between two very similar and, one might suppose, closely related words. But they don't mean the same thing.

You may speak appreciatively of something being perverse - though your appreciation is probably a little perverse itself. But calling someone a pervert expresses the purest and deepest disapproval, without a shred of sympathy. Perversity is something we all put up with in the world of careers, politics, and popular entertainment; in the right frame of mind, we can even laugh at it. But perversion makes us shudder: something outside the bounds of our everyday expectations, something from which we want to insulate ourselves and our loved ones.

But there are desires that can be both perverse and perverted. And that is where the two words intersect. A desire is perverse when, the moment the object of desire is obtained, it becomes undesirable. Or, when gratification destroys what it desires. The same desire becomes perverted when you actually enjoy the perversity of it. In other words, perversion is the compulsive gratification of a self-defeating wish.

This particular play on words has been growing on my mind for a while. Why? Perhaps because I spend so much time on the internet. A lot of perversity is on display out here; as is every shape, size, and color of perversion. Some of both can be viewed for free. But make no mistake; there's a price tag on every page of perversion.

Is it harsh to speak in these terms? I don't think so. People who go looking for it can easily find, for example, kiddie porn online - some free, some pay-per-view. But it's always costly. Every dirty photo on those pages destroys the innocence of a child. And every viewing of it feeds an adult's addiction to a perverse desire. What attracts him is that child's innocence, but by the time his desire is gratified, the innocence has been lost, the child has become an object, and the object has lost its appeal. It is a self-defeating wish (perverse) which feeds on itself until the user is enslaved (perverted).

Kiddie porn is only the most obvious example. Few people, I think, will argue with what I have just said. But the crowd that agrees with the monster puppet from Avenue Q ("The internet is for porn!") may be less inclined to agree when I say that all pornography is perverted. It stands to reason, though.

Lusting after a porn actor or actress must be an awfully frustrating passtime. Once you see them doing what they do, it is difficult imagining them to be what you really and naturally desire. The moment the zipper goes down, he destroys the image you cherish of him being a kind and honorable lover; or she deletes herself from the cast of your deepest fantasy of the girl whose virtue and devotion you would die to protect. Even gay porn fans must come away disappointed after seeing the same-sex sex god of their dreams revealed as just another cheap trick - demeaned, debased, dehumanized.

The desire that draws viewers to internet porn is perverse. The hook that draws them back more and more frequently is perversion. The internet provides abundant, cheap (if not free), and relatively confidential opportunities to indulge in it. It's like a drug dealer passing out free samples of crack. The very medium of the internet is structured to grow a crop of perverts who, when they can no longer get the high it first gave them, seek it first through ever larger doses - increasingly long sessions, scenarios of greater and greater intensity - until it bursts out of the boundaries of "free time" and "recreation" and takes over other areas of their life. And they seek it, secondly, through other and stronger drugs. So getting off on porn leads to more overt acts, such as displays of public lewdness, peeping, stalking, possibly escalating to rape and more violent crime.

Does this necessarily happen? No. But so many habitual, violent criminals can trace the beginnings of their trouble to an addiction to porn that it has to be considered a factor. Joyfully embracing perversity can lead to perversion. Appreciating the misbehavior of others can lead to misbehavior. Squelching the voice of conscience that says, "This is wrong" - or even taking a perverse pleasure in going against that voice, engaging in titillating fantasies of a world without moral scruples while riding the high of going against one's own - ends with that voice of conscience muffled to the point of inaudibility, and one's behavior unchecked by any scruples whatever.

Perversely, this bondage, this slavery, this addiction, is promoted as a kind of freedom. Perversely, this infantile fascination with bodily functions, this childish undisciplined rush to gratify every desire without countenancing a "no" answer, is described as "adult" entertainment. Perversely, this sop to the lowest instincts of our race, this repetitive and unchanging drivel, is presented as a matter of "choice" and "expression," while any movement to oppose it is characterized as mean-spirited, close-minded, deterministic, and unenlightened.

I can prove by reason, any number of ways, that pornography is perverse. But that is not damning, in itself. The question of the hour is: Is it a perversion? And that can only be assessed in light of the harm pornography does. How has it damaged the individual dignity of those who perform in it? How has it damaged the integrity of those who deal in it? How has it damaged the health, family lives, careers, and citizenship of those who use it? How has it affected society as a whole, its attitudes towards women, their attitudes toward themselves? How has it contributed to the suffering of the victims of sex crime and other social disorders? Since the freedom of speech has been extended to protect pornography (within certain limits), has porn contributed to the erosion of our liberties? In how many ways has this form of recreation increased the stress level of our entire culture?

I'm not saying, "There oughtta be a law." I'm just pointing out a linguistic distinction. One has to appreciate the perversity of a system that protects pornography, while pornography attacks that system. But be careful! If you enjoy perversity, for its own sake, you might - just possibly - become a pervert.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Three More Book Reviews

Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs
by Karen Karbo
Recommended Ages: 13+

Here is the second Minerva Clark mystery. In the first one, we met a middle-school sleuth whose family consists of three older brothers, since their divorced parents are never around; whose best friends are a walking encyclopedia named Reggie and a rascally ferret named Jupiter; and whom a powerful electric shock liberated from the insecurities and self-image problems that plague teenage girls. What better person to solve a murder and break up an identity-theft ring? Who would expect so much of a frizzy-haired kid?

Now Minerva has a new mystery to solve. The second-prettiest girl in her class cries out for help when she unwittingly sells a priceless diamond for $50. Was it Chelsea's fault that her tax-evading, jeweller father swapped out the fake gem on her cheap cameo ring? Minerva takes the case, and proves how much trouble an inconspicuous kid can make for criminals.

Making full use of her city's public transit system, Minerva follows a trail of clues from the airport to the animal shelter, stopping by an on-location movie shoot along the way. She gets hoodwinked, chloroformed, held hostage, and threatened with a gun. She makes creative use of what she learned on Day One of a summer course in basic electronics. She also learns to appreciate the graphic on her Green Day T-shirt, illustrating the idea that "the heart is a hand grenade." In one week, Minerva falls in love with a dog, writhes with impatience as her best friend is too busy being lovestruck to spend time with her, experiences the agony of not hearing a word from her first almost-boyfriend, and worries about an upcoming visit by her flighty Mom. It's all in a week's work for Portland, Oregon's smartest mouth.

Kidding aside, this is a fun book that should go down well with teen mystery lovers. Filled with quirky characters, droll humor, and family-safe scenes of danger and mischief, it also models an attitude toward beauty and style that could be very healthy for many young women - provided they don't need a powerful electric shock to adopt it. Read it, and if you agree you may also want to look out for the third book in this series, Minerva Clark Gives Up the Ghost.

Measle and the Slitherghoul
by Ian Ogilvy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Back in the third Measle adventure, Measle and the Mallockee, we caught a glimpse of something shapeless, slimy, and very, very dangerous. Now that something is on the move.

Its name is the Slitherghoul. For centuries it has been locked up in an underground cell, guarded and studied by wizards, but mostly left alone. No one knows what evil spell created it, but only that it absorbed its creator, a young apprentice wizard named Sheepshank. Then, one day the Slitherghoul escapes from its cell and absorbs the guard and all the prisoners in the holding cells - including the evil warlock Toby Jugg and a bunch of demented wrathmonks, all of whom hate Measle Stubbs and his family.

Absorbed, but not killed, these nasties become the Slitherghoul's eyes, ears, and brain. Together they steer a slimy course toward Merlin Manor, where Measle, Iggy, and Nurse Flannel have been left alone (not counting a feeble security presence) while Measle's parents and baby sister are attending a meeting in Antarctica. The boy's plans to dig a swimming pool are cut short by the arrival of a monstrous blob with the combined consciousness of all his worst enemies. The next thing he knows, he is alone, being chased around and through and over his house by a creature that has already devoured his nanny, his dog, and his best friend.

But don't you worry about old Measle. He has some tricks up his sleeve. Even in a world full of magical beings like warlocks and wrathmonks, leave it to one ordinary boy with no magical powers at all to take charge of a situation. Or is he so ordinary, after all? In fact, isn't Measle an unusually clever, resourceful, and daring kid? He's a real fighter, too. And as he fights to get his friends back, he proves to be more than his slimy wrathmonk foes bargained for. As always.

This fourth Measle book continues the amazingly entertaining verbal dance by an actor, author, and playwright who has never missed a step yet. Ogilvy is sure to please young readers, and listeners younger still, in this tale and the others that go with it. He has fastened upon one of the secrets that have made Harry Potter so successful: a truly admirable boy hero who, for all his grubbiness and smelliness and vulnerability, has the maturity to hold his tongue rather than argue, the courage to face his worst fears, and the wisdom to value and befriend people whom others might call worthless. Harry didn't reach that point until Book 6; Measle is already there.

Sure, this is lighter fare, aimed at tickling the ribs of a younger circle of readers than, say, the last three Harry Potter books. The enemies are much sillier, and Measle's sidekick Iggy is downright childlike. Yet there is serious spookiness and danger in this story, and several characters come to a gruesome end. Nevertheless, with no magic of his own, our Measle survives many magical menaces, and does so mainly on the strength of his wits. There is something awfully grown-up about that. It's as if Ian Ogilvy wants every child who reads his books to believe that, even in a world full of mysteries and powers beyond their comprehension, they have it in themselves to triumph and succeed. If young readers can imagine themselves in Measle's place, they might find ways to emulate him. And that would be a happy ending indeed!

Measle and the Doompit
by Ian Ogilvy
Recommended Ages: 10+

Measle Stubbs is the son of the Prime Magus, the leader of all the wizards in Britain. His mother is a manafount; which is to say, she contributes a non-stop flow of magical energy to strengthen her husband's magic. Measle's sister Tilly is a rare mallockee, who can perform multiple spells, one after another. His best friend is a wrathmonk: a tiny, weak, not-too-bright wrathmonk, to be sure, but still capable of performing magic. But, as we know from his four previous adventures, Measle has no magic of his own. The only magic trick he can do is turning invisible, but even that is possible only because of the special jellybeans Nanny Flannel makes.

So when Measle goes to school, it isn't to a school of magic like Hogwarts, but to an ordinary school full of ordinary kids. And when his entire class disappears in the middle of a school trip, Measle has nothing to fall back on but his own wits, his pocketful of jellybeans, and his friendship with a girl named Polly, who somehow managed to get left behind.

Then who should turn up but Toby Jugg, the most powerful wrathmonk at large and Measle's personal enemy? One by one, Toby drops Polly and Measle into a doompit, a kind of magical portal into the world of Dystopia. In Dystopia you might meet any creature you have heard, read, or dreamed about. And if they don't kill you, you may learn that they aren't quite how you imagined them.

Measle is soon reunited with his dog Tinker and his friend Iggy. Don't ask how; I don't want to spoil the laugh. Together, they face menacing werewolves, stinging fairies, giant ants, and other nasties. How they survive each of these encounters will surprise you again and again, though the biggest surprise - and possibly the biggest laugh - comes from Polly. But inevitably, things finally reach a point where Measle is all alone, caught between his worst enemy and certain death, with nothing to save him but what's in his pockets. It wouldn't be a Measle adventure if it were otherwise.

I have always enjoyed this series by actor, author, and playwright Ian Ogilvy. I know some children who are absolutely crazy for them. I hope this book, first published in 2007, isn't the end of the series. Measle is developing nicely as a character. In fact, he's already starting to notice girls - one girl in particular. It might be fun to see what that leads to. But I am especially interested in knowing what twisted and loopy idea Ogilvy dreams up next. Adults who enjoyed reading these books with their kids may also be interested in Ogilvy's adult fiction, including Loose Chippings, The Polkerton Giant, and A Slight Hangover.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pho Tai

I had some business at Kinko's, near the corner of Grand & Arsenal, around dinnertime. So I decided to extend my business in the neighborhood to include a meal at one of my favorite joints, the Mekong Restaurant on the corner of Hartford and Grand, more or less right across the street from Kinko's.

Usually, when I eat at the Mekong, I indulge in the crispy eggrolls, a plate of hot curry, and a glass of that wonderful, sweet-and-strong iced coffee you only find in Southeast Asian restaurants. You know the type: French press coffee, served in a glass with a shot of condensed milk and a second glass full of ice for you to stir into the coffee once it stops dripping from the press pot. I couldn't resist it tonight. But I did resist my usual curry craving to try something different.

First, I went with the spring rolls instead of the eggrolls. In Vietnamese cuisine, a spring roll is quite different from the crispy fried snack that goes by that name on your neighborhood Chinese buffet. A Vietnamese spring roll comes wrapped in stretchy rice-paper, through which you can actually see what's inside it. And what's inside it? Some fresh greens (like lettuce and cilantro leaves). A few crisp sprouts, maybe. A couple slices of roast pork, maybe a shrimp or two. And lots of vermicelli. It's served cold, and its crunchiness comes from within. The dipping sauce is dark brown, syrupy, and touched with a peanutty flavor.

The appetizer wasn't new to me, but the main course was. I ordered a soup I had heard great things about, but had never tried until now. Its name on the menu consisted of four or five one-syllable words I would never trust myself to pronounce correctly - particularly where the tonal nature of the Vietnamese language is concerned. But this string began with the words pho tai, a phrase I knew by reputation. I have a notion that the "pho" is pronounced like the F-word, only without the "ck" at the end; but I saved my self the embarrassment of finding out that I was wrong by asking for "Number 10" on the menu. How helpful of the folks at the Mekong to number their dishes! (FYI, the spring rolls are Number 4.)

Anyway, here's what pho tai is like, Mekong style. It comes to you in a huge glass bowl. On the side is a surprisingly large plate of garnishes, including some leafy herbs (cilantro for sure), a mess of sprouts, and other vegetable matter you can add to your soup for taste and texture, as you see fit. In the bowl itself is a light, savory broth, seasoned so beautifully that, after one has removed every solid edible from it, one may well stick one's straw into it and suck the remaining liquid down to the dregs. That's what I did. As for the solid stuff, that chiefly consists of long, fine noodles, chunks of sausage, and slices of beef, with bits of several different kinds of onion and crumbled herbs to round it off.

I really, really loved this soup. Eating it with chopsticks was a pain, though. At least, it's a pain if you're as mediocre at using chopsticks as I am. Having seen it done before, I understood the principle: you use the chopsticks to fish stuff out of the soup and arrange it on a spoon, then you use the spoon to shovel it into your mouth. The really tricky part was preventing a pile of noodles from hanging over the side of the spoon. Hanging over, I found, is tantamount to sliding over and ending up in the soup again.

Eventually I decided to spare myself hand cramps and a shirtful of soup spatter, and I switched to using my fork to arrange the noodles on the spoon. Then I really did finish the soup with my straw, because sipping broth one spoonful at a time wasn't how I chose to see myself five years from now. And yes, because it was that good.

I may not know how to say pho tai correctly (except I'm sure there isn't a k in it). But I know how to say "Number 10, please." I think I could get used to that.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rich & Charlie's

Last night I used up another gift certificate from Restaurant-dot-com. I felt like celebrating the end of my last work shift before two consecutive days off. So I steered a course toward 9942 Watson Road - the address the coupon listed for Rich & Charlie's.

It turned out to be a frustrating search. As I drove west on Watson, the street numbers ascended in predictable order...until I got to the corner of Watson & Sturdy Road. There, on the south side of Watson, the intersecting street passes between two medical buildings. The one on the east side of Sturdy is 9930 Watson. The one on the west is 10,000 Watson.

I pulled over and asked a couple people where Rich & Charlie's was. One of them pointed back eastward, so I drove that way and looked intently at every building I passed. Several of them were restaurants, but none were Rich & Charlie's. I turned around and drove west again, stopping at a car rental place to ask for directions again. They said it was just a couple buildings down the road, before the next intersection (at Sturdy). I got back on Watson and drove slowly west, looking at all the signs and street numbers. I finally pulled in behind the medical building at 9930 Watson and went inside to ask a receptionist. I was starting to think about the Fidelius Charm in the Harry Potter books, which enabled the Order of the Phoenix to make an entire building (13 Grimmauld Place) invisible to passersby. I was beginning to wonder whether spacetime curved around 9942 Watson Road, and what a small Italian restaurant could have done to deserve such an exception to the laws of reality.

The receptionist told me exactly where Rich & Charlie's was, bless her. It was the first building to the west of 10,000 Watson, street numbers notwithstanding. I would have seen it from Watson Road if I hadn't been blinded by the sun, and if I had been looking for it on the 10,000 block. So I went into the restaurant with a sense of grievance. I just restrained myself from warning my server that her mission was to unfrustrate me.

My gift certicate was for $10 off a minimum purchase of $35. It's not the most advantageous deal Restaurant-dot-com offers, but sometimes it is liberating to be able to read a restaurant's menu and not have to think about how you can get away with spending as little as possible. Instead, I had to think about how to blow $35. Basically, it meant having a license to choose anything I wanted off the menu, regardless of cost.

I started with a bottle of imported, Italian beer. The make was Menabrea, the model was Amber Beer. I hadn't had that brand before, but I was well pleased with it. This was soon followed by a basket of bread - toasted baguette slices, dotted with sesame seeds and accompanied by butter. I was still munching on my first (and only) slice of the bread when my appetizer arrived: a huge helping of the toasted ravioli for which St. Louis is famous. I only ate about four pieces before putting the rest in a to-go container, but I immediately knew that they were the best toasted ravs I had ever tasted. For their sake alone, my frustrating search for 9942 Watson was worthwhile.

My main dish was listed on the menu as tutti mare (sic). The name of this dish, which is usually spelled tutto mare, means something like "the whole sea" in Italian. When my eyes fell upon a bowl of pasta big enough to bathe a baby in, I realized that this was only a slight hyperbole. The long, thick noodles were swimming in a reddish, creamy sauce combining the flavors of garlic and seafood stock. The sauce was liberally supplied with bits of clam meat, with enough peeled shrimp and chunks of crab meat to ensure an extra treat with every second bite or so. The only thing I missed (from previous encounters with this dish at other restaurants) was mussels. But everyone does things their own way. All in all, it was a fine dish. Again, I saved a large portion of it for later.

I got past the $35 minimum - barely - by ordering a coffee and canoli for dessert. I asked for cream with the coffee, just in case; after tasting the coffee, however, I didn't feel a need to use the cream. The canoli was spectacular. You may know nothing about canolis except the role they played in whacking a wise guy in The Godfather. If so, I can name a handful of places in St. Louis where you could order a canoli and find out what I'm talking about. But you might as well just get one at Rich & Charlie's while you're recovering from the best toasted ravioli in St. Louis. A canoli is a mass of dense custard, approximately the size and shape of a thick Cuban cigar, surrounded by a shell of crunchy pastry and served, I have usually found, with a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar and a drizzling of chocolate syrup. No one has to get whacked to enjoy one, but you would be whacked not to try it.

My total bill, before the Restaurant-dot-com gift certificate was taken off, was $35.85. After $10 discount and a roughly 20% tip, my final bill was $32.50. Without the gift certificate and the minimum purchase it required, I probably would have ordered the entree and a soft drink, and spent less than $20 tip included. So in the final analysis, the coupon didn't save me any money. Rather, it gave me a sense of freedom to spend it trying exactly what I wanted. And considering that I got two meals out of the deal - very good and goodly meals - I don't feel bad about spending it. Plus, I'll know where Rich & Charlie's is next time. Who knows how much I'll enjoy myself when I don't need to be unfrustrated first!

Two Book Reviews

The Grand Complication
by Allen Kurzweil
Recommended Ages: 16+

Teens who loved Leon and the Spitting Image may also enjoy this adult novel by the same author. Like Kurzweil's juvenile fiction, this book combines a wealth of informative trivia with quirky characters, offbeat humor, and a murder-free mystery whose ultimate lack of a solution is balanced by the satisfaction of seeing the main character grow and develop.

That character, our narrator, is a New York reference librarian named Alexander Short. He is a man of unusual interests. He worships the Dewey Decimal cataloguing system and studies forms of penmanship for fun. He constantly jots down lists in a notebook that he keeps literally tied to his shirt, and he goes gaga over forms of enclosure (such as secret compartments in furniture).

One day a stylish, elderly library patron approaches Xander's desk and hands him a beautifully penned request for a book on secret compartments. His interest piqued, Xander agrees to help this stranger with a special case. Mr. Henry James Jesson III, who seems to live in another century, shows our hero a house full of rare books, maps, and artifacts. Prized above all else is a case of curiosities containing, among other things, a nail on which some unknown object once hung. Xander's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to find that object and complete the collection.

As imperfect as Xander is, he seems to be the perfect man for this mission. As this research wizard does his magic, we get an easy-to-swallow education on the structure and procedures of a modern research library, and on the means at any well-motivated researcher's disposal to find facts buried within a worldful of information. Meanwhile, Xander risks his career and his marriage to a sexually frustrated, French pop-up-book designer. And as he finds out more and more about a priceless, vanished timepiece, he also learns how Jesson has deceived and manipulated him. This discovery finally pushes Xander to take charge of his life and make full use of his powers.

Here is a tale in which revenge is not altogether sweet, nor are endings altogether neat. It has an unceasing flow of wit, a touch of blushworthy naughtiness, more than a touch of suspense, and a lot of practical information about how to do research. And it reveals how much mystery and wonder may come to people who love books and the worlds found in them.

Measle and the Mallockee
by Ian Ogilvy
Recommended Ages: 10+

A couple years ago, I gave a pile of slightly-used books to the young children of some friends I was visiting over the New Year. Among them were the first two Measle books by Ian Ogilvy. During that holiday I even read portions of the first book aloud, complete with character voices. Such was the glee of those children that, to this day, I am told Measle and the Wrathmonk and Measle and the Dragodon are among their favorite books. I guess I know where I am going to send the other three books in the series when I am done reviewing them!

It was a used book dealer who finally put in my hands an Oxford University Press edition of this book and its two sequels, Measle and the Slitherghoul and Measle and the Doompit. HarperCollins does not seem to have continued their edition of the series past the second book. So my friends' kids will have to learn to visualize Measle Stubbs differently. Oh, well. It may be their first lesson in the differences between editions of books - and how the picture that really matters is the one the words create inside your head.

Ogilvy continues to inspire interesting pictures in the head, in this third book about Measle Stubbs - a small, grubby boy with an astounding knack for survival. Measle has been menaced by wrathmonks (a type of wizard driven insane by evil magic and a lust for power). He has been threatened by a dragodon (another type of wizard who controls a deadly-real dragon). But now he has a mallockee on his hands.

What is a mallockee? A mallockee is an extremely rare type of wizard. Wizards like Measle's father can only do one spell a day - even when their mana (magical power supply) is amplified by being married to a manafount, like Measle's mother. A mallockee, however, has an unlimited supply of mana. He or she can do one spell after another, though the effort can be exhausting. This is why itty bitty Matilda Stubbs keeps falling asleep after funny, unexplained things happen. Measle's baby sister is a mallockee!

A mallockee in the wrong hands could be pretty dangerous. So says a council of warlocks (ambitious, untrustworthy types on a level between ordinary wizards and wrathmonks). But maybe they just want to get their hands on Matilda. The wrong hands indeed! Measle, Matilda, and their faithful dog Tinker flee, with he help of a friendly wizard named Toby Jugg, when the warlocks take Measle's parents prisoner. Now children and dog are on their own in a castle full of spooky dangers - alone except for a silly little wrathmonk named Iggy Niggle.

Led by the ever-resourceful Measle, these small heroes survive attacks by killer paintings, an animated suit of armor, and a house with a mind of its own. But they are only in real danger when they get to the bottom of a conspiracy to force Measle's manafount mother and mallockee sister to serve a warlock's wicked plans.

Loaded with chase scenes, monsters, magical spells, narrow escapes, and fiendish yet silly villains, this book continues the streak of laugh-out-loud, gasp-with-pleasure fun that began in Measle and the Wrathmonk. It will especially please kids who can appreciate British-flavored humor, such as the fact that Tinker's doggy thoughts have a cockney accent. This fact may have been lost on kids who read the first two books in the Americanized, HarperCollins edition - so it may come as a surprise. But the entertainment value of this book will be no surprise to fans of Ogilvy's work.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cat Language?

Tonight I observed something that makes me wonder whether cats can communicate with each other on a verbal level.

I went into the kitchen for a bedtime swig of milk. My greedier cat, Tyrone, followed me in hopes of getting a second round of Pounce. He watched from the counter while I pulled the plastic ring off a new jug of milk, unscrewed the lid, and drank a few swallows. I recapped the jug, put it back in the fridge, and tossed the ring into the part of the empty dish drainer where drying silverware is wont to stand. I was simply too lazy to pull out the garbage can from under the sink and dispose of it properly.

I walked out of the kitchen and paused a few steps away. Already I could hear an annoying but familiar sound: the scraping, thumping sound of a cat drying to dig something out of the dish drainer. The odd part was that Sinead is the cat who likes to play with things like the plastic ring off a milk jug. But Sinead hadn't been in the room when I tossed the ring into the drainer.

I walked back into the kitchen to see what was going on. Sure enough, I caught Sinead jumping down from the counter, having already flipped the plastic ring onto the floor. I picked it up and binned it properly this time. But I also marveled, when I thought about it afterward. How had Sinead found out so quickly that I had hidden one of her favorite toys in the dish drainer? I had scarcely walked the length of the dining room before she found it. What instinct could have led her to it so fast?

Had she smelled the freshly opened milk and associated it with toys? Had she heard the click of a tiny, almost weightless strip of waste plastic against the plastic bottom of the dish drainer? Had she spotted the whole business from an unobtrusive vantage point? (Unlike Tyrone, Sinead rarely jumps onto the kitchen counter.) I don't know. As far as I know, she wasn't in the kitchen when I left it. Perhaps it was something Tyrone said to her? Did he, I wonder, yell out in a language outside the range of human hearing, "Hey! Sinead! Look what Dad just threw in the sink"?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why Do We Have Music in Church?

1. Because we can. In whatever measure God has given anyone the ability to hear, understand, and enjoy music, to sing, play musical instruments, or compose new music, that person is a steward of those gifts. As Christian stewards, we have an opportunity to devote a portion of all that God gives us to His glory and to holy use. This is fitting, since it all belongs to Him.

Because the officiating pastor's musical ability is also a gift of God (and because his singing voice may carry better than his speaking voice), this principle also applies to the pastor chanting his part of the liturgy.

2. Because we may. Music is part of God's good creation. As His beloved children, we are free to use every created thing, within the bounds of fitness and lawful order. There is no law against making appropriate use of music in worship. So it suits our Christian freedom to use worship music in a manner that shows love to God and our neighbor.

Again, there is room within this Christian freedom even for the pastor to chant his side of our liturgical dialogue.

3. Because we should. The church's cultural life, including music and other arts, is a reflection of its spiritual life. Only a church of the flesh can spare no room for an inner life, no time or resources for the pursuit of excellence. And if the church made no use of music or the arts, these wholesome gifts of God would become nothing but instruments of worldly concerns and desires. As Luther allegedly said: "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?"

In light of this principle, we put a high value on the heritage of hymns and sacred music bequeathed to us by the faithful of earlier generations -- especially where artistic excellence is married with a strong witness to our faith. On the other hand, this principle also enjoins us to appreciate and encourage the creative offerings of today's faithful.

4. Because we must. Hearts moved by God's Word cannot help but express themselves: their sorrow over sin, their joy in forgiveness, the comfort of their heavenly hope. Many religious texts have been born of the overflow of such feelings. The music that goes with them was born when Christians recognized that the words were too beautiful to be merely spoken; they must be sung.

Who hasn't felt ashamed, at times, to hear one's fellow parishioners reading a Psalm in a bored monotone? We need the music to remind us how to feel about the text, to tell us what the words mean.

5. Because music can instruct us. Music is a powerful aid to memory. We retain words combined with a tune far better than words alone. Good words set to well-written music can be a powerful tool for teaching the faith, both to children and to adults. Religious bodies - heretics included - as well as political parties and commercial firms have all recognized the propaganda power of a song that sticks in the head. A hymn learned in childhood may often be one of the last memories preserved in one's forgetful, old age. Experience says that churches with a well-learned core of worship music can get by, if they have to, without an organist or a hymnal. This is why it is so much easier to follow an order of service with music we know, than with strange music or even no music at all. We hear a familiar musical cue and we know exactly what to sing next, even where a spoken cue might leave us confused and uncertain.

It probably follows that the average congregation only needs to learn one setting of the Divine Service -- ever. It's OK if the hymnal has 3, 5, or even 11 settings. Those extra musical settings will add a dash of variety to a few, exceptional congregations that are good at sight-reading music. They also provide plenty of choices for a parish considering making the switch to traditional liturgy for the first time. But the proverbial Church of St. John-in-the-Cornfield should stick with the service they know. It is serving the "aid to memory" function of church music very well. A change to something unfamiliar will only get in the way.

6. Because music can identify us. A visitor to your church can quickly learn a lot about you, simply by listening to your hymns and liturgical music. In Lutheran circles, the type of worship music they hear can tell them which of several types of Lutheran church you are. There's the type that will do or say anything to be popular or relevant. There's the type that wallows in nostalgia for an old-time religion, without distinguishing between Lutheranism and any other type of Protestant doctrine. And there's the type of church where some effort to uphold the principles of the Lutheran Reformation can be heard in the liturgy and hymns.

Our worship music is a public confession of where we stand spiritually and theologically. Though any confession can leave some people feeling excluded, there are those looking for a faithful church home who will only know they have found it by your sung and spoken confession.

7. Because music can unite us. We share a heritage of church music with Lutherans throughout the U.S. and in other countries. So every hymn and canticle that we sing is an act of fellowship with our brethren across the country and abroad. It also puts us in fellowship with the saints in heaven who sang the same pieces when they were on earth.

By continuing to use the best hymns and liturgical music, we show good faith toward those who are struggling to build new, faithful Lutheran church bodies, or to turn troubled, old bodies back to the faith of their forefathers.

8. Because of the command of God. Particularly in the Book of Psalms, God's Word frequently calls upon the faithful to sing His praise. See 1 Chronicles 16; Psalms 30, 95, 96, 98, 147, and 149; Isaiah 12 and 42; and Jeremiah 20, for example. Certain musical instruments are also mentioned as being used to worship the Lord. Bearing our Christian freedom in mind, we are not to suppose that only those instruments, or the precise words of the Psalms, are to be heard in church, any more than the verse that reads "Sing to the Lord a new song" requires us to invent new hymns every week. But because of so many commands to "sing unto the Lord," we know at least that God does not hate or despise our songs of praise. In fact, He invites them, and when our songs focus on His marvelous deeds we can even be certain that He regards them favorably.

The God-inspired apostle Paul urges Christians to worship God in "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Ephesians 5; Colossians 3), both to honor God and to instruct one another in His Word.

9. Because of the examples of men. Jesus and His disciples sang hymns (Matthew 26; Mark 14). Paul and Silas sang while they were in prison for preaching the Gospel (Acts 16). The saints in heaven sing in praise of the Lamb in Revelation 5 and 14. Hymns, sequences, and canticles such as the Gloria in excelsis and Te Deum are among the earliest surviving literary works of the ancient Christian church. Much of the oldest notated music that can still be deciphered consists of Gregorian chant and the polyphonic church music based on it. The history of Christendom is crammed with faithful witnesses who, among other things, wrote hymns: including a certain Martin Luther of cherished memory. Putting together orders of worship (including chanted liturgy) and hymnals were among the first orders of business in the Reformation. When Siberian Lutherans, under the persecution of Soviet atheism, were stripped of their pastors and books, they kept the faith alive by circulating samizdat hymnals, handwritten from memory.

The great composer J. S. Bach devoted much of his career to serving the Lutheran church with sacred music for choir, orchestra, organ, and more. Others before, during, and since Bach's time have contributed musical offerings that bear witness to the spiritual and cultural treasure that glows within Lutheranism. We draw encouragement from their faithful witness each time we hear or perform their music -- and when we reflect on the fact that, in many instances, their witness was so powerfully faithful indeed. Bach, for example, has been called the "fifth evangelist," because the study of his music has led music lovers of many faiths (and none at all) to Christianity and, in many cases, to Lutheranism.

10. For the glory of God. Bach used to end his musical manuscripts with the letters "SDG," initials standing for a Latin phrase meaning, "To God alone be the glory." If you view music as a language, church music is language addressing worship to God. If you view music as an art or craft, church music is a vessel dedicated to God. It follows that we intentionally give Him our best, and that we seek to please Him rather than ourselves. Whatever touches on the mission of the church -- from making a confession to the stranger in our pews to instructing, nurturing, and comforting church members, from delivering God's Word to our hearts to carrying our praises back to Him -- church music is part of it.

All this is not to the credit of the composer, the publisher, or the performers. It is the work of God, who has both created music and yoked it so effectively to His living and powerful Word. So Bach's scribbled "SDG" is not merely a pious conceit. Church music really does work to the glory of God!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Consecutive Tackiness

Today's new message on the same ELCA church sign reads:


Translation: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where stock and real estate values doth corrupt, and where investment managers break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither bank nor brokerage doth corrupt, and where Bernard Madoff types do not break through nor steal. Turn your mammon of unrighteousness over to us, and rest assured that no one will foreclose on your eternal mansion..."

All right, if I keep going, people will want to go and hear that message. Nowadays even in the church - especially in the church - all the talk all the time has to be about money. Pity!

IMAGE: The peril of funding a church by corporate sponsorship.

Sanguinary Tackiness

I left blogging it until after the sign had been changed, but last week's message from the neighborhood ELCA church sign said something like:


That's what I call the "Red Cross Theory of Atonement" -- Jesus is the universal blood donor spreading antibodies against sin to people of blood types A, B, AB, and O; let us therefore donate our blood in remembrance of Him!

If this message inspires you to donate blood, thanks and remember - I have Type B.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Three Book Reviews

The Dragon of Never-Was
by Ann Downer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Further to Hatching Magic, this book reunites a young wyvern (try to picture a catlike dragon) with a similarly young wizard. Vyrna (the wyvern) and Theodora (the wizard) have been separated by an ocean since the Events of Last Summer - when they put a stop to the plans of an evil wizard that involved time travel, demon possession, and the summoning of a Chinese dragon in the middle of present-day Boston, USA - but one gathers they are still destined to be together.

Since the Events of Last Summer, Theodora has been coping by writing a journal, taking art lessons, and trying to hook up her nanny with her widower dad. But now a power she did not look for or ask for is blooming inside her. Partly to protect that power, partly to exploit it, and partly to decide whether or not to take it away from her, a magical organization called the O.I.G. has seen to it that Theodora and her father arrive in Scotland in time to investigate the discovery of a mysterious scale, belonging to a creature unknown to science.

But more is afoot on the Isle of Scornsay than a nondescript species of fish or reptile. An evil genius is pulling mysterious strings. A wild man, possibly connected to a decades-old missing-persons case, wanders the island searching for something. The tale of a treasure cut out of a dragon's eye crosses threads with rumors about an ancient, forbidden book of magic. The boundary between our world and a strange, nether realm is about to rip open. And with her friends and loved ones in danger, Theodora must quickly learn to accept the changes happening in herself.

Written with fast-paced charm and zest by the author of the Spellkeys trilogy, this is a magical mystery showcasing a growing magical talent that should go right to the heart of Harry Potter fans. Though this book came out way back in 2006, I sense that there are more adventures in store for Theodora and Vyrna.

The Whim of the Dragon
by Pamela Dean
Recommended Ages: 12+

In The Secret Country and its sequel The Hidden Land, a pair of magic swords transported five cousins into a world of magic and adventure - the very world, in fact, that they had invented together over several summers of make-believe games. They found the real version of their fantasy world full of disturbing deviations from what they had dreamed up; yet in its most tragic details, they could not divert their well-rehearsed plot line from its course.

They could not prevent the king's favorite counselor from poisoning the king. They could not spare Ted the terror of battle and a descent to the Land of the Dead. Rather than face the final act of the story - in which Ted must fight a duel with his best friend - the children fled back to their world, leaving behind a letter confessing that they were imposters standing in for the real princes and princesses of the Secret Land, who had been murdered by the evil sorceress Claudia.

Having reached the end of The Hidden Land, you may find yourself caught in one of fantasy lit's most excruciating cliffhangers. Heightening your discomfort, the third book of the trilogy is out of print - though new copies of the first two installments are widely available. This has to be one of the strangest mischances in the publishing world; for not only does The Hidden Land leave the story incomplete, but it leaves the reader in almost physical pain.

We have just learned that Claudia has been pulling strings on both sides of the portal between our world and the Secret Country. She has used the history of the hidden land to influence the imaginings of Ted, Laura, Patrick, Ruth, and Ellen. She has then used their imaginings to change things in her own world. Even with her house of mirrors burnt down, Claudia is still at large, the children's adventure incomplete. Yet with so much still at stake, they have gone back to their normal lives in Illinois and New South Wales! How can one possibly stop there? How can one come this far and not see it through to the end?

Thanks to the internet's resources for buying used books, there is still hope of getting one's sweaty fingers on The Whim of the Dragon. I only had to wait one maddening week for my well-thumbed copy to arrive. And the reward is a rich, complex, deeply textured final act of a great modern classic. It combines fascinatingly original concepts and minutely-observed character details with an elaborate embroidery of classic poetry, songs, and literary references. And by the way, if someone were to put out an album of the songs in this book, I would buy it.

What becomes of the Carroll children? Why, they must go back to the Hidden Land, of course. This time, however, they will face the wizard Fence and certain other royal counselors knowing who the children really are. They will have to contend with Randolph's guilty death-wish, Andrew's plots and suspicions, the wiles of the defeated but still dangerous Dragon King, and a party of shape-changers masquerading as themselves. One half of the party travels north to seek answers from a library of magical lore; the other heads toward the Dragon King's court, stopping along the way to visit Claudia's sorcerous stalking-grounds.

They bandy riddles with unicorns, dragons, and creatures whose nature can only be guessed; they gradually find out the stunning truth about what is going on; they cope with visions, dreams, disembodied voices, and encounters with the unquiet dead; and caught between several equally dangerous powers, they struggle not for their own survival but for the future of the Hidden Land itself. In the end, their quest is about the future. Who must surrender to death, and who may return from the dead? Who goes back to the world the Carroll children came from, and who remains to rule the Secret Country? How can family love, romantic love, duty, and honor be served?

When I try to express how well this trilogy pleases me, I find my usual flow of words strangely blocked. I am ashamed to repeat superlatives I have too often used before. What can I say, then, to convince you of my strong feelings? Of course, no one book in this trilogy is perfect in itself. But taken as a whole, as a single sweep from the first line of The Secret Country to the last of this book, it is something better than perfect. In its eccentric wit, its flawless shape, its visionary poetry, its heart-stabbing drama, and the fleshy realism of its characters, it is nothing short of transcendent. It glows, it shines, it twinkles in the firmament of young adult fantasy. It is an apotheosis of the imagination.

Now I must disclose one last thing. It is possible that I am biased toward this book and its trilogy for personal reasons. When I was a bookish kid around the age of this story's Patrick, I joined several of my own cousins in one or two summers of acting out games of sci-fi/make-believe on the family farm. I relish the memory of those games, though I might die of embarrassment if forced to relive them in detail. The idea of a group of literate, cultured kids mining the Classics to forge their own fantasy world is not merely fantasy to me; it is nostalgia. So though the book had some hard bits in it, the hardest bit was taking leave of it. I must therefore trust to the phrase often repeated in it: "All may yet be very well."

Tales from Shakespeare
by Charles & Mary Lamb
Recommended Ages: 12+

Charles Lamb, alone and in partnership with his older sister Mary, published many works across a broad range of styles and genres, but he is best remembered for his eloquent essays and for this book, in which selections from the plays of William Shakespeare are distilled into the form of short stories. Really, that's a respectable legacy for a bipolar stammerer (Charles) and a convicted murderess (Mary)!

Preserving somewhat of the language and even some literal, or nearly literal, quotes of the best speeches, the Lamb siblings did much to bring those rarified, dramatic masterpieces to a wider reading audience. Convoluted plots, difficult language, muddy questions of interpretation, and matters that in those Victorian times were considered inappropriate for children and young women, suddenly became simple, clear, family-safe, and accessible. Today the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare is rightly regarded as a classic in its own right; attempts to surpass it have been numerous but unsuccessful.

Not all of the Shakespeare plays are here. For whatever reasons, Charles and Mary passed over such important plays as Henry V, Richard III, and other historical plays upon the theme of English royalty. They also skipped such tragedies of the Roman Empire as Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. You may also look, in vain, for quotes of your favorite soliloquies, such as "Out, out, brief candle" and "To be or not to be." Nevertheless you will feel as if you had read Shakespeare almost in his own words - only without half the difficulties that bard poses for the modern reader. The language is old-fashioned, in the manner of the age in which the Lambs lived; but it can still be readily followed, and its formal cadences have their own kind of charm.

What tales will you find here? You will find, of course, great tragedy in King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello. You will find romance, often happy - as in The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night (or, What You Will) - but sometimes deliciously sad, as in Romeo and Juliet. There is outrageous humor, as in The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado About Nothing; tales of faerie, as in The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream; reworkings of ancient legends, such as The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre; and also thought-provoking plays that examine serious problems, such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Timon of Athens, and Measure for Measure.

Several of the plays, including As You Like It, feature characters who go about disguised as members of the opposite sex - with hilarious, romantic, and possibly scandalous results. Some of the plays, like The Merchant of Venice, would probably now be considered "politically incorrect" if they weren't mortared into the cornerstone of English literature. And many of them, like All's Well That Ends Well, have a strong ethical message that comes across loud and clear, even when (often in the "comedies") their endings are too tidy for their own good.

I have a large, heavy, one-volume edition of Shakespeare's complete works. I have enjoyed reading the parts of it I have read. But they take time and work to get through. In this lightweight little book you will find quick and easy synopses that will at least get the main points of some 20 Shakespearean plays into your head. They're good reading. I myself found only one of them dull (Timon of Athens), and the Lambs may not be entirely to blame for that. Rather, they excel at making difficult material easy to understand, doing for the bard what Roger Lancelyn Green did for Greek mythology. To start you on your journey of discovery in the works of Shakespeare, I heartily recommend this book.