Monday, September 28, 2009


The Stones of Green Knowe
by L. M. Boston
Recommended Ages: 10+

I discovered this sixth and final book in the Green Knowe series several years after reading the first five. Yet in no time, I felt comfortably at home in Lucy Maria Boston's fantasy world based on the centuries-old manor house she owned and loved. Her writing is as lean and sinewy as ever, gripping the senses with taut description and creating a timeless mood.

In this adventure, a twelfth-century squire's son named Roger d'Aulneaux watches with fascination as his father builds the stone house that will, in later ages, be home to Tolly and his grandmother, Toby and Linnet, Alexander, Susan, and Jacob - children who have learned how to meet and play together in spite of the centuries that separate them.

It is Roger who discovers that key to the Green Knowe children's ability to visit their home in other eras. Ancient and overgrown even in his time, the standing stones - or rather, perhaps, sitting stones - look like a pair of child-sized thrones. Roger calls them the King and Queen. Sit on the one and wish, and you can find yourself hundreds of years in the future. Sit on the other, and risk a visit to the past. Aided by these stones, Roger surveys the history of his country home from the Saxon conquest of the Britons to the eighteenth, ninteenth, and twentieth centuries.

Throughout the changes wrought by time, Green Knowe still stands: a matter of pride for a boy who will one day inherit it. But many other things change. The forest recedes. A richness of wild plant and animal life diminishes. Fashion, technology, and ways of life change. In a strangely sad way, the reader may find himself feeling nostalgic for an age long ago, Roger's age of jousting knights. Seen from his point of view, the present modern age looks frightful. And it is in that age that the book ends, with shocking abruptness, on a heartbreaking note that will leave you questioning the way ancient things are preserved.

The Dragon Heir
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Ages: 14+

The sequel to The Warrior Heir and The Wizard Heir wraps up at least the first trilogy about the "weirlind" of Trinity, Ohio. These are the wizards, warriors, enchanters, sorcerers, and seers who have taken refuge in a magical sanctuary where the two main houses of wizards - the Red Rose and the White Rose - cannot enslave them and force them to fight in their age-long war. They are set apart from "anaweir" (non-magical folk like you and me) by a magic stone in their chest, a hereditary organ that draws power from a stone called the Dragonheart hidden in a mountain ghyll in the northern English county of Cumbria.

As this book opens, a young wizard named Jason Haley steals the Dragonheart from under the noses of the Roses and of the wizardly D'Orsay family whose family owns the ghyll. D'Orsay needs the Dragonheart in order to consecrate a new covenant giving him power over all the magical guilds. But first, he needs to retrieve the covenant itself, which has fallen into the hands of a mercenary b*****d named Warren Barber. Barber magically enslaves a pink-sweater-wearing, backstabbing, popular-girl wizard named Leesha Middleton to infiltrate Trinity, get close to Jason, and bring both Jason and the Dragonheart to Warren.

Got all that? I hope so, because I'm just getting warmed up. While Leesha develops genuine feelings for Jason - feelings that could get her killed - another wizardly romance is hitting a rough patch. Freakishly powerful Seph McCauley carries too much of the responsibility for maintaining the security of the sanctuary. The girl he loves, Madison Moss, is an elicitor - think: a sponge that soaks up magic. Ever since she absorbed a hex aimed at Seph, she has been poison to him. Literally. Realizing this, Madison is almost relieved to get called home to take care of her younger sister and brother, who are too much for her flighty mother to handle. Only, she doesn't count on Seph finding the "hex painting" onto which she directed the overflow of evil magic trapped within her. Nor does she realize that the Dragonheart has selected her to play a very special role in the magical war now brewing on the outskirts of Trinity, Ohio.

That might give you just a taste of what's going on in this complex book, though it's hardly a synopsis. I haven't told you what happens when Warren Barber catches Jason on his way to Madison's house. Or the drama that plays out between Madison and the handsome, rich, evil young wizard who covets her ancestral land. Or about Seph's dangerous dabbling in performance-enhancing potions. Or what becomes of all the regular people of Trinity on the eve of the magical war-to-end-all-wars. Or what becomes of Seph's parents, preventing them from lending their powerful aid to the sexy young heroes whose complicated motives and loyalties could as easily become the stuff of soap opera as, in this book, the backdrop for a tale of love, betrayal, courage, and a desperate fight for survival.

I won't conceal from you the fact that I enjoyed this book a bit less than the first two in the trilogy. The Warrior Heir and The Wizard Heir are both relentlessly focused, taut magical thrillers. This book is just as magical and perhaps even more thrilling, but the focus is spread much more widely. I recall one scene in particular when more and more characters walked onstage, adding their remarks until one was apt to forget what the scene was about. As an epic conclusion to the series, it does fine. But its strong points are the parts that zoom in on Madison's and Jason's points of view. If another Trinity trilogy develops (a novel titled The Demon King is on the way), I hope and trust that the author will keep that strong focus throughout.

by Sarah Beth Durst
Recommended Ages: 12+

From the author of Into the Wild and its sequel Out of the Wild comes this novel-sized version of the famous fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," also known as Beauty and the Beast, Hans My Hedgehog, and the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. It's a very powerful story, close to the heart of world folklore, so one needn't be surprised to find it expanded to fit a novel. Indeed, Durst isn't the first author to do this. Edith Pattou gave us East. Robin McKinley wrote two versions: Rose Daughter and Beauty. Even C. S. Lewis wrote one: Till We Have Faces.

What does this version have that the others don't have? It has the present-day, strong female voice of young Cassie Dasent. It has a richly detailed portrait of Arctic life in its variety and fragility. It also has a strong current of Inuit spirituality (occult-conscious parents and readers be advised). The bear who claims Cassie as his bride, for example, is a Munaqsri: a magical being who collects the souls of the dying and recycles them into the newborn.

Cassie's husband is a polar bear by profession, but a human by birth. He assumes his human form only at night when he lies beside her in bed. In the darkness of their enchanted ice castle, one mile north of the North Pole, Cassie longs to see his face and know whether she has truly married a monster - especially as she wrestles with confusion over her growing love for Bear, her feelings toward her family, and the meaning of the child growing inside her body. One night she takes matters into her own hands - which is to say, she takes a flashlight. But because of a cruel promise, Bear is taken from her at the very moment she realizes that she truly loves him. And so Cassie sets off on a journey through brutally harsh conditions, passing through pain and despair and cruel hope, in quest of the troll's castle beyond the end of the world where her husband is to be married to the troll princess.

It's a novel about what happens when a real-world girl of today gets caught up in a fairy tale. It's a novel of survival in a broad range of Arctic ecosystems. It's a novel that begins with acknowledgments thanking "the polar bears, arctic foxes, and caribou for their patience and kind words of encouragement." It's a novel whose prologue, all of two pages long, seized me in its firm grip and pulled me all the way through to its swift, fulfilling end. It's a fine work, even for a story whereof many great authors have written competing versions. I thank Sarah and her publicist at Simon & Schuster for sending me not one but two promotional copies of this book. It has my wholehearted recommendation!

Cirque du Freak
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

Does the world of teen lit have room for another vampire saga? It had better. Before Twilight was a gleam in Stephenie Meyer's eye, dozens of Book Trolley visitors were demanding that I read this book and its bevy of sequels. The series has flourished very quickly, with a total of twelve books (arranged in four trilogies) since the year 2000, and an upcoming film titled Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, based on the first trilogy.

Because different editions have been issued with changing titles, a few words need to be said about the title. This book was originally, and officially still is, titled simply Cirque du Freak. In the some editions, and in some lists of titles in the series, it seems to be titled or subtitled A Living Nightmare. The series as a whole is sometimes called Cirque du Freak and, I think more definitively, The Saga of Darren Shan. Each trilogy within the series has its own title, distinct from the series as a whole. The full list of titles runs as follows:
  • Vampire Blood (1st trilogy)
    • Cirque du Freak
    • The Vampire's Assistant
    • Tunnels of Blood
  • Vampire Rites (2nd trilogy)
    • Vampire Mountain
    • Trials of Death
    • The Vampire Prince
  • Vampire War (3rd trilogy)
    • Hunters of the Dusk
    • Allies of the Night
    • Killers of the Dawn
  • Vampire Destiny (4th trilogy)
    • The Lake of Souls
    • Lord of the Shadows
    • Sons of Destiny
Expect a quiz on this later. In the meantime, I've finally decided to take my readers' advice and read this series, so that I can properly hate the movie as befits a fan of the books. Will I be a fan of the books? Even after reading Book 1, it's too early to tell. It doesn't have the erotically charged atmospherics of the Anne Rice vampire novels, or even the teen romance of Stephenie Meyer's ditto. But it does reinvent the vampire legend in a neat way. And from a preteen boys' point of view, it's a pretty cool story. My only comnplaint, at this stage, is that you seem to have to read a whole trilogy to get a book's worth of story. On the other hand, you could say the same thing about the Twilight series - and those books are much longer!

Cirque du Freak purports to be a memoir of one Darren Shan. The fact that the main character shares his name with the author is a bit spooky, to start with; never mind that he tells us, right up front, that it's not his real name. As an English schoolboy, Darren excels at soccer, gets along famously with his parents and his kid sister, and commands the friendship of a troublemaker and bully named Steve Leonard, a.k.a. Steve Leopard. It isn't always easy to sympathize with Darren, because at times he has really bad judgment and his choices are not based on the best motives. But I suppose that makes him all the more believable. This becomes important as the things happening to Darren become increasingly unbelievable.

First, a freak show comes to town. Steve and Darren manage to get tickets and sneak out one night to see the bearded lady, the wolf man, the snake boy, and other creatures both whimsical and gruesome. The highlight of the night, however, is Mr. Crepsley and his trained spider, Madam Octa. It's a highlight for Darren, who loves spiders and is captivated by the deadly Madam Octa and her tricks. Steve has another reason to be excited: he recognizes Mr. Crepsley as a vampire.

After the show, Darren is shocked to overhear Steve begging Crepsley to turn him into a vampire. The latter refuses after tasting Steve's blood, which savors (he says) of an evil soul. A little later, Darren sneaks into Mr. Crepsley's cellar and steals Madam Octa. When a trick goes wrong and Steve's life hangs by a thread, Darren goes back to Mr. Crepsley and begs for help. The vampire agrees, on one condition: Darren must become his half-vampire assistant.

The rest of the book tells the gruesome, suspenseful, and heartbreaking tale of how Darren fakes his own death, bids farewell to his family and his old life, and makes a lifelong enemy of his best friend. And that's only the beginning of twelve books' worth of dark, spooky, vampire adventures for Darren Shan.

This first book reads quickly and seems fast-paced, though only a few real events are spread through it. Darren's foolishness, his agony over Steve's grave condition, his helplessness to comfort his grieving family, and the all-pervading sense of dread will make it an intense experience for young readers. Yet it communicates to them on the level of equals, in direct (and imperfect) language they can understand. And it acknowledges its own spookiness when the narrator himself seems to shiver. Whether I would personally recommend this series to kids I care about, depends on whether I think Darren Shan will turn out to be evil or good. I guess I'll have to read further in the series before I can be sure.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Should LCMS Sell KFUO?

There are rumors going around that the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod is looking for a buyer for its flagship radio stations, KFUO-AM and -FM.

Personally, I could care less what happens to KFUO-AM. I haven't listened to it once since "Issues, Etc." departed. But I hope that, if KFUO-FM is sold, it will continue its excellent classical-music programming. Nevertheless, I think it would be a bad idea for the Missouri Synod to shed its "Classic 99" band. Why?

Not for the reason many people would cite. I don't think it particularly matters whether KFUO-FM incorporates Christian outreach into its programming. There are church-related programs on it, and I applaud them. But my concern is that too many people assume there is something off-color about the Lutheran Church owning a classical station. My concern is the assumption that classical music, as such, is not the church's business.

In my not-too-humble opinion, it is important for the church to promote the fine arts, particularly art music. It should encourage people, especially its own members, to make a habit of taking time out of their busy lives, time for beauty. Our nation's culture, and our church's culture especially, needs to be enriched with more beauty. We would benefit as a society and as a church if more people spent more time and money supporting, appreciating, and (so far as they are gifted) creating beauty.

This flies in the face of the Calvinistic "Protestant Work Ethic" that is so deeply woven into our national character. This Washington Times story illustrates the clash between the American work ethic and the quest for artistic beauty. Many people actually feel guilt over the stolen moments spent looking at beautiful things, or pausing to listen to beautiful music. Martin Luther, on the other hand, would probably say that musical beauty is worthwhile for its own sake. He would take a stand on Christian freedom. And I think Luther would agree with the motto of the classical period: "True joy is a serious thing."

When we give and receive joy through the beauty of hard-won artistic excellence, we make ourselves and each other better human beings. And when we include those pieces of beauty in our worship time and worship space, we bear witness to ourselves and others that our God deserves only the best sacrifices. And the witness borne through such masterpieces is the more potent and lasting because it reaches more deeply into the heart and mind.

What is the witness our church is bearing now? Look at the structures we are building: brutally functional and militantly unbeautiful. Look at the throwaway music that is filling more and more of our worship hour: its value as a commodity (whether it is worth paying for copyright licensing) is measured in terms of its immediate effect on the audience, not on its enduring perfection and artistic beauty. The Calvinist emphasis on industry, productiveness, and profit is evident in these choices. Meanwhile an investment in true joy, true beauty, is too widely regarded as an indulgence in fripperies, a waste of God-given resources.

Again, I think Luther would view the issue otherwise. Martin Luther spoke of music being the greatest gift of God beside the Gospel, and of the two combining into something incredibly powerful. Even if there is no direct combination, even if (for example) a classical radio station does not directly address itself to spreading the Gospel, it still has divine mission. It can instill a sense of freedom to enjoy the good things God has created. It can challenge listeners to invest in beauty, to strive to create it, to spend time experiencing it without feeling a burden of guilt for "wasting" that time, and to fill the world with beauty.

I also think Christ would differ from the Protestant Work Ethic, especially as it applies to this case. He spoke with withering scorn of the upright, uptight people - priests and Levites in his parable - who hurried along the road, going about their business, choosing not to notice the injured man whose plight called out for a demonstration of neighborly love. One needn't be wounded to the point of death to need neighborly love. Ethically, culturally, spiritually, many in our present generation are starved. Starved for an expression of God's love that reaches deep inside them. Starved for an instant of beauty that reflects the Creator's goodness. Starved for an alternative to the artistic fast food, the theological junk food, the industrially-processed soul food you can take home and heat up in minutes in the solitude of your own home.

If the church continues to support that kind of diet instead of the serious thing, the true joy, it will sooner or later make itself redundant. Who needs to drag yourself out of bed on Sunday morning to hear an amateur pick-up band cover Michael W. Smith songs when you can lie in until noon and then listen to a CD of the real thing over instant coffee and the funny papers? Who needs to tithe a percentage of your income to a pole-barn full of pop-psych platitudes when you can catch Oprah on your rabbit-ears for free? Who needs to go to a mega-church when you can find everything they have to offer on TV, in the Gospel music section at Walmart, and on the Inspiration shelf at Borders? When the only meaningful alternative to staying at home and "doing religion" by yourself is to apostasize little by little, what do you suppose most people will do?

But the church can offer another alternative: excellence in doctrinal preaching; observing the sacramental liturgy and the pericopal church year; combining the highest standards of architecture, visual arts, poetry, and music to communicate the precious Word of God in a manner that befits it. There isn't much time left, however. Our culture is reaching a point of no return, a point beyond which the capacity to create and perceive such beauty may be irretrievably lost. It is in the interest of the church, therefore, to support agents of high-culture renewal like KFUO-FM. Perhaps from among its listeners a new generation of artistic and musical leaders may arise.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Opening Night

Tonight I went out with three friends to attend the opening night of the 2009-10 season of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. On the program were Mahler's Fifth Symphony and a relatively new piece called Azul by the Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov.

The former featured significant solos by principal trumpet Susan Slaughter (now in the 40th and last season of her history-making career with the SLSO) and brand-new principal horn player Roger Kaza. The latter is a concertante work spotlighting the SLSO's brilliant young cellist Daniel Lee, along with guest artists Michael Ward-Bergeman (hyper-accordion, a kind of "electric accordion"), Jamey Haddad (late of Paul Simon's backup band) and Keita Ogawa, percussionists. All of the soloists acquitted themselves beautifully. Lee achieved some really unusual sound-effects on his newly-acquired, 300-year-old cello. Haddad and Ogawa, particularly in the third movement of Azul, were highly entertaining to watch, their movements dancelike as they switched from one exotic instrument to another. If I could get a recording of that piece, I would rather it was video than audio-only. It's really worth seeing.

The centerpiece of the night, however, was Mahler's tremendous symphony. One of my friends remarked afterward that it was like entering a whole new world, and it was good to get out of her own world for a while. Conductor David Robertson's pre-concert "perspectives" talk gave me a tantalizing taste of the late Michael Steinberg's book The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, which is now officially on the list of things I plan to write to Santa about. Steinberg has also written similar books on The Concerto (a thread I have been intending to introduce on this blog, whenever I feel I have done enough injustice to the symphony) and on Choral Masterworks, obviously another topic close to my heart.

IMAGES: Golijov; Steinberg.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reading Walton's 1st

The first time I listened to William Walton's (1902-83) Symphony No. 1 in b-flat minor, my immediate reaction was: "Holy mackerel! This is awesome!" Written in 1935, it is one of the greatest English symphonies, a synthesis of classical symphonic form with modern musical language. While it is full of harsh dissonances, it is never ugly. Driven by sophisticated rhythms, tinted with remarkable instrumental colors, and structured around unusual yet clearly-marked themes, it hits the ear as being at one and the same time revolutionary and intelligible, sensitive and sensational.

I would hate to be Imma von Doernberg. The dedicatee of Walton's First Symphony was the composer's partner in a stormy relationship that inspired three out of its four movements. They're full of extraordinary music, but not the kind you or I would like to think we had inspired: the first movement tense, angry, aswim with violent passion; the second bitterly sarcastic, "with malice" actually written into the tempo marking; the third mournful and melancholic. So much for art imitating life. At this point, Imma dumped Walton and shacked up with someone else, and for a while Walton was stuck. The unfinished symphony was actually performed without a finale in late 1934, while the composer racked his brains over how to finish it. Then he found new love with one Lady Alice Wimborne, resulting in the joyful, pomp-and-circumstancy fourth movement.

Now you know what Walton was thinking about when he wrote this music. It doesn't seem half as significant as the music itself, does it? Perhaps it's best not to know so much about the influences behind a work of art. For when I hear Movement I, Allegro assai, I can't bring myself to visualize Imma von Doernberg throwing breakables at William Walton. I hear, instead, a tragedy of tension, conflict, and anguish playing out on a world stage. I hear cities being battered by artillery, populations being brutalized by invading troops, deportees being hoarded onto trains. I hear bombers cruising over a dark country covered with plumes of smoke, thundering impacts, and deadly flowers of flak rising into the night sky.

Movement I is almost a single-movement symphony unto itself. Lasting over 15 minutes, it has a sort of three-movement structure superimposed on its sonata form, with much of the development taking on the character of a slow movement. It has a phenomenally concentrated unity of theme and motive. And it has a character most distinct from the type of music Walton is best known for.

The first thing you hear is the timpani rolling a faint pedal B-flat. Over this, the horns announce a four-note motto theme (B-flat, F, G, A-flat in its first permutation). I challenge you to listen for this theme, and to count the ways it appears. You won't spot most of them. It gets flipped around and upside down, woven into the inner parts, stretched and extended and varied any number of ways, but it's always there like a strand of musical DNA. You may have to listen to this movement several times (you won't mind) to do this, because your ear will be instantly captivated by a plaintive oboe theme introduced at 15", against a backdrop of nervously twitching strings. This is the theme your attention will be drawn to throughout most of this movement. Nevertheless, you can easily spot the motto theme on the English horn (overlapping the tail-end of the oboe theme).

Though the movement begins quietly, the feeling of tension begins to build quickly. It starts to get exciting around 40", and stays that way for quite a while. After a big, all-in restatement of the oboe theme, Walton unveils a second-groupish cello theme at about 1'45", longer and more contemplative but still underpinned with anxiety. Another noteworthy cello-driven episode begins around 2'35", an island of eerie, icy stillness in an otherwise turbulent exposition section. After a big, brassy version of the oboe theme, the music rises to a shriek that also, ironically, serves as the first solid cadence, or point of musical relaxation, so far. The ensuing codetta draws on all the material heard so far, building to around 4'45", when the orchestra delivers a shattering, climactic statement of the oboe theme, dying away at the end, and leading to the low-key opening of the development around 5'15".

Note the eerie duet between a bassoon (in its high register) and solo viola as the development begins. The music continues to search around in a bleak, ruined landscape. Around 7' it builds up a bit of energy, then drops back to a solo texture again, with various instruments spotlighted against a backdrop of tremolo strings. Around 8'10" clarinet and flute inject a touch of playfulness into an otherwise serious string passage, like someone idly fiddling around while another person is trying to have an important discussion. The anger begins to heat up again around 8'30". As it grows in dynamics, it moves forward in harmony toward a seemingly inevitable goal. Around 10'15" this ascending juggernaut seems to break through the cloud-cover into a wide-open, timeless stratosphere.

By 11'15" the pressure has become all but-unbearable in a slow-cooked climax that subsides directly to a unique hybrid of recap and coda. Here an inverted form of the opening motto-theme forms an low-brass ostinato over which the strings croon out the main theme. The wrapping-up music builds till about 13'15", when the whole orchestra seems to take a deep breath before screaming in frustration. From 13'45" to 14', the brass instruments mass together for a huge, dissonant fanfare that ends in another shattering pause. The music resumes its course toward final resolution, with a shift to B-flat major, throbbing timpani, blazing brass, still-twitchy strings, and a final unison bark of bitter laughter.

Movement II, Presto con malizia, is Walton's scherzo. It is a kaleidoscope of contrasts, full of trippy rhythms and stinging color combinations, teasing figures, and obnoxious dissonances. Listening to it is not unlike babysitting a bunch of little kids who have just been fed loading doses of sugar. Not that I would know anything about that. There is definitely a certain snarkiness about it. It has a peculiar ending, with a cadence in the "wrong" key followed by a long pause - just long enough to make you think, with dismay, that it may really be over - before the music barges back in for a few more choice words before slamming the door on its way out.

Movement III, Andante con malinconia, opens with a quiet sense of space. Into that space floats a mournful flute melody, joined gradually by other instruments. The harmony is strange and distressing but not unbeautiful. It gives one a sense of an intelligent mind locked in an emotional wasteland. It vibrates with loneliness and discouragement. Yet the thoughts it turns over are delicate, sophisticated ones. At times the music flares up with passion. At other times, as over the pedal point that begins around 7'10", it seems to float on a cushion of numbness. I sense a kinship with Sibelius in the climactic "heart laid bare" passage at 9'. The movement dies away very wistfully.

Finally, Movement IV shines a ray of joy into this symphony. It opens with a fanfare that won't let you forget that its composer also wrote both Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre for the coronations of British monarchs. About 1'15", it bursts into a faster tempo and goes absolutely gaga with gladness. The idea of a brass fanafare never seems far away, yet there is also a perceptible relationship with the first movement. It's like the other side of the same coin. At 3' Walton introduces a quirky fugue subject, invading a territory of modern orchestral polyphony previously held exclusively by Paul Hindemith. Within a minute and a half, the fugue has built to a huge climax. A bit premature, maybe, for a movement lasting 13 minutes. But Walton soon finds other ways to divert us, developing his themes in an atmosphere of vibrant intensity. At times it's like a huge orchestral toccata, testing all the sonic possibilities of the instruments, the recording equipment, and your stereo.

At about 9'20", after faking us out with a sense of the music dying away, Walton socks us with another huge fanfare. At 10'20", a solo trumpet plays something like Taps - a kind of peaceful farewell. But a minute later, this idea swells to a dazzling, shimmering glory that keeps building all the way to the symphony's spectacular finish. The pauses between the final chords remind me of the similar pauses at the end of Sibelius's Fifth, of which I once said "there isn't another symphony ending like it." Well, in a way there isn't - Walton's First doesn't take it quite so far - but it's certainly an homage, and it still makes you want to hold your breath and pray that the Classical Radio DJ doesn't hit the "stop" button before it's really over!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

12. Reformation Hymn

Yes, I know it's long. One needn't sing every stanza. I suppose different ones will seem more appropriate than others, depending on the times...
O Christ, the Light of all the saints in heaven,
Safeguard Your church on earth from Satan's leaven:
Pour on our heads and hearts, with graces seven,
Your Holy Spirit!

When mighty hands with love of gain are reaching
To bend or break your church's sacred teaching,
Stretch out Your arm through sacrament and preaching:
Uphold your people!

Stifle the voice of all who would deny You,
Let shame betray the tongues that would belie You,
Let weakness fill the limbs that would defy You:
Save your confession!

To those still for Your plighted Word contending
Amid the storms of doubt and scorn unending,
Grant, Lord, the strength to stand by You unbending:
Shelter them, Savior!

That we may know the price our sin has cost You,
Lest we by stubborn unbelief exhaust You,
Or join the wretched number who have lost You:
Grant us repentance!

Yet, by Your blood once shed, Your body broken,
By the most sacred promise ever spoken,
With food and drink made one, and no mere token,
You come to feed us!

By this we know what flesh and blood availeth;
By this we know a love that never faileth;
By this we grow a heart that never quaileth:
We stand forgiven!

Only by grace, God's favor freely given;
Only through faith, the earnest-wealth of heaven;
Only in Christ, our perfect rest and haven,
We know salvation!

Keep this pure doctrine e'er among us dwelling,
Man's wiles and Satan's darts thereby dispelling;
From every new-made law, howso compelling,
Shield us, O Jesus!

If by your will the church must bear affliction,
Help us submit to fatherly correction;
Then, in good season, send Your benediction:
Ease, Lord, our burden!

Leave us not helpless, but be strong to guide us!
When error speaks, place Your strong Word beside us!
When sin encroaches, by Your mercy hide us
In Jesus' nail-marks!

Father, recall Your mighty works of wonder;
Christ, by the earthquake, darkened sky, and thunder
Marking the hour Your soul and flesh were sundered,
Pledge us Your Spirit!

For sending faithful witnesses before us,
For letting Word and Sacrament restore us,
For draping Jesus' holy garment o'er us,
Dear God, we praise You!

11. Third Stab

Here is my "third stab" at the burial hymn I have been asked to write for someone near and dear. Today my creative juices have been stimulated by the publicity over a new "Reformation Hymn" by Stephen Starke, which in my grade-book gets a solid C+. I'm not sure it's really a Reformation hymn.

Reformation Hymns, as I understand them, are lamentations by a church suffering under the hand of wicked leaders, pleading with God to deliver them and to safeguard the true faith. In other words, they're the very thing the Lutheran Church needs today. Concordia Publishing House's promotion of the new Starke hymn is a clue as to which side of the game they're batting for.

On a secondary level, proper Reformation hymns celebrate the key doctrine of the evangelical church: justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. Starke does hit this note, which is why I give his lyrics a passing grade. The style is a little wanting, however (and that goes also for Jeffrey Blersch's so-so tune). At times I wonder whether the terms with which he describes the Gospel are really Lutheran, or merely the kind of generic evangelical language that easygoing Lutherans are all too eager to accept at face value - even when it is possible that a different spirit hides behind it.

All this hoopla about the "enduring Word of God" smacks, to my senses, of a Protestantism stripped of the distinctive influences of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. Sola Scriptura is not what the Reformation was essentially about. But that's the opinion of a fat, stupid jerk.

So, instead of correcting it with a Reformation hymn of my own (for now), I'm going to use the creative energy unleashed by my dissatisfaction with Starke's hymn to write the following funeral song.
O Lord, in whose mysterious ways
You called our (brother/sister) to (his/her) rest,
We thank you for the many ways
(His/Her) time of life in You was blest.
Teach us by this to count our days,
To do and die as you think best.

O Christ, who in the form of man
Served all, and reigned but from the cross,
Now ris'n and raised to God's right hand:
We learn of You that life is loss,
Death gain, and in Your promised land
All earthly wealth and pomp are dross.

Then, Holy Ghost, renew our lives,
The more when death would stake its claim!
Relieve the grief of daughters, wives,
Sons, husbands, parents, by the Name
That out of fear and darkness drives
The light and hope for which You came!

Now, Holy Trinity, arise
And mend these hearts by sorrow torn;
By mercy, turn our inward eyes
To view that youngest morrow morn
When, at the rending of the skies,
All flesh shall rise renewed, reborn!

Phone Tag

I've been working a graveyard shift lately, 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Last week, one of my few nights off just had to be the night someone went around my apartment complex vandalizing cars. Practically any other night in the last couple of weeks, my car wouldn't have been there. As it was, somebody attempted to break into it, and smashed the lock on the driver's side door. (IMAGE BELOW: Not my car.) I should be thankful the perp didn't succeed in opening the door, and that he didn't resort to breaking the glass. But I now have to lean across the passenger's seat to unlock the driver's door from the inside. And that's pretty annoying.

I discovered the damage the next afternoon when I emerged from my lair after a supersized night's sleep and spotted a policeman's card duct-taped to the left-hand window of my car. It said: "A police report has been filed. Please call me so I can obtain additional information." Then it gave the officer's name and badge number and a phone number where he could be reached. To this day, I still haven't reached him. I've always been at work when he's on patrol. When I go home to sleep, so does he. When I have a night off, either I sleep right through his shift and forget to call him, or I remember to call him and find out that it's his night off.

On Friday morning I tried to file an insurance claim for the damaged lock. It went OK up to a certain point. A claims adjuster was supposed to drop to look at my car by between 1 and 3 p.m. on Friday. I made sure I was awake, at home, and ready to make myself available to the adjuster during the appointed two-hour window. No one showed up. Eventually the insurance company called to say he wasn't going to be able to make it, but maybe Monday between 1 and 3 p.m. would work.

On Sunday I raced straight from work to church. Somehow I made it in time, even though I had gotten out of work 15 to 20 minutes late. I don't remember the traffic signals being so favorable. Yet, even though it consistently takes 20 minutes to get from work to home, and 20 minutes to get from home to church - and, even though home is actually on the way from work to church - I somehow managed the whole trip in 20 minutes! This left me plenty of time to get the organ warmed up, my suede-soled dancing shoes on, and the prelude that I had picked out on Saturday humming into the sanctified stillness of the church. I nodded through two services and a Bible class, then went home to bed. Apart from a couple hours to cook breakfast, pack a lunch, blog, etc., I spent the whole day resting up for another night shift.

Monday was even more harried. Again I rushed straight from work to church, this time for a funeral. I tried to nap in the church parlor during some downtime before the service, but there was no way for me to get comfortable. So I bolted homeward as soon as the last note of the recessional died. I knew that I had to get a day's rest in before a special joint rehearsal of the Symphony Chorus and In Unison on Monday night, from which I would have to drive straight to work again. So I closeted myself in my bedroom and ignored my cats, ignored the ringing of my phone and cell phone. I really couldn't hear much through the closed door. And having put in one two-hour shift looking out for Mr. Adjuster, I no longer cared much whether he found his way or not.

As it turns out, both he and a lady at the insurance company between them left a dozen messages for me. The last of them came today while I was resting after last night's shift at work. I listened to it come into the answering machine. Then, after reviewing all the messages I had missed, I tried to call the adjuster. I tried to call the girl at the insurance company. I made both attempts during their office hours, when I would ordinarily be sleeping. Nevertheless, and though I had just missed the adjuster's call by minutes, I couldn't reach them. They'll find messages from me in their voice mail tomorrow. And the vicious cycle of "phone tag" will go on.

Increasingly dawning on me: working overnights is incompatible with having any sort of life outside of work.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Circular Metaphors?

The St. Louis Symphony Chorus is preparing a 20th Century masterpiece. With the SLSO and the In Unison Chorus, we will be performing the oratorio A Child of Our Time by English composer Michael Tippett in a few weeks. It's a challenging work, based on Tippett's pacifism (he was jailed as a "conscientious objector" during World War II), and with the composer's own lyrics filled with Jungian psychology and mystical imagery.

The main narrative has to do with the assassination of a German official by a 17-year-old Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan in 1938, an incident the Germans used as a pretext for Kristallnacht and the beginning of their antisemitic "Final Solution." Written when the war was still in progress, A Child of Our Time tells this story in non-judgmental, general terms, using it as an instance of the universal theme of one group oppressing another, and the latter in their flawed humanity lashing out in despair and frustration.

So in a way, the Grynszpan Incident is only a metaphor for something bigger that Tippett wants us to consider. Perhaps his own persecution as a "conchy" is part of this. But his work is so heavily layered with metaphor that, at times, one can spot circular chains of figurative reference.

For example, in one of the five African American spirituals that serve in this work the way Lutheran chorales serve in Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the chorus, soloists, and In Unison Singers are going to take on "Go Down, Moses." Billed as a "spiritual of anger," it draws on the story of the ancient Jews being enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians. This is, first of all, a metaphor for the enslavement of black Africans in the American South. In turn, the experience of the black slaves functions as a metaphor for the Jews persecuted under Nazi Germany. So the suffering of Jews comes around, by a chain of metaphors, to stand for the suffering of Jews again. It's a circle!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reading Sibelius's 6th

This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Jean Sibelius's Sixth Symphony. Click the following links to see videos of the same folks performing Movement II, Movement III, and Movement IV.

The Finnish master's next-to-last symphony, and his last multi-movement one, was completed in 1923. Like some other great symphonists' sixth symphonies, it gets less playtime than some of the others. Nevertheless it's a powerful work that evokes its own spiritual world. The composer described it as having associations of "the scent of the first snow," of "rage and passion," and of "undercurrents deep beneath the surface." It is music in which one experiences the cold grandeur of the Nordic landscape, the fertility of natural life therein, and the oppression of human spirits that its long nights and deep shadows can bring. It has some unique touches that may leave you blinking in perplexity, if not gasping in shock.

Movement I, Allegro molto moderato, begins with a tenderly sad string passage dripping with romantic lushness. I like to think of it as a stockpot overflowing with fragrant steam. We begin to glimpse pieces of the thematic material Sibelius will soon knit into the symphonic whole. Presently the winds enter, starting with an oboe at 1'13" (going by the video above). Pay attention to the flutes at 1'23": the thematic fragment they drop into the cauldron will have the last word at the end of the movement. Just shy of the 2' mark, the horns and timpani roll out the red carpet for a passage in which strings and winds together start to work out some of the potential of that inchoate flute idea. At 2'38" the tempo picks up for a passage that every third film composer has plagiarized for the scene establishing Smalltown, USA as a bright, friendly place. In context, as the apparent opening of the Allegro proper following a slow introduction, it presents themes you expect to hear developed sonata-fashion. It's an expectation destined to be thwarted.

Bubbling with good cheer it may be, but this music is also fraught with Sibelius trademarks, including a rumble of menace below the surface. The sunshine soon goes in, replaced by a threatening, overcast passage dominated by the Dorian mode. By 4', the violins have begun a steady pattern of brisk, staccato notes that runs straight through long stretches of the movement, stretches in which the musical texture thins to this and little else. Contrasting remarks by the winds, a sweeping melody in the cellos, and the like take on a character as of objects seen against a homogeneous landscape, or of events taking place over a long span of time. Everything is a permutation of motives you heard at the beginning; for example, the flute idea I spotlighted gets turned every-which-way in these string musings.

The violins get a little less choppy at about 5'30", where we hear a cello version of the flute theme that strikes me as being an important event. Lyricism breaks in, an outburst of ecstatic splendor that restores some of the exuberance of the opening pages of the Allegro. Everybody backs off to make way for a majestic horn fanfare at 7'20", interlarded with echoes of the flute theme. Then, an unexpected attack of anxiety builds like approaching thunder to the movement's explosive climax. In the aftermath, a desolate unison passage seems to be searching for answers that aren't to be found. At 8'17" the movement is cast back upon the flute idea from its opening, and with a perfunctory blaze of brass and rumble of timpani it tries to bluff out a semblance of closing chords. But it doesn't convince itself, returning to the flute theme again and letting itself trail off into oblivion. It's a movement ending guaranteed to surprise and unsettle you.

Movement II, Allegretto moderato, begins with the timpani clearing its throat. Then the winds, gradually joined by the strings, begin a halting meditation whose icy sobriety seems unique in the literature of symphonic slow movements. Spare in its texture, uncompromising in its harmonic language, it generates a strange landscape for the imagination to explore. It is a landscape full of hard realities such as the frozen ground and the solid boles of trees, but also haunted by magical spirits - or perhaps only birds and furry beasts. Just when you make up your mind to be completely fascinated by it, it abruptly ends after only 5'35" or so.

The Scherzo, marked Poco vivace, is even shorter. It begins in an almost absurdly pedantic manner. Then it breaks out in rushing, dancing, hurtling liberation. Note the playful theme introduced by the flutes at 37". At 50" the pedantic music returns, perhaps struggling for dominance. It is destined to become mere accompaniment to a new theme, also laid down by the flutes at 1'10" in a discomfiting, off-the-beat manner. After a repeat of everything so far, the movement veers sideways into a coda whose brass-plated final bars furnish the symphony's most assertive closing chords.

The Finale, Allegro molto, begins with this symphony's one theme most likely to be experienced as a fully-formed, noble, romantic tune. This might keep you from noticing the unusual rhythm of its accents. After the timpani enter at 1'13", one might begin to visualize a strange scene in which thunder rumbles in the distance while, nearby, the sun goes on shining, the birds singing. At 1'45", Sibelius unleashes a dark-hued theme group of huge strength and vigor, like a savage, primitive dance. Shafts of light gleam into its shadows. After a gigantic statement of this theme at 4'42", another page is turned and we return to the slower, softer-natured opening theme. The music comes to a stand at 6'55". Then comes a new episode full of passion, luminous strings dialoguing with yearning woodwinds. Like a certain passage in the Seventh Symphony, there is a moment when Sibelius seems to set aside artistic pretensions and talk to us directly. It ends, along with the entire symphony, with the unbearable loneliness of a single violin note dying away over the echo of a last throb of the timpani.

I have described Tchaikowsky's Sixth as a "musical suicide note," and there is some evidence that its composer followed through on it. The symphony we have just read together is like the testament of an equally tormented soul who, nevertheless, chose to live on. It is like an anti-suicide note from someone who sees nothing but a living death ahead. Or, maybe you'll hear something different in it. Maybe you'll hear peace and acceptance at the end. But from the opening movement's ending, which refuses to live with a dishonest semblance of closure, to the fourth movement's final touch of desolation, I cannot help but hear this as a musical prophecy of its composer's final decades of creative paralysis and unrelieved bitterness. It is almost unbearably painful to listen to. But it is a great, powerful, deeply moving work, well worth reading with your ears, mind and heart.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Reading Dvořák's 6th

Over a soft, rhythmically throbbing accompaniment, a noble D-Major theme slowly emerges, with the flutes and cellos tossing expanding fragments of it back and forth. Take note of its shape: an upward leap of a fourth at one end, balanced by a stepwise falling fourth at the other. Warm, romantic lushness is succeeded by a passage of contrapuntal severity. The drama builds to a massive restatement of the opening theme. A brusque, unison transition passage prepares for the second group, beginning with an elfin theme in b minor. After volunteering a bit of development on this theme, the music passes quickly through a horns-and-cellos tune (you know the type) to a gentle, good-natured, oboe theme. The orchestra takes up this melody in a codetta passage that turns first distraught, then exuberant.

Without a repeat, the exposition subsides to the quiet opening of the development section. The first theme with its motivic fourths is the first item of inquiry. The orchestra broods over bits of it, then over the contrapuntal subject from the first group. After some powerfully scored chord progressions fill out the development section's tonal dance card, a big build-up leads into the gentle opening of the recap. Now that you're hearing it for the second time, you may have more leisure to think: "Brahms could have written this!" It's nice to hear the second group again, isn't it? One really missed hearing its sweet tunes during the development. It climaxes in its exuberant codetta, then goes on into a coda that gets even more glorious mileage out of the second group's themes. The opening theme finally returns in a blaze of trumpets and horns. Then, after an unexpected moment of quiet tenderness, the oboe theme from the second group transforms itself into a strong, unison exclamation-point at the end of the movement.

Thus far Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 6 in D Major, written in 1880 on a commission from conductor Hans Richter (pictured at left) and the Vienna Philharmonic. As it turned out, the Vienna Philharmonic didn't get around to playing it until 1942, chiefly because of prejudice against the composer's Czech nationality. The parochial swine! Nevertheless, it became well established as a masterpiece of the romantic symphony, with Richter himself conducting its London premiere in 1882, and the piece's world premiere taking place in Prague a year earlier.

The first of Dvořák's symphonies to be published, it has been designated as his First Symphony (by the publisher), his Fifth (by the composer himself), and now, more accurately, as his Sixth. It is perhaps the earliest of Dvořák's symphonies to deserve a place in the standard repertoire. It may also be the last of them that the average symphony buff will get to know. But it is so full of genius, charm, and exquisite craftmanship, that I doubt your first time hearing it will be your last.

In Movement II, the slow movement, a brief woodwind passage prefaces a broad, lyrical theme announced by the violins. Listen for an oboe countermelody, a horn answer, and a dialogue between the string and wind sections of the orchestra in the bars that follow. Very quickly and economically, Dvořák sets up a movement rich in textural and color contrasts. Around 1'35" something a little more upbeat enters the argument, balanced immediately by the slowest material yet. Listen for the woodwinds' off-the-beat decorations beneath the strings' surface music.

The opening section, or variations thereof, return in alternation with a contrasting episode and a development-like passage, qualifying this movement as somewhat of a sonata-rondo. Most of the movement, however, is given to the study of the beautiful main theme, including some gorgeous writing for solo strings, a memorable horn part, a tragic minor-key variation, a flute cadenza, a militaristic passage in which the timpani player comes into prominence, and some of the most breathtaking orchestral sonorities money can buy. The movement seems reluctant to take its leave, even after a very strong summary statement of the opening theme. Who can blame it? We ourselves would be reluctant to take leave of a scene as beautiful as this!

Movement III, marked Presto, is another Furiant-cum-Scherzo, with hemiolas (rhythmic displacements) giving its theme the illusion of being partly in 2/4 and partly in 3/4. Beginning with crescendo over a rocking octave pattern, it explodes into one of Dvořák's most famous Scherzos, and thus also the movement most often excerpted from this symphony. It's an aggressive piece, like a dance that can't decide whether it's excited or angry. The B section has a contrastingly cool-headed secondary theme, but in context one never forgets the tension that underlies it - or rather, the opening furiant theme, which can still be heard in the background. This section is rounded off by a big buildup to the climactic restatement of the opening dance theme, complete with out-of-control timpani, as if someone has gotten so excited that their heart started palpitating.

The idyllically sweet Trio, featuring an important solo for the piccolo (heard only here out of the entire symphony), sets off a striking contrast to the gigantic energy of the main Scherzo. I didn't notice this, particularly, until I saw the work performed. It was hard not to notice the piccolo player sitting there with his hands folded through the entire piece, only to come out and shine for this one, brief moment. The B section of the Trio reminds me of a refreshing horseback ride through the countryside on a fine day. Then the Scherzo returns in all its demonic energy. A short, brutally rushed coda caps off the number.

The finale is an Allegro con spirito, which (I trust) needs no translation. Its opening theme is motivically related to that of the first movement, but more given to an unbroken flow of exultant melody. Listen for a minor-modish secondary theme around 1'25", or rather two musical ideas superimposed on each other. The more agile of these ideas then alternates with a full-throated theme of swaggering exuberance, starting at about 1'50". I am particularly charmed by the codetta theme introduced at about 2'10". Is that about enough thematic inventiveness for one movement?

If Dvořák is to be faulted for anything, it is having such an unrestrained gift for melody. It gets hard to do justice to all these musical ideas in the development section of a sonata structure, but the composer gives it his best! When you hear bold upward leaps of a fourth sprinkled through this passage, you should be reminded of the first movement. In my opinion, it's a very absorbing and stimulating development section. Listen for the opening theme blown up to a big, broad, brass chorale. Soon afterward, the recap begins as gently as it may. It has all the triumphal glory one would expect, plus a lengthy coda with racing strings, blaring brass, and jubilation so wild the orchestra can scarcely contain it. The use of the opening theme, at various speeds, as the final word on Symphony Six seems inevitable, yet it fills the listener with a satisfied glow.

Be sure to visit Wiki for musical examples and an in-depth analysis (which I mostly ignored). Sorry, I can't seem to find a decent video of this work being performed. So, you're on your own!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Heck, Johnny, Johnny

Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go
by Dale E. Basye
Recommended Ages: 9+

Milton Fauster is a good little boy, but his sister Marlo is bad seed. Because of her, he spends his last moments on earth as an unwitting accomplice to petty theft. Their standoff in the food court of the Grizzly Mall in Generica, Kansas, ends tragicomically, thanks to an unlucky combination of "the state's second-largest bear-themed marshmallow statue" and a stick of dynamite. Don't ask. The point is, before Milton has time to make peace with his maker, he and Marlo find themselves eternally darned. Darned to Heck.

Welcome to the under-18 section of the afterlife, where every aspect of childhood that makes (or made) you long to be a grown-up is boosted to the gazillionth power and prolonged endlessly. It's basically a crummy school, ruled by the Principal of Darkness, Bea "Elsa" Bubb, and her three-headed Pekingese named Cerberus. The hallways are patrolled by demons wielding giant sporks. The cafeteria serves only gross food like overcooked Brussels sprouts and undercooked liver. The Kinderscare facility is run by big, green, hairy Boogeypeople, and the classes include ethics (taught by Richard Nixon), home ec (with Lizzie Borden), and physical education (with Blackbeard the pirate). It's a place where time is meaningless, and the kids are stuck there until the end of time or until they turn 18 - whichever comes first.

Naturally, Milton and Marlo begin to plan their escape. It will be tricky. Parts of it will involve a pet ferret who isn't all that he seems, a fat kid named Virgil, a dog-headed god, and a tunnel that drains all the sewers in the real world. You might want to take notes. There can't be very many holes in the security system of Purgatory and Limbo.

It's a (heh, heh) spirited romp through the afterlife, full of impish humor and under-the-potty gross-outitude. There's even a bit of redemptive love in it. But if you find that the end seems not quite finished, fear not. The sequel, titled Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck, has already come out. Who knows? The series might go on... eternally...

Johnny Tremain
by Esther Forbes
Recommended Ages: 10+

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Paul Revere and the World He Lived In revisited that world in this book, which won the Newbery Medal in 1944. It views the early stages of America's struggle for independence from the British Empire through the eyes of a young silversmith's apprentice.

Jonathan Lyte Tremain is his full name. The "Lyte" bit means that he is related to one of Boston's richest, most prominent Tory families; that is to say, pro-England. The Lytes aren't particularly pro-Johnny, however. When everything goes bruisingly, heartbreakingly wrong for Johnny, he crawls to the Lytes for help and gets kicked in the face for it. To be more precise, he gets arrested and tried for a crime he didn't commit.

This sort of treatment is bound to make a Whig out of Johnny; that is to say, pro-independence. He falls in with a group of dreamers and plotters who are waiting for a chance to light the fuse under an increasingly unstable colony. Tensions build as King George's heavyhanded policies drive the city of Boston closer to open revolt. Milestone events from the Boston Tea Party to the battles of Lexington and Concord play out before us in vivid detail, revealing both the complex issues and the everyday people involved.

As Johnny grows from a cocksure, smart-mouthed apprentice to a brave, self-possessed young patriot, the reader will grow to love him. One shares his likes and hates, his hopes and dreads, his agony and crushing despair. One trembles as Johnny flirts with danger, sighs as he flirts with pretty Cilla, and marvels with him at the real, earthy, imperfect, yet heroic men who spurred on our nation's first steps toward independence.

This book inspired a 1957 Disney film that you may want to see, if you haven't done so already. It's been a while since either America's film industry or its schools bore such a clear and positive witness to our nation's early history. Esther Forbes Hoskins also wrote a classic novel on the New England witch trials, titled A Mirror for Witches.

Only You Can Save Mankind
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 8+

In an introduction to the first book of his Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Discworld author Terry Pratchett apologizes for having written the book during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. This may help to explain the primitive state of computer games, corded telephones, and the slang bantered around by British schoolkids in this book. It isn't strange to me; I lived through those years. All this could have happened to me, if I had been a mild, miserable, yet highly imaginative English lad named Johnny Maxwell.

Only You Can Save Mankind is the title of the latest computer game pirated by Johnny's fat hacker pal Wobbler. It's only a step or so beyond Space Invaders (Remember? Anybody?), where the player has to blow up alien spaceships from one-seater fighters to the huge mothership. Johnny is doing quite well at it until, just before he fires the kill-shot at the alien mothership, a message comes on his screen: WE WANT TO TALK.

There's nothing about that in the manual.

At a point in history where real-world wars were starting to look like video games, a video game has turned out to be a real war. How? Where? It's not easy to explain. Maybe not in our universe, as such. But not just in Johnny's imagination, either. In some realm of existence best described as "game space," the ScreeWee armada is just trying to get to the border of their space. If players like Johnny keep blowing up their ships, none of them will ever get there.

So now, instead of shooting at aliens, Johnny has to protect them. Now that they've surrendered to him, he owes them safe conduct to their border. But it's no picnic, when other human players keep popping up, rayguns blazing. Each of them may be a "hero with a thousand extra lives," but the ScreeWee only get to die once. Keeping that from happening is now Johnny's responsibility.

It's a lot of responsibility for a kid who ordinarily doesn't fight back. When a girl with a type-A personality - the kind of girl who wins at everything she tries - goes gunning for the ScreeWee, Johnny has a tough enemy on his hands. Or maybe a friend. But it's got to be a strange friendship, when she recalls him among his circle of friends not as the skinhead (Bigmac), or the fat one (Wobbler), or the uncool black one (Yo-less), but as the other one nobody ever notices.

He's the quintessentially English hero. He's a weird kid. Weird things happen to him, and he rolls with them. You'll enjoy this adventure in "game space," proving that video games don't need high-resolution graphics to fire the imagination. Complete with bizarre aliens, suspense, action, and the goofy patter of Johnny's misfit friends, it's a quirky fantasy that will draw young readers into its special world. Then be sure to read the sequels, Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb.

Johnny and the Dead
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 8+

Of all the people in Blackbury, U.K., who could have suddenly developed the ability to see ghosts, it would just have to be Johnny Maxwell. Next to his friends - Yo-less the uncool black kid, fat Wobbler, and a delinquent skinhead named Bigmac - he doesn't stand out in any way. He isn't strong, clever, good-looking, or full of personality. He just quietly takes what life hands him, which isn't much. Yet the weird stuff always happens to him. And what makes him weird is that he's always open to it.

So it happens that, just when the city fathers of Blackbury are planning to let a big corporation build a high-rise office building over the historic town cemetery, Johnny starts seeing dead people. Walking around like regular people. And he isn't scared one bit.

Inspired by Johnny, the ghosts go on a round-the-world spiritual bender. Meanwhile Johnny, the past master of sitting in the back of the room and doing nothing to get noticed, stands up in a public meeting and starts firing tough questions at the aldermen.

Why should the city care about those buried in its graveyard? No one really famous lies there. There's the alderman whose major accomplishment was installing a horse trough in the High Street, just in time for the town's first automobile to crash into it. There's the political activist who would have been Karl Marx if Karl Marx hadn't been Karl Marx, and whose epitaph reads "WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNIT" because there wasn't enough money to carve the final E. There's an inventor, a suffragette, an Einstein, and an escape artist who pulled off his most death-defying act "almost once," but there's no one whose name alone can save the graveyard. Johnny argues that the living folks of Blackbury need the graveyard for themselves.

It's a thought-provoking story. The ghosts are simultaneously wistful and hilarious. Johnny and his friends make a charming combination of characters with an entertaining patter between them. Though this second installment in the Johnny Maxwell trilogy isn't quite up to the level of the other two, it's a solid piece of fantasy entertainment. It even has a character whose mother would probably consider Harry Potter satanic, and it responds to that kind of judgment without becoming judgmental itself. To know Johnny Maxwell is to love him and his friends. So, though it's less spooky than you might wish, Johnny and the Dead is not to be missed.

Johnny and the Bomb
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 8+

In Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny Maxwell crossed the border between reality and "game space," where the aliens in shoot-em-up computer games are just people who want to go home in peace. In Johnny and the Dead, Johnny learned to see beyond the boundary between life and death, chatting up the dead in Blackbury's town cemetery and helping them save their home. Now, in the third installment of the Johnny Maxwell trilogy, Johnny adds a new skill: time travel.

At first, his interest in the World War II bombing of a street in his town only extends as far as a school project. Then he gets mixed up with a mad lady named Mrs. Tachyon, who has been around since his grandfather was a boy. This mysterious woman has a shopping cart, a vicious cat named Guilty, and a way of turning up suddenly and slamming into the small of one's back. She also claims to have "bags of time." Which may be nonsense, coming from someone who also says things like "Millennium hand and shrimp." But maybe there's something to it.

Johnny follows this maybe, together with his interest in the bombing of Paradise Street, back to 1941. His friends wouldn't believe him, except that he brings them along. This causes a bit of trouble, as his swastika-wearing, skinhead friend Bigmac gets mistaken for a German spy and shot at, while poor fat, wheezing Wobbler manages to erase himself from history. The worst that happens to Johnny's friends Kirsty and Yo-less is that they experience the way people treated girls and black people 1941.

But Johnny - poor, sad-sack, not-too-bright Johnny, who is constantly shutting off and experiencing vivid flights of imagination - has to change history. Or rather, he has to move himself and his friends from one leg in the "trousers of time" to another. If he doesn't, people will die who should have been saved. If he doesn't, one of his friends will never get home. If he doesn't, history will stay the same... but it will be rubbish.

In this brilliant children's novel - without doubt the best of the trilogy - Discworld author Terry Pratchett takes on a lot of misconceptions about time travel that plague popular fiction. He issues a compelling challenge, at least. But this is only one ingredient in a brew that blends strange magic, melancholy mystery, throbbing suspense, thrilling action, and a non-stop comic patter between Johnny and his friends. It's a touching, funny, exciting, mind-blowing little book dating from the mid-1990s, when I was too old to enjoy it. Now I'm young enough again, and I'm glad to have found it.