Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Very Absinthe Christmas

How did I spend my Christmas vacation? Well, teacher (and fellow classmates), I applied myself energetically to accompanying three Divine Services, complete with vocal solos, choir numbers, and more than the usual quantity of hymns. Then I set the cats up for a few days on their own (putting out extra food and water), gathered up a few things, and hit the road.

Sunday the 25th was a beautiful day to drive from Saint Louis to the Lake of the Ozarks. Ideal, in fact: the temperatures were cool but not cold, the sky was a bright clear blue, the traffic was within mental-health tolerances, and I managed not to get ticketed for speeding this time.

I arrived at my parents' lovely home around three in the afternoon. I enjoyed playing Santa Claus, contributing to their nicely-stocked minibar a bottle of Glendronach 12-year-old single malt Scotch and a selection of beer bottle bracelets to help keep track of whose beer is whose at any reasonably-sized convivial gathering. I also brought along a bottle of 110-proof absinthe, a box of sugar cubes, and a slotted spoon designed to rest on top of a glass, so that we could experiment with that oft-romanticized, and sometimes demonized, herbal spirit.

Well, I'm no wiser as to what wormwood tastes like, but the herbal blend of which it is a part tasted to me a lot like licorice. Licorice with a kick. After sipping it straight, mixing it in the wrong proportions, and then mixing it right (with two parts absinthe to three of water and a sugar cube), my father and I both concluded that one was too many, and two was not enough. We were pretty well buzzed after having two absinthes each for lunch on Tuesday.

We enjoyed food as much as drink. For Christmas Day's supper, Stepmum cooked up a wonderful shank-cut, hickory-smoked ham and served it with crusty bread, scalloped potatoes, and an off-the-beaten-path green bean casserole made in the style of cauliflower casserole (with cheese and biscuit crumbs and... heck, I'm going to need to get that recipe!). Monday night's feast focused on homemade pizza whose crust was made with beer, and topped with a generous mixture of shredded mozzarella and fontina, plus a sprinkling of Grana Padano. One pie was dressed in black olive which we all found very yummy, the other in a combination of pepperoni, onion, and mushrooms which might be frankly dangerous. And finally, Tuesday night we dined out at a Mexican joint that served $1.50 margaritas and cuisine that sets one's mouth on fire so that it isn't hard to down three margaritas in an hour.

Besides watching whatever was on TV, we spent our time in a variety of amusements. Dad and I went out to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie and to consume mass quantities of popcorn. One day we also watched a DVD of District 9 while Stepmom was at work, and we agreed that she wouldn't have liked it. I particularly enjoyed the cheese flight we shared over lunch on Monday, and the return flight on Tuesday, when the main attractions were taleggio (a soft, strong-flavored Italian cheese), manchego (a hard, flavorful Spanish sheep's-milk variety), and a nice safe English favorite, Double Gloucester. Cut into hunks, they all went nicely when eaten alone or on a cracker.

The days I spent relaxing with my folks were very restorative. I didn't mind being indoors while it rained, froze, and frosted up over the successive days and nights, so long as it always seemed to be sunny or at least clear when we went out, and I had good weather for driving home again. I got a bit of reading done too, both in audio-book form (with a couple of Neil Gaiman novels on my CD player) and on paper (as I've been working my way through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And I'll soon be spending more time reading books in electronic format, now that my boss & his wife have given me a sleek Kindle for Christmas. I've already "bought" a couple dozen free books in Kindle format.

But, after all, it's nice to be home. I started to miss my cats, painfully, last night when something on my parents' TV reminded me of them. And I've been missing my very own, familiar bed on which I seem to get more sleep, and better sleep, than anywhere else on average. I had fun with my parents, and their hospitality is wonderful, but there's no pillow like your own pillow!

Film Music Fun

On the fourth day of Christmas, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, in which I sing, came together for an afternoon rehearsal to prepare for two sold-out concerts of John Williams film music on the following two nights, December 29 and 30. The New Years Eve surprise-party concert was also sold out, by the way; but that was a totally different program. It's concerts like these that give us the financial freedom to do stuff like John Adams' Harmonium, coming up next month.

First, the Symphony Chorus got to sit out in the hall and listen to the St. Louis Children Choirs' Concert Choir sing their numbers with the orchestra: "Star of Bethlehem" from Home Alone (which is way too good for the movie), and "Double Trouble" from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Then both the kids and the grown-up chorus together got to rehearse the jubilant "Dry Your Tears, Africa" from the wonderful movie Amistad.

I shall not embarrass myself by saying that it was a dream come true, being part of a concert in which excerpts from the Harry Potter film scores are played, as though I was part of the film itself in a way. Rather (and this is an update from after the concerts themselves) I might say that about being onstage while the orchestra, seated right in front of me, played the daylights out of the Main Title, Imperial March, Throne Room Scene and End Titles from the original Star Wars trilogy.

I felt the same feeling even more strongly as I actually stood up to sing in the terrifying "Duel of Fates" from Episode I: The Fandom Menace (pardon my slip). Though it wasn't until the opening night of the concert that I learned from conductor David Robertson's introductory spiel that the words I was singing were a Sanskrit translation of a Welsh program about a battle of the trees, which seems to have also inspired certain scenes in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cycle. I even sensed a kinship between Williams' music in this piece and some of the LOTR material I have sung over the past few years.

Other numbers that the chorus sang include the glorious "Exsultate Justi" from The Empire of the Sun and the wordless yet movingly expressive "Hymn for the Fallen" from Saving Private Ryan. Our voices joined again in the first of two encores, a "Call of the Victors" from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics; and finally we sat down and enjoyed, from an orchestral point of view, the Superman theme, which the audience welcomed with wild excitement.

Our part of the concert came after the intermission. The first half, for us of the chorus, was spent relaxing in the comfort of the Whitaker Room in the basement of Powell Hall, where there was plenty of room and furniture for us all to sit on, men's and women's lavatories, a cooler full of drinking water, and a subterranean route directly to where we needed to line up before walking onstage. In other words, it's way better than the Green Room; it's just too bad it took having the children's choir in the latter to force us downstairs! Meanwhile, piped in from upstairs, the music of the first half lent a festive background to our comfortable waiting—including still more excerpts from the Harry Potter films, themes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. And we were visited by gorgeously made-up dudes dressed as storm troopers and Sith lords (pictured).

The music was easy to learn, fun to perform, and a standing-room-only success at the box office. And as I said, it pays for some of our more daring artistic ventures still to come. I guess that's worth a bit of bother during the week after Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Table Prayer Fellowship

I grew up in a home where people said grace before, and sometimes after, every meal. But as I have moved around the country, and visited different parts of my family, I have picked up a number of variants in what is considered the "common table prayer."

First of all, there's the one that Missouri Synod Lutherans everywhere seem to know, and fall back on as a default at church dinners and family get-togethers. They seem to consider it the Common Table Prayer, with capitalized initials. It goes something like this:
Come, Lord Jesus;
Be our Guest,
And let these gifts
To us be blessed.
I say "something like" because one still sometimes runs across a very tradition-oriented group who insist on preserving King James English, and so they put "Thy" in the place of "these." Under my father's roof, meanwhile, you can hear a compromise position: "these, Thy gifts..." It doesn't scan well, but nobody can complain that the word they prefer was left out.

This would be an adequate reason for squeezing both "these" and "Thy" into the ditty, but when he explains his reasons for the redaction, my Dad doesn't stop there. He goes on to wax nostalgic about an older pastor, brought up in the days when LCMS worship and instruction were all in German, whom he had heard rattling off the original German table prayer. Dad swears up and down he heard a "diese deine" in there.

To no effect, then, do I remind him that I have also dined in at least one Lutheran home where they said the Common Table Prayer in German. The one before the meal, from which our English version is translated, goes:
Komm, Herr Jesu, sei Du unser Gast,
und segne, was Du uns bescheret hast.
The after-meal blessing was even shorter and sweeter:
Gott sei Dank
für Speis und Trank
durch Jesum Christum, Amen.
...For what it's worth. No matter; Dad, invincible in his (ahem) conviction, is willing to agree to disagree on the assumption that some people obviously learned a corrupted version of the original German. Still, I'm pretty sure I can explain his "diese deine" memory. The table grace for before the meal in the Daily Prayers section of Luther's Small Catechism, imported directly from Roman Catholicism, says (after a few preliminary Psalm verses):
Lord God, heavenly Father, bless us and these Thy gifts, which we receive from Thy bountiful goodness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Of course, that's too "catholic" for most Lutherans' sensibilities; though exactly why that's a bad thing, I'm sure I don't know. I find it a little odd to see eyebrows tilted at no less a Lutheran authority than Luther's Small Catechism. But that's just me.

Out west, where I pastored my second parish, I discovered an appendix to the Common Table Prayer that many people automatically recited, swearing that they had always done so regardless of where in the country they came from:
...And let there be an equal share
On every table, everywhere.
I went along with this add-on so as not to stir up needless conflict, but I had never experienced it anywhere else, and have never encountered it since. Besides this, it always brought to mind the proverb, "Be careful what you wish for"—or, in paraphrase, "what you pray for." I mean, it could be quite awful if everyone actually got an equal share. It depends on how big or small that share is. It seems to me that you're better of just asking God to bless what He has given you, and leaving it at that.

Some of my Calvinist relatives used a different rhyming prayer, which I learned while visiting them in my childhood years:
God is great, God is good;
Let us thank Him for our food.
By His hand we all are fed;
Give us, Lord, our daily bread.
That's all very well, I suppose. I just can't help noticing that Jesus isn't in it. And, in a typical Reformed move, the greatness-of-God card is played on the first trick.

Luther's Daily Prayers also include a brief after-meal grace, which I have yet to hear anybody use in real life (except myself, on purpose to try to get the tradition going). Again, after a preliminary excerpt from the Psalms, it says:
We thank Thee, Lord God, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, for all your benefits; who livest and reignest forever and ever. Amen.
I suppose the awkwardness of the sentence structure might have something to do with this formula's unpopularity. Still, I find that it sticks in the memory pretty well.

When my brother and I were snotty little brats, we frequently livened up the saying of grace at family get-togethers by starting additional table prayers after the initial petition had been said. Just when everyone was starting to unfold their hands, open their eyes, and dart a greedy paw toward the mashed potatoes, one of us (by turns) would start another prayer rolling, and quiver with impious glee at the frustration of everyone else who felt it his or her duty to fold their hands, close their eyes, and pray along with us again. Sometimes, and not without the encouragement of some very irresponsible adults, our repertoire would wind down to almost blasphemously silly table prayers, such as:
Thank God for the grub
Good bread,
Good meat;
Good Lord,
Let's eat!
Still, I can't help feeling that all our mischief falls short of the fundraising video for the LCMS seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which came out while I was a student there. One scene depicted a classmate of mine sitting down to dinner with his wife and kids. They folded their hands and, obviously modeling a widespread practice among Fort Wayne-area Lutherans, sang "The Lord's been good to me" from the classic Disney animated short about Johnny Appleseed. I remember, as a schoolboy in Fort Wayne, being impressed to see John Chapman's grave from the window of my school bus every day, situated next to a big Lutheran church. The unspoken assumption then followed that Johnny Appleseed was some kind of Lutheran saint. Even Disney depicted him walking the length and breadth of the Ohio River drainage basin, planting apple trees and proclaiming the Word of God.

It wasn't until I was actually a Lutheran seminarian that I learned that John Chapman was, in fact, proselytizing for a heretical sect known as the Schwenckfelders, which might even have been considered a cult by some modern definitions of the term. You can't imagine how it tickles me to think about those pious Lutheran families, reverently singing a Disney song from a cartoon about a sectarian missionary. I wonder how they feel about the Tannhäuser march being used in church weddings... Anyway, I'm not saying this to condemn anyone. Just to explain a few of the many reasons that scene made me snicker.

I reckon you can almost perceive the boundaries of denominational fellowship within a large group of dinner guests, such as members of your extended family, by observing what (if anything) they pray before meals. There are those middle-of-the-road Lutherans ("these gifts"), the right-wingers ("Thy gifts"), and then my Dad ("these Thy gifts") who is so far beyond the right winger that he may actually be on the left wing of the next goose over. You have the side of the family that converted to Presbyterianism ("God is great"), the old uncle who stayed put in the Catholic church ("Lord God, heavenly Father") and who may be the only person who crosses himself at the end of his prayer; and, if the juvenile delinquents can manage to stifle their giggles long enough to sneak past the restraints of their parents' chilly stare, perhaps a whimsical table grace as well. But if you hear someone start to sing, "The Lord's been good to me," you'd better break out the cider. Preferably a nice, stiff, hard cider.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Balliett, Birdsall, Dostoevsky, Gaiman

The Calder Game
by Blue Balliett
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to Chasing Vermeer and The Wright 3, three clever young unconventional thinkers from Chicago, USA, find themselves caught up in a life-endangering mystery in a small English town. Calder, Tommy, and Petra are still working out the whole "trio of friends" thing when Calder, the best friend in the middle, gets pulled out of the deck by a chance to visit the U.K. with his father. Tommy and Petra are still at the mutually-irritating, jealous-of-each-other stage of getting used to having to share Calder's friendship, and now suddenly they have to work together to help Mr. Pillay (Calder's dad) and the authorities find their friend.

Why? Because Calder has disappeared, silly! What could be behind his missing-persons case? Could it be a case of foul play? The fact that an unpopular piece of modern art, recently placed in the village square by an anonymous donor, also happened to disappear on the same night as Calder, makes that seem likely. But why would anyone want to kidnap Calder? And whether that happened or something else—such as an accident, or maybe getting lost in a hedge maze—how long do his friends have to find Calder before the chances of recovering him safely shrink to zero?

Tommy and Petra apply their own brand of unconventional thinking to solving these riddles; and sometimes, they try thinking like Calder himself—an exercise that has a weirdly high success rate, not only in solving problems but in bringing together two awkward kids, a grumpy old lady, and others.

Being used to the diet and habits of the common, or garden, children's mystery, you may be surprised by this story. It doesn't resolve itself as easily as you might expect. The solution to the mystery is both deceptively simple and scarily dangerous. And the whole adventure is kind of a sneaky way to get kids interested in the unusual, three-dimensional art work of Alexander Calder, the historic and scenic wonders of the Blenheim Palace and its neighborhood, and some further applications of those good old Pentominoes that you might not want to try at home.

This book will especially appeal to kids who are interested in history, art, foreign travel, and the type of education that isn't reduced to preparing for standardized tests. It might be a good book for teachers to read, too. If they learn the lesson one teacher in the book learns, more schools might become places of real learning and discovery. Or they might enjoy the book, at least. That could happen too. For more adventures of Calder and friends, look up the fourth book in the series, titled The Danger Box.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street
by Jeanne Birdsall
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to The Penderwicks, the four vivacious Penderwick sisters continue their adventures beyond the end of summer vacation, into the next school year. Strange but true: all adventures don't take place during school holidays!

Take, for example, the Save Daddy Plan. The time has come for the girls' widowed father to start dating again. Even their late mother agrees; in fact, a letter she left behind proves that it was her idea. Eldest daughter Rosalind, however, fears that dating might lead to a stepmother, and all kinds of awful changes. Their strategy? To set their father up on the most miserable dates imaginable, so none of those changes need to happen. Of course, nobody takes into account such wildcards as the possibility that Daddy may be going on phony dates because he doesn't like the idea either; or that the young widow next door might be just the kind of addition to the family everyone would like.

Then there are the boys across the street, especially football-mad Tommy, whose feelings for Rosalind are confusing to everybody, most of all himself. And middle sisters Skye and Jane are up to their own brand of trouble, starting when they swap homework assignments and snowballing from there. Batty, the baby of the family, adds a keen edge of chaos as she puts her new red wagon through all its paces, anoints herself detective in the case of the suspicious Bug Man, and tries to teach the toddler next door to say anything besides "Duck."

You might think that I've spoiled the whole book by now, but I really haven't. The charm of it lies in how the Penderwicks talk with each other, the girls' hilarious thought processes, and the everyday distractions that keep them from seeing what's going on right in front of them. It's a warm, funny, gentle book featuring a loving and lovable family, right down to the incredibly smart dog (who always knows when a "woof" is needed). Laughing with the Penderwicks might be especially good for some teen and preteen girls who need to learn to step back and laugh at themselves sometimes. The charms of the story speak for itself. And a third book in the series, titled The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, is now available.

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Recommended Ages: 14+

I would like to thank the Saint Louis County Library system, Recorded Books LLC, audiobook reader George Guidall, and translator Constance Garnett for making it possible for me to enjoy this book during my daily drive to and from work, one hour each way. I had always been intimidated by this book and had never gotten any closer to reading it than having a copy on my bookshelf and occasionally, nervously, holding it in my hands. I had some faint idea of the novel's gravity, psychological depth, and literary significance, which together added up to a conflict between the side of me that felt destined to read the book and the side that shuddered at the idea. I could draw an inept parallel between my inner conflict and that which drives the main character in this book, but I won't, because it would be stupid. Luckily, I was delivered from my dilemma by the idea of listening to the book on CD while commuting.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (or Dostoyevsky) knew a lot about inner conflict. Consider his history: a political radical in Russia's pre-Revolution days, reprieved from a death sentence at the last moment, pardoned after several years imprisoned in Siberia, then celebrated for a writing career in which the two sides of his character warred with each other: the rebel who was almost hanged for his activities, and the penitent mystic who polemicized against the very ideals he had once nearly died for. Right in the middle of that same conflict is the novel's central figure, Rodyon Romanovich Raskolnikov: an impoverished student in the far northern capital city of Saint Petersburg, who dares himself to murder another human being in order to prove whether or not he is like Napoleon—a man who can "speak a new word," a leader, a world-changer.

If I don't want this to be a tediously long-winded review, I will have to forgo the customary word-sketch of who's who and what happens. There are a lot of unforgettable characters in this book, some with big bright souls, others shriveled and dark. There are pages of agonizing suspense, gripping psychological drama, touching romance, shattering tragedy, and even now again a moment of macabre humor. There is a character who inspired the TV detective Columbo, and a strikingly strong and almost "modern" female character, and a saintly angelic female character, and a goofy sidekick who will steal everyone's heart. There is a whole family that would seem right at home in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, dramatizing the evils of alcoholism in a way that, seemingly beyond possibility, is both heartbreaking and ludicrous at the same time. There is a murder mystery in which who done it, and how, is the first thing you know; why he done it, you learn later; and what leads him to confess his crime, when he has a real chance of getting away with it, is the real crux.

Your world lit teacher will probably tell you that this book, first published in a serialized format in 1866, broke new ground by inventing the "third-person omniscient" narrator. He may also express embarrassment over a couple of casually antisemitic comments in the book (including a caricatured physical description that Dostoevsky assigns to "all Jews without exception"). Or he might just take it easy on you and let you read lighter stuff like Chekov and Pushkin, and leave this book for grad students and bookworms to discover on their own. None of these possibilities is really quite necessary. You're not going to notice anything novel about the book's point-of-view because you're used to that sort of thing; you're big enough and intelligent enough to recognize that no person or period in history was perfect, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be discussed and thought about in their own context and on their own terms; and, after all, this is really a surprisingly clear, readable, and powerful book that you won't have any trouble finishing once you've well begun it.

American Gods
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 16+

As the tale within admits, the title on the cover of this book is a contradiction. Gods, this present-day quest-myth tells us, do not grow robustly in American soil. The beliefs indigenous to this continent may have had more-or-less impersonal creators lurking behind the scenery, but folklore heroes and the nymphlike spirits of animals and plants sufficed for most day-to-day purposes. So when people started to arrive from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, the gods they brought with them had to get by in a pluralistic landscape, crowded with other transplanted deities, all jostling to nourish themselves on the meager faith of a dwindling number of believers. Inhospitable soil indeed!

And now it is the present day, and a new pantheon has at last begun to push out the old gods. Media, technology, and similar idols are on the way up as gods from ancient Egypt, Africa, India, and China come down. And as if that isn't happening fast enough on its own, a war is brewing between the old gods and the new. Stuck in the middle of it all, by virtue of his job as the Norse god Odin's personal assistant, is a gentle giant named Shadow. Hired fresh out of prison as he travels to his wife's funeral, Shadow grows from being a complete skeptic to playing a pivotal role in the fate of beings as old as they are strange. He makes friends with an ill-fated leprechaun, wagers his life on a game of checkers, solves a serial killer case that has been going on for over a century, encounters the walking dead, fools around with a shape-changing goddess, works for a spell in the oldest continually-operating independent mortuary in world history, teaches himself some really awesome coin tricks, and rises from the dead. And he goes through it all with a wonderful attitude of not being surprised by anything, because after the first thing he experiences in this story, nothing is impossible.

This is one of the most serious and mature-themed books I have seen under Neil Gaiman's authorship. And I only partly mean that in the sense of the "adult content advisory" which it most definitely deserves. There are some extremely graphic, even disturbing sex scenes in this book, of a nature in keeping with its overall theme of America as a melting pot of gods of all nationalities, shapes, sizes, and character-types, stirred up together in a crazy, numinous potpourri. But there are is also a lot of death and dismemberment, torture, slavery, decomposing bodies, arcs of arterial blood squirting all over the place, and other gruesome manifestations of fate, sacrifice, and polymythic conflict. There are wonderful fantasyscapes depicting dimensions too weird to imagine, mixed in among scenes of desperate normalcy in a small, sheltered Wisconsin town.

Partly because it is longer than most of Gaiman's books, and partly because his writing style does not sparkle with quite its usual consistency of endlessly effervescent wit, American Gods seems to sit heavier on one's hands, heart, and mind. But as a well-researched traveler's guide to the faiths imported to the U.S., combined with a brilliantly imaginative thriller about war games with cosmic stakes, the tone might be just about right.

Anansi Boys
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Ages: 14+

For my listening pleasure during my daily two-hour commute, I checked an audio CD of Anansi Boys out of the library. Great indeed was my pleasure in listening to British comedian Lenny Henry narrate this companion book to American Gods. I particularly noted the glee with which he impersonated its colorful cast of characters. He really knows his way around a West Indian dialect, making my time with this book somewhat like having a series of perfectly blended mojitos poured into my ears.

This lighthearted, tightly paced, frequently hilarious book bears a night-and-day contrast to the at times graphically nasty grimness of American Gods. Its main character, "Fat Charlie" Nancy, is a regular bloke, brought up by his Londoner mum since she split with his Florida-based father, whom Charles remembers mostly with embarrassment. Nevertheless, Fat Charlie goes back to Florida to bury the old man after he drops dead in the middle of a karaoke number. Among the vague memories stirred by the Caribbean ladies from his old neighborhood is the fact that Fat Charlie has a brother named Spider, and all he has to do if he wants to see him is talk to a spider about it. Charlie finds this almost as hard to believe as the notion that his late Dad was the ancient West African spider-god Anansi, but when he tries it (the spider-talking bit) back in his London flat, he discovers that his long-lost brother is very real. And very, very cool.

Spider is all the things Charlie likes to imagine himself to be but is not. Spider is good-looking, confident, handy with the girls. He has also inherited all the godlike powers in the family, power such as the ability to push people's minds and to bend the laws of space-time. But with these powers comes a number of not-so-nice divine attributes, such as capriciousness, selfishness, and indifference to the wellbeing of puny mortals. In a trice, Spider steals Fat Charlie's fiancée and goads his normally nice, easy-going brother into taking otherworldly steps to get rid of him.

By then, the balance of Fat Charlie's carefully ordinary life has been tipped and things begin to happen of themselves, out of control. His fiancée calls off the engagement and sails off with her bitter prune of a mother. A swindling money manager moves a peg up to kidnapping and murder, and tries to frame Fat Charlie for his crimes. A pretty cop flushes her career down the toilet to pursue her own investigation. And Fat Charlie realizes that he and Spider need each other, only when the latter is at the mercy of their family's most ancient enemy.

This book earns a big, bright "occult content advisory" with its cheerful depiction of ancient African gods and animistic West Indian rituals. Aside from that and a little blood, guts, and scary imagery, it is a surprisingly family-friendly novel (again, in marked contrast to American Gods), and full of laughs, surprises, romance, suspense, elemental storytelling, and for all its exotic subject matter, people and experiences that somehow seem so familiar that you have no trouble believing in it all. Perhaps that is why it won both the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and the British Fantasy Society's August Derleth Award for best novel of 2006, ranking it among the best works of fantasy literature in our time. All I can say for sure, though, is that it was the most fun I'd had at the wheel of my car since I started listening to audiobooks. It made me look forward to driving to work each day!

Anime Dream

I just woke from an anime dream in which the character I identified with, similar to a house spirit or genius of a place, led a conga-line of customers to a struggling restaurant and the neighboring shop. Other than that I remember a lot of bowing and scraping, Japanese manner, and an earlier scene (now only vaguely remembered) in which I resigned from my previous establishment because the owner did not properly appreciate all that I did.

Adding to the interest of my mental screenplay was a gimmick in which each character described how he would depict the Sun as a cartoon character, sort of like a temperamentally opposite ripoff of the moon gimmick in Wilde's Salome. One character, I remember, would have painted the sun as a yellow cake with green seeds in it. Another wanted to paint it as a face with the smile, for some reason, on one side rather than at the bottom.

The overall texture of the dream was very paint-y. It was well lit and colorful, and the conga-line bit was fun. I could really feel my body moving to the beat, and enjoyed the looks I got from lookers-on. The ruse worked, the businesses overflowed with patrons, and when my bladder woke me, I was reluctant to let go of the dream, in spite of its naughty animistic theology. I must be more excited than I realized about the upcoming Studio Ghibli film The Secret World of Arrietty.

IMAGE: A still from Spirited Away, in which my character from tonight's dream may be seen crossing the bridge at right, somewhere among his own kind.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Half a Dozen Movies

Either in the week or two before I started this post, or in the weeks after I started it but before I published it, I took in more than a handful of movies, either on the big screen or the small.

First, I saw Sherlock Holmes: The Game of Shadows, both on its opening weekend on my own, and over the Christmas holiday with my Dad. I enjoyed it both times, and Dad enjoyed it with me—partly thanks (I am sure) to a bottomless bag of popcorn that accompanied us to the show. Robert Downey Jr. (Holmes), Jude Law (Watson), Jared Harris (Moriarty), and others reprise their roles from the next-most-recent Sherlock Holmes movie, keeping the pace of impish humor, sexual innuendo, and ludicrously intense action sequences at or above the previous outing's. In spite of a good deal of non-canonical combat scenes, the new film (co-written by sometime actor Kieran Mulroney, brother of the well-known Dermot) makes enough of an effort to score points with Holmes purists to include the joint Holmes-Moriarty plunge over Reichenbach Falls in the story, though the results in the film are both less ambiguous and less final.

Joining the ensemble is Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress best known for her title role in the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—a film that I saw on video as soon as I finished reading the book. I haven't yet seen the American version, however. Since I have a book review of the source novel on the wheel, I won't say much about this film right now, except to note that: (1) It is actually two of six parts of a Swedish TV miniseries covering the entire Millennium trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson; and (2) that it's a very dark, edgy tale about a journalist solving a missing persons case, catching a serial killer, and unmasking a white-collar gangster, with the aid of a borderline-anorexic, tattooed-and-pierced hacker girl with a touch of Asperger's syndrome and a history of exacting a terrible revenge upon Men Who Hate Women (here capitalized because it was the original title of both the book and the telefilm). And a deep breath...

Another movie I saw on video, after putting it off for a long time and for no reason that I can precisely recall, was the Hugo and Bradbury Award-winning 2010 hit Inception. Again, what of substance can I add to the massive volume of reviews of this movie? It's almost pointless for me to express my opinion. Simply in terms of relating my experience, I would say the movie captivated me with its intricate structure and thrilled me with its mythopoeic power. I watched it two nights in a row, and for the better part of a week my mind was filled with its vibrant imagery, with the lingering emotional impact of several of its plot lines, and with a perverse relish in the ambiguity of its final shot. I enjoyed the ensemble cast so much that I expect the actors will be forever linked in my mind, while at the same time I perceived that Leonardo DiCaprio still has some leading-man juice to burn.

Back to the big screen, I used a free pass to see Tower Heist, a movie for which I did not have very high hopes, and thus one I was glad not to have to pay for. A crime caper starring aging comedians Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, and Matthew Broderick, the agelessly attractive Tea Leoni, and Judd Hirsch and Alan Alda of the already choice vintage, it needs have no more said of it than that it was much, much better than I expected, though still not particularly good.

Then there was The Muppets, whose cast hardly needs to be introduced, except to note that I still catch myself repeating Chris Cooper's villainous tagline ("Maniacal laughter!") and giggling over the whole "Let's travel by map!" sequence. A family-friendly musical not afraid to parody itself, it also stars Jason Segel and Amy Adams as a flesh-and-blood pair of romantic leads whose presence in the movie lends itself admirably to the creation of spoof trailers—many of which, no doubt, will show up on the DVD—but really does not seem vital to the plot, in retrospect. You have to give them props, though, for being willing to look like complete fools.

And finally, the climax of my 2011 movie-going proved to be the Peter Jackson produced, Steven Spielberg directed adaptation of the iconic Belgian comic, The Adventures of Tintin. This is one of those boundary-pushing films of the type that is shot with live actors in motion-capture gear, then painted over with computer animation. And it really takes that type of film a huge step forward. I spotted this even before seeing an encore presentation of The Polar Express on my parents' cable over Christmas vacation. The characters in this new movie, particularly Tintin himself, have a lifelike liveliness, particularly in the eyes, which were once widely considered an insurmountable obstacle to making realistic, computer-animated human characters come to life. Gone is the vacant-eyed-automaton look that used to make one's flesh crawl the more realistic the rest of the character looked. Except perhaps for a few awkward hand gestures, digital actors now seem almost ready to replace the real thing—only, what would the tabloids do without the likes of Tom Cruise?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Worship Director?

I've been reading the job description of a position currently open at LCMS headquarters: "Worship Director & International Center Chaplain." The language of the Worship Director's list of duties creates some interesting dissonance against the theology of worship I have been brought up to. Here are some examples:

1. "Propose and create programs that will carry out the purposes and aims of the Synod in matters of worship"—Does that mean every act of worship has a measurable objective? Or are we talking about this job in terms of a bully pulpit for liturgical reform?

3. "Render informal chaplaincy and counseling services to employees as requested... keeping in mind the employer role through input/feedback from the Department of Human Resources where necessary or requested"—Does that mean you have to balance pastoral confidentiality against the fact that you're in a management position over the people you may be counseling?

4. "Provide pastoral leadership to develop a faithful Lutheran community at the International Center, counting with the collaboration of the Department of Human Resources as needed or requested"—In other words, you can't assume that everyone who works at LCMS Headquarters is a faithful Lutheran Christian; but if you're going to whine about it, whine to H.R.

5. "Periodically review the performance and effectiveness of worship programs and report results to the Executive Director and the Board of National Mission"—In other words, since the objectives of worship are measurable (see #1), you should occasionally measure your success.

8. "Be accountable for the technical and professional work of various adjunct committees as they produce worship materials"—though a previous item hints that you only have an advisory role in selecting these committee members. As far as I.C. chapel services are concerned, this means "just doing it by the book" is out of the question; in terms of the "bully pulpit," however, I can see where having a few extra hands writing the weekly prayers and lectionary summaries could be a help.

9. "Consult with the worship and music departments of the Synod schools to establish principles and practices in this area of the Church’s life which best reflect the biblical and confessional spirit of Lutheran worship"—principles which, obviously, haven't been discovered yet, or which change frequently enough that someone needs to do this on an ongoing basis.

All that, surprisingly, is beside duties of the I. C. Chaplain, which include some of the same duties, only stripped of prolix qualifying clauses that make the position sound like a stooge for whatever side of the "worship wars" is currently in favor. I think I would rather be the I. C. Chaplain than Julie the Worship Director, and I don't know how anyone could really be both; but I will probably never be either, because the requirements of the job include "significant knowledge and resourcefulness coupled with sound judgment in the fields of theology, liturgy, hymnody, church music, and related arts"—all of which I daresay I have, except perhaps the "sound judgment" part—and whether I've got that, too, seems a politically charged, subjective question.

To be sure, there's also the matter of having at least five years in the parish ministry (when I resigned after three and a half) and a master's or terminal degree in music and/or theology (when I have a B.A. in one and an M.Div., which in purely academic terms is virtually another B.A., in the other). But still, I can thank God I'm not qualified for this position because, from where I stand now, the spiritual compromises and conflicting priorities of the job would be a real cross to bear.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Being Barked At

I live with two cats, but I'm as much a dog person as a cat person. I have always loved dogs, lived with many of them growing up, and enjoyed the company of most of the dogs who shared my parents' home when I came back to visit as a grown-up. Right now, for almost the first time in my life, neither of my parents has a dog at home. My Dad & Stepmom's 14-year-old miniature schnauzer went to his reward this past summer, and my mother finally (mercifully) parted company with her yippy little Chihuahua rat-dog only a couple weeks ago.

I am proud of many of the dogs we owned when I was a kid. We had a toy poodle once, best remembered for eating my Dad's shoes. Later, there was a golden retriever mix who whelped ten puppies on my brother's bed, bless her. Their father was an itinerant black lab whose liaisons with our Honey taught my brother and me the facts of life in a really down-to-earth way.

Sometime between the poodle and Honey, when we lived in a house in the country with lots of yard to run in, we had a gentle, friendly Afghan hound with a rare coat of cream-colored, shaggy fur. Pete, as we called him, had learned a certain stillness (the hard way, from his nasty previous owners), so that visitors often mistook him for a lawn ornament until they pulled up, whereupon he would saunter interestedly over to see who had called. Besides these nasty surprises, there was no harm in Pete, who lived a wild and free outdoor life, sprinting swiftly along the side of the highway and keeping up with passing cars for as much as a quarter-mile. Pete didn't live long after we moved away from that place. A neighboring farmer, who had promised to take him in, waited until our tail-lights faded in the distance, then shot him to save himself any further trouble.

One of our best pets was VP, short for "Vision Puppy," which in turn is but one of many jokes that circulated among our family and friends at the time we adopted the miniature longhair dachshund puppy. Dad told someone that Stepmom was a "vision of loveliness," and a multitude of gags was born. The vision meme blew over soon enough, except that for all eleven years of her adorable existence, VP's name perpetuated its memory. She was a remarkable little dog: daft as a bag of hair, but frisky and vocal and sociable and unusually patient with small children, who in return could not get enough of holding her, rubbing her, fiddling with her tail, and pulling her floppy ears. VP had so many quirky little ways that I could bore you endlessly about them, and that's probably because she was in my life for such a long time and at just the right range of years for me to remember nearly all of them. (Her end came when I was in college.) She lived to have three proteges: a neurotic mini dachs named Dixie, a psychotic mini schnauzer named Katie, and the late Martin, whose recent demise closed 25 years of unbroken dog ownership by my Dad & Stepmom.

Martin was the most lovable of the family dogs that I only knew from visiting home, rather than sharing a home with him. He became my parents' baby after I had left the nest, but he was always thrilled to see me when I came to visit (as Katie had been, in spite of her embarrassing viciousness towards selected people). I loved seeing his bobtailed butt wiggling with excitement, and I was one of the best at stroking him and talking to him until he calmed down. Other dogs that I visited and loved, but never cohabitated with, included my maternal grandparents' beagle Deanna (whom I named after a Sesame Street character the day they adopted her), my stepmom's dad's gormless yellow lab Conor (who was always adorably cowed by first VP and then Katie), my mom's woebegone Basset hound Lottie, and the mini dachshund Max whose owners (friends of mine) let me dog-sit him. Max adored me ever afterward, because I was a pushover for walkies and let him take all the time he wanted to claim ownership of the neighborhood and to read pee-mail left by other canines.

Nowadays, I enjoy my fellowship with dogs in minute doses. I've been getting to know the dogs who guard a series of fenced backyards along the street where I often take walks. Our relationship is fairly one-sided. They run toward the fence and bark at me, while I walk by as innocently as possible. Sometimes, if I'm in the mood, I'll make remarks at them -- observations about their character, their looks, the timbre of their voices, etc. Sometimes I'll just stare at them as I walk by, because I can and that's the type of S.O.B. I am. I enjoy the company. It's what I've got in that line, anyway.

Furthest out of the three dog-yards in my neighborhood is one where three miniature pinschers dwell, unless my breed-spotting is out. They represent the full range of coloring and vocal quality of that breed, and they hop up and down and yap non-stop the whole time I am within sight of their fence. One of them has a small-dog yipping quality to his (her?) bark; the other two have a more gruff voice type. I like their looks, but I doubt they would let me reach over the fence and scratch their scruff without charging a finger or two.

Next in on my homeward route is the rottweiler that could probably easily jump over the fence and take me down like a gimpy wildebeest. But it contents itself with bouncing up and down on its hind legs and woofing at me. Last time I approached it, it let me tell it what a good-looking dog it was before it started barking in my face. The first couple of times I walked by its yard, I didn't even know it was there until I had just passed the last of its fence, when it rushed up out of a sunken stairwell and came at me barking from behind. I'm sure my jump of surprise gratified him, but I called him a coward then and I still wonder at his cowardice. I could probably drop-kick any of those mini pinschers halfway down the block, but they meet me with snarls of defiance as I approach their yard, fearlessly protective. Meanwhile the big, jowly rottweiler, who could probably crush my hyoid bone between his jaws before I saw him coming, skulks out of sight until I've passed and THEN darts forward and shout's BOO! at my back.

And finally, my favorite, closest to home: the elderly beagle, somewhat portly, with eyes whitened by glaucoma, who leans his forepaws against the chain-link fence, cranes his neck backward, and barks straight up in the air. The mini pinschers are just doing their job, mind; and the rottweiler is doing what he can to keep up appearances. But this beast, already with one paw in the grave, barks at me with such gusto, such passion, that I know he means it right down to the ends of his whiskers. His is a joy in being a dog that even blindness and a touch of gout cannot take away: an attitude that says, "Hey! Who are you? This is my block! Don't forget it!"

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tahoe Joe's

I have had a lot of interesting food adventures lately—so many that I don't have time to do justice to all of them in writing.

For example, I would like to rhapsodize about the chicken tikka masala and onion kulcha at the Taj Palace in Chesterfield MO, where I dined on linen table cloths one cold, drizzly evening within the past week; but there have to be many still-more-spectacular dining experiences awaiting me in that little storefront restaurant, since tikka masala is merely the gateway dish to many other delights, hardly even Indian when you get down to it. I mean, I've read somewhere that the dish was invented in Scotland; so it's about as Indian as General Tso's chicken is Chinese. But still, it was a really good dinner.

Then there is the shrimp po'boy sandwich I had last night* at the Schlafly Tap Room in downtown St. Louis. I thought it was something special, but what do I know? I had never even had a po'boy before. I wasn't even sure how to go about eating it, a task that seemed equally a matter of picking bits off with the fork as of hefting the entire hoagie-bunned, red-sauced extravagance with both hands and biting into it. I was equally at a loss today* at Denny's when, for a brunch-break during a walk in perfect hoodie-sweater weather, I ordered a Bacon Slamburger, complete with ground beef, hash browns, hollandaise, and an egg cooked to order, in my case a poached egg whose yolk burst and ran all over the plate when I tried to pick the sandwich up. In the end I just picked off the sesame-seed bun and went at it with a knife and fork, finishing by mopping up leftover yolk and hollandaise with the remaining bread and crinkly steak fries.

But the honor of a full restaurant review, with enough stars to grace a fireworks show, goes to the new Tahoe Joe's steakhouse that opened in Chesterfield two weeks ago. A few nights ago* I stopped there for dinner and learned that it is the first restaurant of its small chain to open outside the state of California, which is quite an honor for the Chesterfield Commons shopping area, even if it is the largest open-air mall in the U.S. (Document that for yourself. I don't remember where I read it, and I'm too fat and happy to go researching it now.) But what you want to know is that Tahoe Joe's is exactly like a restaurant that you might see featured on the Food Network, from its distinctive look (based on glossy wood paneling and columns trimmed with smooth rocks cemented together) to its chatty wait staff, all the way to the unusual but staggeringly delicious signature dishes which come to your table in architecturally stylish arrangements.

I started with an appetizer called "Railroad Camp Shrimp," which was ten large, peeled shrimp, breaded and fried in something of a tempura style, and formed into a sticky tower on top of a salad tossed with fried wonton chips, crispy chow mein noodles, and an Asian-inspired dressing. All of this was arranged on a funky pedestal-shaped device and accompanied by a cup of sweet brown dipping sauce, similar to the stuff you dunk pot stickers in at a Chinese-American restaurant. I was literally still savoring the flavors of this dish when my waiter presented me with an unsolicited cup of chicken noodle soup, which (I must admit) tasted a little funky coming down off a mountain of sticky-sweet Asian tempura shrimp salad, but improved vastly after I cleansed my palate. With what did I cleanse it, you ask? Have I not mentioned the mason jar full of tart-sweet lemonade that came with my meal? I instantly pegged it as one of the three best lemonades I have ever tasted, its flavor so profoundly tangy that I almost suspected a hint of rhubarb in the recipe.

But all that was prelude to the main dish. My waiter explained that Tahoe Joe's signature dish of all siganture dishes, notwithstanding their excellent ribs and pork chops, is a number known simply as Tahoe Joe's Steak: a juicy sirloin steak that is first slow-roasted for 19 hours before being grilled to anywhere between medium and well-done, more or less just to add that final touch of charcoal-smoke flavor. But a little lower down on the facing page of the menu is what I actually ordered: the Tahoe Joe's Steak Sandwich.

This sandwich came, first of all, with a pile of fries so huge that I groaned when I saw it. I picked at only a few of the fries. The waiter was nice enough to bring me a cup of horseradish sauce that I requested before I tried the sandwich, but after tasting it I couldn't bring myself to change a thing about it, so I used the horsey sauce to dip the fries in and that proved to be an excellent idea. Nevertheless, the pile of fries remained pretty much untouched when my meal ended, and it ended simply because I was too full to eat one more bite.

The sandwich itself was huger than I expected, sliced into two halves that overlapped each other on the plate, each mounded high with slivers of beef cooked in such a way that it seems equally right to call it a pot roast as a steak. The meat was delicious, tender, and juicy, and the bread was that really crispy type of grilled bread that probably has parmesan cheese grilled right into it, forming an especially stiff crust on the outside of the sandwich to complement the gushy goodness within. In with the meat in that goodness were large slices of grilled pepper, long strands of grilled onion, a stretchy layer of melted white cheese, some kind of tangy sauce, a couple of slices of bacon (which I discovered with a guffaw of disbelief), and slices of little round grilled mushrooms and of one big juicy tomato.

This is a sandwich whose awesomeness cannot be sufficiently described, or if so described, believed. It must be experienced. So when you get to the bottom of this post, close your browser, grab your wallet and keys, and drive with all the speed that public safety and the Missouri Highway Code allow to 17258 Chesterfield Airport Road, a wee bit east of the Boone's Crossing ramp off I-64. Don't tell your waiter I sent you, because that won't add anything to your experience. Just take my advice: order the sandwich I described, and save room for dessert. I'm going to have to use one of those "call this number to tell us what you think and we'll comp you a slice of cheesecake" gimmicks before I get to try their New York-style cheesecake. The one thing I regret about my first visit to Tahoe Joe's is not having enough room even to think about ordering dessert. In fact, I was so full after the shrimp, the chicken soup, and a second mason jar of lemonade that I only managed to eat about 88% of my sandwich, and that in spite of having passed the point of pain & being obliged to pick bits out of it with a knife and fork (which seems to be a keynote of my sandwich-eating career, lately).

I explained to the waiter, as I fished for fragments of bacon amongst the remnants of congealed cheese, that it is a sin to leave bacon uneaten; I don't think he got the joke, but the restaurant got my enthusiasm and, I expect, will keep it at least long enough for me to try everything on its menu. There aren't that many dishes on it, a good sign if you salivate for the kind of gourmet-quality comfort food you see regularly on the Food Network, but rarely in real life. I'll keep you posted if any more of Tahoe Joe's menu offerings change my life the way that sandwich did.

* Timeline: I started writing this review the night of my visit to Tahoe Joe's, as the date stamp on the post shows; my visits to Schlafly's and Denny's took place on Friday and Saturday respectively. Because I dragged out completing this review until Saturday afternoon, the verb tenses and time tags throughout the review are kiddywumpus. But what is a journal for, if not to make virtual time travel possible?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Anyone looking up the title Hugo on IMDB is going to discover that, since 1990 alone, there have been two TV series, a made-for-video movie, and seven (7) feature films by that name. Perhaps that reveals director Martin Scorsese's lack of insight into the art of giving a film a unique and memorable title, especially given that his latest movie is based on a book with the rather more distinctive title The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Now, a word about the book. I haven't read it yet. I've been keeping my eye on it at bookstores, though. And it seems to be one of those eternal hardcovers that persistently deny gratification to cheapskate bibliophiles, like me, who prefer to wait for the paperback. Brian Selznick's impressive-looking tome-for-tots has been on sale since 2007 and, to date, shows no sign of being released in paperback. I haven't felt so thwarted since A Series of Unfortunate Events (which didn't start appearing in paperback until all thirteen installments had been published in hardcover). Or maybe it's the Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo. You see how my mental association runs. One can only hold out for the paperback for so long before one runs out of patience. But in the case of Hugo Cabret, I have managed to stare down the hardcover for nearly five years and, though I would still like to read it, I mean to outstare it.

So, obviously, I had to bend my general rule about reading the book before I see the movie. But then again, I've also started to learn that such a rule may not be all it's cooked up to be. Sometimes it seems that first falling in love with the book merely guarantees that you will hate the movie, even if (in strictly movie terms) it's an excellent film. So my conscience isn't much bothered by the sequence "see the movie, read the book" these days.

I shall spare you a synopsis of the movie because, eventually, I am going to review the book. (Maybe, at that time, I will skip summarizing the story on the rationale that I had already reviewed the movie. Stay tuned!) Let's just say that it's a surprising movie in a lot of ways. For one thing, it's family-friendly. There are no cuss words in it. No heads being blown off. No wise guys getting coked up, laid, or whacked. Both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci are conspicuously absent, to name only a small portion of a top-dollar cast that does not appear in this movie. In fact, the headliner turns out to be Ben Kingsley, who won an Oscar for Gandhi almost 30 years ago and, since then, has been steadily working out the Career Damnation which customarily befalls those who peak too early. At least he's been steadily working, though I don't think I've seen any of his work since he played Fagin in 2005's Oliver Twist. Honestly, I kind-of thought he was dead. Rumors of his demise, etc.

Next below Kingsley in the billing is Sacha Baron Cohen, the genius mimic-cum-artfully offensive comedian best known for playing Brüno, Borat, and the Italian barber in Sweeney Todd. Here he plays the police inspector at the Paris train station where most of the film takes place, a performance that was intended to walk a tight-rope between humorous villainy and romantic pathos but which, in the event, comes across simply as strained and obnoxious. Fans of fantasy films will enjoy the rest of the cast, however. Jude Law (A Series of Unfortunate Events) plays Hugo's ill-fated father, and Ray Winstone (Beowulf) his inebriated uncle, who gives the boy a home within the walls of the train station and a purpose in keeping the clocks in order. Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gives the boy a book; Emily Mortimer (who lent her voice talents to the English version of Howl's Moving Castle) distracts the policeman with her flower-girl charms; Frances de la Tour (lately Madame Maxime in the Harry Potter films) unwittingly supplies him with warm croissants. Other Harry Potter alums present include Helen McCrory (a.k.a. Mama Malfoy) as Kingsley's wife, and Richard Griffiths (a.k.a. Uncle Vernon) as a newspaper vendor who distracts the croissant lady with his shy courtship, daily frustrated by a vicious wiener-dog. Playing the title role is young Asa Butterfield, a British youngster who starred in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and who is slated to play Ender Wiggin in an upcoming film on Ender's Game.

Having not read this book, I went to this movie and was surprised to find out exactly why Mr. Scorsese made it, even though it doesn't have any wise guys in it. It's a movie about the movies, looking back fondly (and mysteriously, and movingly) upon the era of the very earliest, silent films, and upon a magician-turned-filmmaker who "made dreams" on the big screen. How an orphaned urchin living inside the walls of a train station, eating stolen croissants, winding huge clocks, and borrowing wind-up-toy components to repair a spooky automaton, brings this long-lost film genius to light is what this movie is about. And while Hugo moves around inside the gears of clocks, you get to move around inside the making of the movies that changed movies from mere sideshow novelties into an art form, and a way of telling stories, without which the present world could hardly be imagined.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

We Bought a Zoo

I was looking up showtimes to see either Hugo or The Muppets when I spotted the title We Bought a Zoo, which I had never heard of. I looked up who was in it and what it was about, and so it was that I arrived at the cinema with the firm intention of seeing this movie. Cut to the end: I walked out of the theater smiling, but with a bit of red under my eyes from wiping tears away.

The story, loosely based on something that really happened, concerns an "adventure journalist" named Benjamin Mee who realizes, six months after his wife's cancer death, that he needs to change some things in his life for his kids' sake. For one thing, his son is having a lot of anger issues, drawing disturbing pictures and getting expelled from school. For another, his little girl is trying too hard to mother her father and brother when she just needs to be a little girl. So he starts looking for a new house, where they can try new schools, a new lifestyle, and move on without the ghost of Mom hanging around. Other than a couple of documentaries, We Bought a Zoo is the first film directed by Cameron Crowe since 2005's Elizabethtown; the director of Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Vanilla Sky chose a surprisingly intimate and human story to add to his just-as-surprisingly short list of films.

At the end of a long and fruitless tour of properties for sale, the father and daughter find their dream house. It comes with a catch, though: whoever buys it must also buy the Exotic Animal Park that comes with it. And maintain the staff that takes care of the animals. The Mee family, lacking any experience in zookeeping, plunges into the task. They are immediately in over their head, realizing that lions, tigers, and bears (oh my) will not solve their personal problems, and that they will need a miracle to finance the improvements the state inspector requires before they can open for business.

The Mees go through some rough patches, make no mistake. They have to deal with teenage rebellion and a rocky teen romance; a hero tiger reaching the end of his life; a runaway bear; a crate of snakes (fresh off a plane, no doubt) left open overnight; a bookkeeper who campaigns to turn the staff against the new owners; and the still raw memory of a woman who will be hard to let go of. The turning point, and for my money the best scene in the movie, is when the boy and his father finally have it out in a very loud argument, culminating in the little girl asking, "What was that about the Easter Bunny?"

The show features Matt Damon in the lead role, supported by Colin Ford (lately the "young Sam Winchester" on TV's Supernatural), Elle Fanning (late of Super 8, Scarlett Johansson (lately "Black Widow" in the Marvel Comics films), Thomas Haden Church (of Sideways and Spiderman 3) as the grieving dad's older brother, John Michael Higgins (of A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, etc.) as the buttoned-up inspector, and Angus Macfadyen (of The Cradle Will Rock and Braveheart) as the wild guy who designs wild animal enclosures. If the guy with the monkey perched on his shoulder looks familiar to you, he's Patrick Fugit, whom I last saw playing "Evra the Snake Boy" in Cirque du Freak. If he's not familiar to you, then he isn't.

Basye, Hardy, McCaughrean, Miéville, Stiefvater

Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck
by Dale E. Basye
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the first book of this series, we learned that Heck is "where the bad kids go." So when teen felon Marlo Fauster lands there after being buried in a marshmallow lava flow, it's hard to be surprised. The surprise is that her nerdy but virtuous brother Milton comes along for the ride, darned for eternity. Now the plot has moved on. Milton has found his way back to the land of the living, but he isn't adjusting well to being Resurrection Boy. People think he's a freak and either fear or ridicule him, sometimes both at once. He keeps having spiritual brown-outs, a side effect of crossing over and back again. He inadvertently sends the school bully to his eternal reward, and now a strange girl from a kooky religious cult is after him.

Meanwhile, back in the junior underworld, Marlo has matriculated into the Second Circle of Heck, where kids study such subjects as necroeconomics while being tormented by desire for material possessions. It's a very commercialized sector of the afterlife, with tantalizing commercial breaks promoting the fashion boutiques and outlet stores of Mallvana. Egged on by Rapacia's Vice Principal of Darkness—a giant tin Easter bunny named the Grabbit, whose hollow voice speaks in diabolically cute limericks—Marlo begins to plan the heist of all eternity: a diamond-snatching caper that could wreck the economy of the afterlife... and that's the best-case scenario.

By the end, the two siblings are together again, fighting spork-wielding demons, a cross-dressing bully, crowds of shoppers, and the type of bureaucrats who can really take the fun out of being dead. And all that's besides a parade of fiendish puns, a rogue's gallery of hilariously maladjusted characters, and an ingenious plot to destroy everything, poof! But if you're wondering whether the Fauster siblings make it out of the underworld, you'll have to get the next book in the series. Rumor has it there will eventually be nine of them, corresponding to the nine circles of aitch-ee-double-toothpicks popularized by Dante in The Divine Comedy. At this writing there are only five Circles of Heck, the titles following this installment being Blimpo, Fibble, and Snivel.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 14+

I continue to commute about ten hours a week, and listening to audio books on my car's CD player remains the best way of filling all that mentally wasted time with something that enriches my inner life. Plus, as I learned when I listened to an unabridged reading of War and Peace, it is also a great way to fill the gaps in my reading with books that I really should experience before I die, but might never do so at the rate things are going. Somehow I decided that the next author I needed to broach was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), an English writer who devoted most of his career to poetry, but who is now mainly remembered for his novels set in the fictitious British county of Wessex. His best-known titles, to judge by whether I had heard of them, include Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure. Together with the last of these, Tess of the d'Urbervilles stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy and harsh criticism that spurred Hardy to turn away from fiction at an early stage in his career. The student of English literature must regard this decision as a tragedy similar to, say, the music world's loss when Sibelius quit composing with thirty years left on his meter.

But where would be the fun of studying Brit Lit without sad stories like these? Suicides, drownings, early deaths in the trenches of the Great War, the toll of consumption upon all manner of promising young talent... It's enough to give the reading of great books an extra kick of morbid fascination. And even though Hardy outlived his doomed heroine by some 37 years, this particular book is enlivened by the scandal and (for faithful Christians) intellectual challenge that results from its attacks on Christian morals and beliefs. Among its ironies, however, is the fact that Hardy never openly reveals the syllogisms by which male protagonist Angel Clare apparently knocks Christian dogma into a cocked hat; he leaves them to the imagination, or perhaps to the research of people interested in the thought of that era.

Another irony is that, while the heroine's predicament tears the "conventional morality" of the Victorian era to bloody shreds, the most doctrinaire believers in it (Clare's parents) happen to be paragons of compassion and forgiveness; and as the narrator points out, the crucial point on which the whole tragedy turns is the point when Tess fails in her resolve to appeal to Parson and Mrs. Clare, fails to trust them to be exactly the open-hearted saints they would have been to her.

Tess's predicament stems from a youthful indiscretion, in which her innate purity and virtue were tested past the breaking point by an amoral seducer named Alec d'Urberville. In spite of what you might guess from the title, she never marries him, though she bears a child who does not live long. After living quietly for a few years, Tess tries to start over in life with the sovereign resolution to avoid entanglements with men, but soon after going to work on a dairy farm she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, a parson's son whose freethinking tendencies have led him to seek a career in farming rather than the church. Ever conscious that her past could blight their future together, Tess resists Angel's proposal of marriage as long as she can, then delays the wedding day while dithering over whether or how to tell him her whole history.

It finally doesn't come out at all until their wedding night; and when Clare recoils from her, the author makes it clear that the faithful one of the couple is the wife who suffers while Clare looks for answers in Brazil. By the time he realizes that he is the one who has done wrong between them and rushes back to England to reunite with his wife, the thin line between "happily ever after" and unavoidable tragedy has already been crossed. Exactly what shape that tragedy will take, and how much of an emotional wreck it will leave you, will only become clearly apparent in the superbly paced final pages of the book.

I listened to this book as read by the amazing Anna Bentick, who brought a distinctive intonation and regional dialect to each and every character, male and female. Her voice, and Hardy's words, brought vividly to life a tragedy that at times reminded me of folk tales and myths, at others of lyric opera (I even idly considered sketching an outline of a libretto for one). And though my one-sentence review of this book will henceforth be that "I have been emotionally assaulted and battered by Thomas Hardy," I can't quite shake the idea that the next audio book I borrow from the library will be something by the same author.

Peter Pan in Scarlet
by Geraldine McCaughrean
Recommended Ages: 8+/-

Confession time: In my review of J. M. Barrie's book Peter Pan and Wendy, I got a few chronological details wrong. First of all, the character of "Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" appeared first in a 1902 novel for adults (in a passage later excerpted and published as a standalone book called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens), then in a 1904 play under the title set off in quotes above, and finally in the book I reviewed, published in 1911 and also titled (in its various editions) Peter and Wendy and, simply, Peter Pan. What happened in 1906 (the year referenced in my previous review) was that Mr. Barrie donated the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. And so it was in 2005, in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of that gift, that GOSH announced a search for the author to write the first-ever "authorized sequel" to Peter Pan.

It's not as if there hadn't already been oodles of adaptations, spinoffs, and sequels, including a famous stage musical (which has been filmed for television several times), a bunch of animated films, a Spielberg movie, and a whole series of prequel novels by American writers Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (starting with 2004's Peter and the Starcatchers). But even while debate continues as to whether the copyright on Peter Pan has expired, there's something to be said for being chosen, authorized, and published by the trustees of the charity to which Barrie dedicated the book.

On the strength of her story outline and a sample chapter, Geraldine McCaughrean won that honor. And though the Barry-Pearson franchise is more vibrantly packaged and a roaring success, it seemed right that I should read this sequel first. Now that I have done it, I have doubts about the brainparts—not, mind you, of the Great Ormond Street trustees who entrusted their centennial sequel to McCaughrean, nor of the author herself—rather, doubts about the mental wellness of the reviewers who (according to my research, notably on Wiki) gave her book a "mixed but generally positive" critical reception. That's just absurd. What McCaughrean wrote is at least the equal of the original Peter Pan. In all likelihood, any critic who doesn't think so has let his memory of Barrie's actual work become colored by the spectacles of stage, screen, and high-gloss publishing that have accumulated on it like layers of tinted transparency, where each successive incarnation of Peter Pan must outdo all before it in blockbuster appeal—whereas this book is simply a lovely, charming, delightful children's book, clothed in whimsical drawings by Scott M. Fischer and a beautiful cover painting by Tony DiTerlizzi, exactly in the spirit of the 1911 book on which it builds.

Such a feat must have come natural to Geraldine McCaughrean (pronounced like "McCorkran"), author of dozens of books in which Bible stories, legends, myths, and historical events are retold and/or fictionalized for younger readers. The winner of a Carnegie Medal, three Whitbread Children's Book Awards, a Michael L. Printz Award, and numerous other honors, McCaughrean will probably be best remembered by future generations for her singular contribution to the Peter Pan mythos. For it is an original tale that reunites nearly all of the original characters in a way that combines lighthearted whimsy with touching pathos in the same elusive, magical proportions that made the first Peter Pan unforgettable.

The opening of the book finds the Lost Boys and Wendy all grown up, sometime after World War I, raising their own kids and moving on with their lives after having been adopted and educated by the kindly Darling family. But into their adulthood intrudes a series of thrilling dreams, from which they wake with objects from Neverland in their beds: cutlasses, alarm clocks, and the like. Getting together, they discuss what this may mean. It seems that something terrible has happened back in Neverland: Time has begun to pass where it ought to stand still. So, by means too wonderful for me to spoil here, they return to childhood and fly back to see what's up with Peter, the forest, the lagoon, and whatnot. While they find Peter very much the same as ever, everything else in Neverland has changed. Summer has moved on to autumn. Bones of mermaids and a crocodile litter the seashore. And a mysterious "ravelling man" has, with his menagerie of fierce beasts, somehow taken up residence in Peter's magical neighborhood.

Even worse disasters lie ahead, testing the survival of Neverland, the friendship of the boys, and the eternal youth of Peter. It is a swashbuckling adventure that combines lovable nonsense with scary suspense, in which touches of silly humor to make children giggle alternate with splashes of poetic brilliance to make grownups gasp with wonder. And finally the story wraps up in a way that leaves the ground both changed and open to another sequel. If GOSH doesn't mean to wait another hundred years for the next "authorized sequel," they couldn't do better than to give that assignment to McCaughrean too.

Un Lun Dun
by China Miéville
Recommended Ages: 12+

Weird things have started happening to London schoolgirls Zanna and Deeba. Well, they're happening to Zanna really; Deeba is only concerned because they are best friends. First there was a cloud that looked like Zanna. Then something weird came in the mail. Now animals are bowing to her, strangers are approaching her as though she were a celebrity and not just an ordinary girl. And then things start to get really serious. The word "Shwazzy" has been whispered concerning Zanna—possibly connected to a similar-sounding French word that means "chosen." She has started to show signs of strange power. Something dangerous seems to be after her. And then comes the night when a broken umbrella crawls out of a neighbor's garbage and, moving all by itself, appears to look in at Zanna's bedroom window. The two girls start to follow the umbrella as it makes its retreat, and before they catch up to it, they find their way into an alternate London—UnLondon, by name—the place where obsolete people and things go when our dimension no longer has room for them.

Little by little, Zanna is welcomed as a long-awaited hero whose exploits will save UnLondon in a war to come soon. But even with a talking book filled with prophecies about her and all kinds of signs proclaiming her the Shwazzy, Zanna proves unequal to her first encounter with the enemy: the dark, hungry intelligence known, for surprisingly straightforward reasons, as the Smog. Since air quality standards were passed in the U.K., London's heavy and sometimes deadly smog has become a thing of the past. Which, don't you know, makes it a very current thing in UnLondon, where enough of it has accumulated, with who-knows-what chemical ingredients, to form a conscious mind bent on burning, inhaling, and absorbing the knowledge in everyone and everything, everywhere. Only the Shwazzy can stop it, says the Book; but even the Book is at a loss when Zanna is defeated, and nearly dies, in her first battle against the Smog.

To Deeba's relief, the girls go back to their own London, and a ruse to draw the Smog's evil tendrils out of Zanna's lungs works, saving the Shwazzy to fight another day. Only... all her memories of UnLondon seem to have gone out with the smoke in her lungs. Deeba realizes that only she knows about that other world, and that she can't talk about it with anybody—especially Zanna. And then Deeba discovers that UnLondon is in more trouble than anybody suspected, and somebody has to go back. Who else is there but Deeba herself?

And so saving UnLondon from the fiendish plans of the Smog and its creatures becomes a quest for the Un-Chosen One. And when none of the authorities in UnLondon will believe what she has found out about the Smog and his allies, Deeba has to go it alone, on the run from friend and foe alike. With a no-nonsense attitude united to a warm and gentle heart, Deeba wins over a strange and unexpected group of companions, and follows a totally unconventional strategy—even by the standards of a city built on weirdness and whimsy. It is, after all, a city with flying buses, ghosts, giant insects, words come to life, a man with a caged bird for a head, and sun with a hole in its center, like a doughnut.

It has a Gothic church haunted by black windows (eight wooden legs and a snapping sash window). It has a band of stealth fighters disguised as trash cans (known locally as binja). It has a boy who can pass through walls, a bus conductor who can also conduct electricity, a man who wears clothing made out of books, and a neighborhood where everybody lives on the rooftops (though, to be on the safe side, the buildings are only a few inches tall). These are only a sample of the wonderful oddities Deeba finds in UnLondon, but oddest of all... she is the one the Smog fears most.

I won't spoil this remarkable and exciting book any further. It is enough to know that it holds a distinguished place among the growing band of books set in "other Londons," and such places. British author China Miéville, whose image inside the back flap of this book is almost the exact opposite of what his name led me to expect, considers himself a writer of "weird fiction," or the "New Weird" (as distinguished from the "Old Weird" of Lovecraft, Bierce, and the like). Many of his books have won awards, including a Hugo Award, two Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and a World Fantasy Award. Other acclaimed titles by China Tom Miéville include The Scar, King Rat, The City & the City, and Embassytown.

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie
by Maggie Stiefvater
Recommended Ages: 14+

Having survived the summer of faerie-born peril depicted in Lament, best friends James and Dee begin a new school year at a special prep school for musically gifted kids. On some level they know, even before this sequel begins, that Thornking Ash has another reason to exist: a mission to protect young people with a sensitivity to magic; to prevent them from being snatched by the Fair Folk—who, as James and Dee know too well, don't play fair at all.

But no one—not even an English prof who used to be the Faerie Queen's consort—is prepared for the amount of danger these two, and others, are in the year James and Dee enter Thornking Ash. As a peerless bagpiper, James can hardly find a teacher to develop his skill, let alone a place to fit in. And for her own mysterious reasons, Dee is even more socially and emotionally cut off, even from the boy who loves her. Both of these problems, together with Dee's terrifying talent for drawing wild spirits to her, expose them and everyone on campus to a level of danger no one living has seen before.

For one, James has become the menu choice of a deadly muse-spirit called the leanan sidhe. Nuala's standard procedure is to offer a handsome young artist a bright, hot, fast-burning blast of creative energy, followed (by way of exchange) by an early death as she drains the life right out of him. But somehow, things are different with James. Maybe it's the fact that he has already pulled through a nearly fatal encounter with faeries and knows well enough to say No. Or maybe it's just plain love. Nuala finds herself weakening, starving herself for this boy. This could be a disaster, even for a being who must burn to ashes and be reborn every sixteen years, and who has a date with fire this very Halloween.

Meanwhile, something fishy is going on with Dee, but she isn't talking about it to anybody, especially James. It puts a real strain on their lifelong friendship, and it's one more thing for him to worry about. Whatever is going on, the new Faerie Queen seems to be planning something really bitchy for Halloween, and probably bloody into the bargain. And the Lord of the Dead has been singing at dusk nearly every night as autumn progresses, heard not only by James and Dee but by others as well. James's roommate Paul says he hears a list of people who are going to die soon, and all their names are on it. And when James finds out what he has to do to save both Nuala and Dee on the night all Faerie breaks loose, it isn't hard for him to believe what Paul says.

Here is another quick, intense novel of music, magic, teen romance, and all the reasons we should know better than to wish we could see fairies. They're dangerous, as you can learn from this book's spin on Celtic folk tales. It's a book that answers the question that might niggle at the back of your brain after you read Lament: How can someone with Dee's powers ever be safe from the deadly Fair Folk? Or maybe the question was: How could her Aunt Delia get away with her disgusting betrayal? Both of these questions, and others you haven't even thought of asking, will be answered amid this book's steadily building suspense and the emotional mangle of its climax.